Darrell won the shot with a big PR of 20.57.
This is a video of his throw:
Darrell won the shot with a big PR of 20.57.
This is a video of his throw:
Valerie Adams of New Zealand, Christina Schwanitz of Germany, and Lijiao Gong of China finished 1-2-3 in the shot in last summer’s Outdoor World Championships.
Yesterday, they finished in the exact same order at the Indoor World Championships.
I think not.
All three have mastered a vital aspect of the glide technique: the transition from the glide through the power position into the finish of the throw. This transition requires precise timing, and is fraught with potential difficulties.
The key is to get the right heel up and the right knee and hip turning into the throw before the upper body opens or drifts forward. Basically, the athlete needs to create as much distance as possible between their right knee and right elbow.
Doing so establishes a slingshot effect that greatly accelerates the implement. Failure to do so–usually because the athlete begins the arm strike before the lower body has a chance to fire–results in a weak, upper-body-driven throw.
If you want to see what this transition phase should look like, take a gander at the video of Saturday’s competition. Here are some still photos I took from that video:
This is Schwanitz just as her right foot touches down following her glide. She’s in great shape here–the shot is back, her eyes are back, her right knee is bent. She is spring-loaded and ready for a powerful finish.
The key will be her ability to create distance between her right knee and right elbow in the instant after the right foot touches down. Let’s see how she did:
Notice that her left foot is now much closer to the toeboard while her head and right elbow have barely moved. This is because she is driving into the throw from her right toes through her right knee while keeping her upper body back.
This is an important visual cue. Had Schwanitz initiated the throw with her upper body, her left foot would have plopped down immediately in the spot that you see it hovering over in the first photo. Think of a teeter-totter. One end pops up, the other end drops. What we see instead is an increasingly wide distance between the feet and–though not so obvious from this angle–an increasing distance between her right knee and right elbow.
Now you can see it. Her right elbow is starting to rotate in the direction of the throw, but look how far ahead she has driven her right knee. The slingshot is stretched, and she is ready to release a powerful throw.
Here is Gong moving through those same positions:
Like Schwanitz, she hits an excellent power position. The shot is way back (if, hypothetically, she dropped the shot at this moment it would land behind her right foot–this is a good cue when watching film with your throwers especially if there are not 87 officials scattered around the throwing area blocking everyone’s view) and her right leg is loaded and ready to…
…drive into the throw. As with Schwanitz, we can tell that Gong is driving hard with that right leg because her left foot is now near the toeboard while her right elbow has barely moved. If I may harp on the slingshot analogy a bit more, her right knee is like the hand holding the slingshot while her right hand/elbow/shoulder is like the hand holding the little pouch containing the projectile. Driving forward with the right knee while keeping the right elbow back is like stretching the heck out of the slingshot just before letting go of the projectile. Had Gong’s right elbow turned with her knee, she would create much less tension.
This is just a couple of frames later. Her right elbow is still back, her head is still back, her right leg is driving and she is about to knock the crap out of the shot.
With yesterday’s triumph, Valeri Adams has now won 44 consecutive shot competitions including two Olympic gold medals. Let’s see how she transitions from the glide through the power position:
She is not as low as the other two medalists, nor is the shot quite so far back so you won’t see the distance between her feet changing too much as she drives into the throw. But, the shot is far enough behind her right hip that she is able to…
…stretch the slingshot. And you know the rest.
First, let me hedge on that a little bit. I’m going to leave the jerk out of this discussion for the moment and focus on convincing you that teaching young athletes the full clean and full snatch is absolutely to their benefit.
As you can see, the athlete begins the lift by raising the bar from the floor and ends up dropping into a full squat while receiving it. Here’s a vid of a full clean.
Here’s what I call a “full snatch.”
Once again, the lifter begins by raising the bar from the floor and sinks into a full squat while receiving it.
(Okay, there should be one more photo at the beginning of this sequence, but trust me, this was the Olympics–he took it from the floor.)
Here’s a vid of a full snatch.
If you have visited a high school or college weight room recently, you know that the Olympic lifts are considered an essential part of training young athletes. We had a track meet at a nearby school this weekend, and their new weight room contained ten lifting platforms with plenty of Olympic bars and bumper plates. I assume the school would not have spent the money to buy all of that equipment just to make me envious (we have four platforms). They clearly intend for their athletes to be trained in the Olympic lifts.
And here’s why:
This is the top of the second pull in the snatch. The lifter has executed an explosive “triple extension” launching herself upwards with a coordinated hip, knee, and ankle extension. This is a movement demanded of athletes in many sports. From the waist down, she could be a volleyball player leaping for a spike, a discus thrower blasting out of the power position, a defensive lineman elevating to knock down a pass, or a basketball player extending for a rebound.
That’s why the school I visited this weekend has–like schools all across the country–devoted a bunch of money and space to establish a proper training area for the Olympic lifts. The idea that these lifts can improve performance in a variety of sports is now widely accepted.
And I could not agree more.
But teaching kids how to properly execute the full lifts takes a lot of time and effort. A coach cannot bring his kids to the weight room, turn up the heavy metal music, and then sit down and play Angry Birds while the athletes manage themselves. Coaching the Olympic lifts is just like coaching the discus, or tackling, or a pickoff move. The athletes must be drilled in proper form and given regular, guided practice by a knowledgeable coach.
And, as with any sport, it takes passionate commitment to become an effective coach of the Olympic lifts.
But, if your passions are already focused on becoming a great football, volleyball or basketball coach, will you have the time and energy to pursue the training necessary to become a great lifting coach?
Or, is there a way for your athletes to garner the benefits of Olympic lifting without having to go to the trouble of teaching them the full movements?
Might partial versions of the Olympic lifts be the answer? If it is the middle portion of the clean and snatch (the “second pull”) that makes athletes more explosive can’t we just focus on that and forget about having to teach our athletes to raise the bar from the floor and to receive it by sinking into a full squat? After all, that stuff seems a bit complicated.
Let’s take a look.
Here is an athlete demonstrating a “power clean from the hang position.”
She begins the movement not from the floor but with the bar just above her knees, she blasts through triple extension, and she finishes by receiving the bar without dropping into a full squat. Based on that middle photo, it sure looks like she is getting the full benefit of performing an Olympic lift without having to go to the trouble of learning how to raise the bar from the floor to the hang position (no easy matter for many young athletes) or to sink into a stable front squat while receiving the bar (also not a simple matter for young athletes).
And the same approach can be taken with the snatch.
Problem solved, right? Just teach your athletes these simple variations of the Olympic lifts and you can go back to playing Angry Birds while they reap the benefits of the full Olympic lifts without having to…well…perform the full lifts.
Hold on one second there, mon frere.
I’m ready to argue that taking the time and effort to teach your athletes the full Olympic lifts is absolutely worth it. Here’s why:
Reason #1 Training kids to lift the bar from the floor to the hang position strengthens their back, butt, and hamstrings in a very healthy way.
Ask most kids to pick up something from the floor–a weighted bar, their dirty laundry, the burrito they just dropped on the carpet, whatever–and they will immediately go into hunchback mode, rounding their shoulders and spine rather than bending at the knees and hinging at the hips with a set back. This is not a safe way to pick up a weight, but many young athletes lack the strength in their back, butt, and hamstrings to keep their back set while bending forward. Is it unreasonable to suggest that this weakness might negatively effect their performance in their chosen sport ?
Olympic lifters cannot tolerate weakness in those areas. They have to be able to raise a loaded bar from the floor to the hang position in a mechanically sound way…
…or they would not be able to manage heavy loads.
You tell me, would your athletes benefit from developing the back, butt, and hamstring strength it takes to raise the bar from the floor in the manner demonstrated by this lifter?
Yes, it takes time and great care to train beginners how to perform this movement, but the potential benefits…
…are worth the trouble.
Reason #2 Teaching kids to sink into a squat when receiving the bar develops leg strength, flexibility, and stability.
Simply put, you must have all three in order to hit these positions…
…and then rise up from them without dumping the weight.
It takes time to train even the most gifted athletes to do this with heavy loads. Kids need to start out with PVC pipes and light bars and build from there. Some need a lot of stretching to remediate tightness in their hips, shoulders, and wrists, but again, wouldn’t increasing flexibility in these areas have a beneficial effect on their overall athletic performance?
Reason #3 Kids who are only taught the partial lifts often lose their form (and many of the benefits inherent to Olympic lifting) as they increase their loads.
There are many examples of this on Youtube.
Challenged to attempt a heavy load from the hang position, kids will often get the weight moving by swinging their hips into it and then splaying their feet awkwardly as they receive the bar. What was meant to be an athletic movement focused on an explosive triple extension degenerates (in the case of a clean) into a hip-assisted reverse curl with little or no extension of the ankles, knees, and hips or (in the case of the snatch) into essentially a straight-armed, overhead weight toss likely ending with the bar crashing to the floor behind the lifter.
Yes, the athlete in one of the videos above performed a very crisp, athletic, and technically sound hang snatch without dropping into a squat as he received the bar, but he was not maxing out. Like many Olympic lifters, he was using this partial lift to train a segment of the full lift.
Clearly, athletes need to challenge themselves with increasingly heavy loads in order to gain strength. It would be tremendously boring–not to mention a waste of time–to spend month after month executing your lifts with the same weight.
But, asking young lifters to attempt near-maximum weights in the Olympic lifts without training them in the correct methods of lifting the bar from the floor and of receiving the weight in a solid, stable position is a mistake.
If we are going to encourage kids to put up big numbers, we owe it to them to train them to do so in the safest and most effective manner possible. And in the case of the Olympic lifts, that is the full version.
Allow me to close with a rather major qualifier.
Every kid is different. You cannot expect all of your athletes to fit a single training template. In spite of your best efforts at remediation, you may find certain athletes whose shoulder tightness will never allow them to safely rack a snatch overhead. Very tall athletes sometimes need to begin their Olympic lifts from blocks as their height does not allow them to set up in a solid starting position when lifting from the floor. Here is a vid of the fine shot putter Jordan Clarke lifting from blocks:
So as you lead your athletes down the path towards executing the full lifts, you will have to take the occasional detour.
Yes, this approach can get a bit complicated. Yes, it takes a lot work.
But the payoff is that you will help your athletes improve their stability, balance, explosiveness, and flexibility. To me, that makes it worth the effort.
My advice to any coach who wants his athletes to reap the many benefits of training with the Olympic lifts is to take a coaching course from USA Weightlifting. They offer these two-day seminars all over the country, and it is time well spent.
I ask you, is there a better way to ward off the winter blues than to spend an afternoon dissecting great discus technique?
Okay, there probably are better ways, but this one is cheap, fat free, perfectly legal and will help me forget about that three-foot snow drift covering our discus ring. So, here goes.
It seems to me that the key to great discus throwing is finding a reliable way to get from here…
Warning: If you can identify the owner of these legs you probably spend way too much time watching throws videos and are in danger of being called a “super dweeb” by your long-suffering wife. Trust me, I have experience in this matter.
Anyway, these pairs of photos illustrate two important stations along the path to a fine throw. The athlete must begin with a balanced windup: right foot flat, left heel up, left big toe in contact with the ground. The second photo in each set depicts the athlete in an excellent position to run the ring: right leg wide, weight balanced on the ball of the left foot, discus trailing behind the right hip.
If you watch these throwers (Frank Casanas, Casey Malone and…..???) on film or in person they make moving through these positions seem perfectly natural, but if you coach young athletes you know how difficult this transition can be. Beginning throwers tend to unwind by pulling with their head and left arm. This causes the discus to jump ahead of the thrower and makes it impossible to get the right leg out wide because the thrower will feel (quite correctly) that he will fall down if he doesn’t get that right foot back on the ground quickly.
It seems that among the best discus throwers there are two approaches to moving from the windup to the balanced, “ready to run the ring” position.
Some throwers try to get their right foot off the ground and sweeping ahead of the discus as soon as possible. When the left foot pivots 90 degrees to the left, they want that right foot up and moving.
Here is an example.
This is Vikas Gowda. As you can see, his left foot has turned 90 degrees and his right toes are leaving the ground.
By the time his left foot has turned to where it is pointing down the right sector line, his right leg is already sweeping past it.
The right leg then continues to sweep out wide with the disc lagging behind.
At this point, he is in great shape to run the ring.
Here is Casey Malone, demonstrating the same “get the right leg moving early” approach.
The other method of transitioning from the wind to the “ready to run the ring” position is to leave the right foot on the ground longer while turning and getting way out over the left foot.
If you can identify the owner of these legs, you are a bigger dork than me even, but you won’t have to worry about your wife getting mad at you because you likely will never have a wife.
As you can see in the middle photo, this thrower keeps his right foot grounded much longer than the throwers in those earlier photos–beginning his right leg sweep only after his left foot turns to point down the right foul line.
Interestingly, this is the approach used by the two current Olympic champions,
…and Sondra Perkovic.
I suspect that the advantage of leaving the right foot on the ground longer is twofold. First, it may make it easier to remain on balance while the thrower shifts his/her weight far to the left–a shift that is essential to getting in position to run the ring.
Second, leaving the right grounded while shifting way out over the left leg may create some elastic tension in the right leg that, when released, adds extra impetus to the right leg sweep.
I have experimented with this style the past couple of years, and some of my athletes have become quite comfortable with it. One warning though. If you attempt to teach this method, you must constantly drill your athletes to keep the discus back as they shift out over their left leg because with the right foot staying grounded longer it is very easy to let the disc sneak ahead.
We are due for another snow storm this week, so stay tuned for part two of Harting v. Perkovic.
Any guesses on the owners of those legs?
As a high school throws coach, I am a big fan of the fixed-feet, short-long glide. It allows the putter to accelerate the shot over a long, straight path and to work the ground for an extended time during the release.
Currently, Ladislav Prasil, the 23-year-old Czech with a PB of 21.47m, provides a great template for young throwers wanting to learn the short-long.
Here are two views of Prasil as he is about to begin his glide:
Notice that his upper body is completely limp. His back muscles are relaxed, his left arm passive. This sets Prasil up to accelerate the shot over a long path. He begins with the shot down low and will finish by releasing it high.
As a glide shotputter begins reaching the left leg across the ring, it is vital that they keep the upper body passive as long as possible. Prasil does a fine job of this:
A key technical point of the short-long glide is to let the left leg finish before pulling the right leg out of the back. This allows the putter to keep the shot on that long path that is so conducive to fine throws.
Here is Prasil a milisecond or so later:
His left leg has finished extending and the right foot is about to leave the concrete. Notice that his posture (the rounded upper back) has not changed. His eyes are still looking down and back. Notice also that Prasil has the shot placed under the right side of his jaw rather than against the the side of his neck (as is common with rotational putters). This placement, combined with his ablility to maintain a relaxed upper body during the glide phase of the put will allow him to accelerate the shot along a straight path as perceived from a vantage point directly behind the ring.
We all know that a sprinter accelerates best when following a straight route rather than weaving from one side of the lane to the other. The same principal applies to the shotput. Variation of the path of the implement robs the putter of the best chance to accelerate it. Prasil does a great job of keeping the shot on a straight path.
One further comment on that last photo. Many regard Ulf Timmerman, the 1988 Olympic champion from the DDR, as the greatest glide technician ever, and I agree that he was fantastic. Watch a video of him at regular speed and you will be awed by his explosiveness. Like Prasil, Ulf was a short-long glider. One prominent difference between their techniques, though, is that Ulf blasted his left leg hard and low out of the back of the ring as if trying to shatter the toeboard with the force of that left leg extension, while Prasil reaches his left leg higher and less aggressively.
When introducing the short-long to young throwers, it is best to adopt Prasil’s approach. Blasting the left leg too hard and too low out of the back of the ring will cause the shoulders of most novice throwers to pop up, thus making it difficult to keep the shot back long enought to let the right hip do its work. Think of the line connecting the putter’s head to his left heel as a teeter totter. Push one end of a teeter totter down and the other end must come up. Timmerman was able to avoid this pitfall by keeping his upper body totally passive even as he lashed his left leg toward the toeboard. Unfortunately, most of us coach athletes who are to Timmerman as a Volkswagon beetle is to a Porshe, and trying to replicate this aspect of his technique is a mistake.
Let’s take a look now at Prasil’s position as his right foot touches down after his glide.
This is classic short-long shotputting. Allow me to draw your attention to three technical matters. First, Prasil’s right foot lands at a 45-degree angle. Some would argue that in order to give the right hip its best chance of firing into the release ahead of the shot the right foot must land at a 90-degree angle. Parallel, in other words, to the toeboard. Remember, though, that we must strive to accelerate the shot along a straight path. Turning his foot to 90 degrees might cause a premature opening of the right hip and shoulder which would yank the shot off of its straight path. Best to ground the foot at a 45-degree angle to facilitate keeping the shot back. And, as you will see, Prasil has no trouble firing his right hip with his foot at this angle.
Second, notice that when Prasil’s right foot touches down his left foot is still in the air. This allows him to keep the shot way back, and to blast into the throw with a natural right-to-left action. Hand one of your athletes a softball and tell them to throw it as far as they can. Will they hop, land simultaneously on both feet and then jump into the throw? Not likely. My guess is that they will stride into the throw, right-to-left like a javelin thrower. A shotput is obviously a lot heavier than a softball or javelin, but short-long gliders still incorporate this action into their technique, and Prasil provides an excellent example of doing so successfully.
Finally, notice that Prasil’s left arm is beginning to lift as his right foot lands. This is another sign that he is determined to keep the shot on a straight path. Many young throwers are taught to reach their left arm back as they glide, in an effort to keep them from opening their shoulders prematurely and allowing their upper body to get ahead of their right hip as they drive into the throw. Keeping the left arm back too long, however, can muck up the timing of the right-to-left throwing action and–you guessed it–cause the shot to deviate from a straight path. Young throwers must be taught to keep the right shoulder back as the left arm opens. This takes a lot of practice and tinkering, as many of them will naturally turn their head and and rotate both shoulders as the left arm sweeps, but…what can I tell you? Anyone looking for a sport at which they can instantly excel should try boogie-boarding or thumb wrestling.
So, Prasil has done a great job of setting himself up for a big throw. Let’s see how he finishes it.
It is crucial that the right heel pops up and the right knee and hip fire immediately after the right foot touches down. That, again, is why many argue for the foot to land at 90 degrees. But as can be seen here, Prasil does a magnificent job of blasting his right knee and hip ahead of the shot.
Let’s take a look from the other angle to see how he does with keeping the shot on a straight path.
Pretty good, huh? By keeping his upper body relaxed throughout the glide, by clearing the left arm while keeping the shot back, and by being an all-around stud-muffin, Prasil succeeds in blasting the shot up and out along a straight path.
Two comments on these final images.
I am a big fan of fixed-feet throwing. The laws of physics dictate that in order to exert maximum force on the shot, you have to have a solid base to push against. The old cannon-in-a-rowboat analogy. I know that most successful gliders at the international level reverse. David Storl. Tomasz Majewski. But guess what, brother? You and I are not coaching athletes like that. They are 6’5″ (Storl) and 6’9″ (Majewski) and extremely athletic. You know where the high school versions of those guys end up in this country? On a basketball court twelve months of the year getting screamed at by some 5’8″ guy with slicked back hair. We get the guys with the three-inch verticals that can’t make the basketball team. And for them, fixed feet throwing usually works best.
And by the way, I guarantee you that Storl and Majewski have taken about a million fixed-feet throws in training.
Finally, you might notice that Prasil’s head moves to the left as he releases the shot. This is still another indication of his determination to keep the shot on a straight path. Even though he holds the shot under his jaw, he still has to get his head out of the way at some point if he wants to keep the shot on the straight and narrow. You see the same thing among javelin throwers:
All I can say about this is that you, as a coach, must monitor this carefully. You absolutely do not want your shotputters yanking their heads to the left as they release the shot. Train them to remain as upright as possible as they flick the shot away and realize that to some extent, tilting to the left is inevitable. But don’t let it get out of hand.
Finally, finally, I want to acknowledge that Prasil is a magnificent athlete. Normal people do not throw 21 meters. Normal people throw 10 meters and then become coaches. That said, I believe that his technique is more applicable to the average high school thrower than the technique employed by Timmerman, Storl, or Majewski.
Here are the links to the videos from which I stole those photos:
Good luck to everybody out there this indoor season!
When I was in high school, I wanted to be Mac Wilkins. He had just won the gold medal in the discus at the Montreal games, he threw with a unique blend of grace and savagery, he came across as sharply funny and intelligent during interviews, and he had an amazing beard.
So, I went out and bought a pair of throwing shoes and a warmup suit just like the ones Mac used. I tried to mimic his technique. Though never interviewed, I did my best to make sardonic comments each day in the lunch room. I stopped shaving. I brought home two puppies without getting permission from my parents, and I named them Mac Wilkins and Al Feuerbach. When my parents made me give back one of the puppies, I gave back Al Feuerbach.
Unfortunately, the results were not exactly what I expected. I could reproduce Mac’s barbaric passion in the ring, but not his grace and athleticism, unless you call falling down while firing the disc 80 feet out of bounds graceful and athletic. The guys at my lunch table did not appreciate my biting wit. No one noticed that I had stopped shaving.
The one positive result of my “be like Mac” campaign was that puppy Mac grew into my mom’s all time favorite dog. She treasures his memory to this day.
Needless to say, then, that when my friend Jim Aikens told me he’d gotten human Mac to appear at this year’s Illinois Coaches Association Clinic, I was stoked.
And I am even more stoked now, after meeting him. Our clinic was last weekend, and Mac, in spite of spending much of the day at the airport due to mechanical problems, graciously agreed to attend the coaches social held the night before the clinic where he told some hilarious stories about Bill Bowerman including one involving elephant dung. I’m not making that up.
He remained completely friendly and gracious while I asked him approximately 90 million questions about his career. Here is a link to his response when I asked him about the NCAA decision to award the outdoor championships to Oregon for the forseeable future. Sorry about the background noise!
I think he sums it up well. It would be nice for fans across the country if the NCAA championships could continue to rotate to different regions, but only Oregon has shown a consistent ability to draw spectators.
So, I surrender. If Mac Wilkins tells me it’s probably for the best that the meet settles in Eugene, then I’m just going to have to start planning some trips to Eugene.
We are still editing my conversation with Mac and his presentation at the clinic. Stay tuned.
Wanting to find out more about the logic behind the NCAA decision to award the Outdoor Track and Field Championships to Eugene for the next eight years, I contacted their Media Relations department and received a response almost immediately. Here is our exchange:
I’d appreciate it if you could give me some insight into how the decision was made so that I could share that info with the online community of track and field fans. I basically have two questions: What factors (attendance, corporate sponsorship, athletes’ preference, or whatever) figured into this decision? Why an 8-year commitment? Thanks much! -Dan McQuaid
A quick follow up. Did the committee have in mind the model of the NCAA baseball tournament with its permanent home in Omaha? And did it seem to them, after trying a variety of locations in the past that none offered the crowd-building potential of Eugene?
First of all, thanks much for the comments.
When I wrote that last post, I was sort of shooting from the hip. Just expressing my disappointment over the announcement that the next eight NCAA outdoor championships will be very difficult to attend for those of us who live beyond driving distance of Eugene.
But those responses made me realize that I’d better take a step back and do a little research on the issue. First, I emailed Scott Cappos, the long time throws coach at the University of Iowa. You’d think that if anyone would want to see the NCAA meet contested at Drake regularly (as it has been over the past few years) it would be Scott, as Iowa City is less than a two-hour drive from Des Moines. Wouldn’t any coach want his athletes to avoid the hassles of a long flight–the frequent delays, the cramped seats, the difficulty of stowing javelins securely in the overhead compartment–prior to an important competition? Not necessarily.
“The committee has worked really hard over the last several months to ensure we were awarding the championships to the best sites possible,” said Holly Sheilley, chair of the Division I Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Committee and assistant athletic director for student development and championships at the University of Louisville. “Drake and Oregon have shown in the past they put on world-class meets, and we are confident they will do a great job hosting our future NCAA outdoor championships. The committee felt strongly about having the championships in two different sites within the four-year period to enhance the student-athlete experience.”
So, what has changed since? Did things go so badly at Drake in 2011 and 2012 and so well last year at Hayward that it became clear to the NCAA that Eugene should become the permanent site for the meet?
I feel like the answer to that holds some interesting implications for the sport of track and field. I’m going to do some more detecting over the next few days and will report on whatever I’m able to come up with. If anyone out there has some insight into what prompted this decision, please chime in.
Thanks again to those who posted comments. There is a lot more to discuss regarding the NCAA meet and the current state of track and field in this country.
Let me begin with some reasons why I love the University of Oregon:
1. That logo they have featuring Donald Duck looking to kick someone’s ass is awesome.
2. I attended the 1999 U.S. Championships in Eugene with some of my throwers (I am a high school coach) and one of their parents. We were sitting on some portable bleachers outside the stadium watching the men’s hammer competition when who comes and sits near us but John Godina and Art Venegas. Godina was the best shotputter in the world at the time (he ended up throwing 22 meters at that meet) and UCLA had the best collegiate throwing program in the universe so we were totally jacked to be in their presence. Venegas sat down next to a young man named Justin Rapp, a rather large individual who threw for me and then went on to become DIII national champ in the shot while competing at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. We were all too scared to strike up a conversation with either John or Art, but after a few minutes, Art turns to Justin Rapp, looks him slowly up and down and says, “Hey! How much do you weigh?” as if he were afraid that the bleachers might buckle beneath beneath him.
3. Another of my former throwers, Pat Trofimuk, threw at Illinois State University for the current Oregon throws coach, Erik Whitsitt. At the time, Erik had three world class throwers in his stable: NCAA jav champ Tim Glover, NCAA medalist in the shot and hammer Brittany Smith, and current NCAA leader in the shot Curt Jensen. Pat was not a world class thrower, but a great, hard-working dude, the kind of guy who makes your program better by setting an example of how to do things the right way. In spite of the fact that Pat was never going to qualify for the NCAA meet, Erik valued him and treated him very well. And because of that, Erik will always have a special place in my heart. And in the new millennium, men are allowed to say that about each other.
4. I am a big fan of the head strength coach at Oregon, Jim Radcliffe. Last January, Jim presented at a strength and conditioning clinic in beautiful Mattoon, Illinois hosted by Marty Schnorf of the Charleston Weightlifting Club. You’d think a guy who ran the strength program for one of the premier football teams in the country might be at best a tad arrogant, at worst a complete tool. (One of my throwers got a football scholarship a few years back to a major powerhouse which shall remain nameless and the head strength coach was a maniac. He delighted in forcing the athletes to attempt bizarre feats of derring-do such as having my guy–a 310 pounder–try to jump onto a box that was higher than his belly button–the kid still has the scar on his shins–and he once reamed the kid out for having solid technique on overhead squats. I’m not making that up.) But Jim was courteous , helpful, and most importantly, really thoughtful in his approach to strength training. I hope the Oregon athletes know how lucky they are.
5. While in high school, I named my dog after Mac Wilkins, and dammit, Mac Wilkins went to Oregon.
So, I am not here to bash the Ducks. But I am more than a little chapped that the NCAA has awarded the next eight outdoor track and field championships to Oregon.
According to an article on goducks.com, (http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=209338922) this decision was made, at least in part, to “emphasize the fan experience.”
And certainly, the fan experience at a meet in Eugene can be fantastic. I know nothing about distance events, but when I got my free cowbell at the meet in Eugene I shook the hell out of it every time one of those poor, anorexic dudes or dudettes staggered down the home stretch. When we walked into town for lunch, I ordered a veggie burrito and I liked it. When the air temperature fluctuated ten degrees every five minutes, I didn’t complain. I walked over to the bookstore and bought a sweatshirt with mean Donald Duck on it that I treasure to this day. Every track fan, in my opinion, should attend a meet in Eugene before shuffling off to that great Olympia in the sky.
But eight consecutive years?
As a track fan who lives in the midwest, I am astonished that the NCAA has basically frozen me out of attending an NCAA championship. Two years ago, I went to the NCAA meet in Des Moines. Driving my Prius from the suburbs of Chicago, it cost me less than $30 to get there. A hotel room was approximately $100 dollars per night. I stayed for two days of fantastic throwing, and then drove home for another $30.
Getting to Eugene, on the other hand, would cost at least $500 for the plane ticket and another $200 for car rental. Throw in the hotel room, and we are talking about at least $1000 dollars to attend the meet without factoring in food costs. If you’ve ever read my stuff, you know that I have an extremely patient wife. But I’m a high school teacher, and $1000 for a trip to Eugene when it cost me $60 to get to and from Des Moines?
You tell me, which “fans” are the NCAA appealing to?
2005 Zurich Weltklasse
An international airport is not a place normally associated with solitude, but there I was sitting in the darkened expanse of the waiting room in Zurich terminal number one at 5:30 on a Saturday morning feeling like I was the only person on the planet. Which I didn’t mind. Just a few hours earlier, my brother Mike, our friend Anna Swisher, Anna’s mother, and I were wedged into the standing room section along the north curve at Zurich’s Stadion Letzigrund joining the raucous crowd in urging the world’s best track and field athletes to run fast, jump high, and throw far in spite of a drenching rain occasionally punctuated by the flash of lightning. A soggy journey back to our hotel, followed by a late night of packing and a 4:00AM wake-up call (necessitated by a 7:00 AM flight to Manchester), left me feeling somewhat less than chipper as I slouched into a plastic seat in the waiting area and buried my nose in a Napoleon biography. Reading about the Grand Army of the Republic slogging west from Moscow with swarms of Cossacks nipping at their heels helped me to forget about my own fatigue and rendered me oblivious to the fact that the terminal was slowly coming to life. By the time I looked up from my book, there were dozens of passengers milling about and the shops lining the terminal were beginning to open their doors. A few feet in front of me, a very tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt braced himself against a railing while casually stretching his legs. I couldn’t see his face, but his unusual size (my throwers would call someone with his build “gi-normous”) made me wonder whether he was a thrower from last night’s meet.
Speaking of last night’s meet, it appeared beforehand to possess all the necessary ingredients for a classic discus competition. The field was loaded with top throwers still in peak form after competing two weeks earlier at the World Championships in Helsinki. Foremost among them was the victor in Helsinki (and two-time Olympic champion) Virgilius Alekna, who entered the competition with a chiseled six-foot-eight inch frame and a habit of launching 70 meter throws. The big Lithuanian had pretty much owned his event since the summer of 2000 when I had the pleasure of watching him deposit four of six throws past the 70 meter line in that year’s edition of the Zurich Weltklasse. In the intervening years, the only man to defeat him in a major competition and not run afoul of the folks in the white lab coats was Lars Reidel at Edmonton in 2001. Fit, confident, and very comfortable with the ring at Letzigrund, Alekna seemed primed on this night to extend his seasonal best beyond the 70.67m he’d posted a month earlier in Madrid.
This is not to imply that the rest of the competitors were content to duke it out for second place. Indeed, Gerd Kanter, the fine Estonian thrower who broke the 70-meter barrier once himself earlier this year, had Alekna on the ropes until the final round at Helsinki. Would this be the night he’d finish the job? Also in the field was Franz Kruger, a crowd favorite in Zurich who’d handed Alekna his only defeat of the year at a meet in Talinnjust after the World Championships. Aside from these two, the field was loaded with former World and Olympic medalists including the aforementioned Lars Reidel, Athens second-placer Zoltan Kovago, Athens third-placer Alex Tammert, and the shaggy-haired Michael Mollenbeck, third in Helsinki and a man who seemingly never met a hair style that he would not try. These, then, were the challengers who hoped to make Alekna sweat in his attempt to snag a third Weltklasse Zurich title.
Coincidentally, a sweaty Alekna just happened to occupy the top spot on Anna Swisher’s wish list for the upcoming holiday season. A recent graduate of Williams College and herself a thrower, Anna arrived in Zurich harboring a mad hot crush on the Lithuanian studmuffin. Her goal for the 2005 Weltklasse was simple: find Alekna and get his autograph. If a marriage proposal followed, so much the better.
This aspiration (at least the autograph part of it) was not-so-far-fetched. The athletes’ hotel is just a few blocks from Letzigrund, and it is not uncommon to see them walking to or from the stadium. In fact, as Mike, Anna, and I entered Letzigrund, we ran into Franz Kruger making his way towards the athletes’ check-in area. We did not trouble him for an autograph, but Anna was encouraged by the thought that a certain Lithuanian dreamboat might be in the vicinity as well. Unfortunately, we could not afford to spend any time staking out the entrance if we wanted to secure a spot in the north stands with a clear view of the discus ring. The Zurich Weltklasse pretty much sells out every year, and the general admission area overlooking the discus cage fills up quickly. Owing to necessity then, we temporarily suspended the “hunt for Alekna” portion of our mission and managed to grab a nice spot not too far from the cage and just across the track from an open area where the throwers tend to congregate between attempts. Not a bad perch, as it turned out, for a passionate woman armed with a telephoto lens. From there, Anna and I anxiously awaited the beginning of the discus warm-ups while Mike (himself armed with a telephoto lens and a positively Japanese-like passion for using it) contentedly snapped photos of the steeplechase water hazard.
Unfortunately, the steeplechasers would not be the only ones dealing with water and its hazards on this night. A few minutes prior to the discus warm-up, a steady drizzle began to fall and continued as Alekna and the other throwers were escorted to the cage. As the group began their warm-up tosses, it quickly became clear that the wet ring was forcing everyone to move cautiously. Further complicating matters was a fairly steady breeze blowing in along the right foul line. Normally a boon to right-handed throwers, the wind seemed to make it harder to get a proper flight on the disc, resulting in many weak-looking “pop-up” type throws-not the sort of thing one might expect from the world’s best.
After a few rounds, the warm-ups were halted for the “Introduction of Champions,” during which any recently crowned World Champion competing in the Weltklasse was paraded on the infield to the accompaniment of some sort of regal sounding techno music. After the introductions, the champions scattered to toss t-shirts into different sections of the stands. Alekna trotted right over to us and tossed several t-shirts into our section but just out of our reach. It is testament to Anna’s genteel upbringing that she refrained from a.) hopping the railing and tackling Alekna, or b.) drawing blood in an effort to snag a shirt, especially when she realized that the world’s most hunkalicious Lithuanian had autographed them!
All eleven throwers were given a couple more warm-up tosses, and then with the rain still falling, Mario Pestana opened the competition with a very decent (considering the conditions) 64.90m. This seemed to set the tone for the night. Yes, the ring was wet. Yes, it was hard to get a good grip on the disc. Yes, Anna was giving everyone but Alekna the evil eye. But these guys were professionals, and regardless of those distractions they were going to fight to get off some good throws. This point was made abundantly clear when Franz Kruger fired a season best 67.30m on his first attempt. This got me jacked up, as Franz is a class act and a lot of fun to watch. The 2000 Weltklasse, the first that I attended, was something of a coming out party for the big South African who launched a couple of PR’s that night and endeared himself to everyone in the north stands by playing to the crowd before and after each throw. Two weeks later, he collected the bronze in Sydney and seemed to be on the brink of a fantastic career. After a stellar 2001 campaign, however, he slipped a bit and became just another member of the pack of throwers who struggled to stay within five meters of Alekna week in and week out. I often wondered if he was struggling with injuries during that span. Or if getting married had crushed his spirit the way it has with so many other men over the eons (just kidding, dear). What a pleasant surprise then, to see him suddenly conjure the mojo of Bachelor Franz and throw down the gauntlet on a night where 67.30m looked to have a real chance of holding up for the win.
Things continued to look good for Franz for the rest of the first and most of the second round. Even though the rain stopped for a few minutes, nobody, not even Alekna, could seem to get comfortable. Of the first twenty-one throws, six were fouls and nine others were less than 64 meters. Unfortunately for Franz, on the twenty-second throw Alekna demonstrated that he did not need to be comfortable to throw far, launching one 68.00m while nearly falling down during his reverse. This pleased Anna quite a bit, but not nearly so much as when the large Lithuanian stripped off his wet shirt prior to round three. Aside from Alekna showing off his pecs (an event that Anna was able to capture via her telephoto lens) the highlights of that round were Franz backing up his 67.30m with a solid-looking 66.68m, and Zoltan Kovago (he of the crazy mad right-leg action) launching a season best 66.00m.
A poignant but largely unnoticed moment occurred during the re-shuffling of the order, as Lars Reidel, certainly one of the all-time greats and a six-time winner of the Weltklasse during the 1990’s, packed up and left the field after failing to qualify for the final three throws. How odd to see this former ubermensch almost sneak away from a stadium where he had been the object of much adoration over the years. Too bad he didn’t announce his retirement during the “Parade of Champions” to give the crowd a chance to go nuts over him one last time. I guess when you’ve reached the heights that Lars, has it must be hard to know when and how to bow out gracefully, but going three and out in Athens, Helsinki, and now Zurich is probably a sign that it’s time to go. Perhaps Mother Nature was as sad as I was to see Lars go, because the rain really began pelting down prior to round four. Predictably, this led to lots more fouls eleven over the final three rounds. Unpredictably, Kanter nailed 67.92m on his fourth throw to bump Franz to third, and Mario Pestano pitched a season best 66.57m on his final attempt. Neither Alekna nor Franz was able to improve, so the final ranking went Alekna (68.00m), Kanter (67.92m), Kruger (67.30m). A fun competition, but probably disappointing to these athletes who clearly were in shape to throw far had the conditions been better.
One final note regarding the disc. Both Ian Waltz (seventh with 63.08m) and Jarred Rome (eighth with 62.68m) demonstrated once again that they belong among the world’s elite. They both look big, strong and technically sound, and I predict they’ll be major players throughout the current Olympic cycle.
The completion of the discus put Anna in a slight bind. True throws fan that she is, she wanted to remain in the stands to watch the javelin competition (eventually won in a downpour by the young Finnish thrower Tero Pitkamaki with a fine throw of 88.71m) but longed to stake out the exit to catch Alekna on his way out. Anna’s mom (a charming woman born and raised in Austria who enjoys escorting Anna on jaunts over the Pond) settled the dilemma by noticing that the program promised a meet and greet with the night’s champions after the final event. Anna decided to pin her hopes on the chance that Alekna would stick around. Mike and I both had early flights to catch the next morning, so we left the stadium just before the meet ended, and were busy packing when Anna arrived with the sad news that Alekna did not stay for the autograph session. She faced this unfortunate development with her usual pluck and optimistic demeanor, wishing Mike and I a pleasant journey as we finally hit the hay around 1:00 AM. And thus our adventure came to an end.
The next morning, fairly numb from lack of sleep and distracted by a sort of generalized ache to see my wife and daughter again after ten days away from home, it took me several moments to realize that the man standing before me in the waiting lounge of Zurich Terminal One was none other than Virgilius Alekna.
So Anna was to get her autograph after all, though not in the way she’d expected. He was extremely gracious as he signed, nodding politely as I pantomimed “rain” and told him how great I thought he was. My best guess is that he did not get any English in school as Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Bloc in those days, and he certainly did not try to speak any to me. But I didn’t care. I took the autograph, thanked him profusely and went back to my Napoleon book, wishing I knew how to use a pay phone in Europe so that I could call Anna and wake her up with the good news.
But a few minutes later, the news got even better.
Nose buried in my book, I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to find Alekna standing over me. Without a word, he handed me a postcard-sized autographed photo of himself on the awards stand at Athens, nodded politely, smiled and walked away. Now I was really stoked. How cool to find out that someone you admire is a genuinely nice guy. I only hoped that Anna’s seizure upon receiving the photo would be a small one.
At that point, it was time to head to the gate to catch a bus to the tarmac where I’d board the flight to Manchester. Within ten minutes I was standing on the bus, still shaking a bit from the excitement of having met the Olympic champion. All of a sudden, I looked around and guess who was standing on the same bus just a few feet away from me? Yep. Now I started to feel a bit self-conscious, in no small part because of the fruity bag I was using as a carry-on. Earlier in the week, Mike and I had spent a couple of days touring Salzburg, and I felt like I needed about five hands to carry all the stuff I was trying to schlep around. My solution was to buy a big canvas sack decorated with brightly colored images of fruit that would a.) hold all my stuff and b.) make a great beach bag for my daughter when I got it home. I knew it looked silly for a grown man to be carrying a bag like that. I even joked with the shop owner when I bought it that people would think I was “less than manly.” And indeed, a group of teenagers kept snickering at Mike and I when we sat down for lunch that afternoon. But I didn’t care. Until, of course, I suddenly found myself holding it in the presence of the Olympic discus champion.
Luckily, it was a short bus ride, and in a few minutes I was standing in the aisle of the plane trying to find my seat. The aisle was blocked by a lot of people still stowing their carry-ons, so I craned my neck to see around them and began counting rows. My seat was 12A. Take a wild guess who was already sitting in 12B.
Now I started to feel a bit panicky. As I mentioned earlier, Alekna is an enormous man who as far as I can tell does not speak English. Were I to squeeze into that seat next to him, we’d be smashed up against each other for two hours with absolutely no way to communicate. And who could blame him for suspecting that I was some sort of fruity-bag-carrying stalker? I mean, what are the odds that the only guy in the whole airport who recognized him would just happen to end up sitting next to him on the plane? And what could I say to assuage his fears? “Me no stalk you. This coincidence. Anna stalk you. She have picture of you no shirt. She want marry you.”
Nice guy that Alekna is, he started to get up to let me have the seat when he saw me staring at it, but no way was I going to sit there. “Thanks again for the autographs,” I said and scrambled down the aisle clutching my fruity bag until I found an empty seat.
by Dan McQuaid
this article originally appeared in the Long & Strong Throwers Journal in October 2005