I’ve always admired Canadians for their bacon and civility, but how in the name of Gretzky did they suddenly turn into a hammer powerhouse?
It started with poop, actually.
The sweet smell of success
In 2002, Derek Evely, at the time head coach of the Kamloops Track and Field Club, received an email from a retired hockey player named Igor Chibirev who was contacting Derek on behalf of his father-in-law, a former Soviet hammer coach who wanted to immigrate to Canada.
“He didn’t say his father-in-law’s name,” remembered Evely. “But he referred to him as the ‘coach of Sedykh,’ so I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s Bondarchuk!’”
The “Sedykh” referred to in the email was Yuriy Sedykh, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and longtime World Record holder in the hammer. His coach, Anatoliy Bondarchuk, was and still is considered by many to be the world’s foremost hammer expert.
Once Evely did some detecting to make sure he wasn’t being pranked, he called Igor and found out that Bondarchuk, widely known as “Dr. B”, was currently coaching in Kuwait but wanted to move closer to his daughter, who lived with Igor in Calgary. Igor found Evely by googling the words “hammer” and “Canada.”
That search initially yielded the name “Dylan Armstrong,” the 2000 World U20 hammer silver medalist. Further research led Igor to Evely, who was Armstrong’s coach.
Excited by the possibility of bringing Dr. B to Kamloops, Evely set about finding a way to pay him. He asked for assistance from the provincial and national federations but was turned down.
That left Evely with no choice. He would resort to poop.
For years, the Kamloops club had done an annual fundraiser where they delivered manure to local farmers, gardeners, anyone really who found themselves in need of a load of crap.
“By that point,” he recalls, “we’d been doing the manure sale for five years and it had really taken off. We’d take orders for weeks in advance, then deliver it during the first weekend of April. It got so popular that we were making fifty grand every spring.”
Evely decided to take a shot and offered Dr. B $33,000 from his poop proceeds along with a free room in his basement. Dr. B accepted.
That summer, Evely traveled to Paris as part of the Canadian team for the 2003 Worlds, then took a train to Hungary where Dr. B was presenting at an IAAF clinic.
He brought a contract for Dr. B to sign, and was invited to attend a training session during which he sat between Dr. B and fellow hammer legend Pál Németh while newly-minted World champ Yipsi Moreno took some throws.
Evely remembers Moreno’s coach being so intimidated by the presence of Németh and Bondarchuk that he hid behind a post for the entire session.
Dr. B agreed to make the move to Kamloops following the 2004 Olympics. At the time, he was coaching 2002 U20 Worlds silver medalist Ali Mohamed Al Zenkawil, and wanted to mentor him through his first Games.
Ill health further delayed Dr. B’s arrival, but finally, in the spring of 2005, he made the move. He arrived the weekend of the manure sale.
“That weekend is always nuts,” says Evely. “I picked Dr. B and Igor up from the airport in a passenger van that was loaded with manure. They were looking at each other like, ‘What the..?’”
Evely dropped Dr. B at his house then went on distributing poop until late that night.
“I got home and just wanted to go to bed, but when I knocked on his door to check on him, he handed me four pages of what looked like gobbledygook. It turns out he’d spent the day with a Russian/English dictionary trying to translate his training theories so he could publish them as a book.”
Every night for the next six months, Evely sat next to Dr. B at a computer trying to find a way to clearly enunciate his methods in English. They did not end up publishing a book, but Evely eventually developed an online course based on their collaboration.
A year or so after Dr. B’s arrival in Canada, Evely left Kamloops to take a coaching assignment in Edmonton, and Dr. B took over as Dylan Armstrong’s full time coach. Dylan, by then, had become primarily a shot putter, and under Dr. B’s tutelage went on to win a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics, a silver medal at the 2011 World Championships, and a bronze medal at the 2013 World Championships.
Use the force, Luke
After hanging up his throwing shoes, Dylan went into coaching. He continued to learn from Dr. B, and dreamed of some day using that system to produce a champion hammer thrower.
“I’ve been around hammer my whole life,” he told me during a recent phone conversation. “I understood it, understood what I did wrong and what I did right when I was a hammer thrower. And with all the knowledge I got from Dr. B, I felt like I could do something special if I could just find the right guy.”
The “right guy,” in Armstong’s mind, had to be tall.
“You look at the top throwers,” he says, “the guys that produce fantastic results like Ryan Crouser and Daniel Ståhl, and they are tall and fast, not short and fast. I knew if I had a shorter athlete with some speed, I could get them to 75 or 76 meters, but when you have someone with levers and a good training system, that’s ideal.”
Dylan found his man at a local meet in British Columbia. His name was Ethan Katzberg.
At the time, Katzberg was 6’3” and growing, but like a lot of tall young guys, very skinny.
“He looked like a high jumper,” Dylan recalls. “But when I saw him throw, I was like ‘Man, that guy can move!’ I pointed him out to a buddy of mine and said I thought I could get that kid to throw 80 meters some day, and he was like, ‘That’s crazy talk!’ But I didn’t care. To me, all Ethan needed was a long term plan and a good environment with good support and he’d be something special.”
Even Dylan, though, was surprised at how quickly Ethan developed. Per the World Athletics site, here is Ethan’s progression since 2019:
According to Dylan, several factors allowed Ethan to improve so swiftly. First, “he’s very coordinated and coachable. If I tell him I need it an inch higher here or an inch lower there, he can do it.”
Also, Ethan possesses a remarkable “talent for development.”
“The way Ethan is wired genetically, I can peak him really fast,” Dylan says, “and we can peak multiple times per year, which is something a lot of athletes can’t handle. You can have a guy with the same skills and body type, but they might need seventy or eighty or even a hundred sessions to reach peak condition, so it takes them a lot longer to develop.”
Ethan also possesses a rare ability to remain calm under pressure, a trait he first displayed at the 2022 Commonwealth Games where he PB’d to take the silver medal.
Dylan was not surprised when his angular apprentice showed poise that day in Birmingham. “Ethan,” he pointed out, “is from Vancouver Island. So, he’s laid back.”
But performing well at a Commonwealth Games is one thing. Standing up under the pressure of a World Championships against the likes of Poland’s Wojciech Nowicki and Pawel Fajdek is quite another matter. Those gents came into Budapest with a dozen World and Olympic medals between them, and no one would have blamed Ethan, a twenty-one-year-old World Champs rookie, had he wilted in their presence.
Luckily, Dylan began preparing Ethan for such a scenario earlier this season. In order to “normalize competing against the world’s best,” he took Ethan to meets like the LA Grand Prix where he faced Nowicki, top American Rudy Winkler, and Olympic and World medalist Eivind Henricksen. They then embarked on a European tour featuring comps in Germany, Poland, France, and Norway.
Dylan also used the trip to impart the hard lessons he’d learned during his own career as a thrower. “We’d talk one-on-one on the train in Germany or at our hotel or during lunch, and I’d take him through all the possible scenarios that can come up at big meets. What happens if there’s a delay because the laser breaks or the hundred meters is about to start, for example. You can lose focus and things can go sideways pretty quickly if you’re not ready for that stuff.”
Ethan demonstrated his readiness in round one of qualifying in Budapest by launching an 81.18m PB.
After that throw, Ethan and Dylan went immediately to the warmup track where Ethan took another eight tosses and got in a quick lift. This was in keeping with his normal training routine. “You have to complete your session,” says Dylan. “It’s important to stay regimented and not throw anything out of whack.”
The day of the final, Ethan informed his coach that he felt “really good,” then went out and hit 80.18m and 80.02m on his first two attempts.
It was, according to Dylan, the most exciting hammer comp he’d seen. “Being there in a country that loves hammer and supports the throws, was amazing. They had so many people there for Bence Halász, it was almost like we stole the show from the 100-meter final. Right about the time the 100-meters was supposed to start, Halász went 80.82m, and people were going crazy. They were like, ‘Oh, the 100-meters is on? Great. Now, let’s get back to the hammer.”
After three rounds, Ethan was in third behind Halász and Nowicki. When he and Dylan spoke before his fifth attempt, Dylan reminded him to “be patient. Keep the right foot on the ground a little longer and let the ball stretch on you.”
Ethan then stepped in and launched another PB, this time 81.25m. It ended up being enough to earn him gold.
“He put a little more cream on the end of that one,” says Dylan. “But all his throws felt relatively easy to him. He told me later that he could have gone further, but I just said ‘Let’s get back home, take a rest, debrief, and get ready for next year.’”
Make mine a double
The fun resumed three days later as 2022 World silver medalist Camryn Rogers secured a spot in this year’s final by hitting 73.95m on her second attempt in qualifying.
For anyone thinking it is no big deal for a defending silver-medalist to advance, let me point out that neither defending champ Brooke Andersen nor 4x World and 3x Olympic champ Anita Wlodarczyk made it through qualifying.
The prospect of bombing out in prelims has, according to her coach Mo Saatara, “caused Camryn a lot of stress” in the past, so in spite of her success at the 2022 Worlds, they decided to focus on building qualification confidence this season.
At the Brutus Hamilton Invite last April for example, Mo and Camryn decided to mimic the pressure of a qualifying round by limiting her to three attempts (rather than the full six all competitors received) with the goal of surpassing 75 meters on each.
The result was the best series of Camryn’s career to that point: 77.00m, 76.04m, 77.30m.
A week later, at the Mt. SAC Relays, they took a different approach.
“After the Hamilton Invite,” Mo explained, “we said, ‘Ok, now you got through qualification, let’s see how you do if we treat Mt. SAC like the final.”
At a major championships, athletes are given the opportunity to take some early throws at a warm-up facility outside the main stadium. They are then transported to a call room and left to sit for the better part of an hour before being escorted into the competition venue. Once inside, they are generally allowed two or three warm-up throws before the comp begins. This is different, sometimes drastically so, from the procedure at a lesser comp like the Hamilton or Mt. SAC, where athletes receive a plethora of warm-up tosses just prior to competing.
As mentioned above, Dylan Armstrong took care in the months leading up to Worlds to talk Ethan Katzberg through championships protocol and alert him to all the possible stressors that might arise. On the day of the comp, they were ready to take a minimalist approach to warmups,
“With the adrenaline that comes from competing at a championships,” he says, “all an athlete needs is some stretching and those two throws inside the stadium, anyway. It’s best to preserve all the energy you can, especially when it’s thirty-four degrees and humid like it was in Budapest.”
Mo advocates a similar approach.
He says the problem with taking throws at the warmup track is that “you do a bunch of stuff then have to sit in the call room, and that can cause your rhythm to get weird.”
At Mt. SAC, he had Camryn rehearse for Budapest by doing a general warmup then sitting for an hour. Prior to competing, she took only two warm-up throws.
Apparently, that was enough, as Camryn produced the kind of series (77.84m, 75.61m, 76.79m, 76.03m, 75.37m, 77.14m) that would likely put her on the podium if she could match it at Worlds.
“The series was stable,” Mo said afterwards. “Which is critical. If you look at the great champions, they had stable technique they could repeat multiple times in a competition.”
Besides stability, any female hammer thrower with ideas of contending in Budapest would also need the ability to go big. The average winning throw from the five previous Worlds was 78.74m, and with Brooke Andersen improving her PB to 80.17m in May, 2019 champ DeAnna Price getting back into form after two years of battling injuries, Wlodarczyk also returning from injury, and defending bronze-medalist Janee’ Kassanavoid putting together another solid season, it was likely to take at least that distance to challenge for gold in 2023.
In Camryn’s third meet of the season, the USATF LA Grand Prix, she showed, with an assist from Dylan Armstrong, that she could bang with the best of them.
Mo, busy that weekend with NCAA regionals, received video updates from LA courtesy of Dylan, who was on site coaching Katzburg.
Mo could tell Camryn was ready for something big based on the videos Dylan sent him of her warm-up throws. Once the comp began, she “got a little tight and started having some problems with her orbit,” but with Dylan relaying corrections, Camryn found her rhythm and launched a PB 78.62m in round five.
“The field at UCLA is a little bit uphill,” Mo explained. “So that throw could have been even farther. Either way, she showed she can put a throw out there and beat some of the best women, which was important going into Worlds.”
Camryn surpassed 77 meters again twice in June while competing in Poland, then once more at the Canadian Championships in July.
Mo and Camryn did a pre-Worlds training camp at a facility near Barcelona, adapting to the time change and acclimating to the kind of heat they’d experience in Budapest. They were thrilled to see Katzberg take gold, an achievement that Mo says, “set the standard high” for Camryn.
Her first attempt in the Budapest qualification round went only 70.97m, a slight misstep that Mo attributes to a slight difference in the surface texture between the ring at the warmup track where they had practiced since arriving in Budapest and the competition ring inside the stadium.
“They were both good circles,” he says. “The one in the stadium was just a little faster, so Camryn had to get adjusted. After that first throw she said, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’ but she was feeling really good, so I just told her ‘Go take care of business and let’s get out of here.’”
She did, surpassing the automatic qualifying mark with her 73.95m toss.
As a side note, the unusual design of the cage was another factor the hammer throwers had to contend with.
German throws coach René Sack told me he’d seen athletes struggle with the same type of cage at a past German championships. “It feels different from a normal cage,” he explained, “because it is shaped like a rectangle”
American throws meister John Smith concurred. “Most cages are more of a semicircle,” he said when asked about the setup in Budapest. “But this one felt more like you were throwing out of a tunnel. That changes the thrower’s perception visually of how to get the throw out of the cage.”
The main challenge though, according to both coaches, was the lack of support poles in the Budapest cage, which made it harder for the athletes to orient themselves when setting up for a throw.
According to Smith, a typical cage will have a pole “lined up dead center to the ring.” Without that reference point, throwers had to choose other landmarks to get themselves in the right spot.
JC Lambert, husband and coach of DeAnna Price, said they used the pre-meet walkthrough day in the stadium to try to figure out a suitable marker. They decided they couldn’t use the television camera stand that was set up behind the cage as it was slightly off center, so JC suggested lining up on one of the wheels attached to the cage as it appeared to be in just the right spot. All went well for DeAnna in qualification where she was one-and-done with a 76.25m toss, but JC realized something was amiss when she fouled her first two attempts in the final.
His view was obstructed by the television camera, but Smith was sitting in a different spot and realized right away that DeAnna was lining up incorrectly. He immediately texted a video to JC.
“Luckily,” JC recalled afterwards, “we had time before her third throw, so I called her over and said, ’Move three or four inches to the left.’ It turns out she had seen a chalk line on the ground and lined up on that assuming it was the center.”
DeAnna got her third attempt out of the cage and earned three more attempts with a distance of 73.28m, then got on the podium with a fifth-round toss of 75.41m. It was her first championships medal since claiming Doha gold in 2019, and so a truly lovely moment–but, the question lingers as to how far those first two attempts might have been had she gotten them out of the cage.
Camyrn’s college teammate Anna Purchase, had thrown from a similar cage at the 2022 European Championships, so she was able to give Cam and Mo a heads up going into Budapest. That seems to have helped, as Anna advanced to the final in this, her first Worlds, with a 71.31m qualifying toss, and Camryn made it through all six rounds of the final with no fouls.
With no Brooke or Anita in the final and DeAnna getting off to a rough start, the competition turned into what Mo describes as a “tactical contest.”
“We expected fireworks,” he said afterwards. “Like an MMA fight. I thought it might take 78 meters to get on the podium, so it was important for Camryn to start strong and establish herself.”
That she did, with a 77.22m blast that gave her a three-meter lead on the field. She followed that up with 77.07m in round two.
Between attempts, Mo says they “talked about simple stuff. I just wanted to keep her in her own zone and not have her get too analytical, just help her stay within her mindset, stay engaged, and be ready to respond.”
In the end, she did not have to.
Janee’ Kassanavoid pushed Cam a bit with throws of 76.00m and 76.36m in rounds two and three, but no one besides Janee’, DeAnna, and Camryn touched 75-meters, so it ended up being a “North Americans only” podium.
Kudos, by the way, to Kassanavoid who put on a clinic this year on how to throw your best when it counts the most. She came to Budapest having thrown 76 meters on only two occasions in 2023, once at the Tucson Elite, and again at the fiercely competitive US Championships.
She struggled in qualifying, opening with 71.04m and a foul before advancing with 72.70m on her third attempt.
But after opening with a foul in the final, Janee’ found her steady and put together a nice series, backing up the two 76m tosses with two more over 75m.
It was a fine performance under what Mo calls, “the difficult mental conditions of a championships final.”
It’s interesting to note that besides being North American, all three medalists came through the NCAA system.
Mo says that competing in the US collegiate system “really shaped who Camryn is as a competitor. The mental side of competing for an NCAA title is extremely challenging. The regionals teach you how to qualify, and in the final you have to be stable while dealing with adversity. It’s a priceless experience for someone who wants to contend at the World level.”
Cam will head back to Berkeley this fall to continue training with Mo, while Ethan and Dylan get back to work in Kamloops.
Meanwhile, Canadian shot-putter Sarah Mitton, who took silver in Budapest, will be plotting with her coach Richard Parkinson to make it a full out Canadian gold rush in Paris.
More on Sarah in my next newsletter, which will focus on the recent Diamond League final.
Until then, take it easy, eh?