The NCAA Championship Meet, held at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, represented the culmination of a very challenging few weeks for the nation’s top collegiate throwers. After attempting to peak for their conference meets, they had to muster up the special sauce again at regionals where a top-twelve finish was required to earn a ticket to Des Moines. Once admitted to the Big Show, these athletes had to deal with unpredictable weather and a sometimes controversial format in an effort to get on the podium.
An early casualty of this end-of-the-season grind was the 2010 champion in the women’s discus, Jeneva McCall of Southern Illinois, who did not advance out of the Eugene regional. That left the door open for the 2010 second place finisher, Oklahoma’s Brittany Borman, and for the possessors of the top marks coming out of regionals, namely Tennessee’s Annie Alexander (58.58m) and Arizona State’s Anna Jelmini (57.09m). Were I a betting man, I’d have put the house, the car, and maybe one of the stepsons on Jelmini who, despite her youth (she’s a redshirt freshmen) has chalked up lots of big meet experience over the past couple of years. I saw her throw at the 2010 Diamond League Meet in New York and she did not strike me as being a bit intimidated by sitting at the big table with the grownups.
Despite having the top two regional throws, Alexander and Jelmini were placed in different flights in Des Moines, and this is where the “controversial” aspect of the format came into play. The powers-that-be at the NCAA decided that the twenty-four throwers who qualified out of the regionals would be divided into two randomly selected flights at the Championships. Those throwing in flight one would have to chillax for at least an hour afterwards while flight two warmed up and competed. Any flight one throwers finishing among the top nine at the conclusion of both prelim flights would have to quickly rummage through their equipment bag to try to find enough leftover swagga to get them through another warm-up period and three more rounds of competition. Virginia Tech throws coach Greg Jack for one, was not a big fan of this setup, arguing that the top throwers from the regionals earned the right to compete in the second flight. “It is very unfortunate that they don’t rank these throwers by their ability level,” he said, “because they are hurting the top-ranked throwers. It doesn’t set up for a good competition, a fluid competition. It’s stupidity. Whoever is making that call is ignorant of our events…probably some distance coach!”
However one feels about the randomized flights or about distance coaches, it was interesting to observe the effect they had on the various throwing events.
Borman, slotted to throw in flight one, bowed out quickly with three fouls. Alexander seemed about to follow Borman out of the competition after opening at 41.19m and following that up with a round-two 41.40m, but a third-round 54.28m saved her day and put her into second place behind Southern Methodist’s Simone du Toit, who popped a 54.94m in round one.
Throwing next-to-last in flight two, Jelmini cranked a 56.67m on her first throw to take the overall lead, and later improved on that with a third-round 57.11m. Sneaking into the number two spot behind Jelmini was Northwestern State’s Tracey Rew with a round-two PR throw of 55.31m. I say “sneaking” because in spite of posting a very respectable 54.96m at regionals, Rew entered the meet with very little name recognition among discus prognosticators. Perhaps because she fouled out of last year’s meet in Eugene, she was not listed among the top ten women collegiate discus throwers as posted by Track and Field News a couple of weeks prior to the Championships. Life outside the spotlight seemed to suit her, though, as that 55.31m was only the beginning of an epic series for Rew.
After the nine finalists were identified it became clear that Annie Alexander had gone to a happy place during her enforced idle as she hammered a round-four 57.55m to seize the lead. Jelmini answered with 56.73m, while Michigan State’s Beth Rohl bumped Rew into fourth place with a toss of 55.39m.
Jelmini retook the lead in round five with a throw of 57.61m while Rew moved back into third place with 56.76m, her second PR of the day. That left Rohl in fourth and the freshman from Arizona, Baille Gibson in fifth at 55.29m.
Gibson jumped ahead of Rohl with a final-round 56.46m and was jumped in turn by du Toit who, more than two hours after her first warm-up throw of the day, drilled a 56.83m to finish fourth. Alexander finished her roller coaster of a day with a toss of 52.39m, and into the ring stepped Rew. “I knew it was the last throw of my collegiate career,” she said later. “I just stayed calm and worked on my technique like I’ve been doing. But I added a little bit of aggression and it paid off.”
Her calmly aggressive approach resulted in a throw of 58.64m, a three-meter-plus improvement over her best throw prior to this competition.
That throw had to feel like a sock in the jaw to Jelmini, and I’m not talking about a love tap. But she responded like a champion, popping up off the canvas to hit her best throw of the day, 57.97m. Unfortunately, she will have to wait another year to claim a national title. This day belonged to Tracy Rew.
Probably the best way for a highly-ranked thrower to handle being stuck in the first flight would be to knock the crap out of one early and then let everyone else figure out how to respond. “There you go, fellas. Chew on that for awhile. I’ll be in the tent, if you need me.”
That pretty much describes the men’s javelin competition, as Illinois State sophomore Tim Glover opened with a monster throw of 80.33m (a PR, a school record, a Missouri Valley Conference record, and the best collegiate throw of the year) and spent the rest of the afternoon watching his competitors flail away at that mark. At the end of flight one, the second best thrower, Florida sophomore Stipe Zunic, was more than five meters back at 75.01m.
How did Glover feel having to sit back and watch flight two? “It was pretty nerve-wracking. Especially because they had us stay down there, but then they shipped us off to another tent then they kicked us out and we had to go back and wait by the runway. I’d say we had at least an hour to wait while the second flight threw.”
“My coaches were freaking out when they had us sitting out here instead of keeping cool. I figured I had a good throw out there and they had to chase it and if someone got off a good one I knew what I had to do”
“I’m kind of used to that from the summer meets, waiting around. You’re supposed to throw at eight and you end up throwing at three.”
None of the flight two throwers did much to pierce Glover’s cocoon of nerve-wracked serenity, and he and Zunic held the top two spots entering the finals. Sam Humphreys, a sophomore from Texas A&M, sat in third place with a throw of 74.88, a nice improvement over the 70.32m that netted him fifth place in 2010. Another sophomore, Matias Treff from Virginia Tech by way of Nuremburg, Germany, held fourth place with 74.80m, followed by Kansas freshman Johannes Swanepoel in fifth with a first-round 72.24m which would turn out to be his only mark of the day.
The final rounds were drama-free until Treff stepped up on his last throw and banged out a 77.88m to move into second. Humphreys responded with his best throw of the day, 75.05m, to knock Zunic into fourth. Swanepoel, passing on all three throws, held on to fifth.
Afterwards, Glover faced what for him was the most anxiety-inducing moment of the day: the drug test. “I’m a shy pee-er,” he said. Competing for three hours in ninety-degree weather probably didn’t make that any easier.
The javelin is an odd event in that injuries seem more common than in the other throws and can make it difficult to predict future results. Ten of last year’s top twelve finishers were underclassmen, but only six of them made it to Des Moines, and only Glover and Humphreys improved on their 2010 finish.
That said, Glover would appear to have a bright future. He feels like he’s got a long way to go technically, and considers himself “one of the weakest javelin throwers I know,” with a 105k bench and 110k hang clean. Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildson, by comparison, benches 195k and hang cleans 155k.
Two of the top three finishers from 2010 returned: sophomores Mason Finley of Kansas and Julian Wruck of Texas Tech. Both threw very well at this year’s Big 12 meet, Finley hitting 60.37m to finish second behind Wruck’s record-breaking throw of 63.42m. Senior Leif Arrhenius of BYU also appeared to be in top form after hitting 59.11m at his conference meet and following up with 59.87m at the regional.
For someone to pull a Tracey Rew, each of these “Big Three” would have to falter.
They did not.
Wruck, an amiable Australian who said he likes to open easy with “about 90% effort just to be sure I’m in the finals,” threw down the gauntlet in round one of flight one with 60.08m. Finley replied with 60.11m. Wruck cranked it up for round two and fired a 61.81m. Finley finished with two fouls, and Wruck fouled his third effort, so the two sat first and second as the first flight concluded.
Just behind Wruck and Finley were two Nebraska throwers, freshman Chad Wright at 56.28m, and junior Tyler Hitchler at 55.48m. The fact that these two were able to compete at all, let alone to throw so well was a remarkable display of mental toughness as they were informed not long before the competition that their coach, Mark Colligan, had been found in his hotel room that morning dead of an apparent heart attack.
“We had to stay focused. It really didn’t sink in, so we tried to keep it business as usual,” Hitchler told ESPN afterwards. “We tried to stick with the motions. It was a shock, so the emotional side wasn’t there yet.”
“I thought about it the whole time during competition. After every throw, I instinctively looked at the sidelines for coaching on my technique. It was quiet. I had my dad and some other support there, but the face I had looked toward my entire career at Nebraska was gone.”
Arrhenius came out smoking in flight two, hitting 61.36m on his first throw to knock Finley into third. He did not improve after that, and there would be no final-round fireworks. Finley improved to 60.16m in round four, but the top three spots did not change. Colin Boevers of Kentucky nailed 56.88m to finish fourth, Central Michigan’s Alex Rose earned fifth place with a round four 56.64m, and Wright and Hitchler held on to sixth and seventh.
Afterwards, Wruck said that he had not been bothered by the randomized flights, and that he felt like he’d developed a strong mental approach to competition.
“This year was the first year I’ve been able to go to any meet and not feel nervous. I try not to see people as numbers. During warm-ups, you see everyone else as human beings just like you. They have fears just like you. I don’t see people as linear systems of better or worse. They might be thinking (when they throw a big warm-up throw) ‘Hey that was a lucky throw!’ You don’t know what they are thinking, so I try to get a lift out of the competition and if someone throws a big throw I try to look at it as an opportunity to throw one far as well.”
Wruck hopes to put this mental approach to use at the 2012 Olympics, and said he is likely to remain in Australia next year to prepare.
How’s this for a loaded field? Two former champions, LSU senior Walter Henning (2010) and Virginia Tech senior Marcel Lomnicky (2009) along with Alex Ziegler, another Virginia Tech senior and last year’s runner-up.
Lomnicky, of the Czech Republic, looked to be the favorite after unloading a 75.84m bomb at the ACC Championships and hitting 73.91m at regionals. He was the only member of this “Big Three” slotted into the first flight, and I’m sure he hoped to replicate Tim Glover’s performance in the javelin. Drop a big one and let everyone fight for second place. According to Coach Jack, Marcel had been throwing very well in practice and was ready to launch one, but he opened with a foul, followed by a “safe” 71.49m, and a third-round 72.32m—a fine throw but one that had to leave Ziegler and Henning feeling that the door was definitely still open.
Both assured themselves a spot in the finals with their first efforts, Henning with 66.41m, Ziegler with 70.25m. Both fouled their second throws then improved in round three, Henning hitting 68.26m and Zielger reaching 70.32m.
Going into the finals, fourth place belonged to Alec Faldermeyer, a UCLA freshman who threw 66.95m in round three. Henning’s teammate, Michael Lauro, sat in fifth with a throw of 66.49m.
In spite of the long wait between flight one and the finals (Coach Jack compared it to “icing” a kicker in football), Marcel improved in round four with a toss of 72.35m. Ziegler also improved, hitting 72.01m, but remained in second. Faldermeyer (67.46m) and Lauro (67.45m) both had their best throws of the day in round four, as did Sam Houston State’s Chris Cralle(66.48m).
None of the finalists improved in round five.
Sitting seventh, Trey Henderson of USC popped a round six 67.58m to move into fourth place. And then came the Big Three. On the last throw of a fine college career, Henning hit 69.03m, his best of the day but not enough to move him into second. So, Ziegler stepped into the ring with one shot to unseat his teammate. Interestingly, this was only the third meet of the outdoor season for Alex. Coach Jack said that he’d had a little trouble transitioning from the weight throw indoors and since he had a long summer of throwing ahead of him in his native Germany, they did not see any reason to rush things along. Apparently they knew what they were doing, as Ziegler launched the hammer 72.69m and launched himself into first place. Lomnicky’s final effort came up short at 71.29m.
Coach Jack was not surprised at Ziegler’s success. “He’s been throwing great in practice,” he said afterwards. “If you follow the hammer, don’t be surprised to see Alex throw 76 meters this summer.”
After fouling out of the discus, Oklahoma’s Brittany Borman had to be wondering why she ever tried this sport in the first place. After hitting a best of 50.70m during the first flight of the javelin prelims (well short of the 53.00m PR that got her second place in 2010) she could not be blamed for thinking thoughts that might not be printable in a genteel magazine like Long and Strong.
Sitting second to Stanford’s Eda Karesin (52.33m) after flight one and struggling to find a groove Borman, like Lomnicky in the hammer, had a lot of time to mull over possibilities.
“I was little nervous about yesterday’s performance in the discus, but I tried to come back today with a clear mind and forget all of that,” said Borman later. “After the prelims, I sat on the side and thought about what I needed to do and talked to Coach (Brian) Blutreich. I was a little tight and after doing that I was more relaxed. I knew that I had to get loose and let it fly and it showed on my fourth throw.”
True that. Marissa Tschida of Washington State had dropped Borman to third place by throwing 51.06m in the second prelim flight, then, throwing just ahead of Borman in the finals, increased her lead with a 52.20m toss in round four. Maybe Tschida’s throw got Borman fired up. Maybe Blutreich found the magic words that all coaches wish they could find when one of their athletes is struggling. Whichever, Borman stepped up and fired a new PR of 54.32m that vaulted her from third to first. Spectators later reported hearing a loud thud that sounded a lot like a large monkey falling off of someone’s back.
There were no surprises in rounds five or six, although Borman punctuated her title with a 53.71m toss.
Karesin held onto second and Tschida to third, while Tulane junior Ana Ruzevic finished 4th (50.40m), Emalie Humphreys of Texas A&M finished fifth (50.26) and Illinois State junior Leigh Petranoff sixth (49.42m).
With four of the top five finishers from 2010 returning, this promised to be a fierce competition. Though her training had been disrupted by off-season knee surgery, defending champion Nicole Lomnicka of Georgia appeared to be rounding into form. She won the SEC meet with a throw of 63.51m, and posted a respectable 62.88m at regionals. Last year’s second place finisher, Dorotea Habazin of Virginia Tech, came to Des Moines with a PR of 68.36m and a regional throw of 67.51m. Southern Illinois senior Gwen Berry led the nation with a 70.52m bomb that she unleashed at this very stadium in April. Amanda Bingson of UNLV chalked up a 67.92m at regionals. And nobody was more focused than Berry’s teammate Geneva McCall who hit 67.24m at regionals and came to Des Moines determined to make amends for her failure to qualify in the discus.
Unfortunately, a steady rain began falling just as flight one warm-ups began and threatened to turn the competition into a battle of attrition. There were numerous horrific-looking wipeouts as several competitors stepped a bit too far on their final turn and ended up on top of the insert. In these conditions, that was like stepping on an oil slick.
McCall was the only big gun competing in flight one, and she showed right away that she was not going to be intimidated by the foul weather. She opened with 65.37m, followed that with 66.45m, and improved to 66.47m in round three. That gave her a healthy lead over UNLV’s Chelsea Cassulo (64.07m), and the way the rain was pelting down I wondered if she’d pulled a Glover and sewn up the title during prelims.
Habazin quickly disabused me of that notion with a first-round 66.23m, followed by a second-round 66.14m, and a round three blast of 68.15m—an amazing throw under these conditions. I asked Coach Jack afterwards how Habazin was able to produce a throw like that when many of her competitors struggled to simply stay upright. “That’s good old beautiful Blacksburg weather right there,” he said. “We train in it all the time, rain or shine. We like it because it puts other throwers at a disadvantage.”
That was clearly the case with Berry, who fouled all three of her prelim throws, and Bingson who could not come within three meters of her regional best. Going into the finals, she sat fourth behind Habazin, McCall, and Lomnicka who showed some toughness of her own by hitting 64.88m in round three. This was less than a meter below the mark that won her the title in 2010.
There was not a lot of action in the finals until McCall stepped in for her final throw and showed her grit by launching one that looked to be very close to unseating Habazin. It was close—67.74m—but not quite enough, and Habazin, whose next goal is to represent her native Croatia in the 2012 Olympics, ended her Virginia Tech career as national champion.
Mason Finley finished second as a true freshman in 2010. He finished second at the 2011 Indoor Championships with a throw of 19.75m and came to Des Moines with a season’s best of 20.71m—a put that would dominate pretty much any collegiate competition that did not involve a Godina or a Whiting. Finley threw that 20.71m indoors, but you get the picture. He was the man to beat, and having been slotted into flight two there would be no momentum-killing wait between prelims and finals. If he could get his groove on early it seemed probable that he’d steamroll his way to the title.
His main competition appeared likely to come from indoor champion Leif Arrhenius, who carried a season’s best of 19.92m—the mark that won him the indoor title.
Arrhenius was tabbed to throw in the first prelim flight, and luck appeared to smile on him and the other flight one competitors as the rain faded away during warm-ups. The ground remained wet, and there was the matter of keeping the bottom of one’s shoes dry, but unlike in the women’s hammer, the shot warm-up seemed to go smoothly. Arrhenius looked sharp and very confident. One other competitor stood out—Arizona State‘s Jordan Clarke, looking mighty BA under his fauxhawk and mighty smooth out of the back of the ring.
Clarke opened with an easy-looking 19.14m, a throw certain to get him into the finals. Arrhenius took over first place with a round-two 19.37m, and then Clarke took it back with a third-round PR of 19.53m. Michel Putman, a Florida State junior, filled out the top three with a third-round throw of 18.90m. Clarke and Arrhenius both looked jovial as they as took a seat to watch flight-two warm-ups, confident that they’d earned a place on the podium. Finley also had reason to feel confident, as the top spot was still well within his reach.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature chose that moment to intervene, and it began to rain again during flight two warm-ups. The rain seemed bother Finley and pretty much everyone else in the flight. There were no big warm-up throws, and Finley’s 18.80m was by far the best toss of the first round. Then, just at Finley stepped into the ring for his second throw, an announcement came over the PA system that all fans and competitors had to clear the stadium immediately due to a lightning alert. Suddenly, throwing in flight two became a disadvantage as those competitors would have to sit out the delay, then warm up again before resuming their competition throws.
The fans were ordered to take shelter in the nearby field house, but my friend and I could not find the entrance. A nearby tavern graciously offered shelter, so we choked down a couple of beers just to be sociable and headed back to the stadium in time to watch flight two resume their warm-ups in an even heavier downpour.
By this point, Finley was starting to look a bit lost. His technique seemed to be quite different than I remembered it from watching him throw at last year’s USA Championship meet. He seemed very slow and deliberate out of the back, rising up and almost pausing on a straight left leg. More than once, he made eye contact with his coach in the stands and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “I don’t know why it’s not going farther.”
When the competition resumed, he fouled his second-round throw before hitting 18.94m in round three. This put him in fourth behind Clarke, Arrhenius, and Penn State’s Joe Kovacs (19.06m) as the finals began.
The rain continued to pound down, and of the final twenty-seven throws, fourteen would be fouls. Finley reached 18.53m in round four, while Arrhenius fouled and Clarke tossed 18.94m. Finley fouled his fifth throw, while Arrhenius reached 18.66m. On the brink of a very much unexpected victory, Clarke must have caught a sudden endorphin buzz as he shook off the conditions and any malaise he felt from the long delay to hammer out another PR—a fifth round toss of 19.75m.
That was the dagger.
Hayden Ballio of Texas knocked Finley into fifth place with a final-round toss of 18.95m. Finley tried to answer by putting a lot of juice on his final throw, and he got off a nice toss (somewhere near 20 meters) but his momentum carried him out of the front of the ring. That left Arrhenius, who was determined not to waste the final throw of his college career. He too, dropped one in the vicinity of the 20-meter line, but this was Clarke’s day, not his and he could not keep the throw, stepping out just to the left of the toeboard.
I asked Arizona State coach Dave Dumble afterwards if he was surprised by Clarke’s performance. “He threw a season best at Pac 10’s, went to the Tuscon elite and he had a great series there so there were signs that he was figuring out his entry and setting up his power position, so we knew he was going to throw well…but two PR’s? You know, when he’s happy and he’s confident he can do stuff like that.”
And what had they done during the delay? ”We just sat and talked had a couple of granola bars. He was so relaxed. He knew these guys still had to go out and warm up and compete, and he was so happy with how well he threw in the first three throws that even if he didn’t win he was still going to be happy with it. Everybody else was pressing, maybe trying to get a big throw, and he was just happy with wherever he placed.”
The Julie Labonte “Here Comes An Ass-Beating” Tour picked a perfect day to roll into Des Moines. Sunny. Seventy-something degrees. And who could blame Mother Nature for getting out of the way for this final throwing event on the final day of the NCAA Championships? Since finishing fourth in the nation a year ago Labonte, a native of Quebec Province, had developed into something of a force of nature herself. She had not lost against collegiate competition indoors or out in 2011, and came into the Outdoor Championships with a PR of 18.21m. Très bien, eh?
Should Labonte falter for the first time all season, a trio of fine throwers was lined up to challenge her. Tia Brooks of Oklahoma finished second to Labonte indoors with a solid throw of 17.40m. Indiana’s Faith Sherrill came in with the number two regional mark of 17.51m. And Tennessee’s Annie Alexander was SEC champion with a 17.50m put.
Brooks and Alexander both threw in flight one. I’m a big fan of the fixed-feet glide, and I got a kick out of Brooks’ violent finish. She hammers her right hip against her block. Ka-pow! Her 17.21m in round two put her into first place after the first flight with Texas Tech sophomore Ifeatu Okafor (16.96m) and Alexander (16.92m) occupying second and third.
Just about everybody else seemed flat during the first flight, though. Throw after throw barely crossed the 16.00m mark. That trend continued during flight-two warm-ups until Labonte got limbered up and dropped one on the 18.00m line. That was what we English teachers refer to as “foreshadowing.”
Even Labonte looked a bit off though, as flight two got rolling, intentionally fouling a lousy first effort. Her second throw was a bit better: a PR and new Canadian record of 18.31m.
Like Tia Brooks, Labonte is a fixed-feet glider, although she has a slightly different finish. Her right foot sort of slides forward as the shot leaves her hand, making her look less explosive than Brooks, but in this case looks are deceiving. Labonte also puts the lie to the notion that gliders need superior strength to throw far. She benches 100k and squats around 160k. Not exactly what you’d expect from an 18.00m thrower, and as those numbers improve over the next couple of years…well…mon dieu!
The rest of the field finally shook off their lethargy during round five as Sherrill hit 17.54m to move into third and Samira Burkhardt, a Virginia Tech freshman, reached 17.09m to take over fifth place. Alexander held onto fourth with a round-five 17.18m and then all of a sudden Brooks’ morning cup of Joe must have kicked in as she pounded out a PR and school record throw of 18.00m.
Labonte admitted later that the excitement of hitting a PR and reaching the Olympic A-standard on her second throw had left her feeling a little queasy, and she had followed her bomb with 17.38m in round three and a foul in round four. Brooks’ big toss provided a dose of smelling salts though, and a newly- awakened Labonte responded with her second-best effort of the day, 18.19m. The highlight of the final round was a 17.66m PR by Alexander that netted her third place. Brooks finished with 17.40m and Labonte with 17.22m.
Next up was a trip back to Canada and an effort to qualify for the World Championships this August.
by Dan McQuaid