The fun began on Day 1 when former Tar Heel All-American Madison Wiltrout finished third in the women’s javelin, in a nice ending to what had been an up-and-down season.
Plagued all year by foot and back issues–nothing major, just “typical javelin stuff” according to Coach Nikfar–Madison captured her third ACC Conference title in May with a promising 58.51m toss, but ended up eighth at the 2023 NCAA Championships after placing third in 2022.
In all her comps leading up to USAs, Madison used a short approach as a way of reducing the stress on her body, but Coach Nikfar says she insisted on going with a full runup in Eugene.
“She was adamant about it,” he says. “Madison is strong, and could throw far enough from a short approach to make any domestic final, but she was not going to play it safe at USAs.”
Her temerity paid off in round one when she produced the 55.51m toss that eventually got her on the podium next to Maggie Malone (58.79m) and Maddie Harris (60.73m).
Madison has not hit the 63.80m automatic qualifying mark for Worlds, nor is she close to the top thirty-six in ranking. She would have until the end of the month to chase one or the other, but agreed with Coach Nikfar that the wiser move right now is to shut it down for 2023, get healthy, and come out firing in 2024, when she hopes to put the experience she gained in Eugene to good use.
Her coach says that competing in a “high octane meet” like the USAs provides an athlete with a “clear view of what they have to do to make their technique tolerant to high pressure situations.”
He described Madison’s performance in Eugene as, “good, not great. She did a good job, and I think any time a highly-driven athlete finishes anywhere but on top of the podium, if I call it ‘great’ they won’t believe me. But, she learned a lot and got more experience, and she’s ready to get some rest.”
Another of Coach Nikfar’s athletes, hammer thrower Alex Young, showed how valuable championship experience can be when he earned a podium spot in Eugene despite coming in with a season’s best of 73.38m–well below his 78.52m PB.
Alex opened with a season’s best 73.52m, which put him third behind Winkler (78.23m) and Haugh (74.95m) until Eager jumped him with a 74.28m toss in round two.
But Eager, who PB’d earlier this year with a 76.58m chuck at Ironwood, was unable to improve on that second throw, and Geist, who reached 75.97m and 75.25m in the two comps leading up to USAs, topped out with a 73.48m fourth-rounder.
From his spot near the cage, Coach Nikfar could hear the sound of opportunity knocking.
“If you leave you leave the door open,” he observed afterwards, “a guy who is talented and has experience will get through.”
Alex’s six USATF Championships appearances, including four podium finishes and one win (in 2017), made him one of the most battle-tested athletes in any event at USAs, and allowed him to stay calm as the competition wore on with, in Coach Nikfar’s words, “no freakouts and no intent to try to break records.”
Alex’s 75.87m toss in round four demonstrated his veteran moxie. It was more than two meters under his PB, but more than two over his season’s best prior to USAs. Most importantly, it moved him into third place and earned him his third World Championships appearance.
It was hard to imagine a first-year pro having any chance against that Murderers’ Row, especially a first-year pro who had finished no better than thirteenth in her two previous USATF Championships, but Coach Nikfar says that Jillian Shippee, whom he began coaching when he came to UNC in the fall of 2019, had two things going for her: consistency in training and boldness in competition.
They set a “manageable” goal of making the top eight, and decided that anything beyond that would be a bonus, but in a phone call a few days before USAs, Coach Nikfar expressed optimism about Jillian’s chances. “If you can be bold in a competition like this,” he told me, “a lot will come your way.”
Jillian got right after it when the festivities began, going 72.40m in round one, a distance which would almost certainly garner her a top-eight finish. Her “manageable” goal fulfilled, she found herself in fourth place behind Brooke, DeAnna, and Annette going into round two, with Kassanavoid sitting fifth.
That’s rarified air for someone who finished ninth at NCAAs her senior year, and it would have understandable if Jillian lost her equilibrium in the bigness of the moment. Instead, she stepped in for her second throw and smashed a PB of almost two meters. That toss–74.93m–surpassed the automatic qualifying mark for Worlds and elevated her into third place, where she stayed until Kassanavoid jumped her in round six.
“It was amazing,” Coach Nikfar said afterwards, “to have an athlete be able to endure that pressure and also thrive in it and just take big swings every throw.”
Jillian will now join Anderson, Price, and Kassanavoid on the squad for Budapest, and whatever happens there, Coach Nikfar says that making the team showed her that she belongs among the best in the event.
“The sense of belonging is a thing that matters,” he says. “She got the best version of that ever at USAs. These are people she watched for a long time, and now she’s on a USA roster with them.”
The Big D!
This is getting redundant, but how about ol’ Daniel Ståhl laying the wood to the best discus dudes in the world once again at the London Diamond League meeting? His winning distance of 67.03m was not epic, but on the broadcast it looked like it rained the morning of the comp, so the air might have been a little heavy or the ring a little slick. Either way, a win is a win when you’re going against the top guys, and the Big Man is looking mighty dangerous as the World Championships loom.
The book about Daniel’s career that my friend Roger Einbecker and I have been putting together with Daniel’s former coach Vésteinn Hafsteinsson has been sent to a graphic designer and should be ready soon. We are going to self-publish this one, and as this is our first rodeo I’m sure there will be a few more obstacles to overcome, but in the meantime, Daniel, keep up the good work!
At this rate, we may have to start working on a sequel.
The United States is stacked in the women’s hammer. How stacked? A top-30 ranking is enough to qualify an athlete for the World Championships in Budapest, and 11 of the women on the start list for today’s 2023 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships are in the top 30.
Because Brooke Andersen was nice enough to win the event at last year’s Worlds in Eugene, the United States gets to send four women’s hammer throwers–Brooke and three others–to Budapest. The competition for those three spots begins at 4:00pm Pacific time today, and it will be fierce. Let’s take a quick look at the contenders.
Several of the athletes in today’s comp have made senior international teams in recent years, and three have gotten on the podium. Among them is defending World champ Andersen, whose Budapest bye allowed her the freedom to spend two weeks competing in Europe in June rather than staying home to prep a mini-peak for USAs.
While across the pond, Brooke competed in four meets in four different countries, and won them all. The prize money from meets like those along with support from USATF and Nike have allowed Brooke to quit her job at Chipotle and finally devote herself full time to training. While she probably misses the employee discount, Brooke has performed at an extremely high level all season and on May 20th became the third woman ever to crack the 80-meter barrier, something which she may well do again today in Eugene.
Janee’ Kassanavoid took the bronze at last year’s Worlds, and is a favorite to grab one of the three open spots on this year’s squad for Budapest. After smashing a 78.00m PB in 2022, Janee’ has shown consistency in 2023–three comps over 75.00m–but has yet to hit the Big One. The USATF Championships has been known to bring out the best in the women hammer throwers, though, so this might be the day.
Speaking of hitting the Big One, two years ago at the Olympic Trials, 2019 World Champion DeAnna Price set the current American record of 80.31m before falling afoul of the hip and foot injuries which derailed her hopes of medaling in Tokyo and made 2022 all about rehabbing. The good news for hammer fans is that she’s baaaaack, and in spite of a small issue with a benign growth on her foot earlier this spring, looks a lot like her old self. She, too, has been over 75.00m three times this season, with a best of 77.25m at the Ironwood Classic. As to her ability to make the team and contend for the podium in Budapest, DeAnna’s husband/coach JC Lambert says that “it will ultimately come down to staying healthy. She had a couple of training PBs this year for the first time since 2021, so if she can get enough high quality reps in training this summer, I won’t rule out another 80-meter throw.”
Another veteran looking for a return to PB Land is Annette Echikunwoke, who was twelfth in last year’s Worlds. Annette posted her all-time best of 75.49m in 2021, and came close to equaling it in Tucson this May, hitting an even 75.00m at the USATF Throws Festival. That was her only comp of 75.00m or more this season, and she’ll need to throw at least that far to make the Budapest squad. But if you know her story, you know that the challenge of popping off a season’s best at the USATF Championships will not intimidate Annette. She is tough, determined, and battle-tested, and unlikely to wilt under the pressure of today’s comp.
Maggie Ewen, who dominated in the shot put last night, made the US team for the 2017 Worlds as a hammer thrower, but largely set that implement aside after finishing 4th in the shot at the 2019 Worlds.
In the fall of 2021, just after Maggie won the shot at the Diamond League final, I asked her coach, Kyle Long, if they’d ever go back to trying to compete in both events. He described a shot/hammer double as possible, but expressed concern that trying to compete at a world class level in both would be tricky. “It would take a lot of experimental training,” he cautioned, “and the result might be mental exhaustion. The women have pushed the event so far, it might be disrespectful to think ‘Oh yeah, we can do both.’”
But he and Maggie agreed that she had a lot of untapped potential in the hammer, and focusing only on the shot made Maggie miss her days at Arizona State where she won NCAA titles in both (and the disc as well).
They started training hammer again in 2021, but competed only three times. This year, Maggie has thrown the hammer in five comps, and launched a 75.10m PB in Tucson. And, funny thing, splitting her time between the two events has made her a better shot putter.
For one thing, Kyle says, “the hammer is a good specific strength exercise. It trains the dynamic aspect of throwing and is a heck of a workout for Maggie, so even if she doesn’t make the team for Budapest, we’ll keep throwing it in practice.”
Then, there’s the mental aspect. It turns out that training the same implement every day might have caused Maggie to overthink, and certainly made it harder to shake off a bad performance.
“When she was throwing three events in college,” Kyle explained, “it was easy to move on from a bad day or a bad session because there was always another event to focus on.”
Maggie has described the hammer as a “stress reliever” and after winning the shot title last night with a remarkably consistent series (4 of 6 throws at 19.76m or better) should be in great spirits as she tries to earn a second slot in Budapest.
So far this season, Rachel Tanczos has been an exception to the rule that throwers always struggle during their first year as pros. Rachel has done the opposite of struggling, instead surpassing her 2022 PB in seven of eight meets as a pro. In her most recent outing, at the Ironwood Classic, she blasted a 73.87m toss that stands as the ninth farthest throw in the world this year.
How did this happen?
According to Rachel, “it’s a combo of things. When I was in college at Notre Dame, I competed in shot, disc, and hammer, so I just did not get a ton of reps as a hammer thrower. Now, I don’t have to worry about training three events or going to classes. And I’m really happy to be working with AG Kruger at Ashland University.”
Rachel recently made another change that should help her effort to make the podium today.
“Until a couple of weeks ago,” she says, “I was waitressing at a local brewery, so some days I’d throw, lift, then work five hours on my feet. And I also had to decline a couple of opportunities to compete because I couldn’t get out of my weekend shifts. Finally, I decided that I didn’t move to Ashland to be a waitress.”
Will the additional rest allow Rachel to get near her 73.87m PB and get in the hunt for Budapest?
“Me being a first-year pro, I don’t feel like I have too much pressure, “she explained. “I’m not sure if I’m on too many people’s radars, but hopefully I can be someone to apply some pressure and maybe come out and make some noise.”
Another rookie on the pro tour hoping to get in the mix today is Jillian Shippee, whose coach, Amin Nikfar, describes her as a “talented athlete, who has developed a lot as a hammer thrower lately.” Jillian demonstrated that development when she PB’d by nearly three meters this season, hitting 73.01m in April.
The secret to her success? Time on task, according to Coach Nikfar. “We just throw a lot,” he told me recently. “Jillian is really good with consistency, and also with being bold on throws. If you can be bold in competition, a lot will come your way. I always tell my athletes, the meek might inherit the earth, but they ain’t gonna get six throws.”
Look for Jillian to get the full six tonight, and if any of the Big Guns falter, to make a play for the podium.
Erin Reese showed boldness at the 2021 Trials where she blasted a PB of 72.53m. A lousy 2022 season ensued, but she is back in form this year and has gone over 70 meters six times, including a 73.47m bomb in April and a 72.48m toss at Ironwood. She’s tough under pressure (you can read more about her exploits here) and like Jillian, looks ready to barge her way into the conversation at USAs.
Another up-and-comer, Maddie Malone, smashed a 72.37m PB to take second at the recent NCAA meet in Austin. That was her first time over 70 meters, and though she may not be quite ready to compete for a Worlds spot, the experience she gets tonight will serve her well as she embarks on her own career as a pro.
Janeah Stewart, the 2018 NCAA champion, hit 75.43m in 2019 but took time away from the sport to become mother to a little girl named Ja’Myri, who can of late be found running around at practice harassing coach John Smith. “She’s a pickpocket,” he said recently. “She’ll grab your keys or phone if you’re not looking. Great kid, by the way.”
Smith says that it has taken two-and-a-half years for Janeah to finally get back to her old strength and performance levels, but that just in the last thirty days they are again seeing training PBs.
Stewart has been remarkably consistent this year, throwing between 70.00m and 71.63m in six of seven comps. And Smith is a legendary master of the art of peaking, as evinced when Jalani Davis came up big last night in the shot and made the squad for Budapest.
With Smith in her corner, Stewart cannot be counted out.
Another exciting young hammer thrower, Alyssa Wilson, will sadly not be competing tonight. Wilson caused a sensation at the 2021 Trials when she launched a 73.75m PB in qualification, and followed that with a remarkable 2022 campaign during which she went 74.78m to take second at the NCAAs and 71.73m for sixth at USAs. Unfortunately, a back injury has put a premature end to her first year as a pro.
If you want to be the best hammer thrower in the world, you’ve got to start with some innate talent, and Brooke Andersen had plenty of that.
Nathan Ott, her longtime coach, says that when he first began training Brooke at Northern Arizona University in 2014, he knew she was special.
“I thought she could be the American record holder someday,” he recalled recently. “She was like the perfect block of granite or lump of clay to an artist. She was quick and dynamic and very coachable.”
Brooke threw 59.37m during that first season with Ott, and by 2018 had improved to 74.20m. At the same time, her event was becoming more and more competitive in the United States. In early June of that year, Gwen Berry pushed the American record to 77.78m. Three weeks later, at the 2018 USATF Championships in Des Moines, DeAnna Price raised it to 78.12m.
As talented as Brooke was, she and Coach Ott quickly realized that in order to compete with the best in the US, she had to develop the mental strength necessary to throw well under pressure, something that, according to Ott, is harder than people think.
He says that many people mistake determination–the willingness to run through a brick wall–for mental toughness. But the kind of mental strength Brooke needed was more subtle.
“You can’t win in a high-pressure competition,” he explained, “by trying to crush your throws. You have to be able to stay within yourself and throw with some finesse. That’s not easy to do when there’s a lot on the line, and I was in many competitions with Brooke where she tightened up and underperformed.”
A big breakthrough came at the 2019 USATF Championships, also in Des Moines. Early on in that comp, Maggie Ewen, a rival of Brooke’s from their college days, hit a PB of 75.04m. With Price and Berry also in the field, it seemed likely that Brooke would have to find a way to beat Maggie if she wanted to finish in the top three and make the squad for the 2019 Worlds.
Earlier that season, Brooke had thrown 76.75m at the Ironwood Classic, but that was a comparatively low key comp. Could she answer Ewen’s PB with a spot at the World Championships on the line?
It turned out she could. Brooke reached 75.30m in round three, and that was enough to get her on the podium behind Price–who extended her American record to 78.24m–and Berry.
Looking back, Ott says the 2019 USAs represented an important moment in Brooke’s career.
“She was always in Maggie’s shadow during college,” he explained. “Then when Brooke finally beat her, she was like, ‘I can beat Maggie now. I can do this!’ It was a turning point.”
The next pivotal moment would come at the 2022 Worlds in Eugene, but first Brooke had to endure some painful lessons about competing on the sport’s biggest stages. A tricky thing about professional athletics is that as you climb the ladder of success, the pressure to succeed can seem to grow and mutate like Ursula, the evil octopus lady in The Little Mermaid. In college, an athlete’s first NCAA Championships can feel nerve-wracking. Later, it’s their first USATF Championships, or at least the first one where they have a chance to make an international team. Then, when they get past that hurdle, as Brooke did in 2019, they show up for their first Worlds or Olympics and there’s Ursula sitting by the cage looking bigger and badder than ever. So it went for Brooke at the 2019 Worlds in Doha, where she finished twentieth with a best throw of 68.46m.
Two years later, at the 2021 US Olympic Trials, Brooke finished second to Price with an impressive 77.72m toss, a distance that would surely get her a medal in Tokyo if she could replicate it there. But she couldn’t.
She made it through the qualification round with a throw of 74.00m–a big improvement over her Doha performance–but could do no better than 72.16m for a tenth-place finish in the final.
When the 2022 season began, Brooke quickly demonstrated that she’d become the best hammer thrower in the world by raising her PB to 79.02m and routinely surpassing the 77-meter line.
In June she won her first US title with a 77.96m bomb, and in July she and Ott traveled to Eugene for the 2022 World Championships, which she had a great chance to win–if she could throw to her potential.
Brooke made it through the qualification round easily, but got a little jumpy during warmups for the final and blasted her only two practice attempts into the cage.
“Hey,” Ott told her as the competition began in earnest, “you’re in great shape. Be patient, put one into the field, and you’ll be fine.”
Her first-round throw of 74.81m gave them both a chance to breathe, but she fouled in round two and reached only 72.74m in round three. Meanwhile, Canada’s Camryn Rogers took the lead with a toss of 75.52m. She was followed by Janee’ Kassanavoid, who put herself into the medal hunt with a second-round throw of 74.86m.
There is always a short break after three rounds in a major final, as the lineup is reordered to reflect the current standings. When the comp resumed, it could have gone either way for Brooke. If she gave into her anxiety and tried to smash her final three attempts, her odds of winning were not good. If she regained her composure and threw like she had all season, she’d be tough to beat.
In Des Moines in 2019, after she’d qualified for her first Worlds team, Brooke told me that when she needed to find her rhythm she would tell herself to just make the hammer go 62 meters. That helped her to relax and throw easy which, paradoxically, often resulted in bigger distances.
I’m not sure if she used that cue on her fourth attempt at the 2022 Worlds, but when the hammer landed, it looked to have gone somewhere between 75 and 80 meters.
Unfortunately, the ring official raised a red flag signaling a foul.
Brooke begged to differ, and calmly walked over to the scorer’s table to file a protest. They were already examining the video, and assured her that the call would be overturned. A few minutes later, she was credited with a distance of 77.42m.
Take that, Ursula.
Now securely in relaxo mode, Brooke improved to 77.56m in round five and finished with an emphatic 78.96m to take the title over Rodgers and Kassanavoid, who did not improve upon their earlier marks.
Ott, understandably, was proud. “To have her be in that state of mind where she was pressing, but then break out of it…It would have been so easy to stay on that path, but she found a way to relax. And once she found that comfort zone, she wasn’t going to lose. You could see it in her eyes. If Camryn or Janee’ had made a big throw, Brooke was ready to respond.”
Brooke has continued to improve this season, and after opening with marks of 79.80m and 78.69m at her first two meets in April, in May she became the third woman ever, after DeAnna Price and Poland’s Anita Włodarczyk, to throw 80 meters.
Is the World Record–82.98m held by Wlodarczyk–a possibility?
Brooke is, according to Coach Ott, still developing. “We don’t know her ceiling,” he says. “She keeps getting better, and has not plateaued. I know what she responds to in training, and her technique is getting sharper. She still moves quickly and is dynamic, and she’s got more there. The World Record has always been a crazy dream, so we’ll see.”
The women’s hammer at the 2023 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships will be contested on Sunday at 4:00pm Pacific time.
Tune in. You never know when something crazy might happen.
Every summer, legions of coaches, trainers, and sports psychologists do their best to help throwers hit PBs at major championships, and every summer they largely fail. At the 2022 Worlds in Eugene for example, 235 athletes spread across the four throwing events produced a total of seven PBs, proof that it is not easy to execute smooth, rhythmic throws when your dreams hang in the balance.
Going into the 2019 NCAA Championships, hammer thrower Erin Reese–a senior representing Indiana State University–had a PB of 65.33m, which ranked her twelfth in a field of twenty-four. In order to realize her dream of reaching the podium, she first had to secure a spot in the final, which would likely take a throw in the 67-meter range–in other words, a substantial PB.
Unfortunately, when the competition began, Erin fouled her first attempt. Her second measured just 59.64m. After three rounds, the field would be reduced to nine throwers, so the challenge going into her third attempt was clear: hit 67 meters or hit the road.
She was not exactly brimming with confidence. “I went up to my coach, Brandan Bettenhausen,” she recalled recently, “with tears in my eyes and said, ‘I can’t believe this is how my college career is going to end!’ Then I started really crying.”
Bettenhausen was having none of it.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Are you kidding? You’ve put in too much work to go out like this. You are going to get in there, you are going to throw far, and you are going to make the final!’”
And she did. With one last do-or-die attempt remaining, Erin smashed a three-meter PB–68.36m, to be exact–which lifted her into fourth place.
“After that,” she says, “I was like, ‘Okay! Great way to end my career! Let’s pack it in!'”
Once more, Bettenhausen begged to differ.
“Get in there,” he told her. “And do that again.”
In round four, Erin improved to 69.55m. In round five, she broke the coveted 70-meter barrier by 46 centimeters. She finished with a fourth consecutive PB, 71.06m, to take second behind Cal’s Camryn Rogers, who also produced a lifetime best–71.50m–that day.
“All year,” according to Erin, “Coach had been telling me that I was capable of throwing 70 meters, but I didn’t believe him. Finally, in the finals at the NCAA Championships I decided to trust him and trust myself, and it happened.”
Prior to that comp, Erin had considered the possibility of embarking on a pro career in the hammer, and her performance at NCAAs gave her the “clarification” she needed to take that step.
Erin chose to stick around at Indiana State as a volunteer assistant in order to continue training with Bettenhausen. She also began working full time as a mental health case manager for middle and high school students, which meant holding training sessions before and after work.
Then 2020 happened. During the lockdown, the only place Erin and Bettenhausen could find to throw was a junkyard. One day Erin broke her foot on a piece of junk.
A less determined person might have reconsidered their life choices at that point, but Erin persisted and came out smoking in 2021, surpassing 70 meters in three of her first four comps.
At the Olympic Trials that year, the prelims and finals in the throwing events were held on different days as they would be in Tokyo, and Erin blasted a PB of 72.53m on her second attempt in qualification. That got her into the final two days later, but qualification marks did not carry over and the best she could muster there was 67.88m for a seventh-place finish.
Up to that point, Erin had been a three-turn hammer thrower, but she and Bettenhausen decided that if she was going to be able to keep up in what was becoming one of the most competitive events for US women, she needed to make the switch to four turns.
Throwers who have tried will tell you that making a major technical change as a pro can be tough. It is extremely difficult to throw well under pressure if your technique feels unstable, and when you are fighting to make teams and qualify for funding, every competition comes with pressure. So it was not surprising when Erin struggled to reach 70 meters in 2022 after hitting it repeatedly in 2021.
Not surprising, but also not easy.
“I came back from every meet,” Erin says of that season, “and cried and asked Brandan, ‘What am I doing?’”
It turns out what they were doing was laying the groundwork for a solid 2023 campaign.
Comfortable now using four turns, Erin has been over 70 meters at six of nine competitions this season, including a PB 73.47m at her opener in April and a solid 72.48m at the Ironwood Classic in June.
Erin says she “dreams all the time” about making the team for the 2023 World Championships, but knows it will not be easy even with 2022 gold-medalist Brooke Andersen receiving a bye into Budapest.
Erin is one of a half-dozen young throwers who, in addition to the ladies mentioned above, could conceivably challenge for a spot on the team in what may be the most competitive event of the entire US Championships.
But making the squad will likely require another PB at the most pressure-packed moment of her career.
Erin welcomes the challenge and says she expects this to be the “funnest” competition ever.
Prelims and finals will not be separated this year as they were in 2021, so you can see the whole comp in one chunk on Sunday. The fun will begin at 4:00pm Pacific time.
That’s what my friend Sean Denard, the throws coach at UCLA, told me one morning recently as we sipped iced tea in a hotel lobby in Austin, Texas.
We were in town for the 2023 NCAA meet, Sean to coach, me to spectate, and we’d found a pleasant place to relax during the heat of the day.
I’d been telling Sean about my walk home from the track the night before. Mike Myers stadium was a straight shot from our hotel, maybe a twenty-minute stroll along one of the avenues that connect the University of Texas campus with downtown Austin.
But I have a terrible sense of direction, and after getting up at 4:30am for my flight, then scrambling around in the sweltering heat all evening covering the men’s hammer, javelin and shot comps, I found myself at 10:30pm wobbling along a nearly deserted street unsure of whether or not it would lead me back to the Westin.
Luckily, I was not completely alone. There was one man walking in the same direction about twenty meters ahead, and a traffic light delayed him long enough for me to catch up.
“Hello!” I said “Is this the way to the downtown area?”
“Yes,” he replied, “I think so.”
That was invitation enough for me, and I fell into step alongside him.
I assumed he too had come from the meet, and he had. It turns out he coached at Maryland, so we spoke about their shot putter Jeff Kline who had finished 19th in that night’s comp. We spoke about the ways that joining the Big 10 Conference had changed Maryland athletics, and how the addition of USC and UCLA might cause further changes. We spoke of the difficulty universities face in balancing athletic opportunities for men and women. We spoke of the problem of homelessness that plagues Austin and so many other American cities. Before long, I’d forgotten about feeling tired and lost.
Then a car passed us and stopped at a light.
“Hey,” my new acquaintance exclaimed. “That car has no driver!”
My first thought was, “Well, I’m not the only one delirious from the heat.” But I looked and saw he was right. It was a medium-sized car, white with cameras attached to the roof and nobody behind the wheel. The light changed and off it went, as did my new friend when he spotted his hotel one avenue over.
“He was a really nice guy,” I told Denard the next day.
“That was Andrew Valmon,” he informed me. “You were walking with an Olympian.”
Denard was right. Andrew Valmon was not only an Olympian but, according to my Google machine, a two time gold-medalist in the 4×400 relay. He also helped set a World Record in that event at the 1993 World Championships.
Which got me thinking. Coach Valmon is a World Record holder, and I was able to catch up to him on our walk from the stadium. And not many people know this, but a couple of years ago I defeated 2016 Olympic discus champ Chris Harting in a spirited game of air hockey. Was this a trend? Could it be that I am just now entering my athletic prime? Something to contemplate.
The second walk took place two days later. My wife Alice accompanied me on the trip to Austin but stayed back at the hotel on the first two nights of competition as she is averse to watching strangers run, jump and throw in 95-degree heat. The night of the discus final, though, was also the night of the men’s 5,000 meters, whose field included Parker Wolfe, the grandson of my wife’s beloved cousin.
Parker ran a great race, so Alice was in fine spirits on our walk back to the Westin after the meet. The only thing that could make the night even better for her was making new friends and telling them about Parker.
That’s how we ended up talking with Andrew Ferris, a distance coach at Iona. He happened to be walking in the same direction. He happened to pause at the same intersection. He happened to look like a distance guy. He stood no chance of avoiding us.
Before the light changed, Coach Ferris knew all about Parker, and we knew that Coach Ferris was originally from Australia. And you know how Australians are often stereotyped as good, friendly people? Coach Ferris fit that mold. When he found out I was a throws guy, he told me about his home club and how it served as sort of a throwing hub in Australia.
“Lots of throwers stop by to train,” he said. “Koji Murofushi did a camp there once.”
Speaking of Australian stereotypes, I couldn’t resist asking him about another.
“I have to know,” I interjected as we resumed our stroll. “How in the hell do Australians survive when just about every creature there wants to kill you?’
“Ah, we’re used to it,” he replied, with a laugh. “But, you know which animal kills the most tourists?”
My wife never passes up a chance to disparage snakes, so that was her guess. I went with crocodiles.
“Nope. Conch shells.”
We were shocked.
“Yep. Tourists see a conch, they reach down to pick it up, but they don’t realize the creature inside of it is poisonous. Touch one, and you’re dead in fifteen minutes. Can’t get to a hospital in fifteen minutes, can you? Here’s my hotel.”
We wished Coach Ferris good night and good luck for the rest of the meet and on any future visits home as well. He shared one more quick story before we parted.
“When I was a little kid,” he told us, “maybe seven or eight years old, I was riding my bike and saw what I thought was a stick poking up from the ground. I smacked the stick with my hand, but it turned out to be a snake, an eastern brown snake, the most poisonous in Australia. I smacked it right in its head, but for some reason it didn’t bite me. I’d have been a goner if he had, so I’m lucky to even be here. Nice meeting you!”
With that, Coach Ferris disappeared into his hotel. But he wasn’t the only one feeling fortunate. Sometimes it takes a close encounter with a poisonous snake or killer conch to make a guy appreciate his luck, but for me walking hand in hand with my favorite person towards a cold beer on a sweltering night was reminder enough.
All in due time
This was Cal shot putter Jeff Duensing’s meet progression during the 2023 outdoor season:
18 March: 18.75m
1 April: 18.91m
15 April: 18.06m
29 April: 18.81m
13 May: 18.94M
24 May: 19.80m
7 June: 19.98m
The 19.98m was more than a meter farther than his 2022 outdoor PB, and he hit that big throw when it counted the most: at the recent NCAA Championships.
Every thrower dreams of having a huge breakthrough at the most important time of the year, so when I saw Jeff’s coach, Mo Saatara, the next day I asked him how they’d managed it.
“He finally believed me that he could throw far with rhythm,” Mo replied, and we shared a nice laugh but I needed more detail. Inquiring minds and all that. So I called Mo a few days later and he filled me in.
“Every year,” he told me, “I sit down with my throwers and say ‘Okay, what is the next thing we need to improve?’ For sure, everyone can keep getting stronger each year, but it may be that a thrower needs to change their approach in certain ways. We try to target areas where they have the most room to develop and focus on one main thing. This year with Jeff, we decided to work on rhythm and timing.”
The effort Mo and Jeff put in during the fall and winter seemed to pay dividends right away as Jeff opened his indoor campaign with a 19.39m PB. At his next comp, though, he fell back to 18.09m, an indication that more work was required before the changes they’d made would hold up in competition.
At that point, they agreed to “sacrifice the beginning and middle of the outdoor season” and go back to working meticulously on Jeff’s rhythm.
Mo says they “had to keep the training volume higher than normal” as the outdoor season began, “and this kept his performances low. We looked at what parts of his throw were off, and the main factor was the timing of his delivery. Working on that required a high volume of throwing, so we knew Jeff would not be in his best competition shape early in the season. But, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that in a technique event like the shot put, which takes a long time to master, you have to be willing to spend a longer time in certain training phases. A lot of people think you have to change the training stimuli every three-to-four weeks or even every two weeks, but to achieve results that last you have to give the athlete a chance to adapt. Sometimes, that means spending ten or twelve weeks in a phase of training.”
As you can see from the numbers cited above, Jeff’s competition results were not outwardly promising during March and April.
But, Mo says Jeff showed definite signs of improvement at the Pac 12 meet in May, and his training numbers indicated he was rounding into form as regionals approached.
“We keep records of training results,” he explained, “and one thing we look at is performance trends in training because they indicate what you can do in competition. It’s not necessarily a direct correlation because in a competition you have a lot more adrenaline, so you don’t have to throw seventy feet in practice to throw it in a meet. But Jeff’s training results were getting better, and going into regionals I thought he could do somewhere between 19.60m and 20 meters. The 19.80m gave him confidence that he could compete with the best guys, and that really helped him in Austin.”
Going forward, Mo believes that Jeff will continue to improve.
“He gets overlooked sometimes because he’s only six feet tall, and he’s not flexible, so he doesn’t necessarily hit beautiful positions. But he’s explosive and coordinated, and he works really hard on technical mastery. And now, he understands the value of rhythm.”
Victories, large and small
Two years ago, Annette Echikunwoke was napping in her room at a training center in Kisarazu, Japan, when she was awakened by a knock at her door. The visitor turned out to be a coach from the Nigerian national team there to inform her that because the Nigerian Federation had failed to administer the required number of drug tests in the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games, Annette and several of her teammates were no longer eligible to compete in Tokyo. It was her twenty-fifth birthday. She had been scheduled to make her Olympic debut three days later.
One year ago, as the 2022 USATF Championships approached, Annette once again found herself in a precarious situation. After the Olympic debacle, she’d applied with World Athletics to switch her allegiance back to the United States. A week before the USATF Champs, she had still not received a definitive answer.
“I would come out of practice,” she said recently when asked to reflect on those days, “and cry in my car because I felt so overwhelmed by all the uncertainty.”
The Sunday before the hammer comp, Annette sat in church praying with one of her religious mentors. “She reminded me that it is up to God to open some doors and shut other doors, and if competing at USAs was meant to happen, it would happen. That prayer touched me and helped me handle the stress of not knowing.”
That Wednesday, Annette woke up at her place in Cincinnati where she lives and trains and saw a message on her phone informing her that she was cleared to compete. The hammer comp was on Thursday. In Eugene.
Somehow, she arranged a flight, made it through processing, tossed an SB of 73.76m and earned a spot on the US squad for Worlds.
The challenges Annette has faced this summer, so far anyway, have been much less dramatic.
Last weekend’s USATF NYC Grand Prix meeting for example, was scheduled at 9am, and Annette says “it rained all day on Friday, then into the competition on Saturday morning until ten minutes after we were finished. Then it stopped and the sun came out. But it was no problem. I’m used to throwing in the rain in Cincinnati.”
And she’d heard in the days before the meet that the ring at Icahn Stadium was “not the most even surface, so the rain probably balanced it out in our favor.”
Annette ended up being the only hammer thrower among the men and women who made it through six rounds without fouling, and she won with a series (69.70m, 68.36m, 69.15m, 68.72m, 70.69m, 71.11m) that showed remarkable consistency.
But, as in most of her comps this year, Annette was frustrated by her inability to hit a big throw.
Her season’s best remains the 75.00m she tossed at the USATF Throws Festival in May, and in June she knocked out her best throw ever in Europe–73.66m at the Irena Szewinska Memorial meeting in Poland. “But,” says Annette, “I’m stronger this year, so there is more to come out in terms of distance. My goal is still to distinguish myself as one of the world’s best hammer throwers.”
She might have taken an important step in that direction in New York. It was the first time this season that Annette’s longtime coach, Susan Seaton, was able to see her throw in person, and afterwards she told Annette that she knew “exactly what we have to do going forward.”
According to Annette, one key to unlocking some big throws might be to give herself more grace when struggling at practice.
She says a “tiny part of the reason I haven’t thrown as far as I could this season is because I’m so self-critical. In just about every throw, I’m very aware of what’s going on with my technique, and I’m always telling myself I’ve got to do better.”
To encourage Annette to be a little more patient with herself, Coach Seaton shared an interview Ryan Crouser gave after breaking his own World Record at the recent LA Grand Prix. In it, Ryan reflects on a difficult period he went through in 2018, and explains how he climbed out of a technical rut by focusing not on the many things he thought he was doing wrong but on one simple thing each session that he was doing right.
Annette says that since watching the video, she has done her best to “believe in practice and not be so self-critical in practice, and to encourage myself in practice rather than just trying to be positive in meets.”
Bottom line, “we have to remember to applaud ourselves when we do something right.”
Her next competition will be on July 9th at the 2023 USATF Championships when she will take on a stellar field that will include 2022 World champion Brooke Andersen, 2022 World bronze medalist Janee’ Kassanavoid, 2019 World champion DeAnna Price, former NCAA champ Maggie Ewen who set a new PB of 75.10m in May, and first-year pro Alyssa Wilson who has a PB of 74.78m.
As defending champ, Brooke has a bye for Budapest so Annette’s job will be to finish ahead of at least one of the other contenders from the above group, although she reminded me that someone unexpected might make a run for the podium as well.
“Anything can happen,” she cautioned. “There are the marks on paper, and then there is what is actually going to happen in the competition. Look at me last year. I don’t think a lot of people even knew I was trying to switch my allegiance, so when I showed up at USAs, people were probably like, ‘What the heck is happening?’”
However things turn out in Eugene, Annette will stay positive going forward.
“I know my future is bright” she says. “I’m here for a reason, and I’ll keep working hard until God says ‘Do something else!’”
If you happen to walk through the fieldhouse at the University of Mississippi one day and come across this scene…
…do not be alarmed. The Ole Miss football team has not begun recruiting infants. As far as I know. Although, one more loss to Alabama and…never mind.
Anyway, that child is unlikely to ever to set foot on the gridiron, so all you football recruiters…stand down. If you coach at a major track program, however, you might want to grab a letter of intent and a couple of crayons and head to Oxford, Mississippi, immediately because if genetics mean anything, that young lady has serious potential.
Her name is Ja’Myri, and her mother is 2018 NCAA hammer champion Janeah Stewart.
This weekend in Spokane, Janeah will be looking for her third USATF Indoor title in the weight, her first since giving birth to Ja’Myri last April.
It has been a long and difficult path from that NCAA hammer title, which she won with a throw of 72.92m, to these 2022 USATF Indoor Championships, where she is seeded third in the weight with a season’s best throw of 23.98m.
After graduating from Ole Miss, Janeah stuck around Oxford to train with her college throws coach John Smith, and in 2019 raised her hammer PB to 75.43m. That December, she launched the weight 25.08m, and was preparing to defend her national title when Covid put a halt to the season.
Smith’s entire throws crew, the college kids along with Janeah and shot putter Jessica Ramsey, were suddenly left with no place to train. But if you know Coach Smith, you will not be surprised to hear that he did not go home to sit on the couch and wait for better times.
“I spent three days driving all over the place, trying to find a place to train,” he recalled recently. “Then I found out that the people who sold us our house also owned a piece of land about ten miles outside of town.”
Smith describes the place as a “semi-abandoned” sportsplex, which the owners were happy to let him use. Exploring it, he found a large pavillion with a concrete floor that was “perfect for throwing.”
Covid regulations forbid him from working with the college athletes, but he installed throwing rings for Stewart and Ramsey and got to work.
They spent the next several months banging away at this ersatz facility that Smith refers to as “the Barn,” and he credits Ramsey’s 20.12m bomb at the 2021 Olympic Trials to the work they accomplished there in 2020.
Janeah appeared to be on her way to a similar breakthrough with the hammer. According to Smith, she hit thirty-two training PB’s at the Barn, including a seventy-seven meter toss with the competition implement.
Stewart remembers the excitement of throwing “really well” there, and it would be the memory of those throws and the feeling of being on the brink of a potentially great career that would carry her through when life got even more complicated.
First, she contracted the virus late in July of 2020. That cost her a month of training. Not long after, she realized she was pregnant. She did not lift or throw again for a year.
Smith says that in his experience very few throwers are able to return to the sport after giving birth. “I’d estimate the odds were about eighty-percent against Janeah coming back,” he says now.
It is not hard to understand why. Making a living as a hammer thrower is a dicey proposition even if you are only trying to support yourself. You have to be among the absolute best in the world to earn any prize money, and making it to that level requires an almost narcissistic level of focus on your training, recovery, and diet.
Anyone who has raised a child can tell you that selfish habits, things like sleeping eight consecutive hours or eating with both hands, go out the window as soon as you bring your baby home.
But Janeah was determined to make a go of it. She returned to lifting last summer and remembers being “in pain and out of breath.” Her first day back throwing, she told Smith she’d hit 200 feet, but could barely break 160.
But, according to Smith, Janeah can be stubborn, and whenever anyone suggested that she bag it, she’d get “pissed off” and train even harder.
It helped that Smith, his wife Connie (the head track coach at Ole Miss) and the rest of their throwing group rallied around Janeah and Ja’Myri.
Janeah says that Ja’Myri attends nearly every throwing and lifting session. She generally watches contentedly from her walker, but recently has gotten so active that Stewart has had to surround her with football dummies as shown in the photo, or she’d be “all over the place.”
Though encouraged by her 23.98m toss from earlier this month, Janeah says she is struggling to find her timing in the throw. She is also still fighting to regain her strength in the weight room. Her power clean PB in the Barn days was around 280 pounds, and she estimates that right now she could do 230.
She and Smith have been working on the hammer as well, and he is optimistic that she will be ready to get in the mix at what promises to be an epic Outdoor Championships with three spots on the Worlds team up for grabs.
“If we can get her over eight feet (24.38m) in the weight,” he says, that will set her up well for the outdoor season. Right now, she’s about ninety percent of where she needs to be in the hammer.”
A big throw this weekend would be a big step in the right direction.
The women’s weight competition is scheduled for 2:05pm Pacific time on Sunday.
Israel Oloyede grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, dreaming of playing football for Arizona State University. He dabbled with the shot and disc while in high school, but football was his main sport. After his senior year, the ASU coaches thought he needed a little seasoning before he was ready play major college football and told him that if he enrolled at Scottsdale Community College they’d give him another look in a year or two.
Israel followed their advice, but it wasn’t long before he decided that Scottsdale CC was not the place for him. He wanted to transfer to another community college where he could continue his football career, but first he had to receive a release from the Scottsdale program. Perhaps intoxicated by the power he wielded as the coach of the SCC Artichokes football team, the head man at Scottsdale refused. Who could have predicted then that his decision would contribute to the current renaissance in the hammer and weight throws in the United States?
Israel ended up transferring to Paradise Valley Community College, located in Phoenix. Their mascot is a Puma. Since he was unable to play football, he decided to resume his career as a thrower.
Jim Lothrop, the Paradise Valley throws coach, recommended Israel try the javelin, and so he did.
Israel says that at first, the javelin seemed “pretty easy,” but before too long, he “got humbled” and could not manage to break fifty-five meters.
He had never really enjoyed throwing the shot and disc in high school, so he agreed to try the weight and hammer, even though he thought at the time that “the weight did not look fun, and the hammer did not look easy.”
Unfortunately, Coach Lothrop was more of a javelin guy, having twice finished in the top eight at the USATF Nationals. Luckily, a former weight/hammer thrower from Louisiana State University, Jeremy Tuttle, was in Phoenix coaching at Ottawa University Arizona and also at a club called the Phoenix Bobcats.
Under the guidance of Coach Tuttle, Israel went from throwing the weight 12.47m and the hammer 54.00m his freshman year to 20.89m in the weight and 63.13m in the hammer as a sophomore. The 20.89m was a national junior college record and got the attention of Coach TJ Crater, who recruited Israel to the University of Arizona.
Over the course of two years, Coach Crater helped Israel set school records of 23.79m in the weight and 73.22m in the hammer. Last summer, Israel made the final at the Olympic Trials, and started to think that maybe he had a future in this business.
With one year of eligibility remaining, Israel then decided to move back home to Phoenix and enroll at Grand Canyon University, which had just hired Nathan Ott as its throws coach.
Ott is best known as the coach of Olympian Brooke Anderson, and training alongside Brooke has been a nice side benefit of transfering to Grand Canyon.
“Being around someone like Brooke has really helped me,” Israel says. “It was the same thing having Jordan Geist to train with at Arizona. Being around great athletes pushes you to do better.”
Israel’s 24.45m throw from this January has him seeded second behind Daniel Haugh going into Sunday’s competition in Spokane.
He is excited to throw against the guys like Haugh and Rudy Winkler that he used to watch compete and would think “I want to be like them.”
Not that Israel will be cowed by the competition. “I threw against those guys in the hammer at Tucson Elite last year,” he recalled, “and I PR’d. Competing against them brought out the best in me, so I won’t be intimidated this this time, either.”
The men’s weight throw competition is scheduled for Sunday at 11:00am Pacific time.
Growing up in Chicago, I learned to revere athletes who could stare daggers and talk smack, guys like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Michael Jordan whose inner ferocity was on full outward display.
What am I to make, then, of DeAnna Price, who is as passionately committed to winning as any of those gents, but generally prefers to crush her opponents with kindness? She actually looked embarrassed each time she approached the cage during the women’s hammer final on Saturday, a little sheepish over the fuss she was causing by rewriting the history of the event. After every epic throw, she’d confer with her husband and coach JC Lambert, and I imagine their conversations going something like this:
JC: You’re in world record shape, so stay focused!
DeAnna: Got it. That official over there looks like he’s having a hard day. I’ll give him a hug!
JC: I said, stay focused!
DeAnna: Right. It’s really hot out. I knew I should have brought lemonade for everyone!
Her closest rival on this day was Brooke Andersen whose second-round bomb of 77.72m pulled her to within ten centimeters of DeAnna’s opener. DeAnna’s response? Throws of 78.51m, 79.98m, and 80.31m, each of which she celebrated by engaging in a long, heartfelt hug with…Brooke Andersen.
And how does DeAnna feel about her next biggest American rival, former US champion and record-holder Gwen Berry?
“Gwen is great! We’re both Southern Illinois University alums, so she’s my sister and I’m proud of her!”
When asked about Anita Wlodarczyk, the woman she has been striving to unseat as the best hammer thrower in the world, and the only other woman to have surpassed the eighty-meter mark, DeAnna told an anecdote about competing against the Polish powerhouse at the 2015 Worlds and being totally honored when she sat next to her once between throws.
“Anita is a genuinely nice person,” she assured us, which loosely translated means, “I plan to kick her butt in Tokyo and then give her an amazing hug.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing about DeAnna’s performance on Saturday was that she was able to compete at all. After breaking her own American record with a 78.60m toss in early April, she was felled by an illness–possibly celiac disease–that threatened her season.
Feeling awful during her next competition, she managed to throw 76.15m but afterwards endured emergency room visits and endless tests including an MRI, none of which gave her a conclusive diagnosis.
After losing ten pounds in the space of a week, she and JC decided to cut bread and dairy products from her diet and to consume only home-cooked meals. Those changes did the trick, and she found her stride in training just in time for the Trials.
Hearing DeAnna describe her ordeal this spring brought to mind similar troubles she endured in 2019 on her way to winning the Worlds. That year, she’d overcome career-threatening back troubles, which makes me wonder if, like Michael Jordan, she is at her most ferocious when responding to adversity.
Speaking of adversity, Brook Andersen faced her own variety this year when a combination of circumstances left her with no facilities at which to train. The hammer final was, she said, “about the tenth time I’ve been in an actual ring this whole season.” Her main practice facility was a park where she drew a circle on a sidewalk with a sharpie.
Then, at the April meet where DeAnna fell ill, Brooke fell literally and suffered a concussion and shoulder injury.
Despite surpassing seventy-five meters in three of her five competitions before the Trials, including the season’s and personal best of 78.18m she launched in Wichita on April 10th, she struggled with nerves in the qualification round and ended up caging two of three attempts.
Fortunately, her one valid throw of 72.16m got her to the final where an opener of 74.38m paved the way for that second-round 77.72m, which turned the competition into a battle for third place.
That contest was a mano a mano affair between Berry and Janee Kassanavoid, who joined the seventy-five-meter club at the USATF Throws Fest this May.
Gwen opened with 73.50m, and Janee responded with throws of 72.73m and 73.45m. Gwen, who said afterwards that her body “was not working today,” was unable to better her opening mark, but the pressure of trying to vault her got to Janee. She caged her third attempt and then wiped out on her fourth. She shook that off and finished with throws of 72.41m and 72.32m, but could not quite reel in Gwen.
A kerfuffle ensued when the newly-minted Tokyo hammer squad was ushered to the podium and greeted there by a recording of the Star Spangled Banner. Gwen has been a controversial figure since her 2019 podium demonstration at the Pan American Games, which foreshadowed the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and has caused much wringing of hands on the part of USATF and the International Olympic Committee over whether or not to permit such actions in Tokyo.
Gwen responded to the playing of the anthem by turning her back to the flag and pulling her shirt over her head. She said afterwards that she felt like she’d been “set up,” as the anthem is generally not played during medal ceremonies at the Trials. USATF released a statement saying that the anthem had been scheduled to be played at 5:20, but offered no reason as to why it was delayed until 5:25 when the hammer medalists had already mounted the podium.
It certainly was not in USATF’s interests to take the focus off the magnificent performances popping up everywhere you looked on Saturday. In addition to DeAnna’s hammer bomb, American athletes produced world leads in the women’s pole vault, men’s 400-meter hurdles, and women’s 200-meter dash.
Well, what network doesn’t love a good controversy?
But, if NBC was genuinely concerned about maximizing the number of viewers for these Trials, I would think the person in charge of those blocks that keep registering phantom false starts would have been found strangled in his hotel room after Friday’s fiasco in the hurdle races.
If it was a setup, it certainly did nothing to take the starch out of Gwen. who remains determined to be heard.
“I want to impact the world,” she explained. “There are things going on in the world that are bigger than sport. As athletes, we should use our voices to bring awareness to these issues.”
I asked her after the prelims on Thursday if her activism put more pressure on her in meets like the Trials.
“No,” she responded. “I feel like being black in America is enough pressure.The neighborhood I grew up in is enough pressure. The things I have to deal with and that I have to protect my son from is enough pressure.”
I checked the website of the International Olympic Committee to see if I could get some insight into how they might respond to Gwen in Tokyo. There, I found this statement:
The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
I read this, and I wonder if maybe the IOC has finally found someone willing to stand up for its highest ideals.
Over the past two decades, American hammer throwers have struggled in the Olympics.
Since the 2000 Games, the only American hammer finalist among the men has been Kibwe Johnson, who finished ninth in 2012. The women have done better, producing four finalists in that time, including Amber Campbell and DeAnna Price in Rio, but no American woman has won an Olympic hammer medal.
But, all that may be about to change. The three men who made the team on Sunday, Rudy Winkler, Daniel Haugh, and Alex Young are all potential finalists in Tokyo. Rudy, who set an American record of 82.71m, has a legit chance to be the first American Olympic hammer gold medalist since Hal Connelly in 1956.
Thursday’s women’s hammer prelims will feature the three top-ranked women in the world–defending World champion DeAnna Price, Brooke Andersen, and Gwen Berry–along with 8th-ranked Janee Kassanavoid.
DeAnna, Brooke, and Gwen all have a ton of experience competing internationally, and each would be a threat to medal in Tokyo, with DeAnna–assuming she makes the squad–the favorite to win.
What is behind this surge of hammer excellence in the United States? Let’s examine some possibilities.
Iron Sharpens Iron
The United States has sent strong groups of men’s shot putters to the Games since forever. The men have won seven shot put medals since 2000, including two golds, and it could be that our depth in that event is self-perpetuating. Guys like John Godina raised the standard of performance for Adam Nelson and Andy Bloom, who raised the bar for Reese Hoffa and Christian Cantwell, who showed the way for Ryan Whiting and Joe Kovacs, who inspired Darrell Hill and Ryan Crouser to feats of greatness, and so on…
This theory says that if Payton Otterdahl only needed to throw 21.00m to make the squad last Friday, that’s probably what he’d have thrown rather than the 21.92m bomb that got him on the podium.
“Competition brings out the best in people,” Lance Deal observed after Sunday’s men’s hammer final, and the US hammer scene is now fiercely competitive.
Rudy won decisively on Sunday, but if he falters even a little going forward, Alex and Daniel are right there to overtake him, as is Sean Donnelly, who did not make the team but is currently ranked seventh in the world. DeAnna is arguably the best in the world right now, but Brooke and Gwen, as mentioned, are ranked right behind her with Janee also in the top ten.
Amin Nikfar, who coaches Alex Young, told me that with all the great throwers in the United States today, everyone knows they can’t afford to have a letdown, which forces everyone to constantly raise their game. “After all,” he opined, “iron sharpens iron.”
We Are Family
After Sunday’s hammer final, I asked Alex Young how he felt each time Conor McCullough entered the ring and tried to break his heart by knocking him out of third place. His reply?
“I love my man Conor!”
When asked how it felt to watch Rudy break the American record, he became even more effusive.
“Rudy? He’s my best friend!”
Faced with the same question, Daniel Haugh described Rudy as “a beast” and “an absolute stud!”
For his part, Rudy said he “couldn’t be happier” to have Alex and Daniel joining him in Tokyo. “Alex is one of my best friends,” he effused. “And Daniel was my roommate in Doha. We’re going to feed off each other and do something incredible in Tokyo.”
According to Lance Deal, this type of camaraderie among combatants is a positive development. “When I started throwing,” he recalls, “most of us were ‘civil competitors,’ but we didn’t really like each other. Or, maybe everyone just hated me. But, the way these guys are now, this is a much healthier way to compete. It feels like everyone–the men and the women–are part of the same family, and that’s a good thing.”
Tom Pukstys, formerly a six-time US javelin champion and currently the head of the USA Javelin Project, agrees with Lance that things were not so friendly among competitors back in the day, and points out that the current supportive atmosphere lends itself to the sharing of information. “Nobody helped each other out in the ‘80’s,” he told me. “But, the current athletes and their coaches trade ideas, which helps them all improve.”
The King is Dead
When Hal Connelly won his gold in Melbourne, he was joined on the podium by two Russians, This turned out to be foreshadowing, as the Soviet Union basically took over the event for several decades. Soviet throwers swept the men’s hammer at the 1976 Olympic Games. They did it again in 1980, 1988, and (technically representing the “Unified Team”) 1992. Between 1960 and 1992, Soviet hammer throwers took the gold in every Olympics they competed in with the exception of 1968 when they were beaten by a Hungarian who was, no doubt, trained in the “Soviet system.”
That’s a long era of dominance, and it gave Russian and other Eastern European throwers an aura of invincibility. Kibwé Johnson believes that before the sport could thrive in the US, the Soviet myth had to be punctured.
A first step toward demythologizing the Soviets came when Russin hammer guru and 1972 gold medalist Anatoliy Bondarchuk relocated to Canada around 2005 and American athletes including Kibwé went to train with him.
“Up to that point,” he remembers, “we in America had only ever heard stories of the Soviets. I remembered those stories and I’d ask Dr. B., ‘Is this true?’ and he always said ‘No.’ I’d heard, for example, that Yuriy Sedykh could wind-and-release sixty meters. I asked Dr. B and he was like, ‘Nope. No way.’”
Bondarchuk disabused American hammer throwers and coaches of the notion that the Soviets had found the way to develop hammer throwers, and that the key to success was to learn and copy their system. Kibwé believes that this attitude had made athletes trained in the Russian system appear unbeatable and inhibited hammer development in this country.
A more recent step towards removing the veil of invincibility from the Eastern European throwers is the USATF Hammer Initiative, that Tom Pukstys remembers being conceived at a 2014 meeting he attended. Some folks at USATF had a small amount of money they could invest in hammer development, and on the advice of people like Tom, Lance, and Kibwé, they began using that money to give up-and-coming hammer throwers the chance to compete in Europe.
“It is tough,” Kibwé explained, “when you show up at a major international competition and the only thing you know about these guys is that they have PRs that are a lot better than yours. It really helps when you train over there alongside someone you think is really good and you see them make a bad throw or miss a lift. It shows you that they are just like you and takes away your fear of them.”
“And,” he continued, “that is one thing about our current group of hammer throwers. There is no fear there.”
The women throwers were actually the first to puncture the myth of Soviet/Eastern European invincibility, and Jeneva Stevens struck the first blow a year before the Hammer Initiative was conceived.
Her breakthrough came when she won the gold medal at the 2013 World University Games, held, appropriately enough, in Russia.
Later that summer, she and Amanda Bingson made the final at the World Championships in Moscow, and though the Chinese had now joined the Eastern Europeans at the top of the hammer rankings, the US had the proverbial foot in the door.
Finally, in 2019, DeAnna kicked in that door when she took the gold in Doha.
According to Rudy Winkler, DeAnna’s success has had a big impact on the men as well.
“DeAnna,” he reflected, “and the other American women showed that it doesn’t really take anything special to throw far other than staying true to yourself and working as hard as you can. DeAnna has been a huge source of inspiration to all of us, and I don’t think we would be doing so well without her doing well.”
Syncretism. (I’ll Explain)
If we are going to call this moment a “renaissance” in American hammer throwing, a revival of a time before the Soviets took over the sport, then maybe we should use a Renaissance term to explain it. One way to look at the real Renaissance is as an intellectual unsticking. Roman Catholic orthodoxy had dominated the life of the mind in Europe during the Middle Ages, and for progress to be made, for forward thinking to occur, the Catholic monopoly on intellectual endeavors had to be broken.
Enter syncretism, which was (according to the Google machine) “the amalgamation of different religions, cultures, and schools of thought.”
Current American coaches do not worry about mimicking a mythical Soviet system. Instead, as with the shot put, a variety of them have developed their own highly successful approaches to hammer throwing.
According to Kibwé “All these hammer throwers that are having success today, they and their coaches are following their own thing, making their own way. If you were to sit down and ask Dr. B about it, he would say that this is the way it should be.”
If the actual Renaissance was fostered by forward-thinking scholars like Petrarch, Erasmus, Montaigne, and Thomas More, it may be that the American hammer renaissance has come about because of forward-thinking coaches like John Smith, Greg Watson, and Paddy McGrath.
While coaching at Ohio State and Southern Illinois, Smith created a system of hammer training that produced Jeneva Stevens, Gwen Berry, and De Anna Price, who stayed on at Southern when Smith took the job at Mississippi and has continued to train under Smith disciple JC Lambert. Smith has continued to refine his approach while coaching at Ole Miss, and believes that one of his current throwers–Shey Taiwo–might someday be an international medal contender as well. While Smith was developing his methods, Greg Watson was turning Amanda Bingson into a world class thrower and is now using his own concepts to train Janee Kassanavoid. Meanwhile, Paddy McGrath set up a hammer club in New York state, and has used his own Irish-influenced methods to train Rudy Winkler.
Bottom line, the United States now has a plethora of high level hammer coaches who compete, collaborate, and influence each other for the ultimate betterment of the event.
All these factors have converged to foster a culture of hammer excellence in the US, and today at the Trials, we’ll get to see a bunch of that excellence on display in the women’s hammer qualification round. Fasten your seatbelt.
American record holder Lance Deal recently appeared on a Mcthrows.com webinar to discuss the fine art of hammer throwing. Whether demonstrating concepts from the comfort of his home office or breaking down film of himself and other hammer greats, Lance did his best to help us understand the approach that won him the silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. You may access that video here.
Also available, is a recent session in which Colorado State University coach Brian Bedard examined the process by which shot putter Tarynn Sieg went from throwing 14.19m as a high school glider, to 17.44m her sophomore year of college using the rotational technique. Brian shared that journey using lots of interesting vids taken along the way. You may access his presentation here.
Check back soon for information on upcoming webinars!