All posts by Daniel McQuaid

Jessica Ramsey intends to contend

Remember that moment in Rocky when out of nowhere he decks Apollo Creed in the first round?  Nobody in the place thinks he’ll so much as lay a glove on Creed,, and then…Bam!…he lands a haymaker. In the end,  Rocky did not win the that fight, but that punch and his ability to hang tough for fifteen rounds against overwhelming odds gave him credibility as an athlete and changed the course of his career and his life.

Okay, I know Rocky is a movie. Don’t mistake me for those Game of Thrones fans who can’t wait for time travel to be invented so they can go back and get a look at a dragon.

But I witnessed a very Rocky-like moment in real life recently. It occurred, ironically enough, during the first round of the women’s shot at the USATF Championships in Des Moines.

As I sat down on that perfect Sunday afternoon to watch flight two warm-up, I anticipated a hard-fought battle between the current NCAA shot put champion Maggie Ewen and the defending USATF champion Raven Saunders.

I’d also hoped that Rio Olympic champ Michelle Carter would push the youngsters and make it a three-way contest, but it became clear during warm-ups that she was not in shape to do that. (Afterwards, Michelle revealed that that she was still recovering from off-season knee surgery.)

No other thrower seemed likely to break 18 meters, and since Ewen and Saunders were reliable 19-meter throwers, this was clearly going to be a two-person race.

It turned out, however, that I’d missed something during warm-ups, a clear sign that a third contestant might just upset the form chart.

Twenty-six-year-old Jessica Ramsey, who had finished fifth in the hammer competition a day earlier and who came to Des Moines with a lifetime best in the shot of 18.42m, had warmed up with several non-reverse throws, each of which had traveled around 17 meters.

As signs go, this was admittedly a subtle one.

According to the Bible, signs foreshadowing an earth shaking event may include “distress of nations in perplexity…the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding.”

Nothing in there about fixed-feet fulls.

But to two people present in Drake Stadium that day, Ramsey and her coach John Smith, those warm-up throws portended a cosmic shift in the women’s shot.

 Ramsey recalled later that those warm-up tosses “told me I was going to get it.”

Smith recalls seeing them and thinking, “Okay, here it comes.”

And come, it did.

Ramsey strode into the ring on her first throw and absolutely killed one.

“After warm-ups,” she recalled later, “I  prayed and did my little meditation. Then, on that first throw when I hit the middle and  I stayed in, I felt like it was a good one.”

It was. The throw measured 19.23m.

It was a three-foot PR and the seventh best throw in the world this year. In the space of a couple of seconds, Ramsey had gone from an anonymous member of a large group of better-than-average American female shot putters to one of the best in the world at her event.

Actually, it took a little longer than a couple of seconds.

Ramsey graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2014 having put together a fine college career (seven-time conference champion, all-American in the shot) under a fine college coach (Ashley Muffet, now at Ohio State). Her PRs though (53.84m in the disc, 61.44m in the hammer, and 17.49m in the shot) were not necessarily those of a future world-class thrower.  Ewen, by comparison, just graduated from Arizona State having thrown 62.47m in the disc, 74.56m in the hammer, and 19.46m in the shot.

In spite of this, Ramsey was determined to pursue a career in the professional ranks, so she packed her belongings and relocated to Carbondale, Illinois, to train with Smith, at that time the throws coach at Southern Illinois University.

Two months after her arrival, Ramsey’s determination received its first test when Coach Smith and his wife Connie Price Smith accepted an offer to take over the track program at Ole Miss. Ramsey describes that moment as “very hard for me. I had just moved to Carbondale! I’d packed up everything and spent all my money to move there, and a couple of months later I had to pack up again.”

After settling in Oxford, Mississippi, Ramsey had to figure out how to support herself while also leaving time to train.

“When I first came to Mississippi, I worked at a senior care facility, a daycare facility, and a company called Insomnia Cookies. That kind of hindered my practicing.”

“Later, I got a raise at Insomnia, so I dropped the senior care job. After that, I  got hired at Dicks Sporting Goods, so I dropped the daycare job. That’s where I’m at now. Most of the time, I work seven days a week just to pay the bills.”

In spite of this, under Smith’s tutelage Ramsey kept improving in the hammer and the shot.

As a glide shot putter, Ramsey could not have found a better, more experienced coach than Smith. Many years ago, Smith developed a reputation as the best glide shot coach in the United States. He honed his skills at teaching the glide while guiding Connie to a long and remarkably successful career that began in the 1980’s when winning international medals meant beating the Commies, and lasted until the early 2000’s by which time the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the advent of stricter drug testing protocols had significantly altered the nature of the sport.

Throughout most of Connie’s career, all evidence indicated that the glide technique was the most reliable path for a female shot putter to win a medal at a major championship.  

It was not until Jill Camarena-Williams nabbed bronze at the 2011 Worlds that a rotational shot putter broke through. Prior to that, every World and Olympic medal awarded in the women’s shot had been won by a glider.

But the increasing success of the rotational technique among the men (including a sweep of  shot medals at the 2000 Olympics) caused Smith to believe that women could benefit from adopting the rotational technique as well.

In March of 2014, shortly before Ramsey joined his training group, Smith posted an article in which he made a compelling case that it was time for female putters to abandon the glide. 

So Ramsey was in for a bit of a surprise when she arrived in Oxford. Smith wanted to convert her to the spin.

She did not give in easily.

“The first year,” Smith told me a couple of days after the USATF meet, “she fought me on it. If the spin wasn’t working for her in practice, she’d go back to the glide.”

Ramsey has similar memories of that period. “I didn’t want to change because I was consistently throwing  58-59 feet with the glide, and when we tried the spin it was so hard! Some days I’d be like, ‘I got this!’ Then other days, I’d be slipping in the middle, fouling, dropping my elbow, and I’d think, ‘I’m going back to the glide!’ The thing about the spin is, if you miss one thing then the whole throw is messed up! That’s what’s frustrating about it. Even at meets, I’d sometimes start with the spin and then switch to the glide.”

Complicating matters was the fact that over her first two seasons with Smith, Ramsey pushed her glide PR into the 18-meter range. But Smith still felt that she was wasting her potential.

“She’s 5’6”, which is too small to be more than a sixty-foot glider. She’s explosive as hell, but her top end in the glide will never be what it is in the spin.”

Matters came to a head at the 2016 Olympic Trials.

“She didn’t throw worth a crap at the Trials,“ Smith recalled, “and a couple of days later at practice right there in Eugene, I said, ‘You need to change to the spin. I know for a fact from training people over the years that the spin is nine to nine-and-a-half percent better than the glide. If you add that on to your glide, you’re a sixty-six-footer!’”

Finally, a year ago, Ramsey committed fully to the rotational technique. Job one was to master the art of using the ground or, as Smith calls it, “working the Earth.”

Over many years of careful observation, Smith came to believe that gliders and non-reverse discus throwers shared a quality that was often missing from the technique of rotational putters: a strong connection with the ground. As he saw it, discus throwers and rotational putters who focused too much on getting air time–whether during the non-support phase or as they launched the implement from the power position–were sacrificing distance and reliability.

He discussed his theory in this article first posted in 2003. (Note: Check out Smith’s vision of the kind of rotational putter who might eventually threaten the men’s world record. It calls to mind a certain Sasquatch-sized Olympic record holder who was eleven years old at the time Smith wrote the article.)

Long story short, Smith made Ramsey take a whole lotta fixed-feet throws over the past year.

It all finally came together in Des Moines. After her huge throw, Ramsey felt the emotions welling but tried to hold them back. “I had to compose myself because I didn’t want it to look like I didn’t know I had a throw like that in me.”

She didn’t come close to 19 meters again (her series went 19.23m, 17.65m, 17.61m, F, 18.24m, F), and she didn’t win (Ewen passed her in round five with a toss of 19.29m) but that one throw was enough to get her an invitation to her first Diamond League meeting (in Rabat on July 13th) and perhaps usher in further life changes that will make staying in the upper echelon of putters a bit easier than getting there in the first place.

A strong showing in Rabat could get her invited to the Diamond League meeting in Monaco on July 19th. She is also scheduled to compete at the NACAC Championships in Toronto in early August.

If she finishes the year with a top-ten world ranking, Ramsey will likely qualify for the USATF tier system, which will allow her to  have health insurance for the first time since leaving college.

Additionally, Ramsey hopes to soon be sponsored by the New York Athletic Club. Should that happen, she would be able to cut down to working only one job and have more time to recover from her daily training sessions.

Owing to the brutal financial calculus of the sport of track and field, Ramsey’s performance in this next handful of meets may determine whether or not her days of averaging five hours of sleep, of trying to get by on $300-$400 dollars worth of food per month, or praying that she doesn’t sustain an injury for which she cannot afford treatment, are over.

Either way, Ramsey is committed to continuing her journey.

“Confidence is the biggest thing in this track industry, and I’ve got it. I believe I am going to throw great in Rabat and that will open more doors for me.”

Not a bad attitude for a young athlete who wants nothing more out of life than a little extra free time that she can devote to mastering the fine art of  “working the Earth.”

(You can find additional coverage of the USATF women’s shot competition including videotaped interviews with Jessica, Michelle, and Maggie here.)

 

 

JC Lambert talks about DeAnna Price’s big day at Nationals

The women’s hammer throw at the recent USATF Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, shaped up as a battle between two Southern Illinois University alums. Gwen Berry entered the 2018 outdoor season as the American record holder with a 2017 toss of 76.77m. DeAnna Price took over the record in early June of this year, hitting 77.65m at the Iron Wood Classic. Gwen took it back six days later, dropping a 77.78m bomb at a meet in Chorzow, Poland.

So the hammer fans who gathered on the grass berm overlooking the cage outside of Drake Stadium had reason to expect a titanic battle between the two Salukis on a sun-kissed day three of the championships.

Unfortunately, Gwen opened with a foul and could never quite find her rhythm. She finished with a best of 72.99m, good enough for second place. You can find a post-competition interview I did with Gwen here: http://mcthrows.com/?p=2152

DeAnna also took some time to find a groove, but her opener of 73.81m guaranteed a spot in the final where she went 76.35m in round four, 78.12m for a new American record in round five, and 77.01m in round six.

Recently, DeAnna’s coach and fiancé JC Lambert was kind enough to give me some insight into DeAnna’s performance at USAs and her plans for the future.

So in Des Moines, DeAnna opened up with 73.81m, which as it turned out would have been enough to win, but it seemed to take her a while to really find her rhythm.

One of the big things we’ve been working on is making sure that your opening throw can make the final no matter where you’re at, a small meet, the US Championships or even the World Championships or Olympics. So I was very happy about her first throw. Her next throw was actually building up to be a nice throw, it just got by her and she wasn’t ready for it. It ended up being a very nice throw outside the left sector.

I couldn’t see where it landed from where I was sitting.

I checked afterwards, and I found the mark at the top of the hill. I’m not going to go into specifics, but it was considerably farther than her best throw.

It must be exciting to know she’s got a throw like that in her.

Absolutely. After that, on her third round throw, because the last one blew by her, she was a little timid, got a little messed up, so she went ahead and fouled it. Between prelims and finals she did a couple of warm-ups to get back on track and then opened back up with a 76-meter throw that looked nice and easy. From there, she was tuned up and ready to go.

Was there anything technique-wise that stood out about her American Record throw?

She just finally got locked into the entry. Got down a lot better on one. She stayed grounded and worked through three. She didn’t work all the way through four, and she kind of locked up the release. If she’d have gotten through the release a little more, it would have been interesting where it would have went.

And then she followed that up with a 77-meter throw where she completely missed four and locked up her release again, so to throw that far and not get the whole pie, if you will, was pretty exciting.

She clearly knew when she released her 78.12m that it was a big throw.

Yeah, she was kind of punching the air, which she doesn’t usually do. She told me after that it was because she was pissed that it took her so long to get going.

I’m interested in the idea you mentioned of developing the skill of getting a good enough first throw so that no matter where you are you make the final. How did you go about working on that?

Practice. We do mock competitions. Plus when you go to smaller meets, that’s practice too. During her senior year at SIU, her first meet of the year was at Alabama. She was in good shape to throw far, but her first two attempts went right into the cage. And then she had to just get a decent throw out there in the third round to just make the finals, so it took her forever to get comfortable.

And then the next meet, she fouled her opener again, and after that we decided we had to change things. We can’t be having that. From there, just practicing it at meets. I tell all my athletes, the first one’s for me and the rest are for you.  

So we kept working on it, and back then, three years ago, she got to be consistent with throwing 66-69 meters on her first throw. Now that she’s a better thrower and athlete, her openers have been getting better and better. Now that she can open with an easy throw of 73 meters and change, she can be pretty confident in a World Championship qualifying round. She won’t have to stress too much, just do what you do and call it a day.

Is the art of it to throw easy but not too easy?

For each person you have to figure out what is their easy throw. It’s like a passive aggressive throw. You have to relax but still be aggressive with it. If you warm up normal, but then your first throw of the meet you take too much off, it’s not going to be a good throw. Your timing is going to be off, then all of a sudden you’re completely off.

So, there’s definitely an art to it. The athlete has to develop a feel for what an “easy” throw is for them.

I was at the European Championships in 2014, and Betty Heidler did not throw well. Her coach told me afterwards that she finished her warm-ups in good shape, so he told her to do on her opener exactly what she’d done on her final warm-up throw, but that she didn’t. She took too much off of that first throw and then she never found her rhythm during the competition.

That’s what happens.

Going back to last winter, did you see signs that she might throw 78 meters this year?

I’ve seen signs the past few years of something big coming down the road. It takes time to get to this level, though. Sometimes you think you see something developing but it takes a few more reps before it comes out in a meet.

Earlier this season the big thing we were working on was trying to connect, trying to push. The simple stuff, just trying to make it second nature. And just chipping away at her entry. And it started looking better.

And with the weight throw indoors, we took maybe nine total practices and we didn’t even throw much during those practices, maybe eighteen throws. And she competed in three meets. I didn’t really care how far she threw in the first two meets, then she went to USAs and we didn’t even peak for it. And she ended up going over 80 feet (24.51m) for the first time and got the win.

Was it surprising that she threw so far?

Yes, in the sense that we didn’t train it that much, but no in that she had a pretty good practice the week before and the week of. It would have been interesting to see what she could have done if we had peaked, but our goals this year all focused on the hammer.

The last two years leading up to the Olympics and London she was throwing really well, but there is a lot of pressure there and the results we got weren’t an indication of what we’d seen in practice.

This year I wanted to see if we could get her best throws in the biggest meets, and so far things have worked out just as we’d hoped.

Now we have two confirmed teams we are part of, the Athletics Cup in London and then the NACAC in Toronto, and then we have to see if she gets selected for the Continental Cup.

Deanna and I have been talking about what to do for meets and training right now, and it’s kind of damned if you do/damned if you don’t. There’s a World Challenge meet coming up in Budapest, but we’d have to hurry to get ready for it, so I think we’ll focus on preparing for the Athletics Cup. There are going to be some great throwers there, so we want to be ready for it.

The ultimate goal is to win a medal at the World Championships and the Olympics, so we need to practice being at our best against the best rather than running around trying to collect money.

This is a new realm that I’m a little green at. I’m lucky to have John Smith as a mentor, so if I have any questions about international travel and competitions, he can definitely help me out. But I look forward to figuring out the puzzle of international travel, how the body works, dealing with jet lag and so on.

Speaking of complicated, have you thought about dealing with the odd schedule next year with the World Championships in October?

I try not to think too far into the future, but we will definitely have to adjust for that. For any athlete, I look at what their ultimate goal is, when they will need to peak, and then I start to work backwards. That determines how we start. As far as indoors goes next year, if we do throw the weight it might be one or two meets like this year and maybe the US Championships, Then we’ll have to figure out how to push back the season. The thing that sucks is that we have to rely on college meets for competition, but those meets are over in May, so what do you do from there? One thing I’m thinking about is putting on a summer meet or two so post-collegiates have some place to compete.

We’ll see. That might get us through to the US Championships in late July, then you have three months until Worlds. First you have to make the team, obviously, but I would hope that maybe the IAAF could help out the athletes by pushing some of their higher-end meets back a little bit. I don’t know if that will happen or not, but no matter what, we’ll find a way.

To see video of the USATF women’s hammer competition check out https://www.macthrowvideo.com/

 

 

2018 USATF Championships Day 4: Some words, some videos, some slight regrets

I’ve seen a hundreds of throws competitions in my time, both live and on video. I’ve traveled all over the United States and Europe to see the best throwers,  I’ve watched the replay of the 2009 World Championships men’s discus so many times that my wife can perform a spot-on imitation of the BBC announcers describing Robert Harting’s victory celebration.

“He’s shredded his vest, exposing his massive torso!”

You kind of have to hear her do it.

My point, though, is that I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about the throws, and that came in handy on the final day of the USATF Championships when I was forced to decide between watching the men’s discus or women’s shot on a beautiful afternoon in Des Moines.

The shot was scheduled to begin inside the stadium at 2:10, the disc outside the stadium at 2:20, so there was no way to watch both simultaneously.

I chose the women’s shot. 

The way I figured it, Mason Finley would for sure win the men’s disc. He’s got confidence.  He’s got experience. He’s got a World Championship medal. Plus, he’s a giant and remarkably agile man, so no contest there.

The outcome of the shot, though, appeared less certain. The mercurial, eminently watchable Raven Saunders was a definite contender.

Every time she enters the ring it seems as if she might either smash a 20-meter throw or misfire completely and smash some inanimate objects. Either way, smashing appeared likely.

Going head-to-head with Raven was NCAA champ and record-holder Maggie Ewen.

Do you remember the first Shrek movie where Princess Fiona possessed secret  butt-kicking abilities that belied her appearance?  Maggie is the same way.  She looks like a pole vaulter but somehow throws things really far.  

Plus, guess whose NCAA shot record she broke this year? I’ll give you a clue. Her first name begins with the letter “R” as in “Revenge.”

Add Michelle Carter, the defending Olympic champion, to the mix…

and we had what promised to be a compelling shot put battle.

So, there I was at 2:00, perched in an upper row of Drake Stadium gazing down on women’s shot warm-ups.

My friend Roger Einbecker had chosen to view the men’s disc, so he headed over there after promising to keep me posted via text messages. 

Raven and Maggie each had one pretty far-looking throw during warm-ups, and it seemed like it would be a two-person battle as Michelle struggled to find her timing.

Then the competition began and a funny thing happened. Jessica Ramsey…

throwing unattached and cloaked in anonymity, stepped up for her first throw and banged out a 19.23m.

I couldn’t believe it.

Two of the guys I was with didn’t even see see the throw because, well, they weren’t paying attention. And frankly, who was? If you were sitting at home thinking, “I’ll bet Ramsey might win this thing,” please let me know and I’ll invest in your psychic hotline startup.

Raven, looking fast through the ring, opened at 18.74m. Maggie went 17.94m, so both would have the full six throws to try to catch Ramsey, who came back to Earth with a 17.65m in round two, while Raven began what would become a string of three straight fouls. Maggie put herself on the podium with a round two 19.09m, then gave us spectators a jolt in round three with a foot-foul that landed at the 20-meter line.

Michelle managed a best of only 17.87m in the prelims, but at the break for the reordering, I still felt good about my decision to stick with the shot.

It was fun seeing Ramsey break out, and it still seemed quite possible that either Raven or Maggie would bust one near 20-meters.

Just then, I got the first text from Einbecker.

“Mattis 65.45m.”

That was in reference to the first-round throw of Sam Mattis.

“Okay,” I thought. “That’s fine. Sam will give Mason a push and the folks over at the discus will see a decent competition.” I did not begrudge them that.

Back at the shot, the finalists had been determined and the ring opened for some additional warm-ups. Maggie and Raven each took a handful, tinkering, fine-tuning, like safe crackers trying to get all the notches to line up.

With round four about to begin, another text popped up on my phone… “Finley 65.27m”…followed shortly thereafter by another… “Mattis 66.32m.”

It sounded like an interesting duel was playing out over there, but I was still comfortable with my choice to view the shot.

Then my phone buzzed again.

“Jagers 66.92m.”

Now it was clear that something very strange was going on at the discus ring. After three rounds, three different throwers (Sam, Mason, and Reggie) had surpassed 65 meters. And we were not in California.

Or Hawaii.

I’m not gonna lie, I was a little rattled by these texts. My friend Sean Denard, the fine throws coach at Grand Valley State, came and stood by me to watch the shot final and we gazed in bewilderment from our perch in the stadium out towards the long throws area. What was the wind doing? We couldn’t tell. It seemed like the strings of pennant flags marking the discus boundaries were blowing in different directions at once.

We eyed each other uneasily.

When the shot resumed, Michelle put 17.26m, Raven fouled, Maggie hit 18.58m, and Ramsey fouled.

In round five, Michelle went 17.65m, Raven 18.13m, and Maggie finally popped one. Between throws she had stepped to the side and snapped off some imitations, and the seamlessness she demonstrated there finally carried over to the ring.

It wasn’t 20 meters, but her 19.29m toss was good enough to take the lead.

In the final round, both Michelle and Janeah Stewart broke 18 meters. (Fun fact: four of the top seven finishers in the women’s shot –Janeah, Ramsey, Raven, and Jeneva Stevens–all train with John Smith at Ole Miss.)

Raven closed with a foul, as did Ramsey, and Maggie had a national shot title to add to her already jam-packed trophy case.

The discus, however, was not yet finished. My phone buzzed again… “Finley 65.77m”…and again… ”Mattis 66.00m”.

Denard bolted over there to catch the end of it, but I wanted to get interviews with some of the putters, so I headed downstairs to the mixed zone, still content that I’d made the correct decision.

It was fun seeing Ramsey hit what may turn out to be a career-changing throw. It was fun seeing Raven blast through the ring even if she didn’t quite catch one. It was fun seeing the defending Olympic champion compete. It was fun seeing Maggie display what may be the smoothest rotational technique that I’ve ever seen.

But, as I stepped into the chaos of the mixed zone, there went my phone again.

“Finley 67.06m.”

“Nice,” I thought, “Mason gets the win.”

Ah, but the madness continued.

“Jagers 68.61m.”

Reggie’s throw was a facility record, the best toss ever by a left-hander, and…I missed it.

Had I the time, I may well have punched myself in the face. Fortunately,  the putters chose that moment to start filing into the room.

I’ve interviewed Michelle Carter before, and she has always been super nice. This time was no different as she spoke about the reason she is in less-than-top form, her optimism regarding next season,  and her upcoming marriage. You can view that interview here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6Jfww4ryA4

This was the first time I’ve spoken with Jessica Ramsey, but not, I suspect, the last. Here are her thoughts on a breakthrough performance:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4zNAWBFDCo

This was my second interview of the weekend with Maggie, and my ipad mini locked up during both due to a lack of storage. So, good job me. She is as articulate as she is talented, though, so I think you’ll enjoy the portion of the interview that I was able to record.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRSf1AY-6EY

The discus throwers came through the room next,  and I grabbed Mason. I’d last spoken to him when he was a college senior, and a lot has happened in the intervening years. Here are his thoughts on a hellacious discus competition and his recent ascent to the top ranks of the event:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgwOP8OxvLo

Getting an interview with Reggie was not so simple. I missed him in the mixed zone, so I caught up with him out on the infield. He was happy to talk, but that’s when I realized my mini (not a euphemism)  had locked up. Long story short, I ended up using Reggie’s phone to tape an interview with him.

Throughout the weekend, my traveling companions had taken turns helping me overcome my ineptness with technology, so I began referring to them as my “tech team.” I am proud to report that the 2018 USATF champion, the man with the farthest left-handed discus throw in history, is now a member of that team.

Reggie, thanks for your patience and welcome aboard.

You can watch that interview here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWPOK4MeZa8

 

Interviews from Day 3 of the 2018 USATF Championships

Day three of the USATF Championships featured three throwing events…running concurrently.

Men’s javelin began at 2:10, women’s hammer at 2:20, and men’s shot at 2:45.

The setup at Drake allows for a great simultaneous view of the hammer and javelin, but the men’s shot was inside the stadium and out of view from the long throws area.

So what was a fella to do?

I planted myself in a great spot overlooking the javelin runway and the hammer cage, and kept nervously looking at my phone for shot updates.

When Ryan Crouser, Joe Kovacs, and Darrell Hill are throwing the shot, the  possibilities are…well….distracting if you are trying to concentrate on what promised to be (and turned out to be) an epic women’s hammer competition while also trying to puzzle out who would rise to the top in a javelin field lacking a clear favorite.

A jarring note occurred during hammer warm-ups when Amanda Bingson bounced a throw off the cage and appeared to try to catch the implement as it ricocheted back at her. The ball ended up smacking her on the toe and knocking her out of the competition.

Those who remained (American record holder Deanna Price, previous American record holder Gwen Berry, outstanding collegiates Janeah Stewart and Brooke Andersen among them) struggled to find their rhythm over the first three rounds in spite of superb weather courtesy of Mother Nature and  superb running commentary provided by javelin champ Kara Winger.

This was not my first rodeo, so I knew that great throwers sometimes take a few rounds to find their mojo.  In 2014, I left after round four of the women’s discus at the European Championships. Sandra Perkovic was safely in the lead with a 69-meter throw and I was worried about missing a train.

Imagine my chagrin when I checked my phone on the bus ride to the train station and saw that Sandra had just broken the 70-meter barrier for the first time.

I knew something like that might happen in the finals of the women’s hammer, but…Crouser….Kovacs…Hill?

You can guess the rest of the story. I was in the stadium watching a really odd men’s shot competition when I got the text from my friend Roger Einbecker who stayed back to watch the women’s hammer final that Deanna had thrown 78.12m to set a new American record.

Here  is Deanna sharing some thoughts afterwards:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuhNwR5VxPY

I also had a really nice talk with Gwen Berry, who was not at all discouraged by what had to be a disappointing day (she finished second with 72.99m, well below her PR). Gwen has recently made an adjustment to her technique and is very confident that she’s ready for some more big throws this summer. Here is my chat with Gwen:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LS_dmJy-UkY

It was chaotic in the interview room with several events ending within minutes of each other, but I made sure to grab Joe Kovacs, one because he’s a great guy and fun to talk with, and two because he seems to have struggled to find his best form this year and I wanted to find out what was up with that.  I think you’ll find his comments insightful.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wI93Vf_MZhA

I’ve known Curtis Jensen for several years. He was a teammate of one of my former throwers (I’m a high school coach) at Illinois State University, and it was obvious way back then that he was a very gifted young man. It’s tough to break into the top three in the shot in this country, even tougher when trying to figure out how to squeeze training into a schedule that already includes one full time and one part time job. But Curt has endured and plugged away over the years. He’s absorbed some blows, but like Rocky Balboa he just keeps answering the bell and his 20.87m effort in round six yesterday put him on the podium for the first time at a national meet. Curt is always a great interview. See for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8swvFi2w3o

Darrell Hill, the 2018 USATF shot put champion, is a mountain of a man and not easy to miss in an interview room, but I still managed to do it. Like I said, it was pretty crazy in there.

Anyway, congrats to Darrell and I hope to catch up with him soon.

I did not miss defending Olympic Champion Ryan Crouser.

The press release  put out prior to Saturday’s events strongly implied that when Ryan entered the ring the crowd should get ready to maybe see a world record. It referred to a recent foul measured at 75’5 1/2″.

I’m not gonna lie, in the days leading up to this meet I was thinking the same thing. That’s why I was unable to stick it out at the women’s hammer.  How many years of therapy would I have had to undergo had Ryan dropped a big one and I missed it?

But he really, really struggled on this day, finishing second with a 20.99m mark on his only measured throw.

I give Ryan a lot of credit for talking to me and a couple of other writers in that media room afterwards. He was very discouraged by his performance, and I think probably embarrassed after failing to live up to the standard he set where 22-meters has become a pedestrian distance for him.

I did not film Ryan’s comments, because it felt like it would have been rude to stick a camera in his face when he was hurting like that.

But he answered all my questions. No, he’s not injured. His hand is a bit sore, but not unusually so. He’s just in a rut that he fell into a couple of weeks ago when he lost the feel of his technique, and the experience has him feeling a little lost. He compared the adjustments he’s made to his technique to plugging holes in a leaky dam. You get one hole plugged and a leak pops up somewhere else.

He is going to try to take a week off before heading to Europe for some Diamond League meets.

It  is not  uncommon in this sport to have moments where you inexplicably lose your feel and can’t find a way to get it back, and that can be a frustrating and sometimes frightening experience. Hopefully, young throwers can find comfort in the knowledge that even the very best, the Olympic record holder, the man with more 22-meter throws than anyone in history, can go through the same thing.

Thanks again, Ryan, for talking when I know all you wanted to do was get the heck out of there.

Women’s shot and men’s disc today, once again run concurrently. I’ll do my best to manage the chaos and get some interesting interviews.

 

2018 USATF Championships Day Two Interviews

Does this man look like he has “quiet ballet feet”?

One of the more delightful aspects of watching the men’s hammer competition at the 2018 USATF Championships was listening to the commentary provided by eight-time national javelin champion Kara Winger, which included the above observation about the man in that photo–newly crowned USA hammer champion Rudy Winkler.

Rudy came out on top in a really tight competition in which the top four throwers all surpassed 73 meters. Afterwards, I spoke to Rudy about the ebb and flow of his career so far and about his plans for the future. That interview is here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFzKy1tQ48A

Second and third place went to Alex Young and Sean Donnelly, who were kind enough to answer a bunch of questions about the competition and their careers in general. Sean, I promise not to mention your hitting a car during the competition. Oh, crap!

Here is that interview:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jc-Yk1l_lQ

 

USATF Championships Day 1 Interviews

On a rainy evening in Des Moines, the always ebullient Kara Winger nabbed her eighth national title in the javelin with a sixth round toss of 62.88m.

Here she is in a post-competition interview:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZLUubj7OL0

 

Earlier that day, Stanford’s Valarie Allman won her first national title with a toss of 63.55m–an impressive throw in humid, basically wind-free conditions.

Go here to listen to a very happy Val share her thoughts on becoming USA champion:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EltGzk5arxQ

Finishing second to Val was Maggie Ewen, arguably the greatest NCAA thrower of all time. Maggie’s best throw of 61.13m came in round five.

Here are some comments by Maggie after the competition. Sorry about the abrupt finish to this interview. Technical difficulties!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgBDGMtmYTo

 

 

Arizona State coach Brian Blutreich on the sensational career of Maggie Ewen

If you have an hour to kill some day, try reading through the list of Maggie Ewen’s accomplishments on the Arizona State Track and Field web page. Four national titles spread over three events. An NCAA record in the hammer (74.53m). An NCAA record in the shot (19.46m). Eleven all-American finishes. One could make a heck of a case that she is the best all-around thrower in NCAA history.

But Maggie’s career has not been free of heartbreak. As a junior, she broke the collegiate record in the hammer  and won that event at the 2017 NCAA meet. This spring, she extended her record and looked to be a strong favorite to retain her title, but she fouled all three attempts in that event at this year’s regional, and lost the chance to defend in Eugene.

Two weeks later, she arrived at NCAA’s devastated but determined to make her final collegiate competition a memorable one. She left as newly crowned NCAA champion in the shot and disc.

Maggie’s coach for the past two years at ASU, Brian Blutreich, has also had a remarkable career, mentoring numerous Olympians and NCAA champions.

Recently, Brian was kind enough to answer a few questions about Maggie, her remarkable talent, her recent triumphs and tribulations, and her future as a professional.

Winning NCAA titles in three events is pretty unusual. What is it about Maggie that has allowed her to achieve that?

Obviously, she has a ton of God-given talent. She’s got the patience to learn three events, to be able to figure out three events. She’s still not great at any of the three at this point, but she can do things that other people just can’t do. That’s the bottom line.

This is only the second year we’ve been together, so we’re far from where we want to be, or where we are going to be. There is s lot more left in her, for sure.

I feel like I’m behind because usually the way I try to run my program it’s year three when you really start to get it. And this being year two and her doing three events, it feels like we’re behind in terms of correct repetitions. You need a certain amount of correct repetitions to change muscle patterns. Then, once you change them you have to develop them. So, it’s a longer process that people might think.

How did you divide the events in a typical training week?

We tried to do a regular practice with each event twice a week, then a short practice with each event once per week. And when I say short, I mean maybe fifteen minutes. So, if she did a shot workout she’d finish with fifteen minutes of hammer. If she did a hammer workout, we’d do fifteen minutes of discus. Just to be able to touch each implement as many times as we could without burning her out.

She couldn’t do a full session of shot, a full session of hammer, then a full session in the weight room–she would break. So, we’d hit one event pretty good, and just kind of drill another event for fifteen or twenty minutes, then move on to the next day.

It has worked pretty well so far, but we’ve really had to be careful with how she feels. The biggest thing is communication in terms of how her body is. She knows her body pretty well, so she can tell the difference between “sore” and “hurt” and “tired,” compared to “in the hole.”

And if you get “in the whole,” you have to stop everything for two weeks. Once your neural system is trashed, then you can’t do anything. So we have lived on that fine line between how much is enough and how much is too much. To do all three is very difficult.

Is Maggie’s super power that she can get really good at an event in less time than most athletes?

Well, obviously she worked with Dave Dumble for three years, so she was at a certain level when I took over. She works really hard at trying to figure stuff out. She’ll do a lot of dry drills to work on stuff, and she’s a classic top athlete in that once she leaves the track, it doesn’t stop for her. She’s always thinking about training and technique, always watching videos. Doing drills in the kitchen or the garage. She’s been a very good student of the sport.

She’s all in, and that has made it really nice for me, because I know she’s constantly trying to figure stuff out.

At the end of an amazing outdoor season, you guys had that…

One glitch.

Yes, that one glitch. And anyone who has been around the sport knows that what happened to Maggie in the hammer at regionals is the type of thing that happens to everyone, even the very best throwers. But, how did you deal with the aftermath of it?

It was very, very difficult. After things calmed down that day and we went to dinner, I said to her, “You’re going to have to put this behind you mentally, or it’s going to affect you big time.”

You know, when you’re young and passionate, it’s just hard. You’re defending NCAA champion, you’re NCAA record holder, and you’re not going to the meet in the event you won last year.It was difficult. She wasn’t sleeping very well, so there were times I had to push back training and tell her, “Just go home and sleep, if you can.” Obviously, it was very hard for her.

But I also told her, “Hey, true champions become champions because they deal with adversity.” I kept preaching to her that this wasn’t the first time she’d had to struggle, and it won’t be the last.

That first week after regionals was rough. Then, coming into the NCAA finals week, it started to get a little bit better. Fortunately, the hammer was the first event, and after it was over she said, “I think I’m doing better now.”

She’s done incredibly well the last two years, being in the spotlight and winning. People came to think that it was easy for her and started to think that she should win all the time. I think towards the end it started getting to her a little bit.

We only had about two weeks off last year because she made the World Championships team in the hammer, so now we’re at the end of a two-year period with basically just a couple of weeks off, and I think it was starting to get to her a little bit. “The  triple has never been done” and all that. When regionals happened, it just kind of popped a big bubble and all the air went straight out.

But then in Eugene, she rallied and won the shot.

Yes, and we had a pretty good discus practice the next day. The discus is the event she loves the most, and I said, “Just have some fun with it.”

Then when she saw the weather forecast, she said, “I can’t wait! I hope it rains a lot!”

That’s a funny thing for a discus thrower to wish for.

Yes, but the rain kind of brings the field back to you. Remember, she was going against Shadae Lawrence (the defending champion) and Valarie Allman (a World Championship team member) so the more it rained, the better she thought her chances were to do well. 

And that’s the attitude you have to have at the next level. It’s forty-eight degrees and  raining with a stiff tail wind. At home it’s dry and a hundred degrees. We don’t train in the rain. We don’t train in cold. She’s from Minnesota, so she understands cold, but it’s her fifth year away from Minnesota. But she embraced it and never stopped competing. I tell my kids the meet is never over until it’s over and she got in on her last throw and just let it rip. That was a huge deal for her because she had never won a discus title, and against that field…I could just tell by the look on her face that that meant more than the hammer and the shot.

Did winning the discus wipe away all the hurt from not getting to defend her hammer title?

It definitely didn’t hurt. I told her, “Hey, you’ve got the career triple. It may not have been all in one year, but you’ve done something that no one else has ever done. Be proud of that and we’ll move forward.”

I think at some point she’ll be able to look back on it and enjoy it.

But now we’ve got USA’s and we are going to take a little different direction.

What do you mean by “a little different direction”?

She will not throw the hammer at USA’s.

What’s your reasoning behind that?

We haven’t touched the hammer much since the regional. At USA’s, it’s the day before the shot. She really loves the disc and she wants to throw it one more time before she’s done with it because she knows she’s not going to throw it next year. I just want her to be able to enjoy the meet and not get stressed out about the hammer.

If it was a World Championship or Olympic year, that would be a different story. But there is literally nothing on the line, so let’s just enjoy it and finish up the season.

After that, she’ll probably go to Europe and do one or two meets with the shot just to get her feet wet and learn how to travel. Different food and beds and training places. At the end of July, she’ll shut it down and start her new life.

I’m glad you brought that up. That’s kind of the million dollar question regarding Maggie. Moving forward, will she continue to throw the hammer and the shot?

Next year, she will for sure. Then we will reevaluate and see where she’s at and figure out the Olympic year. I think she can make the team in both, but that’s two years away and you never know about injuries, and this and that, and who’s throwing really far, so we’ll see. Right now, we’re still trying to figure out how to train to make the World team, especially with the World’s being so late, in October. That makes things harder. The US season is so early, and you don’t want to spend your whole season overseas either. So, it’s tricky figuring out when to start training and how to train. So after next weekend, we will figure out a plan and see if we can get her to the next level.

So, she’ll continue to train with you in Tempe?

For the next two years, yes. Then after the Olympic year, she’ll have to decide if she wants to continue to throw. But right now we have a two-year commitment to each other and we’ll see where her passion lies after that.

It will be really interesting to see how you two put together a competition schedule with Maggie throwing hammer and shot.

Exactly. There’s not a lot of hammer meets overseas that are part of the regular circuit. It can be hard to find a place to train it. Shot’s a lot easier. More meets have it. There are more places to train. But that’s the fun of it,. Trying to figure it out and see what happens.

I know she can be a 20-meter shot putter if she does things right, and a high 70’s hammer thrower if she does things right. So, we’ll see. It will be a fun challenge. For me, as a college coach, she’s already achieved everything I could ever dream for her, so I’m just trying to have some fun with this as well and see where it goes.

 

 

Georgia Throws Coach Don Babbitt on Denzel Comenentia and the Art of Coaching

One of the great moments of the 2018 NCAA Championships came early when Georgia’s Denzel Comenentia won the men’s hammer and shot put titles…on…the…same…day. His heroics gave Georgia the impetus they needed to take home the team title.

In order to get some insight into how Denzel pulled off this remarkable double, I spoke with his coach, Don Babbitt.

Followers of the sport know that Don has long maintained a powerhouse throws program at Georgia in addition to guiding all-time greats Reese Hoffa and Adam Nelson to the top of the professional ranks.

After reading this slightly edited version of our conversation, I think you’ll understand why Don has been so successful and why Reese and Adam trusted and relied on him for all those years.

So, how did Denzel manage his historic double? The short answer is, he’s a supremely talented athlete who rises to the occasion at big moments. The long answer is a bit more complicated and reveals much about the art of coaching the throws.

Coach, I was in Des Moines when Cory Martin won the shot and hammer at the 2008 NCAA Championships, and I thought that was an amazing accomplishment. But he didn’t have to throw both in the same day.

This was pretty amazing to me, too. Denzel’s freshman year we went through the same thing with having to compete in the hammer and shot on the same day, and last year as well, so we knew what to expect and we’ve been practicing for it. The key for Denzel was knowing him and how his body was going feel.  Having the two trial runs in 2016 and 2017 was really helpful.

How did your approach to getting him ready for the hammer/shot double evolve over the years?

What’s interesting is that even before he enrolled at Georgia, he made the final of both the hammer and shot at the World Juniors in 2014. And the schedule for that was just as bad. On the same day, he had shot prelims in the morning, then hammer qualifying right afterwards, and then he had the shot final that night.

So he had three things in one day, and I wondered, is he going to crash and burn in the shot final? But he ended up throwing 20.17m in the first round, and that held up for the silver. And  I thought, wow, that’s incredible that he was able to do that.

So I knew before he even came to us that he could handle something like that mentally.

His freshman year, 2016, at NCAA’s, he had the hammer first, and he had thrown 69.42m  that year and he ended up throwing 68.80m. He didn’t make the final, so he only had three throws. Then we went to the shot and he threw 18.85m and just couldn’t get it going powerwise. He had thrown 19.54m that year. So, he dropped a little in both. And he told me that he was kind of tired for the shot.

In getting ready for the next year, we had to figure out how to treat the season, the training pattern, and we made one big change. Denzel was a guy who, when we threw the shot in practice, he just kind of went for it. He was kind of wild and crazy, and he fouled a lot. Then in competition, he’d catch one throw maybe two throws, kind of like the way Adam Nelson used to compete. He’d just swing for the fences. If he caught one, it was big, and if he didn’t it would be a foul or it would be short. 

So the next year, we came into the fall season and we decided that he needed to be a little more steady so that whatever energy he had in major competitions, he could make the most of it. So, we held everything in in practice. And at first, his practice marks weren’t as good as they had been, but after about five months he was throwing just as far as he used to but was way more steady. 

Indoors his sophomore year, he got second in the shot at NCAA’s. We didn’t throw the weight that year; we just worked on his movement in the hammer with the main goal of making him steady in both in major competitions.

Outdoors, at the 2017 Southestern Conference meet, he won both and was really steady. There the hammer was first and shot second, but they were two days apart just like Cory had it in 2008. When we came to Eugene last year, he threw  71.75m.to get fifth in the hammer. He missed the Dutch record by two centimeters That was a PR for him, and he had another throw that was a PR for him too, so he had a really good competition. Then he went over to the shot, where he got fifth as well, but he had six fair throws. His best was 19.63m–his PR at the time was 20.33m–and his worst throw was 19.54m. So he was really steady, he just didn’t have the pop to get near his PR in the shot.

So, we got the equation partly right.  We got the good performance in the hammer, and in the shot we thought if he threw well he could have gotten third, but he just didn’t have the power left from throwing the hammer.

So for this year, we had to figure out a way for him to have more power in the second event.

This last year we really worked on power training. All his Olympic lifting went up in terms of max strength, and he was also able to move fairly heavy weights fast. His freshman year he cleaned about 310 pounds for a single, and this past year we got to a point where he could do a set of five with 310 in about six seconds. So his power output was way up.

This past winter we started throwing the weight as well, and I think it really helped to steady his pattern in the hammer. He threw 23.71m in the weight his first year throwing it. When we went to indoor NCAA’s the shot was first and he threw really well–20.29m to finish second. When we went to the weight the next day he was a little tired, and he wasn’t used to competing with the weight tired. He threw 22.45m which was the second best throw of his life, and he got sixth but he just didn’t have the power to go over 23 meters.

The last thing we had to figure out with his training was he usually threw the hammer a bit better when he was in heavy training. With the shot though, we had figured out that he needs a long taper to be explosive.

So how did you reconcile that?

We had to choose one.  We decided he’d be able to figure out the hammer even after the long taper, so we chose to appease the shot.

That brings us to this past Wednesday.

Right. To start off, the hammer went well. If he could have thrown 76.41m earlier instead of round five, we might have passed the final rounds, but you can’t underestimate your opponents,  so we only passed the last throw after he had it won.

Warming up for the shot, it was obvious that he had more power than last year. Last year he was really steady at about 19.50m;  this year he was steady at around 20.00m. But, it looked like even though we had raised his threshold throwing shot after the hammer to 20 meters, that wasn’t going to be good enough. It looked like it would take 20.50m to win. So, he was sitting there in  fifth place going into the final, then all of a sudden he was in sixth, seventh, eighth place. All those guys got hot. And he just responded and hit that 20.61m in round five.

The one thing that Denzel does really well is he responds. The best way to get him to throw really far is to have someone throw far right in front of him, which is great for a big meet. He dug deep to get that 20.61m out there. That wasn’t coaching, that was just him responding

But I thought we did a good job of trying to put him into a position of success.

We took notes over the past couple of years, and I was always asking him how he felt, asking him in different ways to get him to be more introspective to help me devise the training plan.

The one other thing that we considered is that he is a pretty good discus thrower. I’m dead serious about this. We practiced the discus twice this year and he’d done three meets. So, he barely touched the discus and he threw 58.81m. So, in looking at the regional, the discus was in between the shot and  the hammer, and he’s good enough in the discus that he could make it through no problem. So, I said to him, “Man, that first day at NCAA’s is a bear with the hammer and the shot, but then you get two days to rest before the discus. You’re a good athlete. If you catch one, who knows? Maybe you could get some more points in the discus.”

But one thing I know about him is that to really do well he has to mentally prepare. Prior to a big competition he takes a day or two to really focus. And he really didn’t want to think about the discus at all.  He just wanted to focus on doing a good job in the shot and hammer.

It sounds like he’s a pretty mature young man, him being confident enough to tell you something like that.

He is. He’s a quiet guy. He told me early on, “I’m a simple guy to coach. You don’t have to tell me much.” But what separates him from almost all the athletes I’ve coached, if you tell him to make an adjustment, he can make it almost right away. He has a great feel. He knows his throw so well, that I don’t spend a lot of time cuing him and talking to him because he’s able to be so efficient. That’s a lot of reason for his success. He doesn’t waste a lot of time spinning his wheels trying to figure things out.

How would you compare Denzel to Adam and Reese?

I’m trying to think of what those guys were like when they were Denzel’s age. I’ll say this, he really rises to the occasion. He’ll show you a lot more in a meet than in practice like Adam did. I thought that was Adam’s special gift. Reese was a little bit more steady all the way through. He could practice really well once he figured out how to really be good. In terms of physical ability, Denzel is probably at the same age just as gifted as either one of those guys.

Having been through it with Reese and Adam, I can say to Denzel, “You’re probably at least a 71-foot guy.” I’ve seen enough people to be able to say that. A lot has to go right for him to do that, but he has the talent.

But I also look at the landscape and think he could be one of the top hammer throwers. There are not many guys over 80 meters. If you look at the guys who have a similar PR to Denzel, they’re a little bit up and down. But in the meets he cared about this year, he threw 76.29, 75.97, 75.92, and 75.41m. He’s basically a rock solid 76-meter thrower. So if you look at a major championship meet, he might get fifth place in the hammer, but probably not in the shot because the shot is on fire this year.

Which event will Denzel focus on as pro?

His first love is the shot. He’d like to be a great shot putter. If he really wanted to throw the discus, he’d be a 63-65 meter discus guy. But, you can’t do everything.

I told him to keep on doing both the shot and hammer. Each one seems to make the other better for him. And that would be a unique double. He could be a 21-meter shot putter and an 80-meter hammer thrower, something that nobody has ever done before.

The other factor is though, is that the shot pays the bills.

Cory Martin actually threw his hammer PR after college in a Grand Prix meet in Brazil. But, he made about one third of the money throwing a PR in the hammer as he did with an average performance in the shot.

For Denzel, if he wants international medals, maybe the hammer is the easier path right now. But if you’re talking about money, which he may need to keep throwing at a high level, he would make the same amount of money as an 80-meter hammer thrower as he would as a 20.80m shot putter.

So, do you want money or titles? Or do you try to balance both?

The thing is, you see how the distance runners do it. They get a little slower, they move to the 5,000. They get a little more slower, they move to the 10,000, then the marathon, so at the age of forty they are still competing. Maybe Denzel could be a shot guy and later on focus on hammer when he gets into his mid-to-late thirties.

So, there hasn’t been any decision made yet.

When he’s done at Georgia, will the Netherlands give him some support?

Yes. We’ve talked with the head coach of the Netherlands about that. Denzel is going to have one more year of school after he finishes his eligibility. They’ll give him some pretty good support. He’s an A-level athlete for them in two events, so he’s a bargain for them.

Will he compete in the European Championships this August?

That’s the plan. One thing that kind of sucks is that the shot and hammer are at the exact same time. They’re doing the shot in the street by the Brandenburg Gate, which will be pretty cool.

I’m sure your next question is “which one will he do?”

That is my next question.

I think throwing the street shot would be really cool, but he might have a chance at medaling in the hammer. So, we’ll see.

We’ll have to see how training is going. And he’ll have a couple more meets this summer to kind of gauge where he’s at.

Speaking of training, one thing that always amazes me is how some athletes  manage to compete at a high level for several months–like what Tom Walsh has done the last couple of years. You obviously did a peak for the NCAA’s. How will you regroup for the European Championships?

What we are going to do is based off of what we did last summer with the Euro U23’s. He got the silver in the shot there.

We’ll rest up this weekend, then do a three-week hard training cycle that will take us up to about July first. Then we’ll start a four-week taper that will take him right up to the European Championships.  Basically, what we do in heavy training is 3’s and 4’s in a lot of the core lifts. We work off straight percentages, about 91 percent for 3’s, 88 percent for 4’s, 95 percent for sets of two, working off of one-rep maxes from the fall.  We don’t really try to get one-rep maxes during the season. Hopefully, if things are going well and he does a triple at 90 percent, he’ll do it easier than he did during the winter. So, we’ll know he’s getting stronger without having to execute a big single lift.

When I say a four-week taper, we’ll keep it at sets of three and four, but he’ll go like 80 percent, 70 percent, 60 percent, 55 percent, lifting for speed.

When we did a seven-week taper for the NCAA’s, we basically did three weeks heavy right at the beginning of outdoors then we went 80, 75, 70, 65, 60. We were just tapering all the way through the season.

That’s basically what he did before he came to Georgia. Then when he got here he wasn’t that strong, so I had him lift a little heavier and it kind of made him a bit tired, and he told me when he lifted like that he felt kind of slow and sluggish, so we went back to doing what he had done before–we just fine-tuned it to match up with the college season.

Then last summer, we tried the three-week build-up then taper, and it worked pretty well. He threw 20.33m during the college season last year, then he went back home in the middle of the summer and threw 20.20m. I was really happy that he could maintain such a high level, so we are going off of what we did last year to get him ready for the European Championships this year.

It’s not really what the textbooks say to do.

It’s great that you and Denzel can work together to figure out what works best for him.

I tell him “You have to help me to help you.” Having that feedback is really good. One thing I did with Reese over the years that helped him be so consistent was that we probably lifted a third as often as most of the top throwers. Most training is built off of fear and superstition. The idea that you have to outwork your opponent. But you don’t “outwork your opponent” when you are throwing six throws. It’s about quality.

The superstition is “the world record holder” trained this way. I’ve been around long enough where I’ve seen that not work out. Training from fear rather than really thinking about what you’re doing. So, when  Denzel started and we talked about that long taper, I thought “How are you going to be powerful if you taper that long?” But then I thought about how he had done it before and that I can’t be scared to do something that conflicted with my preconceptions. That’s how innovation happens. That’s how you make progress.  

Some people feel like they have to throw up a heavy max to make themselves feel good, but I’m not sure what that has to do with throwing far.

Is the key to have that relationship with each athlete to figure out what works best for them?

Definitely. And usually what happens is that a lot of times the training group ends up doing what the best athlete does. And that’s natural. You see how the top athlete trains and you want to reach their level, so you think, “If I train like them, I’ll be as good as them.”

But a saying I once heard is “To copy champions is to copy their mistakes.”

And what that means is you have to really understand what you are trying to do, otherwise you could be copying the thing that sticks out the most when it might be the thing that athlete is trying to get rid of the most.

Kind of like Reese’s heel turn in the shot. We tried to get rid of it and couldn’t, so after a while we just embraced it. But it stuck out, so people thought that must be why he was so good.

You really have to look at yourself to see what works for you. I always feel like great athletes find their own way. So when they get into a position that’s unique, maybe that’s a position that because of their musculature they feel comfortable in and then they can really  do what they want to do a little better, instead of trying to hit positions that someone else does well.

I’ve changed my coaching over the years a lot. As a younger coach, I tried to get athletes to be “perfect.” So, I ended up forcing some athletes to do things that I thought were “perfect” when in actuality they will often find their best self just kind of doing it. And when they hit positions that you haven’t seen before, you sometimes think “We can’t do that. We have to look like Mac Wilkins out of the back.”  But, maybe that’s the position that they are comfortable hitting because of their musculature.

I use the analogy of taking a log at the top of the Mississippi River, and you’re going to float this log all the way to the Gulf.

At the beginning, you have to push it out into the current to get it going. You have to do some work to get it going. But then as that log floats down the river, you sort of walk along beside it and and it takes the journey and you just make sure things are going okay. And eventually it hits a snag and you have to work with it to get it out and push it back out in the river again. So, you’re not pushing it down the river all the time. That would be pretty inefficient. You want to let go as much as possible. When there is a problem you step in.

I tend to do that now, coaching wise.

Denzel knows what he’s doing, but I’m always there to jump in when needed.

It was like that with Reese late in his career. Maybe three or four times a year he’d really need my advice and I was the best person to step in because we’d spent so much time together.

That’s kind of how it is with Denzel. So I think he’s got a good future.

Here are some throws from the men’s shot and hammer final:

https://vimeo.com/273902180

https://vimeo.com/273901134

A chat with Dale Stevenson after Tom Walsh’s big win in Birmingham

One nice thing about covering the throwing events is that the day after someone turns in a fantastic performance, say Tom Walsh breaking the Indoor World Championship shot put record in Birmingham last weekend (with a throw of 22.31m thank you very much) you can call up  his coach and have a really interesting chat with him while he’s sitting around an airport waiting for a flight to New Zealand.

And that’s exactly what I did last Sunday.

I called up Tom’s coach, Dale Stevenson, and shot the breeze with him for a while about how things have been going for Tom.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who is so pleasant to talk to that it seems like you’re having a beer together even though you aren’t? That’s what it’s like talking to Dale. Actually, the first time I called him–last summer after Tom had won the outdoor World Championships in London–he was having a beer, in a London pub while celebrating Tom’s big win.  That did not prevent him, though, from taking the time to answer a bunch of questions about Tom’s career and training.

(You can read that interview here.)

This past Sunday, he was equally generous with his time. I’d actually caught him in a bit of a reflective mood.

He mentioned that they had to head straight back to New Zealand because the national championships were just a few days away, and I complimented him on his and Tom’s ability to manage the huge travel demands faced by someone living and training half a world away from most international competitions.

He replied that for athletes from “our sleepy little corner of the world” being away from home is “just part of the territory,” and pointed out the dichotomy faced by many coaches that “being away from loved ones sometimes makes you question whether this is something you really want to do,” but at the same time “steels your resolve” to do it well.

Right now, nobody is doing shot putting as well as Tom Walsh, and as a throws geek writing for the benefit of fellow throws geeks, I opened with some questions regarding Tom’s technique.

If you’ve seen Tom throw, you’ve likely noticed that his setup at the back of the ring is pretty unusual–his left foot on the center line and his right foot staggered back quite a bit. You can see it clearly in this still from a training session that Tom posted a couple of days before Worlds.

I asked Dale how Tom ended up adopting this method of setting up the throw.

“It was just a natural evolution,” he told me. “People learn to straddle the back of the ring initially just because of symmetry. You go from there, and as things evolve you see most throwers working their left foot back to the top of the ring, whether you call that the twelve o’clock or six o’clock position. We kept playing with it until we found the sweet spot, and as Tom gets stronger and can maintain his posture and rhythm, year upon year it is probably going to change and he will end up coming more around trying to maximize the rotation out of the back of the ring and the drive across the middle.”

Like other highly successful throws coaches I’ve spoken to over the years, Dale was careful to point out that just because something works for Tom doesn’t mean that it would work for most throwers.  

“We are not trying to copy anyone or change the game. It’s just playing around and finding what works. Tom also likes to start back away from the ring and not jammed up against it so he feels like he can have a nice, clean, flying entry to the throw.”

Another notable aspect of Tom’s technique is the way he throws open his left side when initiating the throw. As a high school coach, I am intrigued by this because I find myself constantly trying to get my athletes to slow down their left side out of the back. But, according to Dale, the active left side allows Tom to create energy that eventually enhances the drive across the ring into the power position.  (These photos of Tom’s entry phase should help illustrate Dale’s comments.)

“We see it as a coupling between the left hand or arm and the right leg. We want to create a diagonal sling. That creates more power than trying to push the right leg. It’s about timing that sling, keeping it on stretch and timing it so that you can couple that initial tension with the drive across the ring.”

I then asked Dale what, for me, is the vital question regarding the rotational throws: When should the right foot leave the ground when coming out of the back of the ring?

“For Tom, the right foot comes off sort of as a symptom. We don’t think about picking it up or kicking hard. It is kind of like the cracking of a whip–you crack the handle of the whip and eventually the end of the whip will come through faster as a result. If you crack the end of the whip, it’s not going to be as fast as if you let the chain of events play out. We never talk about it. We never train it. We see it as a symptom, not as a cause.”

With no outdoor World Championships or Olympics this summer, I asked Dale what would be the focus of their efforts the rest of the year.

He pointed to the Commonwealth Games in April (to be held in Australia). “Along with the Olympics, it is the one thing missing from Tom’s record. In 2014, he was beaten on the last round on a great throw from O’Dayne Richards. It burns a bit.”

Tom’s agent is also negotiating a couple of possible appearances in the United States, perhaps at the Kansas or Drake Relays.

Any thoughts of taking things a bit easy in this non-Worlds, non-Olympic year?

Nope.

According to Dale, “Each year leads into the following, and the way men’s shot is going you can’t afford to sit back and assume 22 meters is going to be enough to win a major championships. There is a chance that you will have to be around there just to make the finals.”

Alright then, since there will be no slacking off this summer, how about taking a whack at the world record?

“There are enough guys out there that can do it. Tom wasn’t throwing phenomenal at a young age. He’s been told a number of times that he’s not big enough or strong enough to throw 20 meters, then 21, then 22. Eventually, you run out of reasons to believe that you can’t do something. There are enough guys around that are pushing big numbers. We want to be in the mix.”

I told Dale that, in my humble opinion, if Tom stays healthy for the next couple of years he is one of three guys (along with Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs) who have a chance to establish a new world record. Did he agree?

My question brought out his inner diplomat.  

“I don’t know how to answer that question. How about this: I hope I’m there.”

Fair enough. And one thing is for sure, Dale. The day after it happens, I’ll be giving you a call.

Jim Aikens to host free webinar on coaching the high school thrower

Jim Aikens spent thirty years building a top notch throwing program at Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois, and has now undertaken the challenge of starting from scratch at Burlington  Central High School.

This has caused Jim to re-examine his approach to developing  throwers. Which drills, for example, will work best for athletes with no experience at learning the rotational shot put? How should a coach divide his practice time among throwing, drilling, and lifting when his athletes need tons of work in each of those areas?

We invite you to join us as Jim discusses these matters and more in a webinar titled “Coaching the High School Thrower: Drills, Skills, and other fun stuff.”

This live webinar will take place on Sunday, March 11 at noon Central Standard Time. Participants will be able to ask questions throughout Jim’s presentation. Registration is free. Follow this link to sign up.