Category Archives: Interviews

A quick chat with Art Venegas after Joe’s big win

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Art Venegas, coach of freshly-crowned shot put World Champion Joe Kovacs, graciously answered a few questions following Joe’s win.

How did you help Joe get ready for the epic scale of a meet like the World Championships?
It has been a gradual learning curve with the championships  always as the goal
How did you approach the qualifying round? Do you warm up the same as the final? Do you hold anything back? 
The Q round is the most important part of the meet. I have a series of preparatory phases during practice that simulate the arduous challenges World Championship qualification  presents that allows for a better chance to get to the final. We don’t hold back, but we try to not foul and keep our technical model in mind
Could you share what you were thinking during the final? It took Joe a while to get rolling. What did you say to him when he came to the rail between throws?
The final is the end of a throwing Marathon that started at 6 AM and finished at 9 PM with intense waiting periods both on and off the track. My job is to determine where the athlete is at and ask some specific questions. If the answer matches my observations, I try to make simple adjustments with usually one cue to focus on. After that, I watch the activity  of the athlete on the apron between throws and see if they are in need of rest or some drills to prepare the next throw
 As you know, making the leap from fine college thrower to world champion is not easy. What allowed Joe to do it?

Joe is an exceptional student and a long-term thinker and planner, added to his great talent and drive. I have felt since I met him that he had greatness in his future, and having been blessed with some great throwers in the past I felt that he had the intangibles that help create champions

 

 

Team Sophia plays the Long Game

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the USATF World Youth Trials in Lisle, Illinois and watching sixteen-year-old Sophia Rivera win the shot put and javelin competitions.

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Afterwards, I had a nice chat with Sophia. You can find a transcript of that interview here:

https://throwholics.com/2015/07/q-a-with-sophia-rivera-at-the-world-youth-trials-wvideo/

One thing that became clear as I spoke to Sophia was that her parents (Edwin Rivera and Michelle Hessemer) and her coach (Ron Eichaker) were taking a measured approach in developing Sophia’s athletic talents. They understood that Sophia was in the beginning phase of what will likely be a long career as a thrower, and they were determined not to sacrifice her long term potential in the interest of short-term gains.

In order to get a deeper understanding of the philosophy behind Sophia’s training, I contacted Ron Eichaker.

It turns out that Ron is a man of wide-ranging interests and experiences, many of which have contributed to his determination to play the Long Game with Sophia.

Ron grew up on north side of Chicago where he attended an Orthodox Jewish Day School in his early years.  When he graduated from Niles North High School in 1974, he held the school records in the shot put, discus and triple jump. In his spare time, he high jumped and ran the hurdles. His discus PB of 174’11” remains the school record.

When not on the track, Ron pursued what would become another lifelong passion: music. He sang in and around the Chicago area in Jewish choirs and as a solo performer beginning at the age of seven.

Somehow, Ron also found time to master the javelin, an event that was not even contested in Illinois High Schools.

Ron first picked up the jav during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years after seeing a college thrower chucking it around. As Wikipedia (affectionately known to us English teachers as “Satan’s Site”) had not yet been invented, Ron researched the javelin in the World Book Encyclopedia and “saw its historic connection to early civilization and found that the sport tied in perfectly with my affinity with ancient history and religion. It didn’t hurt that I had a pretty above average throwing arm anyway. And I also had a dance background in childhood.”

While in high school, Ron joined the University of Chicago Track Club, then in its heyday, which availed him the opportunity to rub elbows with some pretty beefy dudes. Brian Oldfield, Rick Bilder, George Tyms, Jesse Stuart, Al Feuerbach and “many other pretty good throwers” all competed at UCTC at that time.  He also met Bill Skinner, who helped him learn to throw the jav well enough that he hit 227’9″ in the spring of his senior year and received a scholarship to Northern Illinois University, where he was likely the only member of the Music Education department ever to hit the Olympic qualifying standard in the javelin.  Ron made the NCAA meet in 1975 but, unfortunately “threw way beyond my physical capabilities, and got injured.”

After rehab, Ron came back to throw his senior year and finished second in the MAC Championships before heading off to New York City to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Following his ordination in 1982, Ron focused his considerable energies on his congregation (first in Milwaukee, and since 2000 as Cantor of the United Hebrew Congregation in Chesterfield, Missouri) and his family (he and his wife Heidi have raised two daughters).  During that time, Ron occasionally consulted with local college coaches, and even broke out the jav boots when administering motivational programs “for children and teens about how to realize goals and go after them.” But he never worked directly with athletes, and had to mothball the spear for good after rupturing his left Achilles tendon during a throwing exhibition in 1999. For a decade thereafter, Ron’s primary connection with the world of athletics came through helping his younger daughter, Lindsay, develop into a fine softball pitcher.

Meanwhile, a New Jersey fourth-grader named Sophia Rivera was raising eyebrows by throwing the mini-jav farther than most boys in her area. When the Rivera family relocated to Missouri as Sophia entered the sixth grade, they were eager to find a coach who could mentor their rocket-armed daughter. Luckily, Sophia’s mother Michelle Hassemer worked with a member of Ron’s congregation. That coworker knew of Ron’s secret past as a spearman and recommended that Michelle contact him.

Initially, Ron was reluctant to take on the responsibility of coaching Sophia. He was completely devoted to his 1,100 family congregation, and to his own family.  He agreed to meet with Michelle and Edwin however, and during a two-hour lunch at a local restaurant outlined the conditions under which he would consider mentoring Sophia.

As Ron remembers it, he told them that they needed to ” trust my vision as results will not happen for a few years.  Throwing and javelin in particular is to be developed over many years of training with progression determined by careful, incremental physical development, genetic predisposition, level of concern (mental maturity and training) and family support.”

Michelle recalls that first encounter with Ron this way:

“What I remember most about our first meeting with Ron was his passion/philosophy that excelling in sport is so much bigger than the podium.  He introduced us to a few concepts that resonated with our parenting style and approach but had never really been put into words.   These concepts have endured throughout the course of Sophia’s development.”

One of those concepts was that  “It’s not about being the best twelve or thirteen-year-old in the nation.”

Michelle explains:

“At first blush, this may seem contrary to the goals of a family whose child/children are involved in AAU or USATF summer/club track and field.  I mean, of course you want to get to Nationals and be on top of that podium, right?  Well if it happens then that’s great.  But what really matters is establishing a technical foundation in the chosen event/event family.  Being fanatic – and I mean OBSESSIVELY FANATIC about technique is fundamental.  For example, Sophia worked on perfecting the release for a year or more before starting the glide (shot put), spin (disc) or approach (javelin).    This also means not pushing a young athlete into an overly-rigorous strength training regimen too quickly.  The first step was to work on overall athleticism (hence the multiple sports–Sophia plays softball and basketball in addition to track) and core strength. Med Balls… lots of Med Ball work!  This helped Sophia create a solid core and develop specific strength for the throws.  And again – technique is the focus!  The goal is to really prepare the body for the rigors of throwing and training; particularly javelin throwing which is really hard on young backs, elbows, shoulders, hips and knees.”

Another important concept articulated by Ron was “Don’t chase a number.”

Again, Michelle explains:

“During a competition the focus is on one or two technical areas.  Early on, Ron would tell us what one or two things Sophia should focus on during a competition. At first it was/ could be anything from foot position to a relaxed left arm.  Then it progressed to more of a discussion with Ron and Sophia, and her dad and I would remind her.  Now it’s a chat over breakfast or before she checks in and we ask her what she’s going to focus on.  By focusing on the technique and one or two items, she’s learned to make corrections on her own and sort of ‘self-coach’ her way through a competition.  This also means that achieving technical goals is more important than distance.  So a good meet isn’t measured by place on the podium or whether she throws a PR – but on whether she hit her technical goals.  Did she hit her marks in the discus circle?  Is that left leg staying low in the drive?  Was her javelin approach fluid and did she accelerate throughout?  If those technical goals are achieved the distances will take care of themselves.”

After agreeing to coach Sophia, Ron asked her parents to sign her up at a local training facility called HammerBodies. Ron met with the staff there and created a routine to “develop Sophia’s core and solidify her balance and stability in a non-resistive and natural fashion.”

Translation: Tons of medball throws, as Michelle mentioned earlier.

Only in the past year has Sophia been exposed to Olympic style weight lifting, and that only in the form of technique work with a 45-pound bar.

This fall, after five years of preparation, Sophia will begin adding weight to the bar.

In terms of teaching throwing technique, Ron describes himself as having “a Euro/Far Eastern philosophy…stressing the fine points of the throws from the release working backwards to the load phases of each throw. The Far Eastern approach employs ultra slow movements similar to tai chi, only using aspects of the throws to enhance an awareness of each muscle group firing in their proper sequence.”

Mentally,  Ron has sought to develop Sophia “like a young musician…a young artist who will grow with her art as her mind matures along with her techniques. My goal has been to help Sophia understand her body so that as her technique advances she is able to incorporate and advance her techniques in a balanced fashion. As a voice major at NIU, my professors told me that I should not be overdeveloped as my body and my voice were still maturing. I would not hit my vocal peak util my mid-thirties, so I should be patient and persistent and learn to absorb and adapt healthy additions to a solid vocal foundation to be able to develop in a time frame dictated by my body and not by either my mind or the perceptions of others. As this related to Sophia, the more technique at an early age the more to address as the body grows.  Every year she has been dealing with a new body and a new center of gravity.  More technical elements just means more to adjust and, unfortunately, many coaches adjust by just adding more technique.  Like a machine that is constantly upgraded with new components.  Pretty soon the original engine is indistinguishable, so when something breaks it becomes more difficult to identify the source of the breakage and then provide a remedy without causing an imbalance elsewhere, hence another break.  She fully understands and accepts that her maturity as a thrower will not occur until her mid to late 20’s and in order to maximize her potential, she will have to continue to lay micronic strata of layers to her already established base techniques.”

Thus far, Team Sophia’s emphasis on the Long Game has worked well. Earlier this week, she finished second in the shot and eighth in the javelin at the World Youth Championships. She has attracted much interest from college track programs.

More importantly, she has built a solid technical base from which to launch a long and productive career.

 

 

 

Chicagoland Throws Meet – Saturday Interviews

Here is Dan’s interview with Gia Lewis-Smallwood after throwing a season’s best 64.01M.

 

Here is Kaylee Antil, recent HS graduate who will be joining Dave Dumble’s throws squad at Arizona State in the Fall.

 

Here are the exceptional Davis brothers, Carlos and Khalil who are heading for Nebraska this Fall as football and track athletes.

 

Here is Michael Marsack, who came to be known as PR Mike by the meet announcer as he repeatedly set new PRs during the competition.

 

Here is Riley Dolezal who came into the meet looking for the “A” standard in the jav.

 

Here is Dani Bunch, a recent graduate of Purdue and converted from a glider to a rotational shot putter.

 

 

Chicagoland Throws Meet – Friday Interviews

This is Dan’s interview with American discus legend Mac Wilkins.

 

This is Adam Kelly, a recent HS grad who will be attending Princeton in the fall.  Adam set a new PR at the meet of 74.10M.

 

This is Gwen Berry, the women’s hammer throw winner.

 

This Darrell Hill, who has thrown exceptionally well recently, placing second at NCAAs and was sixth at Nationals.

 

This is Stephanie Brown Trafton, 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the discus.

 

This is Becky O’Brien, recent graduate of The University of Buffalo and an emerging force in women’s shot.

 

A chat with shot putter Bobby Grace

 

Bobby Grace raised a few eyebrows (mine included) when he bombed a 20.51m toss out of the first flight of the US Championship men’s shot on Sunday.

As soon as the competition ended (Bobby’s throw held up for 8th place) I set about tracking him down. It turns out that Bobby, a graduate of Youngstown State,  is both a fine shot putter and a very articulate young man. The following is an interview I conducted with him yesterday via email.

Thanks for agreeing to an interview. Let’s jump in. As someone who coaches throwers, I want to personally thank you for providing a left-handed role model! I’ve been coaching for 25 years, and I can tell you that excellent lefty throwers are a rare commodity. Do you ever feel self-conscious being the only left-handed thrower at meets? And was learning technique from (I assume) right-handed coaches while watching film of right-handed throwers difficult?

Thanks Dan, I appreciate that. No, I’m never self-conscious going to meets being a left-handed thrower. To be honest, until the end of my collegiate career I didn’t realize that I was the only lefty in finals most of the time. As far as coaching goes, I’ve always been coached exactly as a right-handed thrower. My coach in high school would give me technical advice as a righty; and I had to learn to translate that to lefty. So now I just hear everything right-handed and it processes lefty. As far as video I’m the same way. I actually prefer to watch right handed throwers and break down technique. It feels more natural at this point to translate righty to lefty.

The German discus coach Torsten Schmidt told me that it is important to have your throwers take regular left-handed throws because they have to really think about what they are doing, and this helps ingrain their technique. I wonder if the process of translating everything righty to lefty has had a beneficial effect on your technique?

I would agree with that most definitely. I think that all of the constant translation from right to left has given me a good mental picture of what my technique should feel like. I also think that has helped me to self-diagnose technical issues on a day-to-day basis so that I can keep focusing on big picture issues that I am trying to work on.

I am a throws obsessive, but to be honest when I saw your 20.51m pop up on the flash results page, my first thought was “Who in the bleep is that?”  Can you tell us a bit about where you came from, how you got into the sport, how you ended up at Youngstown?

I’m assuming most people thought the same thing you did. I’m originally from Cleveland, Ohio and I started throwing in 8th grade. I was very much a late bloomer physically and finished with a best of 57ft in high school. I had a few smaller schools recruiting me out of high school but I knew I wanted to compete against the best. I chose Youngstown State which was my biggest offer at that point. I lucked into getting three great coaches (Brian Sklenar, Willie Danzer for all of my programming and Brent Shelby for all of my technical work).

Can you tell us about your progression while at Youngstown?

Freshman: 15.85 (52 ft)

Sophomore: 16.90 (55 ft)

Junior: 18.84 (62)

Redshirt: 19.31 (63 5)

Senior: 19.90 (65 5)

So senior year rolls along, and 19.90m is a great throw. But in this country, you’ve got to get to 21.00m to have any hope of making the National team for a Worlds or Olympics. What was it that convinced you to stay in the sport and take your shot? (sorry for the lousy pun)

The decision to stick with throwing after I graduated was relatively easy for me. Aside from figuring out obvious money/living situations, I knew I was going to throw. I’ve always known that my progression would be a long-term process. I just need to keep working hard and that takes time. I also have an extremely supportive family and coaches that encourage me to chase my dream.

Can you describe your current situation? Where you live, how you support yourself, where and with whom you train?

I currently still train at YSU. I work part time at a consulting company to help pay some of my living expenses. I typically throw by myself or with a few of the collegiate guys and work with my coach Brian Sklenar on an everyday basis. Periodically I will go to Ashland and throw with Kurt Roberts which has been a huge help this year as well.

Can you tell me about the cues you use for your entry? For example, when do you want your left foot to leave the ground? Some would say “as soon as possible.” Others try to leave it down to create a stretch in the groin/hip area. What is your approach? (Note: Bobby graciously agreed to send me a recent vid of one of his throws. The following pics are stills from that vid.)

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I usually don’t have to think of much out of the back.  That is easily the most natural part of the throw for me.  Occasionally if my legs are tired and I am moving somewhat sluggish I may think about activating my left foot toward the middle more.  But to answer your question about any cues I use for entry, most of my issues out of the back are upper body.  I think about keeping my right arm passive out of the back and keeping my shoulders level through the entire throw. 

How about here? Can you tell us about your left leg sweep? And at what point do you try to get your right foot out of the back? Sorry to press you on all these details, but the people who read these interviews like to know how the sausage is made. 

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No problem at all. So this part of the throw is one of the bigger issues I concentrate on.  As you can see in the picture, my left foot is somewhat high off of the ground. I am constantly working on trying to keep both of my feet as close to the ground as possible so that I can get that left foot down in the middle and start turning through the ball.  My hip level usually goes hand in hand with how high my feet are off the ground. Basically, when I get tall through the throw good things don’t happen.  When I can keep my hip level down and work my feet the throw lines up.  

As far as thinking about getting my right foot out of the back, I never think of both getting the right foot out and the left foot sweeping at the same time.  Depending on how a particular day is going I will think of one or the other, for me that is just too many things/issues to try and work on during one throw. 

Absolutely. But is there a cue that you use, like…there is that big yellow house out beyond your landing area. Do you ever think something like, “I want my right foot off the ground while my chest is facing the yellow house”?

No I don’t really have any cues that work off of landmarks.  Mostly all by feel so that I can self correct and feel what I am doing through the throw. Typically, I find that if my right leg is hanging in the back too long, it is a result of my left leg not being active enough from the start. So, my cue for getting my right leg out of the back would then work backwards and become “OK, I need to be more active with my left leg” and I would work through that particular issue that way. 

Almost done! Looks like you are in great shape here. Your feet are down and you are wrapped. What’s next?

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So here I would like to be a little more upright in the shoulders and also give myself a bit wider of a base with my feet. The finish is the area of the throw where I feel I have the most to work on. I still have a pretty big pull away with my right shoulder and my block could get substantially longer.  If I can consistently correct those issues at the finish and stay longer on the ball, I will be a much more consistent 20.50+m thrower. 

So you feel like you have pulled away a little prematurely here?  And you anticipated one of my final questions. What do you have to do to get to the level that Jordan Clarke just reached? Also, what does the rest of the summer look like?

 

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Yes, this throw is one of my better ones with the pull-away but could definitely keep getting better, and is very visible in the picture. 

One of the major things I need to do to reach that 21+m level is get bigger. I’m currently about 265 lbs and need to get that closer to 285-295 lb range, which will help a lot of things. As far as technique goes, I am planning to concentrate on all of the key points I told you about so far, along with getting more throws under my belt. The more special strength I can accumulate, the better. I am not sure what the rest of the summer holds for me. As of now I believe I am an alternate for NACAC and Pan Ams. Currently, nothing is set in stone in terms of scheduling.

You can find the vid of Bobby’s training throw here:

 

John Smith talks about SIU’s big day at the NCAA meet

Not a bad NCAA meet for the Southern Illinois throwers.

Josh Freeman, a junior, hit a PR of 20.15m on his final throw to jump from ninth place all the way to fourth.

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Another junior, hammer thrower DeAnna Price, surpassed the 70-meter line for the first time. Her winning throw of 71.49m set an NCAA Championship Meet record.

 

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Freshman Raven Saunders nailed a PR on her final throw in the shot put. Her winning toss of 18.35m broke her own US Junior record in the event.

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I checked in with SIU throws coach John Smith a few days before the NCAA meet, and he assured me that his crew was ready to throw far.

How did he know?

It’s all in the numbers.

John uses overweight and underweight implements extensively when training his throwers, and he believes that there is a light “indicator ball” in the shot and hammer that, combined with their performance with a heavier implement and in the weight room, allows him to tell how far his athletes are physically ready to throw.

In the men’s shot, the indicator ball is the fifteen-pounder. A week before the NCAA’s, Josh Freeman threw the fifteen-pounder 67 feet in practice. His performance in Eugene:  66’1 ½”.

In the women’s hammer, the indicator ball weighs 3.5 kilos. Prior to her victory in Eugene, Deanna Price threw the 3.5k two-hundred and thirty-four feet.  Her 71.49m Championship record toss translates to 234’6”.

The indicator ball for women shot putters is the 8-pounder. Raven put that implement 61 feet in practice, then hit 60’2 ½” in Eugene.

John is the first to admit that there is a difference between being physically ready to throw a certain distance and then getting in the ring and actually throwing it at a big meet. “It’s like Mike Tyson said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Under pressure, the first thing that will go is technique. Strength is like a loyal dog. It’s always on your side. But technique is like a cat. Sometimes it will come when you call it, and sometimes it won’t.”

All three SIU throwers had a little trouble getting the cat to settle in their lap.

Freeman, for example, opened with 18.81m (which would not have qualified him for the final), pulled himself into medal contention with his next three efforts (19.30m, 19.42m, 19.46m), then fell back to 19.12m in round five before launching the big one.

“Josh was short-punching the ball, at first,” recalled Smith. “I kept yelling at him to get over the board.”

Price opened with 63.72m, which pretty much assured her a spot in the final, but struggled to relax even as she nailed a 67.33m toss in round 3. According to Smith, Price was “falling back into the ring on the 67.33m throw. I finally got her to laugh between the trials and finals. Then, when she got in there for her last throw with the world off her shoulders knowing she had won, she was able to relax and show what she had been doing in practice all week.”

Saunders, the NCAA Indoor champion who has made 18-meter throws look fairly routine, could manage no better than 17.39m going into the sixth round.  Smith: “Raven went back to her high school technique. She had a 16-meter warm-up throw with the 5k, then out of nowhere she started yanking her head.”

And how did he snap her out of it? “Connie told her to keep her damn head stil!”

“Connie,” is, of course, Connie Price Smith the SIU head coach and many time US shot put champion.

Next week, the SIU trio will head back to Eugene for the USA Championships. How will they fare?

According to Coach Smith, the numbers so far are looking pretty good.

Cory Martin Interview

Cory was instructing at the Wheaton North HS Throws and Running Clinic in December 2013.  Dan McQuaid spoke with him about his past throwing success and plans for the future.

The meet report from the 2008 NCAA Championships where Cory was a double winner in the shot put and the hammer can be found in this blog.