Category Archives: 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.

Coach Zeb Sion on Valarie Allman’s big year

Stanford’s Valarie Allman just completed a fantastic 2017 season. Not only did she drill a PR of 64.69m that announced her as a world class thrower, but she gained valuable international experience by qualifying to represent the US at the World Championships in London and the World University Games in Taiwan where she earned a silver medal.

All this came while adjusting to a new coach, Zeb Sion, who arrived at Stanford after five seasons at Wake Forest.

Coach Sion was kind enough to recount his experiences with Val this past season. I think you’ll find it very interesting!

 

First of all, thank you very much for asking me to do this interview about Valarie and her 2017 season. She is an absolute joy to work with each day, and it was a lot of fun traversing through a season of changes, ups and downs, and exciting results with her.  Hopefully, I can give everyone a feel for what Val and I worked on this year as well as what we need to improve moving forward. We will openly admit that we have a lot to work on in the future, but we view this as an exciting challenge.

The very nature of coaching and teaching is rooted in the idea of helping people improve. How can you help them improve if you don’t have plans to change their technique and training? So yes, I definitely had ideas of how to help Val improve in my first year working with her. I also find it interesting that “everyone and their mother” seems to have an opinion about how Val should throw or what they would do to change her technique. She had a good amount of success in high school and through her first three years of college, so I’m not a huge fan of being too aggressive with those statements. So while I had intentions to help her improve by making changes to her technique and training, I wanted to work with her and make the changes in a thoughtful way. I wanted her to understand what we were doing and why we were doing it as I knew, based on her personality, that she would improve much quicker that way.

I think putting her first three years of college in perspective before discussing this past season and how we approached it is important. As we know, Val was a very good high school thrower, and she competed at a high level during her first three years in college. The 2016 NCAA Championships, however, was when she had a major breakthrough throwing over 60m for the first time and increasing her personal best by almost ten feet. She followed that meet up with a solid performance at the 2016 Olympic Trials, throwing a distance of 59.02/193-8 which would have been a PB before NCAAs. The natural view and perception became that she was a 201’/61m thrower, even though the average of her top five meets, including the marks I just mentioned, was only 58.86m/193-1. Talk about pressure for her new coach!! Regardless of Val’s PR and top-five meet average, we had goals of improving as much as we could. We focused on the process of making changes with the notion that the results would follow.

Back to when I arrived on campus last fall… I felt fortunate in that I recruited Val to Wake Forest four years prior, and therefore already had established a relationship with her. I think it made it easier to have open dialogue about the plan and how we would move forward. In the first serious chat we had about training and technique, she mentioned that she was worried about me totally changing her technique. I reassured her that this wouldn’t happen, and definitely not too fast, even though that wasn’t necessarily my intention. I joke about it by saying that I told her I wouldn’t change anything and then ended up changing everything. Of course, that’s not close to reality, but it’s fun to say.

It’s important to note that I didn’t analyze a ton of old video of Val prior to working with her. I didn’t want to go into our sessions with a set perspective on what needed to change, but instead wanted to actually work with her and talk through things to get a feel for what needed to change.

I realized that the overarching theme for the changes we needed to make, which was applicable in each phase of her throw, was the idea of taking more energy into the direction of the throw. I often call it “directional energy.”

The back of the throw…

Overall, I liked the back of the ring concepts that Val had worked on previously in terms of her wind, how she loaded the left leg, the stretch she created between her legs, etc… I wanted Val to focus on driving/sprinting across the ring earlier and with more intention. We focused on stopping the left foot earlier and driving across the ring more. The intent of driving/sprinting with more energy naturally lowered her high point because the energy was more linear than vertical out of the back. More importantly, it also lined up her high and low point with the middle of the sector as opposed to being late and down the left side.

During March, April, and May, this part of her throw was very dialed in. I’ll be the first to say that we didn’t totally fix this issue and unfortunately saw it come back at the end of the season. Val had very high throws at USAs, and she was definitely getting off of the back late and not driving at Worlds. Val’s second throw in London was between 61m and 63m according to two different sources, but she fouled “at the front” and by that I mean on the left side of the circle because her energy was so late and left.

The middle and front of the throw…

Now that we had the right concept of how and when to drive out of the back creating better energy across the ring, the second priority I had was to better connect the middle of her throw into a more powerful finish. After landing in the middle of the ring and as Val would rotate into her power position, her left arm would shorten/bend dramatically and begin to rise. When her left foot would get down, she would pull her left arm/shoulder back and away to the left. This put her in an imbalanced and relatively weaker position and was a big reason why she couldn’t transition energy into the direction of the throw and would throw high. Specifically, (1) she wouldn’t have her shoulders back and closed upon left foot touch down so she had less separation, (2) her radius would shorten as she pulled away (left) which made it impossible to keep the correct shoulder plane, and (3) because her left arm/side wasn’t leading the energy out into the direction of the throw, the right side/arm couldn’t be as long as possible working around the hip and OUT.

Our focus was to keep the left arm longer and closed in the middle of the ring and at left foot contact (power position). If her left arm was long and opposite her right arm in a straight line, we felt good about the position. When she hit this balanced/centered position, it was so much easier for her to turn the right hip/side into the throw. As we got her shoulder plane to be more consistent and her left arm to be longer, it put her in a better position to properly lead the left arm out into the sector, so her right arm could then follow it and take the discus out. Ideally, I would want to keep her left arm longer for a longer amount of time (think Dani Samuels). We found that as long as the left arm led out and into the sector, whether it was led by her elbow, forearm, or hand, the resulting throw would be better because it had the right energy.

Results…

While I used various cues and drills throughout the year to help Val make these changes, it was pretty obvious when her “directional energy” was better. One quick way to tell if the “directional energy” was better, other than how far she threw, was to look at her reverse. On Val’s far throws, she would be in a good position and had the ability to turn the right side into the direction of the throw resulting in a nice displacement of her energy into the throw on her reverse. When we first started working together, her right foot would barely travel forward when landing at the end of the reverse. This was an easy way to see that the directional energy was wrong (vertical). Compare that to her two 64m throws [Links to those throw can be found below] and you’ll see a significant difference.

It’s clear that we need to refine these technical concepts and make them much more consistent. While we worked on keeping the left arm longer and on the correct plane this year, we are going to add more of a wrap in the middle, which should help with separation and her ability to then accelerate her left arm into the direction of the throw adding more stretch and energy.

As I look back on Val’s 2017 outdoor season, I’m incredibly proud of the changes she made and the things she accomplished. I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty awesome to go from throwing over 60m at one meet prior to the 2017 season to having competitions at 64.69m, 64.26m, 62.64m, and 61.65m with additional 60m throws in those meets at 62.46m, 61.98m, 60.31m, and 60.10m. Val’s five-meet average for 2017 was 62.36m. We’re both happy with the changes and progress that Val made this year, but are excited to get back to work and make changes for the 2018 season and beyond.

Here is a vid of Val throwing 64.26m this  season:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPc1hAWeLfc&list=PLhTP-j1O8QwFZm6L_ovA1xrMLqD6oHsGO

Here is a vid of her PR toss of 64.69m:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t80UVRJadss&list=PLhTP-j1O8QwFZm6L_ovA1xrMLqD6oHsGO&index=2

 

Grand Valley State growing into a throws mecca

I first met Grand Valley State throws coach Sean Denard when he was a heavily-bearded freshman thrower at Naperville North High School in the suburbs of Chicago. I was (and still am) the throws coach at a rival school, and was less than thrilled to see a guy who appeared to be in his late ’20’s show up to compete for the NN Huskies. 

Like dry white wine and certain types of mold, however, we grew on each other over the years, and when Sean went off to Mount Union College and came back an unrepentant throws obsessive, our bond was sealed.

Recently,  Sean was kind enough to tell me about his program, the magnificent facilities at Grand Valley, and the growing corps of elite throwers that have relocated to GVSU for their training.

 When did you start at Grand Valley State?

I started at GVSU in October of 2014, so while I’m starting my fourth season here, I’ve only been here for about three calendar years.

 What are some of the  highlights of your time there?

My first year here, our men’s team came in unranked at the NCAA DII Championships and finished as National runners-up. We had three men’s weight throwers earn All-American honors, including second place. It was the best finish in our men’s program’s history. The next year, Darien Thornton, who had finished second the year before, threw the NCAA Championship record in the hammer and ranks only behind Olympian Kibwe Johnson on the All-Time NCAA DII list. I also tell him it is impressive because Kibwe was twenty-eight at the time he set the record, and I think Darien hadn’t yet turned twenty-one as a true fourth-year senior. The Throwers Page ranked our men’s squad as one of the top five programs in all of college that season. Also, last year our women’s team finished as NCAA runners-up indoors and outdoors. Indoors, Dajsha Avery broke the fifty-foot barrier in the shot and earned All-American honors after having  thrown thirty feet and gotten second-to-last two years ago at the conference championships. At the outdoor meet, Mary Hecksel, a freshmen, threw thirty-six feet farther than her high school PR in the discus to finish third with a 172’ mark.

 Can you describe the facilities at Grand Valley. From what I’ve heard, they are pretty awesome.

We have probably one of the best track facilities in the country.

We have two full-sized weight rooms with eighteen combined racks/pads on them, and another two ‘pod’ style weight rooms with fours racks combined at both the indoor and outdoor track, and a rec center for weight training.

We have four athletic training stations and a chiro/physio who comes twice a week.

Our indoor facility is a 300m turf building with a ceiling high enough that Andrew Evans can non-reverse 65m with plenty of room to spare, although Sam Mattis did hit a light in warm ups, I think. [Note: GVSU holds an elite indoor discus competition each winter. More on that later.]

Indoors, we have a wooden discus circle that I just repainted this year, two additional wood shot/weight rings, and a cement shot/weight circle as well.

We throw discus for distance several times during a given week during the indoor season, and other times we lower the curtains and throw discus/hammer/javelin into them.

Our outdoor fields are used just for throwing and are not drainage areas, so they stay pretty dry throughout the year. We have two shot rings, a hammer/discus cage, and a two-way jav runway. There has to be 5-8,000 square feet of cement too, for drills/spectators.

The wind comes in a pretty perfect 10-20mph right corner cross for the discus. If we have to adjust at times because of weird weather, I will usually just get the wood ring from inside and place it out on the other end of the field so we can still have the desired wind that we need (we use the weight cage as a substitute barrier).

Probably the most important thing about the facilities is the amount of time we get to use them. We can use the outdoor areas 24/7. There are lights out there, so we can even throw at night if we ever really need to.

Indoors in the fall we get the turf building from 12:00-2:00 and during the winter 2:00-4:00. We get the weight rooms for ten hours a week, too.

Everything is also very conveniently located, so you can get from anywhere on campus to practice in ten minutes walking or five minutes by bike.

 Can you  tell me about your annual Big Throws Clinic?

This is our third year doing our Big Throws Clinic. It started out as a one-day camp for Michigan-area high school throwers and has turned into a two- day meet and clinic.

On Saturday, December 16, we’ll have a weight lifting seminar with Garage Strength’s Dane Miller, Olympic shot putter Justin Rodhe, and USA hammer thrower Sean Donnelly. Each will be disseminating twelve-week training programs and breaking down how to properly execute them. They each utilize three pretty unique training styles. Dane does a four-day upper/lower split with emphasis on snatch, bench and mobility work, while Donnelly uses a three-day triphasic model that utilizes no Olympic lifts and almost exclusively uses single-leg squat variations, and Rodhe uses the “Bondarchuk” system with his athletes. It’ll be good information for college and high school athlete/coaches alike and I don’t think anybody has given out training programs like this since John Smith did at the ITCCCA (Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association) clinic in 2007.

After the weight lifting seminar, we’ll have a dinner before the “wammer” competition. A “wammer” is a 35/25/20lb weight on half a hammer wire. I’ve had a lot of interest from elites about this, but I’m hoping more high school/college athletes sign up.

The purpose of the weight training seminar was to give more time during the weekend to go further into parts of throwing that we couldn’t get done previously in one day, and the point of the wammer competition is to give the hammer throwers another championship stage for their careers and help promote the sport. While there’s been plenty of indoor discus competitions around the world the last twenty years, not many people even use the wammer as a training tool. This will be the first ever competition for it, and I think that if people use them the right way they will throw everything further so I’m hoping to influence the sport and help younger throwers improve their training with this tool. Men will throw 35lbs, high school boys 25lbs, and women 20lbs. John Smith told me he thinks he will send his women up, but wants them to compete with the 25lbs ball as they already throw it over 30m in training. I don’t know if the rest of the field will be ready for that yet…

The next day, on Sunday morning, we’ll have three learn-by-doing segments intermittent with three classroom sessions by Rodhe, Miller, and Donnelly on various issues from technique to lifestyle. I think we may also do a panel discussion on Facebook live and let people write in questions. Halfway through the day we’ll have lunch (Brittany Smith made 150 bomb sandwiches last year for the clinic) and a multi-weight shot put competition using Rodhe’s glove.  [Note: Sean informs me that “bomb” sandwiches are what old people like me would call “really good” sandwiches.] Last year, Big 10 Champion Rachel Fatherly beat Olympian Taryn Suttie by just a few centimeters. Throwers will get three throws each with a light and heavy shot, furthest total distance wins.

Last year on the men’s side, Lucas Warning won the men’s event and went on to place 10th at the DI Meet as a glider. With our new volunteer coaches at GVSU I think we might have a deeper field than last year…[more on this below].

After the last learn-by-doing segment (we do three stations at once, shot/disc/hammer, campers choice each time) we’ll have the Elite Indoor Discus National Championships, Alex Rose has won the last two meetings.  Jason Young won the first ever meet in 2010. Last year we also had Olympian Andrew Evans and American College Record holder Sam Mattis compete along with World University Games Champion Reggie Jagers. They should all be back this year, and I’ve also got confirmations from NACAC U23 Champion Brian Williams and Olympian Jason Morgan. On the women’s side, NACAC Champion Beckie Famurewa won last year, and I’m hoping we can get more women to come and compete this season. I’ve concluded that being a female professional discus thrower might have the smallest market of all the track events, and so there are not many professionals and the ones that are usually live out west. Either way, I’ve contacted 300 college coaches to send their athletes to this meet and a number of professionals, but time will tell if they feel confident enough to come out here in December.

One of the ways I’m trying to help the women (and men) with this weekend is by working with USATF to make this part of their development programs for the throws. Each event group gets three to five mini-camps at the OTC each year to train, work with the biomedical people and get good weather. Right now, there is a proposition being considered to take one of the discus camps and move it to this weekend in Grand Rapids. They would fly out and house and feed all their men’s and women’s discus throwers for the weekend, and have them go through several training sessions in throwing, lifting,  Functional Movement and other evaluations, and finally the discus competition.  One of the ideas is to use it as a half way measuring point before and after USAs and to also help decide how and who to fund for the future. We will find out in a month or two if that will happen. Everyone I talk to seems really positive about the change, and I’m hoping it will allow us to get someone like Mason Finley out here so we can honor him before the competition for his performance at Worlds this past year.

 I understand you’ve got quite an interesting group of elite athletes set to train at GVSU this year.

This year I have five volunteer throws coaches on staff. There are no limits in DII on this situation, and with our facilities and location a lot of athletes have converged to train here this year.

GVSU alumni and NCAA Champion Darien Thornton is working on his masters degree and training here for the hammer throw. He finished 7th at USA’s last year.

Sporadically throughout the year, but probably not until December (he just got an invite to train full time at the OTC) my hammer thrower Sean Donnelly will get a training session or two in here. He finished third indoors in the weight and outdoors in the hammer this season.  Last year, Donnelly and I collaborated with Cal Dietz on weight room stuff, while I did the throwing side. This year we are going to move towards a little bit of a different approach to training, with a shorter indoor season due to the Worlds being held the first week of March (this has pushed the USA’s up to the second week of February rather than second week of march) and with Sean being able to throw outside in California.

My girlfriend, Brittany Smith, is a nineteen-meter shot putter for Nike and has been training here on and off since 2014. She was coached the last two years out in Kansas, but made a change this year and will be working with Ryan Whiting starting in October. She’ll move out to Phoenix at some point, but we’ll see each other every couple weeks. I help her out with whatever her coaches are having her do when they are not around.

New this year, Olympian Alex Rose will be training at GVSU. He spent the last two years as a graduate assistant at Aurora University (in Aurora, Illinois) but he and his wife are originally from this area. She got a job in Grand Rapids, so things kind of fell into place there. He works online with Dane Miller on technique and lifting, so I will act as a mediator to help Dane and Alex have the highest level training and communication possible.

Also new this year is World Championship competitor Dani Bunch. She has been coming here since 2014 on the weekends as she’s been dating and now married to one of my former athlete’s brothers who lives in the area. After getting married this fall, they’re getting a home together in town and things worked out with all of our infrastructure to give her a good training environment and group. She’s still working with her coach at Purdue, it will just be more satellite than before. Dani’s Husband, Zach Hill, is the Michigan state high school record holder in the shot put and has a similar role that I have with Brittany. I’ll facilitate their training to the best of my ability.

The last member of the group came together just this past weekend as Tia Brooks contacted me to train at GVSU. She is a local kid from Grand Rapids, and she is just coming back from taking a year off from competing and will use this year to get ready for Worlds/Olympics in 2019/2020. We’re still working out the details of her stay, but like the others I’m just going to provide whatever service she needs to help her throw far and train well.

Each one has a little different of a situation. I’m not everybody’s coach, but I’ll be an important resource to make sure they train and live at a high level. This is all kind of new to us, so we’re not sure how the group is going to work. I’m sure the dynamics will change over time, but I think it’s a pretty high level training group of professionals akin to what you might find at the Olympic Training Center or Oxford or Phoenix. I hope that each of this group of Laker Elite throwers can throw farther than they would on their own, and that it also encourages other athletes to form long-term training groups to improve our sport.

 

 

 

 

Former Coach Lynden Reder debuts Velaasa

As a result of the “foul or no foul” scandal in the men’s shot at the recent World Championships, throws obsessives are a lot more familiar with Joe Kovacs’ feet today than they were a couple of weeks ago.

That’s Joe above. Those are his feet below.

And if you took a moment from trying to figure out if that really was a foul to ask yourself “What in the heck brand of shoes is that man wearing?” I can provide an answer to the second of those two mysteries.

Joe is wearing a prototype of a shoe that he is developing under the auspices of a company called Velaasa, which was founded by former University of Minnesota throws coach Lynden Reder.

Lynden started working at Minnesota in the fall of 2008, and stepped down after the 2016 outdoor season tired of  the travel demands of DI coaching.

After taking a month off to ponder his future, Coach Reder decided to start a business. His love for the sport of track and field dictated the direction of that business. A desire to solve a series of problems he had run into as a coach dictated the focus.

The first problem he decided to take on was, as he put it, “a lack of attractive, highly-functional, Olympic lifting shoes on the market.”

Having once considered a career in graphic design, he decided to use his long dormant artistic skills to design “the most athletic-looking lifting shoe of all time.”

The result was a product that Lynden dubbed the “Strake.”

 

Besides being a sharp-looking shoe, this product will come with three different heights of wooden heel that can easily be interchanged, and which can be decorated with a school logo.

The next problem Coach Reder decided to tackle was the inconsistency in diameter among shots and hammers of varying weights. He explained that “at Minnesota, we did a lot of training with light and heavy implements, but it could be awkward for the thrower as a sixteen-pound shot might be 129mm in diameter but a six-kilo shot might have a diameter of 110mm.”

Lynden’s favorite implements at Minnesota were those manufactured by Polanik, so he flew to Poland for a meeting and came home with an agreement to be a dealer for Polanik products including a newly designed line of training implements with consistent diameters.

For example, they will offer women’s shots in the 3k to 5k range in 0.25k increments, with all implements from 3k to 4.5k having the same 113mm diameter.

On the men’s side, they will offer shots from 14 to 18 pounds in 1lb increments, all with a diameter of 135mm.  Additionally, they will produce a 125mm 6k shot and a 9k at both 135mm and 154mm.

A similar variety of training implements for the weight, discus, and hammer will also be available.

A final problem that Coach Reder hopes to address through Velaasa is the difficulty that post-collegiate throwers in this country face in supporting themselves while continuing their careers.

He thinks he has a solution that will help grow his business while offering post-collegians a chance to make some money.

That solution is the Velaasa Track Club.

Club members, such as the aforementioned Joe Kovacs, will  use their contacts (social media and otherwise) to promote Velaasa products. When a customer purchases an item from Velaasa, they can designate Joe to receive a commission.

As mentioned above, Joe has been working with Velaasa to develop a rotational shot put shoe, and may collaborate with them on other products as well.

According to Lynden,  “One of the biggest things that differentiates us is that if you sign with the Velaasa Track Club, you will own your personal brand, we will partner with you to design a shoe or other products, and it will lead to a long term commitment with our company,”

And, rather than being at the mercy of a certain behemoth athletic wear company which has been known to giveth and taketh away sponsorship deals with little regard for the well being of the athlete, Lynden wants to give Velaasa reps “the opportunity to leverage their network to bring in revenue. And, since we are a small company, we can give lots of support and personal attention.”

For more information, visit https://velaasa.com/

 

 

 

 

A Q&A with Coach Dale Stevenson

You know how when someone loses an election or an Academy Award they always say they’re happy for the winner, but you know in their head they’re really thinking, “I hope that blankety-blank falls into an empty well or gets dengue fever”?

Well, there were for sure some bitterly disappointed competitors at last weekend’s men’s shot put competition at the London World Championships, but none of that bitterness was directed towards gold medalist Tom Walsh of New Zealand, one of the true gentlemen of the sport.

And it turns out that Tom’s coach, Dale Stevenson, is a great guy as well. The day after Tom’s win, he took a few minutes off from a celebratory visit to a London pub to talk about Tom’s career, his unusual off-season pursuit, and the challenges of grinding out a win at a major championship.

McQ: Congratulations, Coach. That was a huge win for Tom.

DS: Thanks. Tom is a great athlete and more importantly, a great human being. It is a fun journey to work with someone like that. We are both aspiring to be good at our craft, and it’s an exciting time for Tom and for the throws in New Zealand in general.

McQ: How long have you been Tom’s coach?

DS:  Officially since 2014. Prior to that we were competitors. I stopped competing in 2012, and was sort of mate/mentor to Tom for a couple of years. We officially formalized it in 2014 when I moved to New Zealand and started working there, and the rest is history.

McQ: Are you employed by the New Zealand federation?

DS: Yes, I’m the head throws coach for Athletics New Zealand.

McQ: You said you moved to New Zealand. Where did you move from?

DS: I’m originally Australian. Born and raised in Melbourne and competed for Australia. My wife and I moved to New Zealand in 2014. It was a major checkpoint for our lives, and here we are three years later and loving it.

McQ: What does your wife do?

DS: My wife was originally in real estate. Now she works in recruitment. She is incredibly supportive. They say behind every good man is an even better woman. I want to thank her…she supported me right through my throwing career and now as a coach in a job that requires extended time on the road and is not a nine-to-five job. I love her with all my heart, and she is a huge part of this result here in London, as are the other members of our team.

McQ: How does Tom maintain such a high level of performance over the long season from indoors to the end of the outdoor season? Last year, for example, he was World Indoor Champion then still threw great at the Olympics five months later. How do you keep him at that level for such an extended time?

DS: It is a bit of a different philosophy than in the US model. We don’t have the collegiate system, so there is not a huge amount of pressure on our athletes to be at their peak when they are seventeen/eighteen/nineteen years of age. Tom is twenty-four now, and we’ve had a long term plan with incremental improvement. We don’t take crazy risks to make fast gains. I guess it’s a bit more measured from other philosophies out there. There are guys who are super strong five, six, seven years younger than Tom just blowing crazy numbers up, but they tend to have more erratic series in meets like major championships. I was fortunate to have spent a lot of time under the mentorship of Don Babbitt (longtime throws coach at the University of Georgia) and spent a lot of time training with Reese Hoffa. And that’s probably something that Reese did well across his career, and as a result he’s one of the greatest shot putters of all time. Improve by small increments over time, and brick by brick you end up building an impressive career. We’ve got the luxury of taking that kind of approach in New Zealand because we don’t have the rigor of the hard selection trial like the US Championships every year. And we get support from the federation. We are trying to leverage our advantages, and as a result it has been a long, steady road, and we are now at the point with Tom that his bad days are still enough to get him through qualifying rounds.

McQ: Is his good health partly due to the slow progress in training that he’s made over the years. To the fact that he wasn’t rushed?

DS: Absolutely. Tom was incredibly fortunate. His first coach when he was a young boy was a really wise man who lives in a small, rural town in New Zealand. He taught Tom that no one competition was worth sacrificing your health and well-being. He planted the seed at a young age, but it requires a certain kind of demeanor and Tom has it. Some guys like to get really fired up and go out and chase that one huge throw, whereas Tom is more prepared to say “What am I going to do to get one percent better today?” Eventually, that adds up. That incremental improvement is something that we are looking for.

McQ: Is it true that Tom does construction work in the off-season?

DS: Yes, he does. In October, November, and December he works three hard days a week depending on training and where he is at physically. He’s got a good relationship with his employer. They basically let him pick his own hours. And it is an important part of his development as a shot putter. We feel this is crucial for his development as a good human being and a good athlete.

McQ: Do you feel that it is mentally healthy for him to go back to being a “normal person” for a couple of months a year?

DS: Totally. We want our athletes to be balanced. We want them to be smart and to feel grateful for the opportunity of getting paid to do sports for a living. When you’re up at 5:30am and you’re laying bricks, you’re laying a foundation, or you’re digging holes or whatever you are doing on the construction site it gives you a really gracious mindset when you come into training. Training feels like a privilege. It is good for Tom to have something in his life other than throwing. For his development as a young man, it’s crucial.

McQ: Will he go back to working construction this October?

DS: Yes, We’ve got a short turnaround this year with World Indoors in March and then the Commonwealth Games, which is a reasonably big deal in New Zealand, in April. So, he may have a shorter time on the job, but we’ll have a conversation about that when the season in Europe ends.

McQ: Let’s talk about the Worlds. Tom had a perfect day in qualification. One throw. Killed it. (22.14m to be exact). That had to feel good.

DS: Absolutely. It doesn’t matter whether you throw 20.75m, the auto, or 24.75m as long as you get the qualifying out of the way. It gives you the peace of mind to go ahead and line it up the next day.

McQ: Watching the competition, it seemed like it took everybody several throws to find their timing.

DS: That’s not unusual for a major championship. Guys like Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs, they’ve been there and done it before and they still get challenged by that. It’s not unusual for them to take a couple of rounds to get into their work. You’ve just got to work through it and deal with it and bring your way into the competition. Get into the top eight to guarantee yourself six throws. And guys started to free up towards the end. But to be honest, those were funny results. But it is what it is. Championships do funny things to people.

McQ: Even with super-experienced throwers, do you feel like the atmosphere at a World Championships or Olympic Games can be hard to manage?

DS: It’s just so infrequent. The exposure to it three times every four seasons. And guys like David Storl, Ryan Crouser, Ryan Whiting, Joe Kovacs, Tom…they want to be regarded as among the handful of throwers who are the best who ever picked up a shot. They are vying for their legacy, essentially. The first things that people look at are the Olympic Games and World Championships, and you’ve got to perform well there if you want to be considered among the best. When it means something, it does funny things to us as human beings. It is strange that we pin our self-worth and our meaning as a human being on an arbitrary kind of competition where you pick up a metal ball and throw it, but hey, we all do it.

McQ: During competition, I know a  lot of throwers like to  check in with their coach between throws. Do you and Tom do that?

DS: No, we don’t. I’m there, but my end game is to make myself redundant, so we are working towards Tom becoming more and more independent and not needing me. I’m trying to work towards being more of a safety net. It’s probably going to take a little more time, but I’m pretty content Tom’s got a good feel for what he’s doing now. He knows what he has to do and when he has to do it. My role is kind of like the bumpers in ten pin bowling. If he goes too far one way, I sort of give him a nudge back the other way. He’s getting better and better at bowling strikes, so my role is probably becoming more and more redundant, which is fine with me.

McQ: Did you say anything to him during the final in London?

DS: Yes. There were a couple of technical things he needed to iron out. He was throwing early in the order in the first three rounds, then last in the order for the final three rounds, so that meant that he had twenty or twenty-five minutes between throws from the third to the fourth round, so I think more than anything just to break up that time he came over and we had a few words. It was mainly to get out of the heat of the battle, because you’ve got twelve guys pacing around in a fairly confined arena. Sometimes just getting out of that and going and seeing a different face helps you to reset.

McQ: Was your heart beating like crazy when some of those guys were taking cracks at twenty-two meters?

DS: Absolutely. It would have been foolish to think that the competition was sewn up at any point when you have guys that can throw well over twenty-two on any given day. We knew it would come down to the wire and we were prepared for that. I was probably more calm than I have been at any other major championship because I knew Tom was in good shape. We’d done all the work that could be done. But, the heart rate does go up. When it was all done and Tom came over, I found myself jumping the fence and running out on the track to give him a hug.

McQ: But you kept your clothes on, right? Unlike the guy on Saturday night?

DS: Say again?

McQ: You kept your clothes on, unlike the streaker on Saturday night?

DS: I did keep my clothes on. Security was keeping a close eye on me. I managed to shrug a few of them off I was so pumped for him. Tom’s an amazing athlete and he deserves everything that comes his way. I just wanted to affirm that for him, and it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

McQ: I know people in the sport really like Tom.

DS: I was talking to Art Venegas (coach of Joe Kovacs) last night about this. We talked about how important it is to mentor athletes into becoming good human beings. I’d rather coach a lesser athlete who is a good person than a medal winner who is an asshole. But you can have good athletes who are also good people, and certainly Tom is one of them as is Joe and Ryan and many of the other guys. As we speak, I’m out having a drink and Ryan Whiting has come to join us to help celebrate Tom’s victory. That speaks to the character of Ryan and to his selflessness. We are incredibly thankful to everyone who has helped us around the world. We’ve got great friends in the US and they continue to welcome us and have us back every year. I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has helped us along the way.

McQ: One last question. Were you surprised that Stipe Zunic (the bronze-medalist from Croatia) was able to put Tom on his shoulders during the victory lap?

DS: No. Stipe is probably the strongest guy throwing at the moment. He is a beast. Stipe could probably pick up three guys and put them on his shoulders. He’s a large man who can move. He competed in the martial arts and was a fine javelin thrower. I wouldn’t want to get in his way, but fortunately, he’s a great guy too. He seized his opportunity to get on the podium, and good on him.

 

Dani Bunch spins her way to relevance

If you were surprised to see Dani Bunch dueling Raven Saunders and Michelle Carter for the national title and world lead last weekend in Sacramento, you were not alone.

I crossed paths with Dani twice over the last five years, and neither time did I walk away thinking “Holy cow, she might be national champion some day.”

The first instance came during the 2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, back in the days when world class track meets were occasionally held in the Midwest.

Dani, a sophomore at Purdue, threw 16.21m and finished ninth in her flight. At that time, Tia Brooks, a junior at Oklahoma who won in Des Moines with a toss of 18.44m, and Michelle Carter, who a year later would break the American record with a throw of 20.24m and then break it again with a gold-medal winning put of 20.63m in Rio, seemed to be the ascendant putters among American women.

The next time I ran across Dani was at the Chicagoland  Throws Series in 2015. She was in her first season as a professional and had, just three months prior, switched from the glide to the rotational shot technique.

She threw 17.28m that day, more than a meter under her glide PR. The fact that she was able to function  at all as a rotational putter so quickly after making the change was impressive, as was her determination to continue in the sport when she appeared to be a long way from cracking the upper echelon of throwers.  But, if you watch this video, you’ll see that she had a lot of work to do if she hoped to develop a level of comfort with the spin technique similar to the other elite putters in the competition, Brittany Smith, Becky O’Brien, and Tori Bliss.

Here is an interview I did with Dani at the  Chicagoland meet. Please ignore my stupidity in  occasionally using the words “glide” and “glider” when referring to the rotational technique.

After the Chicagoland meet, Dani went back to Lafayette, Indiana, and hunkered down with her college coach Keith McBride to pursue her dream of becoming a world class putter.

For the rest of 2015 and all of 2016, she toiled in relative anonymity.

Last year, at the Olympic Trials, she thew 17.37m in the prelims then fouled all three throws in the finals.

As noted above, Michelle Carter grabbed gold in Rio with a sensational sixth-round effort. Also in Rio, Raven Saunders established herself as the thrower of the future by hitting a PR of 19.35m to finish fifth.

With the spotlight on those two ladies, Dani began the 2017 campaign no longer in “relative” anonymity. She had achieved a state of “complete” anonymity.

But, according to Coach McBride, he and Dani could tell long before the start of this season that she had the capability to become a nineteen or even twenty-meter putter.

The key was having the courage, patience, and possibly misplaced confidence to commit to the rotational technique.

McBride had actually broached the possibility of converting to the spin a couple of times during Dani’s career at Purdue.

“She had kind of a rotational finish anyway,” he told me in a recent conversation. “She was kind of up and turning all the time. She was that weird glider who would throw out of bounds to the left because she turned so far through it.”

This video provides a clear illustration of Dani’s glide finish:

“So, I brought it up with her once or twice in college, but she wasn’t mentally ready for it. Her argument was, ‘I can’t throw the discus, so how can I spin in the shot?’  If the athlete isn’t ready for it, you can’t shove it down their throat.”

Finally, in February of her first year out of college, Dani competed in a meet at Purdue. Still a glider, she threw well under eighteen meters.

Throwers from Southern Illinois University also competed in that meet, and their coach at the time, John Smith (now at Ole Miss) advised McBride and Dani to make the switch to the rotational style.

Smith remembers that moment well, and described it to me in a recent conversation.

“When Raven was a freshman, we went to a meet at Purdue. It was  Dani’s first year out of college, and Keith told me that he was thinking about switching Dani to the spin. I asked him how far does she throw from a stand? He told me fifty-two feet. I said if she wants to compete at the world level as a glider, she’s going to have to have a fifty-seven foot stand throw like Michelle or Tia Brooks. If you don’t think you can do that, then she needs to spin.”

With the US Indoor Championships looming, McBride and Dani decided to postpone the decision. After finishing seventh with a toss of 17.11m at that meet,  Dani came home ready to make the switch.

I asked McBride if it was hard on Dani to accept throwing shorter distances while she adapted to the rotational style, but as he remembers it, “She threw far right away. Her first meet with the spin, a little meet somewhere in Illinois, she threw 18.50m. Then she went to Tuscon Elite and threw 18.89m.”

As he anticipated, Dani’s rotational-style finish in her glide lent itself to the full out rotational technique.

“She had been a rotational finisher from day one,  and knowing how to strike in that position helped.  Out of the back we were just trying to hit that power position she had been using in the glide. We kind of melded the spin and glide.”

The most challenging part of the conversion turned out to be getting Dani to the point where her technique could hold up under the  pressure of big meets.

Her tribulations at the 2016 Trials typified her struggles. “The issue,” according to  McBride, “from the very first was not “Can we throw far?’ but ‘Can we stay in the ring?’ She was tattooing stuff right from the start.”

The 2017 season began in promising fashion as Dani hit 19.12m at a meet in Lafayette, which gave her the world lead at the time. That throw enabled Dani’s agent to finagle an invitation to the Diamond League meeting in Shanghai.

She finished second there with a toss of 18.98m.

That result earned Dani an invitation to a meet in Brazil.

She won that competition with a 19.55m bomb, and as a result was invited to the Diamond League meeting in Rome where she finished second with a put of 18.95m.

McBride considers the Rome meeting to have been a pivotal moment in Dani’s development. “In the fifth round, Michelle Carter passed her up, and Dani was like ‘I’m not losing to her’ and she came back and beat her in the sixth round. That showed us that she finally had the confidence she needed to make big throws in pressure situations.”

Dani proved that definitively with an epic performance at the US Nationals. She opened at 18.92m and followed that with a solid 19.18m that seemed likely to net her a spot in the top three. Not willing to take any chances against a dangerous field, Dani cranked up the intensity and after two fouls killed one in the fifth round. Her 19.64m put her into first, and after Raven blasted out a PR of her own (19.76m), Dani showed that the 19.64m was no fluke by powering her final attempt out to 19.57m.

She is now ranked second in the world with two competitions (the Portland and New York stops on the Tracktown Series tour) remaining before Worlds.

And what might the future bring, now that Dani is fully confident with the rotational style?

“As big as that throw in Sacramento was,” says McBride, “she can go farther. She definitely has twenty-meter power, and  if we keep progressing she will be challenging the USA record some day.”

From eighteen-meter glider to twenty-meter spinner in two years time? It sounds crazy, but combine Dani’s determination, her great working relationship with Coach McBride, her innate feel for the rotational style, and the intense rivalry brewing between her,  Raven, and Michelle, and you just can’t put it past her.

Pun intended.