All posts by Daniel McQuaid

Olympic Predictions: Men’s Shot

With the Olympics just around the corner, it was time for me to sit down with my colleague Pat Trofimuk and come up with predictions for the throwing events.  As always,  predictions that turn out to be ridiculously inaccurate should be attributed solely to Pat.

Just last week archaeologists digging at the sight of the original Olympic Games uncovered a stone tablet from 547 BC predicting an American sweep in the shot put. We’re still waiting on that, but with another powerful trio of putters heading to Rio,  might this be the year when the prophecy finally comes true?

Let’s take a look at the contenders.

tomas

Sports psychologists tell us that in order to  excel in  pressure-packed situations–say the  Olympic Games, for example–you have to maintain your poise in the face of adversity. Just made a bad throw? Relax. Breathe. Remind yourself of all the times you’ve come through in  the clutch. The last thing you want to do is to stomp around trying to rip out clumps  of your own hair like some giant, demented opera singer. And yet, the latter approach has somehow netted Poland’s Tomasz Majewski two consecutive Olympic golds.

Injury and age have had their way with him in the four years since his 21.89m performance in London, but he is a 6’9″ glider who rises to the occasion better than anybody.  Raise your hand if you are willing to bet against Majewski throwing 21 meters in Rio… I’m waiting.

 

walsh

My brother-in-law who runs an elementary school in Switzerland tells me that New Zealand produces the best teachers in the world. They also do a pretty decent job of cranking out shot putters, as evidenced by double Olympic champ Val Adams and  reigning Indoor World champ Tom Walsh.

Walsh  is sort of the Kiwi version of Joe Kovacs. Compact build. Friendly personality. Super explosive spin technique.

Unlike Kovacs, though, Walsh chose to gamble that he could peak once indoors for the World Championships and then again five months later in Rio.

His recent 21.54m performance at the London Diamond League meeting  indicates that his gamble might well pay off.

hill

Darrell Hill of the United States hit a PR of 21.63m at the Trials–a huge throw under immense pressure. He lacks international experience, but for the past year has been training with Art Venegas, the Yoda (if Yoda was perpetually chapped) of American throwing, and if anyone can get him ready to withstand the rigors of the Olympic pressure cooker it is, well…Chapped Yoda.

crouser

Ryan Crouser of the United States won the Trials with a monster put of 22.11m, a distance that will likely get him the gold medal in Rio if he can replicate it.  In order to do that, he is going to have to overcome his lack of international experience. In his favor is his unique ability to throw 20 meters going half speed as he did when he won the 2013 NCAA meet with a safety throw of 20.31m–his only mark of the competition. So, we know he will get six throws in Rio. The question is will one of them be far enough to earn a medal?

kovacs

Trofimuk and I first met Joe Kovacs of the United States at the NCAA meet in 2012 when he was a senior at Penn State. At that moment, he was not sure whether he was going to continue throwing. After notching a PR at the 2012 Trials, he ended up moving to Chula Vista and teaming up  with Venegas. Fast forward four years, and he is now the defending World Champion and owner of  five of the top ten ten throws in the world so far in 2016.

So, it looks like he made the right decision.

You could say that Joe is the American version of Tom Walsh, a great thrower and better person with one World title on his resume. The difference? Walsh’s win in Portland came against a weak field–all the other top putters (including Kovacs) sat that one out. Joe, on the other hand,  took down the best of the best in Beijing, including…

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…Germany’s David Storl , the two-time World Champion and defending Olympic silver medalist who since injuring his left knee in 2014 has employed an extremely reliable fixed-feet glide. I’ll bet the house, the car, and my VCR tape from 2000 on which the Olympic shot final is sandwiched between Teletubbies episodes that Storl throws over 21 meters in Rio. But the fact that he is still using the fixed-feet finish tells me that his knee is not quite right, which makes it unlikely that he’s capable of hitting 22.00.

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Poland’s Konrad Bukowiecki just broke Storl’s World Junior record with the 6k shot. He is big, aggressive, and being a teen-aged male probably too dense to realize that he’s not meant to medal at the Olympics. This makes him a dangerous  dark horse candidate, and Trofimuk (himself a large, aggressive Polish man) came this close to predicting a spot on the podium for him.

Our Predictions

Bronze: Storl

Silver: Crouser

Gold: Kovacs

This was a rare case where Trofimuk and I came up with identical predictions and did not have to settle our differences with a tickle fight. We also consulted with former University of Wisconsin all-American Dan Block, who threw against both Crouser and Kovacs in  college.

All of us agree that you can’t count out Storl, but with the bum knee Crouser may have surpassed him on the Freak-O-Meter. Joe may be in  the perfect situation to win this thing.  He has the horsepower, he has the international experience, he has Venegas in  his corner.

In Rio, that will be a winning combination.

Art Venegas talks about Whitney Ashley and the fine art of fixed feet discus throwing

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In June of 2012, my colleague Pat Trofimuk and I drove to Drake University in Des Moines to cover the NCAA Championships for the now-defunct Long and Strong Throwers Journal.The five-hour drive across the cornfields of Illinois and Iowa gave us the opportunity to examine the lineups for the various throwing events and to predict which would be the most hotly contested. One event that we agreed would offer very little in the way of drama was the women’s discus. Arizona State’s Anna Jelmini was the clear favorite, the only thrower in the field who had consistently thrown in the 58-60 meter range all season and certainly the only one likely to reach that distance under the pressure of an NCAA Championship final.

True, Anna had also been considered the favorite going into the previous year’s NCAA meet only to be denied when Northwestern Louisiana’s Tracey Rew nailed a three-meter PR to claim the title, but the odds of that kind of ridiculousness happening again seemed remote.

Once the competition began late on a humid Iowa afternoon, Anna did her part by hitting a 58.79m opener that, as far as I could tell, assured her of the win.

Then, a funny thing happened in round five.

As the evening progressed and the humidity dropped and a gentle breeze floated in, a young lady from San Diego State with two first names, a violent fixed-feet finish and the rather odd habit of carrying the discus next to her right hip as she turned out of the back of the ring stepped into the cage and deposited a throw just short of the 60-meter line.

The exact measurement was 59.99m,  a four-meter PR.

That young lady’s name was Whitney Ashley,and that throw made her the NCAA champion. It also began a series of events that led to her qualifying for Rio by winning the Olympic Trials last weekend.

Whitney trains at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, and to get some insight into her improbable rise to the top of her sport, I spoke with her coach, Art Venegas. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Coach, the first time I ever noticed Whitney was when she won the NCAA title in Des Moines in 2012. When did you first start working with her?

I was at Chula Vista while Whitney was at San Diego State, and her head coach had just hired a new throwing coach, the shot putter Dorian Scott, and she knew that Dorian had a lot of shot put background but needed help with the discus so she sent them over to me to get information and then Dorian worked with her off the stuff we were doing together. Her average was in the 180’s, and I was very interested in having her go to the training center, but the people in Indianapolis said unless she throws within two percent of the “B” standard–which was in the mid-190’s– she could not come no matter what you say. Interestingly enough, it was that one throw in Des Moines that got her over the “B” standard. Her next best throw was way under what she would have needed, so that throw in Des Moines had more implications than just “wow what a great moment!”

She started at the training center in the fall of 2012 and she immediately had a breakout year. In the spring of 2013 she was able to get second at the USA’s and make her first international team, She went to Russia for the Worlds and had foul issues there, but she trained extremely well while in Russia which told me there were some good possibilities here.  She didn’t cave in. She was throwing good enough to make the final if she did not foul out. She had to get used to keeping her focus that deep into the season. Then, by 2015 the goal was to make the finals at the World Championships, which she did, and now the minimum goal is to get six throws in Rio, to be in the top eight.

She is one of the few fixed feet throwers that you’ve coached. Can you talk about that?

Well, more and more now people in the US are doing it. Dave Astrauskas, the coach from Wisconsin, came over to the training center and I told him everything about how I teach it, and he said he was going to give it a go and now Kelsey Card is doing great with it.

The belief used to be that fixed feet throwing was best for someone with super long levers like Franz Kruger,

You’re talking about the two-kilo, and with the men it is still true. You rarely see a guy 6’1 or 6’0 be successful throwing fixed feet. It’s still nice to have long levers with the 1k, but the one-kilo discus changes the whole equation. I’ve always said that women are like two-thirds the power of men, but their disc is one half the weight. Even in the bench, there are not many guys benching 600, but there are quite a few girls benching 300,

How strong is Whitney right now?

She is just getting strong. Her future is completely out ahead of her. We’ve got to keep growing the engine and keep the athleticism, but her bench is around the 260-270 range, and her best power clean is around 105-110k. Her jerk is 110k, and her squat is about 175k with a nice deep squat,

For the women how do you decide who should stay fixed feet and who should reverse?

It depends on who the coach is and how much they know about each technique. In the reverse in most cases, you work the ground early and are loaded up over the right more. In the fixed feet you are more upright and you barely stay on the right leg before you transfer to the left leg. But, the big thing that I want to emphasize is that fixed feet throwing is a complete sequence that is different in every way than just a regular throw without a reverse.

So, the throw is set up differently?

It is so simple for a young coach to say, “look, we do traditional technique like Wolfgang Schmidt and now I’m going to have my people throw non-reverse.” But that is not the true fixed feet technique.

Who would you say is a great example of a pure, fixed-feet technique?

Most everybody who does it in Europe. There’s only one woman who does a traditional pivoting action and does the fixed feet finish–and does it very well by the way–and that is Melina Robert-Michon. She lands early, turns her foot on the ball of her foot, and then transitions out. But, if you look at all the top German men and women, you look at Imrich Bugar, you look at Whitney, they turn in mid-air and they turn their hip around at least to twelve-o’clock and then they quickly transition out to the left leg–you don’t want to spend too much time on the right leg

It’s a more exaggerated hip and foot turn in the air?

Yes. Get pre-turned in the air and then transfer quickly to the left leg. And there are a lot of other things involved. The whole thing I’m telling you is that you have to have a whole sequence that takes you there.

Do you feel like fixed feet throwers have to be a little more patient?

No. It’s actually a little more violent. What it comes down to is that they have to have a good feel for the different factors that make the form work. One thing we find is that if you transfer quickly onto the front leg you don’t need a high and low orbit like you do with the other technique. The discus can stay pretty much flat the whole way around because of the counter movement. When the hip gets ahead, you throw your arm opposite–you wrap it around,

What’s  the plan for Whitney between now and the Olympics?

We need to get back into a good training phase. She will go to London to compete and will be pretty beat up in London from our training, so don’t expect big marks. Then, after that we will start tapering down. We will take off for Rio, the whole training group together and come back from Rio together so we can train together for the Diamond League final.

How long will you be in Rio?

Two and half weeks.

There was a little of a controversy about the scheduling of the women’s discus in Rio with the finals the morning after the prelims.

It is a little bit of a controversy because it hasn’t been done before. We are fine with it.

Is that why they scheduled the women’s disc that way at the Trials?

Yes, we wanted to approximate it. The only reason its not the same is that the time zone is different, but by the time we are there a few days that won’t matter.  When they make the final they are flying on air anyway. They could throw at three in the morning and it won’t matter, they will be so happy

What advice are you going to give Whitney about the qualifying?

What I tell  my athletes all the way from Godina to Brenner–everybody–I tell them the same thing: treat the qualifier as if it were the final.  Do not go through thinking you are too good for it. Go in with fire. Try to get the auto and get home early, but do not float around. I won’t mention names, but I saw some Americans who were very good throwing very easy in the prelims at Beijing, and then they couldn’t find the intensity later. It is very important to approach the qualifying with high intensity. It is so different in the field events than say a 100-meter runner who knows they are in control and can relax going into the finish line. Percentage wise there is so little difference between being stuck in a dead-end 57-meter throw and a real high-end 66-meter throw and once you get stuck you hit it and you hit it and you think you are going hard, but your implement doesn’t go anywhere.

You have to be ready to hit it. And in the final, I have nothing to say. That’s the only goddamned reason you are throwing. If I have to say something, there is something really wrong. That’s where my coaching ends as far as mental preparation because the final is what it is about.

What is Whitney like during competition?

Very independent. She and I have learned to work a system. She likes very few cues, and she likes the cues she is comfortable with. We practice those cues before the meet, and let’s say I said something to her that we hadn’t practiced before the meet, that would not go well. She like the cues she is comfortable with.

So you guys have a nice system.

I had to learn a system. She likes to be in charge. I’m a married man, I get it. And I learned from my great women throwers at UCLA, You learn what their different personalities are and Whitney feels comfortable if we establish early how it is we are going to approach the meet.  And I have both men and women who are like that, and I have throwers who say “throw it at me and see what happens”–  more loosy-goosey types, The other thing is she is very independent. She doesn’t need a lot of babysitting to get ready to compete. Some athletes feel better if I’m around them the whole time to keep them calm. With Whitney, I just need to let her know where I’m going to be and what’s going to happen and she’ll sit on her own for an hour or two hours getting prepared. I’ll give her a whistle so she knows where I’m at in the stands. One thing she had to get used to with me is I like to get close enough during the competition to be able to say “that looked great” or give them one little cue that has to be worked on for the next throw.

Now she is very comfortable with that.

When do you find out which flight she will be in at the Olympics?

The day before. And that can sometimes be tough in the long throws if you are in the first flight because you have to get there so early in the morning, but we won’t have that problem in Rio because both groups in the women’s disc will throw in the late afternoon or early evening.

Aren’t the flights sometimes huge in the Olympics and World Championships?

They can be. It’s two flights no matter how many total throwers have qualified. At the Worlds in 1995, John Godina threw in a flight of twenty-five. It took an hour and seven minutes between throws.

What will it take for Whitney to make the final in Rio?

It depends on the conditions. The discus is pretty great up at the top, and I think 62 or 63 meters will do some damage, and over 60 will make the final.

Do you think a fixed foot thrower has an advantage in a big meet?

Yes, if the form is properly developed because that technique, if properly done, the consistency is better. And the fouls are less. If you see Whitney with a foul by her name it’s because she stepped out.

 

 

 

The Mental Toughness of DeAnna Price

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By any measure, DeAnna Price of Southern Illinois University had a great collegiate career. After winning the 2015 NCAA hammer title as a junior, she opened her senior season on March 19th with a 72.19m toss at the Alabama Relays and finished with an NCAA meet record 71.53m on June 9th in Eugene. In between, she broke the 70-meter barrier in nine of the ten meets in which she competed.

It was this ability to be consistently excellent under a variety of conditions that interested me most about DeAnna’s season, and her coach, J.C. Lambert was kind enough to answer my questions about her mental approach to competition.

First question. DeAnna was remarkably consistent this year. It seemed like she threw 70 meters every week. What was it about her personality and her preparation that allowed her to do that?

She’s a tiger when she competes, she will go after throws no matter the situation. The one thing we’ve been working on a lot this year is making sure her first throw makes finals and she gets a 70m+ throw within her first three throws.

Have you two worked at all on any sort of pre-meet ritual? Are there a certain number or types of warm-up throws that she likes to take?

As far as a pre-meet ritual, she does a light lift, she likes to eat either Olive Garden pasta or half a chicken with a baked potato the night before. Breakfast the morning of, she likes to have one pancake with syrup, no butter, some eggs and meat along with coffee.

For warm up throws, she likes to start with turns with a two ball system. That’s one thing we’ve used this year to help her turns and with pushing the hammer. After that, she usually goes to a left arm throw and 1-2 80% throws and then is ready to go.

What do you mean by a “left arm” throw?

With a left arm throw, it’s a drill we use a times to warm up. You just take the hammer with your left arm, wind it like a regular throw, turn and throw.

Here is something that gives me endless amounts of trouble as a high school coach. Over the course of a season, my guys will, like DeAnna, develop their own routine for warming up. But, there are times when that routine gets disrupted. Rain delays. Officials who for some reason decide to limit the warm-up period. This year, at our state meet, the guy in charge decided to move the shot competition indoors due to predictions of dire weather. So, after eight weeks of competing outside with an iron shot, the competitors were moved into the field house and made to share four indoor shots, three of which were egg-shaped. There went their routine. That’s an extreme example, but I’ve heard stories about having flights of 25 at the World Championships, or of Reese Hoffa getting a single warm-up throw at the Athens Olympics. Have you worked with DeAnna on staying focused even when her routine is disrupted?

Deanna does pretty good in tough situations. When it gets down to the bigger meets, your athlete should be ready to go no matter the situation as long as long as the preparation leading up to the meet is done right. I learned as a athlete a long time ago that there will never be a perfect meet, something(s) will always try to get in your way. You must learn to adapt and adjust. You have to go with the flow. Deanna understands this and has done a great job so far with her mental preparation.

If you have a lump of coal you think has the potential to be a diamond, you must put that lump of coal under extreme and intense pressure. If it survives, you have a diamond. If it breaks apart and crumbles, then you just have coal. Not all lumps of coal are meant to be diamonds just like all athletes aren’t meant to be world class competitors. During practice, you must put your athletes under various situations that may pop up at a meet. Some athletes can learn and adapt quick, some have to be guided and talked through, others can just never seems to get past the little things that get in their way.

Can you give me an example of something you might do in practice to help get your throwers ready to handle a pressure situation?

For handling competition- At any time of the practice, I will bring up a meet time situation that they may be faced with. For example, Deanna might be at the middle or near the end of her practice and I will bring up a situation to where I will have her imagine that she is currently 4th place at the Olympic Trials, just been jumped by someone. I will say she has 1 or 2 more rounds to beat her best mark to make the Olympic team.

What is your role during competitions? At the NCAA meet, were you in a position where you could talk with DeAnna between throws? If so, can you characterize your interactions? Dave Dumble once told me that between attempts he tried to give his throwers a compliment on something they were doing well, then give them a suggestion on what to improve, then finish with some encouraging words. Can you tell me about your approach?

During competitions, most times I am at a place where I am able to talk to her. Leading up to big meets, I try to keep my coaching towards her simple in practice. That way if she messes up, I can use a simple cue that she’s very familiar with and it clicks in her head fast. That means less thinking and more competing. I also will let her know what she’s doing great during her throw and then will follow it up with something simple to fix. I try to be confident, aggressive, and excited when I say explain something to her. She really feeds off attitude and excitement.

Which competition this year presented the biggest challenge mentally, and how did you two deal with it?  Will the challenge at the Olympic Trials be to treat it like it is any other big meet and not get overwhelmed by its significance? If so, how will you manage that?

The biggest meet of the year for Deanna will be Olympic Trials. At a lot of the meets this year, Deanna has been trying to throw for a mark (college record). When she tried to throw for a certain mark, she actually tries way too hard and thinks too much about it, compared to when she competes against someone.

If you watched her compete at NCAAs, you could see what I am talking about. Even though she had a big throw in her and had a big sector foul over the fence, she was “going for broke” for a big mark. So far this year, she’s only had one meet with some competition in it. During that meet, her opening throw was over 70m, she had 2 other 71m throws and her final toss at 72.49m. At that meet she was more focused on the competition and it helped produce a little PR at the time in heavy training.

We will treat the Olympic trials like any other big meet she’s gotten ready for in the past. She’s going to have other high class hammer throwers that she can chase down and they will push her as well. One challenge will be to keep her excitement and eagerness contained. Coach John Smith and Coach Connie Price-Smith refer to her as a tiger when she competes, so I came up with the term “keep the tiger caged and hungry”. But she’s learned over the past couple years how to relax and keep her self slightly distracted Leading up the competition. She has a very good “on and off switch”. During practice and the day of competition, the switch is on. Most other times it’s off. If it’s not, I will help by changing the subject of conversation.

The Discus Technique of NCAA Champion Kelsey Card

 

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Not a bad NCAA meet for Wisconsin’s Kelsey Card. After finishing fourth in the shot put on Wednesday, she marched into the discus ring on Saturday and hammered out three throws over 63 meters. Her fifth-round toss of 63.52m was two meters farther than anything the rest of the field could muster.

Afterwards, Badgers throws coach Dave Astrauskas kindly agreed to go through a frame-by-frame analysis of Kelsey’s big toss. 

Here’s Dave:

astrauskas

And here is our conversation:

I just watched the video of the NCAA discus final and Kelsey was like a blonde assassin. Other throwers kept inching closer to her, and she just stepped into the ring three times and cool like a cucumber knocked out 63-meter throws. Was she always like that? Can you talk a bit about the arc of her career? What qualities did she show up on campus with four years ago and what has she developed over time?

I had a conversation with Kelsey prior to the discus competition which was basically about how Kelsey could not afford to be passive, but needed to be the aggressor in the competition. Her game plan was to go after the first throw, but at the same time make it look/feel as easy as possible to ensure six throws. After the first throw, the plan was for Kelsey to go after the remaining five with everything while staying within herself. In round one, we were shooting for high 57m ended up getting 59.50m. In between prelims and finals she went to the tent outside the stadium and we met and the plan was to again go after each of the remaining throws the right way – with the lower half.

Kelsey has not always been the aggressor in competition, but has always been a competitor while at Wisconsin. She historically has been one who generally starts off slow and builds throughout the competition. I cannot recall a competition where her first throw has been her best performance of the day. We continue to work on our round one efforts. Over the years I think the main thing she has learned is that big throws come from executing the proper technique, which as a result create the proper positions at which she can generate force.

When Kelsey showed up on campus five years ago, I noticed several traits. First, I saw right away that Kelsey knows how to deliver an implement whether it be a shot, discus, weight, hammer, discus tool, bowling pin, bat, etc. Second, she is one of the most coachable athletes that I have had. Over her time at Wisconsin she has worked with several of my throws volunteers and they’ve always indicated what a joy she is to work with. Third, I noticed her kinesthetic awareness. She has complete control of her body and extremities and can react to a cue and make an adjustment within 1-2 attempts. Lastly, she does not like to lose. I remember her first indoor meet at Wisconsin and she PR’d in the shot and placed 3rd, but was really angry with herself that she lost to two other girls on our team.

 

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Let’s talk some technique. Here is Kelsey’s wind on her 5th throw in Eugene. Compared to a lot of discus throwers, it is a pretty abbreviated movement. Can you comment on that?

I feel the wind in the discus is all about what feels good to each individual athlete similar to a windup of a baseball pitcher. I’ve had several discus throwers that wind back 270 degrees, but they uncoil the wind quite a bit before they start the lower body and sometimes have difficulty shifting the weight from right leg to left leg early. In Kelsey’s wind all we are trying to do is lock the discus back behind the right hip to set up an early shift to the left side.

 

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In these two photos we see Kelsey getting set up to run the ring. What do you emphasize in this phase of the throw?

First, try to keep the shoulders facing the back of the ring as long as possible. After loading the left, try to turn the left knee and left heel as early as possible. We talk about a feeling of high to low or turning downhill across the ring. Left arm is long, left, and loose. As the discus approaches zero (center back of the ring) we strive to get the right leg as far away from the discus as possible.

What is your cue for getting the right foot off the ground? Some say to get it off as early as possible. Others recommend leaving it down until the left foot is turned almost to the direction of the throw. Where are you at with this?

I tell my athletes that the left side rotation will pull on the right adductor making your right foot leave the ground. Once the right foot comes off the ground we try to send it out over the back of the ring.

 

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Looks like Kelsey did a nice job of (as you said) sending her right foot out over the back of the ring. From here, do you want her driving at all with her left foot/leg? And how would you describe her right leg action as she runs to the middle?

The right leg whips around the left leg (axis) with a much radius as possible. I do not cue the left leg drive all that much. I feel if you whip the right leg around and reach to center you naturally end up driving off of the left. The other thing I think is important is to carry your toes under your right knee as early as possible to avoid a soccer style right leg.

 

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Here we see Kelsey sprinting to the center of the ring. Can you talk about her right foot action, the orbit of the disc, and anything else you emphasize  regarding this phase of the throw?

I’ve talked with Kelsey about pre-turning her right foot while keeping the left arm wrapped and she has gotten better over the years. I have not discussed orbit with Kelsey all that much. She does a good job keeping the discus back and shoulders level so I think her orbit is fairly natural for her technique. We have also stressed that her right leg needs to land loaded ready to move and not extended and rigid. The main thing that we have worked on all season you can see in these photos. We have been trying to keep the discus locked in over the left leg until contact. So, after left takeoff in the back of the ring Kelsey is trying to make sure that the discus is not getting too far ahead of the left leg. We want the discus to travel with the left leg to the front of the ring so that at double support (power position) the discus is over the left heel. I believe that this terminology has developed a longer pull

 

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She does an amazing job here of keeping her right leg loaded while driving her right knee and hip into the throw. How did you train her to do that?
 
This part of the throw is still a work in progress, but Kelsey continues to improve. Each day her warm-up primarily focuses on separation and moving the lower body and upper body independently. Kelsey has done thousands of reps of partial and full throws with light rubber balls, and dowel rods maximizing the right knee and right elbow separation. We often cue the power position with things like, “turn right knee into left knee so that the left heel is driven up,”  “face the throw before you throw,” and “turn your right heel out before you throw.” Kelsey has also became a bit more patient with the upper body in the power position this year due to understanding that the pull does not start violently but starts out smooth and long and increases velocity all the way to a very fast release. Since Kelsey’s shoulders have become more patient, her lower body rotation has improved
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Let’s talk about my favorite part of her technique: her fixed feet finish. I’m a big fan of fixed feet throwing. But tell me, how did a rotational shot putter end up with a German style non-reverse finish in the disc? 
There are a couple things that led to the fixed feet finish. First, when Kelsey arrived at Wisconsin she had what I called a jump-turn finish in the discus, meaning at left foot touchdown she would jump in the air and rotate to throw. I wanted to change this immediately so Kelsey went on a heavy diet of non-reverse throws. Generally at Wisconsin 60% of our throws in training are non-reverse efforts. Kelsey was closer to 90% in years one and two. Second, Kelsey came in as a glide shot putter and while we were switching to rotational shot her sophomore season almost all of our training throws in the shot were non-reverse throws because it just gave her a better feel for the throw. With the mass amounts of non-reverse efforts in both shot and discus the technique became second nature to her. Now, most of my women are developing into or have become non-reverse discus throwers.
I had a chance to speak with Robert Harting’s coach a couple of years ago, and he emphasized pushing the right knee/hip out then sweeping the disc out and around the hip. The left leg blocks with a slight bend in it to allow the thrower to keep his/her hand on the disc longer while chasing it out. Do you use similar cues? It looks to me like Kelsey would fit in quite well at the German Championships.
I teach the same as you mentioned. When the left foot touches down in the power position Kelsey is trying to push her lower half out to the left. I think this is an easier way to make sure the athlete is more patient with the upper body. If an athlete tries to turn to the right side to the sector (instead of pushing the knee left and the throwing arm left) then it usually ends up with an early or rushed delivery. In the photo you can see Kelsey’s head tilted slightly to the right sector line. This is something she does to ensure maximum radius through the delivery. As I mentioned earlier the pull starts out strong with the lower half and  increases velocity, concluding with all energy going into a violent release.

Some Facts Behind Gwen Berry’s Suspension

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If you follow the sport of throwing, you know by now that Gwen Berry, who in May set an American record in the hammer with a throw of 76.31m, has received a three-month suspension from USADA for “declared or admitted use of a prohibited substance.” Fortunately for Gwen, the suspension will end in time for her to compete in the Olympic Trials. Unfortunately, she will be stripped of her USA Indoors title in the weight throw and her record toss in the hammer. She will also lose $30,000 in prize money and performance bonuses that she had earned so far this year.

Probably most damaging, though, is the loss of reputation that comes with having one’s name associated with the use of a “prohibited substance.”  I know that any time I open the sports section and see that a baseball or football player has been suspended for using a “prohibited substance” I immediately assume that the substance involved was steroids and that the player was taking them to enhance his ability to crush a baseball or a running back. I tend to be especially cynical if the athlete has recently set a career high for home runs or RBIs or quarterback sacks. “Oh,” the little voice in the head says. “That’s how they did it.”

But it is important for Gwen’s sake, and for the sake of the sport, that it be understood that her achievements this year had nothing to do with using a “prohibited substance,” and that the substance for which she was sanctioned is a commonly prescribed asthma medication no different in its effect upon the human body than other commonly prescribed asthma medications that are on the WADA list of “approved substances.”

A little background.

Gwen competed collegiately for John Smith at Southern Illinois University, and planned to stay in Smith’s training group after graduation as she pursued her dream of competing in the Olympics. When Coach Smith took a job at the University of Mississippi last summer, Gwen followed him to Oxford.

Gwen had suffered from asthma much of her life, and the Mississippi weather aggravated her condition. According to Coach Smith, it got to the point last fall that she had trouble making it through more than ten throws per practice due to fatigue and dizziness. Seeking relief, she consulted a doctor who put her on an asthma medication known as Breo.

This doctor assured her that Breo contained nothing that could get her banned, that is was essentially the same as another commonly prescribed asthma medication called Symbicort, which is on the WADA list of approved medications.

This is where Gwen made a $30,000 mistake.  Athletes are ultimately responsible for what they put into their body, and it turns out that Vilanterol Trifenatate, a component of Breo, is not on the WADA approved list.

This March, after winning the weight throw at the USATF Indoor Championships, Gwen was drug tested and, per normal procedure, was asked to list any medications that she had recently used.  Coach Smith told me that he has always directed his athletes to report any medication they might have ingested, “even aspirin” to demonstrate that they had nothing to hide. Accordingly, Gwen indicated that she had been prescribed Breo.

In early May, USADA informed Gwen that she was facing punishment for “declared or admitted use of a prohibited substance.” Nothing had shown up on her tests in Portland, nor in any subsequent tests she was subjected to throughout the spring. Gwen was tested at the meet when she broke the hammer record, and during the 48-hour period afterwards WADA blood-tested her and USADA urine-tested her. All those tests came up negative for prohibited substances. The only reason USADA was aware that Gwen had ingested Vilanterol Trifenatate was because she wrote on the form in Portland that she had taken Breo.

There is no Big Book of Drug Sanctions out there that lists exact penalties for each prohibited substance. USADA is meant to consider extenuating circumstances and to assess a punishment appropriate to the specific violation.

Gwen’s best chance of receiving a minimal ban or possibly even a warning was to prove that she actually had asthma and that her condition was genuinely improved by asthma medication. For help with this she consulted Dr. Robert McEachern. Step one was to put Gwen through what is called “pulmonary function testing” which is essentially a measurement of a person’s ability to breathe. According to Dr. McEachern, this test proved that “Gwen had clinical symptoms that were consistent with asthma.”

Step two was to repeat the test after administering a dose of asthma medication. If Gwen’s ability to breathe improved at least 12% on the medication, then USADA would accept the fact that she genuinely needed to take asthma medication. Dr. McEachern found that Gwen’s breathing improved by 54% when on medication.

So it was clear that Gwen suffered from asthma and needed to be medicated. Unfortunately, this did not change the fact that the medication Gwen had admitted to using, Breo, was on the prohibited list even though Symbicort, which according to Dr. McEachern is so similar to Breo that “we use them interchangeably” was not.

Dr. McEachern was puzzled by this. “If they accept Symbicort, then they ought to accept Breo. If they said all this category of drugs for asthma are performance enhancing, that would be one thing. But to say that one is and one isn’t, that makes no sense to me.”

Dr. McEachern was also troubled by the lack of information readily available to physicians who may one day treat an aspiring Olympian. “I wish they (USADA) had sent something out a long time ago saying ‘if you have any competitive athletes, Breo is not on the approved list.’”

After accepting the fact that Gwen truly needs asthma medication, and that Breo has no more of a “performance enhancing” effect than the approved Symbicort, USADA sanctioned Gwen in a way that would not prevent her competing in the Olympic Trials.

Coach Smith says that after an agonizing month spent contemplating the possible end of her career, Gwen is now able to focus again and will be ready when she steps into the ring in Eugene.

I have been reading the New York Times for thirty years, and today for the first time in my memory a photo of a hammer thrower appeared in its pages. The occasion? A big article on the Russian doping scandal.

When the only publicity the sport of throwing gets is due to a massive doping operation, it is natural for observers of the sport, fans and non-fans alike, to dismiss all the athletes as cheaters. This is especially true when they read that a particular athlete, like Gwen, has been sanctioned for using a prohibited substance with an unfamiliar, impossible to pronounce name.

Hopefully, people will take the time to consider the facts of Gwen’s situation and to understand that though she made a mistake in taking Breo (a mistake for which she had paid dearly) she is not a “cheater” or a “doper.” She is a hard-working young athlete of whom we can be proud if we turn on the television this August and see her taking a flag-draped victory lap around the track in Rio.

 

 

 

 

 

A visit to Houston: Part 2

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I woke up that Monday morning determined to spend some time in the training hall. It opened at 8:00, so I did a quick dumbbell workout in the hotel fitness center, cancelled that out with a spinach and cheese croissant from the Starbucks in the lobby, and headed to the hall around 7:45.

There were small groups of lifters walking toward the hall as well, and I figured if I blended in with some of them it might increase my chances of sweeping past the security guard without having to debate the finer points of whether or not I had the right credentials to get in.

Unfortunately, the group of lifters I attached myself to consisted of several Cubans, and I…uh…do not look Cuban, so the woman guarding the entrance spotted me as an impostor straight away and ordered my Irish-looking butt out of that cluster of Cubans and off the premises. When I asked if I could take a quick picture of the day’s lifting schedule that was posted on an easel there at the entrance, my audacity  was too much for her to bear.  “No…you…may…not!” she hissed, jutting her jaw and flexing her substantial forearms.

I’ve never been one to enjoy a punch in the face that early in the morning, so I beat a hasty retreat and took a nice long stroll in the morning sun.

Here I am enjoying that stroll:

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Here is an outdoor ice rink they were setting up not far from my hotel on this 70-degree day:

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Here is the symphony center, which appears to be a cross between the Parthenon and a bomb shelter:

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When I returned to the training hall a couple of hours later, Officer Friendly was no longer guarding the entrance, and her replacement gave me a smile and a wave as I walked right in.

I spent the next few hours watching the best lifters in the world practice their craft.

Have you ever stood in the middle of a crowded weight room, looked around, and said to yourself, “Jesus H! Will somebody please do one lift, just one lift,  correctly some time this century?!?”

If you coach at a high school like I do, you know what I’m talking about.

Well, standing there in that training hall was just the opposite. I probably spent six hours in there over the course of two days, watched hundreds of lifts, and saw exactly two missed attempts.

Two.

Everything those lifters did, whether with the bare bar or a bunch of weight, they did with precision. Here are some vids I put together that will show you what I mean:

 

 

 

As a coach of young lifters, it was so cool to see these men and women work on their technique. The way they kept perfect posture on their squats. The way they moved the weight at maximum speed every rep of every set . The way they warmed up for every exercise by doing a set or two with no weight on the bar–an approach that many of the high school boys I’ve coached over the years would tell you is “for wussies only.”

Schleizer arrived around lunch time, and after a quick bite he and I found Anna at the Eleiko booth.  We asked Anna if she wanted to head over to the training hall with us, but she told us that the fine young American lifters CJ  Cummings and Mattie Rogers were due at the booth any minute to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

This was great news for me, as two of my lifters are, shall we say, enamored of Mattie and I had promised them that I would get her autograph.

This was good news for Anna, because as part of her studies she was hoping to take a whole bunch of physical measurements of elite lifters there in Houston in an effort to build a database of, well, the physical measurements of elite lifters. She wan’t 100 percent sure of how she was going to round up those lifters, so she was excited that Mattie and CJ would be coming to her.

Here is photo I got with them. They were both, by the way, very gracious.

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So gracious, in fact, that when Anna asked them to accompany her to a nearby conference room so that she could measure their limbs and poke them with calipers, they agreed.

I headed back to the training hall as Anna, Schleizer (enlisted to jot down numbers as Anna measured) and the two lifters went off to strike a blow for science.

We met up later to watch the women’s 58K and men’s 69K classes compete. Here are some vids I took of those sessions:

 

Afterwards, we sat down for drinks in the hotel lobby. It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes you have to go to a place like Houston in order to find the time to sit down and have a drink with your friends? I’ve known Schleizer and Anna for more than fifteen years, shared hilarious and triumphant and brutally disappointing  moments with them in throwing rings and on lifting platforms, and…let’s just say that getting to hang out with them made the expense and hassle of the trip totally worthwhile.

Schleizer took off that night, so the next morning I headed back to the training hall by myself, flashed the wristband that the ever-generous Eleiko folks had given me, and once again walked right in.

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If you coach kids in the Olympic lifts, I would recommend doing whatever you have to do to get yourself into one of these training halls some day. I grant you, it is motivating and a lot of fun to sit around with your athletes and watch vids of great lifters hitting huge competition lifts. But if you think about it, 499 out of every 500 lifts our kids perform are with submaximal loads, most often as partial movements like power snatch, muscle snatch, lift-offs, pulls, power jerks or what-have-you.  So to see the best lifters in the world practice those movements taught me things that were immediately applicable to my not-nearly-the-best-lifters-in-the-world.

The other thing that was cool to see was the way these lifters approached their training. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had some idiot in charge of your weight room who thinks that heavy metal music played at ear-splitting volume is essential to a successful workout. Strangely, the best lifters in the world do not seem to adhere to that principle. There was no music in the hall. None of the lifters had head phones or earbuds. The coaches never shouted. If they had advice for their athletes they spoke to them quietly between lifts. Many of the athletes paused for several seconds with their hands on the bar, marshaling their focus before attempting a lift–even lifts with clearly less-than-maximum loads. The main goal seemed to be executing each movement with precision.

After a while, Anna found me in the hall and enlisted my help. She was on the hunt for the fine Brazilian super heavyweight Fernando  Reis, and I agreed to act as wing man.

We found Fernando a few minutes later at the Eleiko booth, and when Anna asked if he would submit to be measured and calipered in the name of science, he cordially agreed.

That’s the thing about Anna. She’s just one of those people who if she asks you to strip down to your compression shorts and let her pinch the hell out of you with a set of calipers, you don’t think twice about saying yes.

So Anna, Fernando, and I retired to a nearby conference room and next thing you know there’s Fernando in all his massiveness carrying on a friendly conversation with us while Anna took measurements and I recorded.

At one point, Anna mentioned her hope to discover the qualities necessary to become a great lifter, and Fernando offered his insight into the matter.

“You know what you need to be a great lifter? Big balls. That’s what you need. You have to be willing to hurt.”

“Well,” replied Anna, “I don’t think we’re going to measure those.”

Here is a pic of Fernando and Anna after she finished working him over:

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He could not have been nicer about the whole thing. Truly a class act.

I still had a several hours before heading to the airport for my flight home, so after Fernando left us I made a beeline back to the training hall where I got to see the Polish super heavyweight Krzysztof Klicki front squat about a million pounds.

I was totally in the zone, taking vids on my iPad mini and posting them to Youtube when all of a sudden a harsh voice interrupted my reverie.

“Excuse me, may I see your pass?”

She was a very short lady, dressed in an official blue blazer, and looking really chapped.

I held up my arm so she could see my Eleiko wristband.

“That is not the right pass, sir! You need to leave immediately!”

She had brought one of the loaders as backup. I recognized him from last night’s competition. He was a sizable dude, and looked pretty chapped as well so I didn’t argue. I left immediately.

Actually, I lingered for a second near the exit because I spotted a mountain of a lifter warming up and wanted to take a quick photo of him. I knew my guys would get a kick out of how massive he was.

Nothing doing, though.

The lady was right on my heels like one of those little yappie dogs.

“Sir, you need to leave this area!”

“Can I just get a picture of the huge guy?”

“Sir, I will not have you bothering the lifters!”

This after I had spent hours over the past two days filming and photographing many lifters, none of whom seemed the least bit cognizant of my presence.

It was only later while lunching at a local Chipotle that I considered the absurdity of the situation.

The meet organizers had erected seating for at least 250 spectators in the training hall. During the many hours I spent in there, though, there were never more than a dozen people occupying those seats. I have to figure that those dozen people, myself included, are the kind of passionate weight lifting fans of which there are not exactly a plethora in this country. So, short mean lady, if you happen to read this I’d love to hear the logic behind jacking me out of that training hall. If you really love the sport, I would think you’d be thrilled that at least a handful of people in this country shared your passion enough to want to spend their time watching lifters train. If, on the other hand, what you really love is the feeling of power that your blue blazer and meat head lackey give you, well…

After lunch I visited the Eleiko booth one last time to say my goodbyes to Anna. I could not wait to get home to see my wife and daughter, to deliver those autographs to my lifters. and to get them back on the platform.

 

 

 

 

 

A Trip to Houston: Part 1

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I’m not going to lie, the prospect of a return trip to Texas did not thrill me. I once spent the longest eight months of my life living in Dallas, and I left there with no intention of returning to that state.  Ever.

You know how, every once in awhile, some loudmouth in the Texas legislature will threaten secession if the federal government tries to deny their right to arm kindergartners or make the teaching of evolution a capital offense? Every time I read something like that, all I can think is “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

But, this year’s International Weightlifting Federation World Championships were being held in Houston, and I love the sport of Olympic lifting and the Worlds had not been held on American soil since 1978 and Lord knows when they’d be back here again and Schleizer would be there to protect me and…so…a few days before this past Thanksgiving, I headed to Texas.

Scheizer, by the way, is my friend who was an all-American shot putter at the University of Illinois and is now a school district administrator and so is used to beating people’s asses.

The trip began on Sunday, November 22nd,  with a remarkably pleasant flight from Chicago. I had a window seat, and not long after I’d occupied it a friendly, earth-motherish sort of woman plopped down in the aisle seat of my row holding a baby boy maybe ten months old. She apologized in advance for any trouble he might cause, but he and I got along fine. He had big blue eyes and one of those enormous baby heads and all you had to do was wave at him once in awhile and let him squeeze your finger and he was happy as hell. We were best buds in about half a minute.

His seven-year-old sister set up shop in the middle seat, and we hit it off too.  She was wearing one of those funny winter hats that little girls love so much—furry, with bunny ears. I complimented her on it and that broke the ice. Before long she was telling me about her favorite dinosaur and how a cobra could defeat a komodo dragon in a one-on-one battle and what strategy she would use to try to make a good showing in her family’s annual pie-eating contest.

So it was a fun flight, and when was the last time you heard anybody utter those words?

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My incredibly patient, supportive wife had booked me a room at the Hilton, which was connected to the convention hall where the competition was being held. Upon landing, I shuttled over there from the airport, dumped my bag in my room and headed to the Eleiko Barbell display just outside the competition arena.

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Fifteen years ago, Schleizer coached the throws at New Trier High School just north of Chicago, and one of his athletes was a young lady named Anna Swisher. At eighteen, Anna was probably mature enough to be a senator, but she enrolled at Williams College instead and after graduating went to work on a PhD in exercise science. She recently helped Eleiko develop a coaching education course, and was scheduled to arrive in town Monday to help out at their booth. She had called ahead, though, and asked the Eleiko folks to hook me up with a ticket to Sunday’s competition sessions, which they very cordially did.

I had about an hour to kill before those  competition sessions began, and I knew exactly where I wanted to kill it: the training hall, also known as, “Nirvana for weightlifting dorks.”

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At every big-time lifting competition, the host provides a training area where the lifters get in their final workouts prior to competing. Quite simply, these are large rooms full of dozens of lifting platforms occupied by the best lifters in the world. I’d seen videos of various training halls over the years, but…it’s kinda like with a Sasquatch or a supermodel. What you really want is to see one in person.

So I was highly jacked about the prospect of spending some time in the Houston training area, which was located down a hallway from the competition arena in a room big enough to house giant exhibitions like auto shows or home artillery displays.

I wasn’t sure whether or not my Eleiko pass would get me into the training hall, but I figured the way to find out, this being Texas, was to just  take a shot at it.

When I reached the entrance to the training hall, I put my head down and flashed  my pass (actually a wrist band) at the security guard. I was a couple of steps past him when he called me back and informed me that I did not have the right credentials to enter the hall.

This was, to put it delicately, very disappointing. The training area was blocked off by a set of bleachers and a wall of curtains so I couldn’t see  any of the lifters, but I could hear the slam of lifting shoes on wood and the “bu-bu-bump-bump” of plates hitting platforms. So near, and yet…

Dejected, I headed back towards the competition arena and puttered around for a few minutes looking over the display booths full of lifting equipment and t-shirts. Out of nowhere, a nice-looking young lady came up from behind and attached a tendo unit to my right trapezius muscle. “Where do you hurt?” she asked in a throaty voice tinged with just a hint of sexiness. I started to tell her about my training hall rejection, but right away she flipped on the tendo unit and launched into her sales pitch. As she spoke, she gradually turned up the intensity of the electric shock which, in hindsight, makes me wonder if the implied message was that she was going to keep cranking that thing up until either I handed over my credit card or my trapezius exploded.  I told her I couldn’t possibly spend $250 on a portable tendo unit without first asking my wife, and that seemed to ruin the moment for her. She cut the juice, handed me a business card and went in search of likelier prey.

It was time anyway for me to enter the competition hall to see the women’s 53k lifters battle it out. The competition sessions were held in what appeared to be a mid-size concert venue with about 3,000 seats. My Eleiko pass required me to sit in the upper tier of seats, the lower tier being reserved for coaches, athletes, and VIPs. Here was my view from up there:

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The venue was intimate enough that I was able to shoot some pretty good vids  to take home and show my athletes. Here are a few lifts from the snatch portion of the competition:

If you’ve ever been to a weightlifting meet, you know that they always project a chart on the wall that gives you the names of the lifters, the weight of their opening attempts, and the weights of their various makes and misses throughout the competition. They had that here, projected onto the wall on either side of the stage but, unfortunately, I was too far away to be able to read it. And not being able to read the chart takes a lot of the drama out of the competition. It would be like watching a baseball game without knowing the number of balls and strikes on a batter or the number of outs in an inning.

Luckily, when I went to the bathroom during the break before the clean and jerk, I got turned around and re-entered the competition hall through a different door. Suddenly and fortuitously, I found myself to one side of the competition stage with a great view of the lifters and the chart. Not only that, but very few of the close-up reserved seats were occupied, so…I occupied one in the third row.

This was my new view:

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Here are some vids I took of the clean and jerk competition from that vantage point:

Next up was the men’s 62k class. I stuck with my off-to-the-side seat, and saw a great competition. The highlight was a world record in the clean and jerk by Chen Lijun of China! Here is a vid of that lift:

 That segment of the competition ended around 7:45, and I had seen somewhere that the training hall was open until 8:00, so I decided to take another whack at it. Many years ago, when I was a brand new teacher, I took a look at my actual teaching certificate one day and noticed that  it did not list English as one of the subjects I was authorized to teach. This was a problem, as I was several months into my first job…as an English teacher. Anxious to get this little mix-up straightened out before the folks at the district office took notice, I rang up someone at the state board of education and was told that I did not, in fact, have the coursework required to qualify for a license to teach English. After a sleepless night spent wondering how I was going to inform my department chair of this…uh…complication, I devised a plan. Before enrolling in summer classes the previous June, I had been assured by someone at the state that those classes would secure me an English endorsement. The person who later examined my transcripts apparently disagreed, as did the person I spoke to after examining my certificate. Clearly though, there was someone in that office who thought those classes sufficient. What if I just kept calling until I got that person on the line?

After only a couple of tries, that is exactly what happened. I spoke to the right person, she fixed my certificate and I am, nearly twenty-five years later, still an English teacher.

Might the same approach eventually get me inside the training hall?

That night, it did. There was a different security guard on duty, I flashed her my pass, and she just smiled and waved me in.  

What was it the dude who discovered King Tut’s tomb said when they knocked open the entrance and he stuck his head inside? I don’t remember, either.  But I’ll bet it was something along the lines of “Holy s—!!” which is exactly what I muttered to myself when I walked in that hall. 

There must have been 60 platforms set up in there, maybe more. Rows and rows of them. And though only one or two were occupied at that late hour, it didn’t take much imagination to see that during prime time it would be a fantastic place to watch weightlifting. Here’s what it looked like that night:

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I had a nice dinner at the hotel and went to bed thinking very happy thoughts. Schleizer and Anna would arrive the next day. and I imagined us spending many happy hours together watching great lifters.

It turned out to be a little more complicated than that.

Next up: Rejected again! Seeing another world record. Anna armed with calipers.

 

A Q&A with Eric Werskey

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This fall, Cal State University Northridge appointed the fine American shot putter Eric Werskey as assistant track coach in charge of the throws.

Recently, Eric was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding his coaching mentors and the CSUN program.  We also touched on his inside knowledge of the German throwing community courtesy of his relationship with the outstanding hammer thrower Kathrin Klaas, and a very timely video he appeared in this summer alongside Klaas, Robert Harting, and Julia Fischer.

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Congrats on your new job at CSUN! First of all, can you tell me how this came about? Did you have a master plan of transitioning into coaching or did this opportunity sort of pop up?

 Coaching at the collegiate level has been a career goal of mine once I saw myself “retiring” from sport.  When training for the 2012 Olympic Trials in my hometown, I would volunteer coach at local high schools.  With the development I had under Jerry Clayton at Auburn University plus my volunteer experiences, I knew I wanted to develop student-athletes at the collegiate level.  However, after the USA Trials, Art Venegas reached out to me about training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. It was a no-brainer decision to pack my bags and move to Chula Vista.  I spent three years learning Art’s system as well as training among some of the best throwers in the USA and world (Joe Kovacs, Whitney Ashley, Tia Brooks, Jessica Cosby, and many others).  I learned an invaluable amount training among these athletes and wanted to begin to share my experiences and develop athletes myself.  After the 2015 season’s completion, I discussed several options with Jerry and Art and we all decided it was best to pursue my coaching career.

I knew a head coach would be taking a risk on me considering I had no collegiate coaching experience.  With that said, I want to thank California State University Northridge head coach Avery Anderson and his staff for bringing me on board! I am very excited and looking forward to the opportunities here. Cal State Northridge has a tradition of throws dating back to the late 1970’s and our goal is to bring the throws program back into the light again.

Are you going to continue training and competing?

Currently, my focus is on the kids and getting the program heading in the right direction.  I still lift and do some drills with the kids, yet my focus is on the student-athletes.

Can you give me one thing that you learned from Art and one thing from Jerry that you have applied to your coaching so far?

It is very hard to pick one thing specifically that Coach Clayton and Art left me with as they both taught me an invaluable amount. Coach Clayton laid the foundation and helped spark my interest in becoming a coach. He would have a systematic approach to each event and taught us to really take ownership of our training and pay attention to our bodies. Art helped further my interest in coaching. He advocated believing in the system you are in and taught me to seek the finest details that ultimately build the bigger picture.

Can you tell me something about CSUN? What is it about the place that would be attractive to a prospective recruit?

CSUN is definitely a great place to be. The school itself is very modern with solid facilities. Plus, us being in Southern California and suburban Los Angeles, we are able to train year round. For a “smaller school” (though CSUN has over 35 thousand students) we are not shy when it comes to our competitive schedule. In the past the team would travel to the NYC Armory, Texas Relays, and the UCSD Triton Invite to name a few. We believe to contend for championships we have to give our student-athletes the best opportunities to compete among the best in the country on a regular basis.  Also, for throwing training, we actually have our own field designated for throws only. It’s a great set up and allows us to get great training in with minimal distractions.

Have your experiences in Germany and knowledge of the German system influenced your ideas about coaching?

Absolutely! I have been fortunate enough to spend the last two summers in Germany. I have learned a lot from my girlfriend, Kathrin Klaas,..

Leichtathletik-WM 2011 in Daegu

…and how she structures her training and what  cues she feels and looks for her in her throwing. I’ve been able to discuss many ideas with her and adopt some of her drills and cues into my own training plan. I have been lucky enough to watch her prepare for the 2014 European Championships and World Championships at their federal training center in Kienbaum as well. In Kienbaum, I was able to watch the best German throwing athletes train and gather some good ideas. Also, I spent many days discussing training ideas with German Federal hammer and javelin Coach Helge Zöllkau. I was given some incredible insight into his program and how he approaches training with his club athletes and elite level athletes.

 One last topic. You made a vid this summer with Kathrin, German discus champion Julia Fischer, and Robert Harting. That vid seems pretty timely after the release of the recent  WADA report. Can you describe how that vid came about and share your thoughts about the current situation with the IAAF?

The video was created when the first articles were released over the summer stating the IAAF had been sweeping positive tests under the rug and accepting bribes from GOBs to protect certain athletes. Not only is it ethically wrong, but the integrity of our sport to the highest level has come in question. The video is to show that athletes are tired of battling the cheaters of our sport and, now, the governing body.

The video came about actually during a training camp in Kienbaum. The leaked articles were being discussed during breakfast and Robert and Julia asked Kathrin and I if we would be in support of and be part of making this video. We spent the next two days between training times creating the video and reaching out to people who had been affected by doping. We created the hashtag #HITIAAF (honesty, integrity and transparency) to help create awareness about how we as a whole are not only battling cheaters in our events, but also the IAAF. The video went on YouTube on a Sunday afternoon and by Tuesday we had over 80 thousand views, I believe. If you have not seen it yet, here is the link:

In light of the new findings of bribery and doping scandals, this video definitely drives home what we we stand for… Honesty, Integrity and Transparency #HITIAAF.

 

Werskey takes over at Cal State Northridge

 

werskey pic

 

Determined to develop a top-notch throwing program, Cal State Northridge recently announced the hiring of former Auburn shot put all-American Eric Werskey as their new throws coach.

In hiring Werskey, Matador head coach Avery Anderson acted on the advice of two of the most highly regarded throws coaches in the United States–Jerry Clayton and Art Venegas.

 

clayton

Clayton (pictured above) currently the head man at the University of Michigan, coached Eric at Auburn, where young Werskey first exhibited coach-like tendencies.

 

Clayton explained that, “When throwers get to their junior and senior years I try to get them to help coach the younger athletes because teaching technique helps them to have a better understanding of it themselves. Eric was always good at explaining things to the younger throwers.”

After Werskey graduated from Auburn, Clayton encouraged him to take up residency at the Chula Vista Training Center so he could work with Art Venegas and “be exposed to a different coaching philosophy.”

That turned out to be a great move for Eric. Though he struggled with injuries during his two years at Chula Vista (notice the bandaged calf in the photo below) …

eric 2

…he received what amounted to an intense seminar in the art of coaching like Art.

That would be Art Venegas, the man who in the 1980’s and 1990’s built UCLA into the dominant throwing program in the nation.

Venegas-UCLA-2

Don’t let that smile fool you, folks. Art is an extremely intense, passionate man. A reliable source told me that when shot put World Champion Joe Kovacs (like Eric a resident of the training center and pupil of Venegas the past two years) had trouble finding his timing while warming up at the Triton Invitational last summer, Art’s sage advice to him was. “Relax, mother——!!”

Let it be noted that Kovacs responded by launching a 24-meter warm-up throw.

Anyway, if you want to gain Art’s respect you’d better work your butt off and show your own passion and respect for the sport of throwing, and that is exactly what Eric did upon arrival in Chula Vista.

“I knew,” explained Venegas, “right from the first year he was here that some day he would make a great coach. I spotted that potential in him right off the bat.”

That’s a meaningful statement coming from the man who readied Dave Dumble, Brian Blutreich, Don Babbitt and John Frazier to join the coaching ranks.

“If any of my athletes asks, I will tell them straight up if they are meant to be a coach. When Don Babbitt was throwing the javelin for me, I told him ‘you are wasting your time as a thrower! You were born to be a coach!'”

Art’s responsibilities sometimes keep him away from the training center for several days at a time, and he says that he came to rely on Eric as an unofficial assistant. Eric did so well and became so passionate about coaching that Art occasionally felt like telling him, “Stop coaching, dammit! You’re still a thrower!” But, before long  he decided that “I wanted him to coach with me here when his throwing career ended, but there was no position available.”

Art began his own coaching career at Cal State Northridge back in the 1970’s  (making the whopping sum of $800 per year) and when they called him this spring to ask his advice on hiring a throws coach, he did not hesitate in recommending Werskey.

According to Art, “Eric is a great match for Northridge. He is extremely dedicated and reliable, and Cal State is the ideal place for him to develop as a coach. He will deal with a lot of different levels of athletes there. They have great facilities. And California is a great place to recruit. He could have a long career there.”

When asked what advice he gave Eric as he prepared to take on the CSUN job, Venegas said that he told Werskey to “treat everyone equally and bring everyone into the program. I challenged him that if there is a kid who is reluctant to buy in, to reach out to him and get him on board. And once you develop those kind of relationships with the kids, recruiting will be easy because the athletes will sell your program.”

It is rare for someone with no formal coaching experience to be given a shot (pun intended) at a place like Northridge, but it is hard to fault Coach Anderson for taking a shot (sorry, could not resist) on Eric. A fine thrower. A fine man. A fine pedigree.

And if Coach Anderson should, at some point this winter, wake up in the middle of the night wondering if he made the right decision…well, I know what Art Venegas would tell him.

“Relax, mother——!! The kid is going to do great!”

Next up: a Q & A with Eric.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A smooth transition at SIU

One complicating factor for any athlete trying to choose a college is the question of whether or not the coaches who recruit him or her will remain at that school for the ensuing four years.

In football, that is extremely unlikely.  A typical DI player will have two or three position coaches during  their career. Many endure the upheaval that comes with a head coaching change.

The funny thing about football is that many players don’t mind losing their coach (the recent upheaval at the University of Illinois is a prime example)  as the greed and thuggishness which permeate DI football tend to prevent players from bonding with  staff.

It is different in track, though.  I’ve spoken to many DI track coaches over the years, and they all seem to have entered the profession for the same reasons as us high school coaches: love of the sport and love of the kids.

Ironically, the nature of the sport and the deep bonds that often form between coaches and athletes can make a coaching change in track and field all the more traumatic.

Take the recent decision by John Smith, the throws coach at Southern Illinois University, and his wife Connie, the head coach at SIU, to accept similar positions at Ole Miss.

For John, that meant facing the idea of leaving behind NCAA shot champion Raven Saunders, NCAA Hammer champion DeAnna Price, and NCAA 4thplace finisher in the shot Josh Freeman. (It turned out that Saunders was able to follow the Smiths to Ole Miss, but SEC rules prohibited Price and Freeman from transferring as they are down to their final year of eligibitliy.)

Luckily for all parties involved, the Smiths (both SIU alums) were determined not to leave the program in a shambles.

I spoke with John this summer, and he emphasized that while the Ole Miss offer came out of the blue, he had for some time been preparing his former All-American hammer and weight thrower JC Lambert to take over as SIU throws meister.

According to Smith, “JC has, for the last three years, been serving his apprenticeship. There have been times that he has been mad at me because I made him write his own workouts (note: Since graduating from SIU in 2013, Lambert has continued to train with Smith) but now he understands. I have full confidence in him.”

I contacted JC after he was officially named to succeed Smith, and he concurred with John’s description of his apprenticeship.

Via email, Lambert stated that “Coach Smith has been sculpting me for this moment for a long time.  After having a very good freshman year (2008-2009), I become very interested in how his program worked. I always asked questions about his training and why he did certain things. Coach would make a prediction on what would happen in my training down the road, and was always right about it. Whenever it did happen, I was very shocked and impressed by how accurate his predictions were. The one prediction he made that I will never forget: He told me after my first week of training that my best event was going to be the shot put. For those who don’t know, I threw the 12lb shot a whopping 46 feet in high school. After he made that comment, I thought ‘this old man is nuts.’But, after six months of training, I threw the 16lb over 50 feet and eventually 52 feet at the end of my freshman year. The next year I progressed to 58’10” and had a foul at 61 feet. But an unfortunate wrist injury took me out of the event to where I couldn’t train it at all. I really believe I would’ve been a 20.50m guy. After realizing the accuracy of the comment he made, I began to understand why he was one of the best coaches in the country.”

“By my Junior year, he would quiz me on training. He would ask me what I would do if I was in his position and why. I began to answer questions correctly and he was impressed. He began to have enough trust in me to write my own training. I would write it up and show him. He would examine it and express his opinion on what he would do different.”

“Also during my Junior year, Coach Smith had enough confidence in me that he allowed me to start helping out with coaching the younger athletes. This is the point where I started to really like and understand coaching.”

“My senior and redshirt senior year was when I gained the most knowledge. I finally learned how to put together a complete program. Not just for myself, but for others. Coach Smith came up to me and asked me to help put together the lifting and throwing for the 2013 outdoor season. We sat down and began to put the training together. He asked me how I would start the season and I began to explain what I would do for the weight room and the throwing. He kept writing down everything I would say and I would continue to explain up until it was peak week for Conference. He looked at the finished product and said ‘Looks like a winner.'”

“And we had a great result at our conference meet. We scored a total of 71 points in the 3 throwing events on the men’s side and 47 points with a young group of female throwers in a tough conference. I learned a lot from that experience and will always be thankful that coach had enough confidence to allow me to help put that together.”

“My two years as a post collegiate athlete, he allowed to design my training and experiment with different ideas I had. This is the point where I learned how to be creative and not so afraid to think outside of the box with training.”

“Being a volunteer assistant coach, he gave me several responsibilities. He allowed me to coach the hammer/weight throwers at practice and some meets. I also got to run several lifting sessions and throwing practices if Coach was either sick or out of town.”

After all that preparation, Smith has high expectations for his successor.

“I watched JC coach every day and he is better than 95% of all coaches right now. In the end, he will be a better coach than me. Since he is young, he has the advantage of being able to get in a ring and show kids and be in the weight room with them. That’s what I did at Ohio State with Dan Taylor. When you are older, you have to beat people with experience and treachery because I can’t jump in the ring and show people any more like I used to.”

“But honestly, he has done most of the work with Deanna, and he has done a lot of work with a lot of our kids.  When he threw in practice, I’d watch him and coach him, and when he was done throwing he coached  the hammer and I coached the other events.”

“After we accepted the Ole Miss offer, the first thing Connie and I told the SIU administration was they have to keep JC if they wanted to keep the throwing program strong. He is the only one who knows how to do what I do. When I was in Canada this summer (coaching DeAnna at the Pan Am Games) he ran my throwing camp, and I had parents email me telling me how great the camp was and I wasn’t even there.”

“Deanna should repeat as NCAA champion next year, and has a chance to break the NCAA record. If not, I will hold JC responsible.”

Lambert seems energized by the challenge, and agrees that DeAnna could have a monster year.

“I want to build off of her spectacular Junior year, where she only had 5-6 months of hammer training due to a bad knee injury. She just has an outdoor season, so we will have the privilege to focus more towards hammer. She will throw the weight indoors at a few competitions. We use the weight as an indicator for her hammer.  But we will be building up her specific strength with heavy throwing and hammer related core work. We will continue to slowly fix her technique and keep working on what she learned last year. In the weight room, I want to bring her power up another level and make that level consistent. She’s already one of the strongest females in the nation, but continuing to grow her power while having her learn to transition it to more hammer strength will be another step towards getting a female hammer thrower on the podium at an international event. My ultimate goal for her this year is to have a repeat win at NCAA’s, break the overall NCAA record, go to the Olympic trials and finish top 3, and go to the Olympics and make the finals. I also for see her having a good year in shot put. This past year she had a few fouls at the end of the season that were over 17m. I would like for her to throw at least 18m in shot put and have a great finish at NCAA nationals.”

Not to be forgotten is Josh Freeman, who had a huge PR on his final throw at this year’s NCAA outdoor meet.

“For Josh, we’ve been working on some technical issues in shot. So far, it has paid off with great results especially while in base training. We will keep working and attacking the heavy implements, but really trying to learn to stretch out the light shots. Learning how to throw far, with mid-to-light shots, in base training is very important in my opinion. It gives you a look into how the future will play out. Everyone can throw far when you feel good, but learning how to throw far when your body is slow and sore will pay off big when it comes time to peak. Especially as an experienced athlete. In the weight room, his squats have become more powerful, which has resulted in more explosive legs. His bench has been climbing up, as well as his cleans. Ultimately, I want to get him to 21m this next season and to win 2 national titles. Also, I want to have him ready to make the finals at the Olympic trials and see how well he can fight for a spot against the professionals.”

For his part, Smith is excited about what lies ahead at Ole Miss.

“We had certain training demands, and they granted all of them. For example, I run the weight room workouts and they will give me one or two strength coaches to assist me. I had a long talk with the strength coach and he is fine with it. When I am training kids, what they are doing on the throwing field dictates what we do in the weight room. I often adjust their lifting based on how they throw in practice. A strength coach doesn’t see that, and one of the biggest reasons why we have done a good job peaking is that I control all aspects of training.”

“Also, it is the SEC. Connie will have a lot more help, including a director of operations. They are building a new track which will be done next May. They have a temporary throwing field four or five miles away. But all I need is a piece of concrete until they get the other facility done. At SIU, we felt like we had done about everything we could do. Connie was looking for a new challenge and I go where she goes.”

“And there is no hostility there between us and SIU. It was a good breakup. We built the program and want to make sure it stays intact.”

It sounds like anointing JC Lambert as his successor was a key step in ensuring that it does.