The annual ITCCCA clinic will take place on January 12-13 at the Eaglewood Resort in Itasca, Illinois, with arguably the best lineup of throws presenters in ITCCCA clinic history. Dave Astrauskas of the University of Wisconsin will open the proceedings on Friday with a presentation on developing discus technique. I saw Dave give a version of this talk at the recent National Throws Clinic in Portage, and I think coaches will find a lot they can use in Dave’s approach.
The second session on Friday will feature two throws speakers. Pat Trofimuk of Waubonsie Valley High School will conduct a session titled “Fundamentals of the Throws” in which he will demonstrate a series of simple drills that can be used to teach and sharpen rotational throwing technique. Feel free to take out your phone and record during this one, and you’ll walk away with a small library of extremely useful drills.
Also during session two, ITCCCA is proud to present Kara Winger, the four-time Olympian, national record holder, and 2022 World silver medalist in the javelin. Her first talk of the weekend will be titled “Train Hard and Stay Healthy: Incorporating Rehab into throws training.” In this presentation, Kara will explain some simple and effective exercises that can be incorporated into your throwers’ daily workouts to help them stay healthy over the course of a long season.
Kara will take the stage again in the third and final Friday evening session to offer advice on how to help your athletes deliver their top performances at the biggest competitions. We’ve all seen how tough it can be for a young thrower to find their rhythm at a major comp. Kara faced those challenges at four Olympic Trials, four Olympics, and five World Championships, and learned much in the process. If you are on speaking terms with coaches from other events, you’ll want to give them a heads up about this presentation as Kara’s advice will be applicable to all sorts of athletes.
On Saturday, the ITCCCA clinic will feature four sessions you won’t want to miss. Josh Freeman, former Illinois state champion and collegiate all-American, will team with his wife and current world-class discus thrower Alex Morgan to detail and demonstrate shot put fundamentals.
Kara will take the stage again for session two to discuss the qualities that make an effective coach. Over her long career, Kara worked with some outstanding mentors, and she’ll give tips on how to be your best self when dealing with your athletes. This is another presentation that will appeal to coaches of all events.
Josh and Alex take over again to present on the discus for session three, with Alex demonstrating the approach that made her 2023 Oceania champion.
The final season on Saturday will feature a panel discussion with Josh, Alex, Kara, and long time collegiate throws coach Scott Cappos, who recently authored an excellent book on shot and disc technique and training which will be available for purchase at the ITCCCA clinic. During this session, you’ll be able to ask the panelists anything you’d like about technique, training, and/or life at the highest levels of our sport.
In addition to Scott’s shot and disc manual, the book “Training for Gold: The Plan that made Daniel Ståhl an Olympic Champion” will also be available for purchase for $25 at this year’s clinic. This is a book that longtime Illinois high school throws coach Roger Einbecker and I put together with Vésteinn Hafsteinsson who coached Daniel to Olympic and World Championship gold medals in the discus.
The book details the training plan Vésteinn used during the 2020-2021 Olympic year, and is full of insights into how to devise and execute a lifting and throwing program that will bring out the best in your athletes.
If you have been wavering about signing up for this year’s clinic and wondering if it will be worth the time and effort, wonder no more. You won’t find a better lineup of presenters anywhere.
One last thing.
I mentioned having seen Dave Astrauskas present at the 2023 National Throws Clinic, and I just wanted to give folks an early heads up that Mark Harsha and the National Throws Association will host another event next December featuring top throws coaches. The 2023 clinic featured John Smith, Jerry Clayton, Dave, and JC Lambert. It won’t be easy to top that lineup in 2024, but Mark is determined to try. Stay tuned for more details!
What is it that makes Australians so nice? Do the crocodiles eat all the mean people there? Or does growing up around koala bears naturally make folks more relaxed and outgoing?
We’ll never know.
One thing’s for sure, though. I greatly enjoyed speaking with members of the Australian contingent at the 2023 Diamond League Final.
The women’s jav kicked off the comp at 11 a.m. on a lovely Saturday morning in Eugene. At that moment, it was 5 a.m. Sunday in Sydney, which is where 2023 World Championships bronze medalist Mackenzie Little lives and trains. I might have been a tad grouchy were I experiencing the level of jet lag that Mackenzie and her coach, Angus McEntyre, must have been feeling at that moment, but they appeared to be having a wonderful time, smiling and laughing whenever she bopped over for a quick chat at the rail between attempts.
Mackenzie did not have her best stuff on this day. She set a PB of 65.70m at the Lausanne Diamond League Meeting earlier this season, and went 63.38m in winning her Budapest bronze, but she reached the 60-meter line only once in Eugene and settled for a best of 61.24m to take third behind Worlds champ Haruka Kitaguchi and fellow Australasian Tori Peeters.
That did not, however, harsh Mackenzie’s mellow. She was happy and gracious during a post-comp chat.
“I had a good time,” she admitted. “Not because I got the throws I wanted necessarily, but this core group of throwers has gotten quite close and I was excited watching them.”
When asked why the javelin ladies seem to get on so well, Mackenzie explained, “You can’t have an ego when you throw jav. I think we all know how frustrating it can be sometimes, so we understand each other.”
The most frustrating time for Mackenzie came when she returned to Australia after a stellar career representing Stanford, for whom she was NCAA champion in 2018 and 2019.
The transition from collegiate to pro athlete can be tricky, and Mackenzie had trouble finding her footing. Lingering shoulder and elbow problems did not help. She reached out to McEntyre on the recommendation of the head Australian jav coach, but her level of frustration gave him pause.
“I think we can make this work,” he told her at the time, “But I can’t do much if you’re stuck in a negative headspace.”
“She was,” McEntyre recalls, “a bit lost. I was coaching one of her good friends, a javelin thrower named Chrissie Grun, and Mackenzie told Chrissie, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ But Chrissie said, ‘Yes, you can, and Angus is someone you can work with.’”
It was a plus that Coach McEntyre’s “day job” was running a chiropractic clinic, so he was able to help Mackenzie mend as they got to know each other. Looking back, he says “it was the chiropractic that started the relationship. During the Covid period we built up her shoulder and elbow, which also helped us build trust.”
In October of 2020, she reached 60 meters for the first time in two years, hitting a PB 61.47m at a comp in Sydney.
She PB’d again during the Olympic qualification round a year later in Tokyo, and ended up finishing eighth in the final. McEntyre says they’ve been “on cruise control since,” with only the occasional “hiccup” along the way.
At the 2022 Worlds, Mackenzie squeaked through qualifying in 12th place, then hit a 63.22m PB on her opener in the final. She was unable to build on that though, and finished in fifth, just five excruciating centimeters short of the podium.
This summer, she started slowly in the Budapest qualification round before bashing 63.45m on her third attempt, then started slowly again in the final. A best of 61.41m had her in fifth after three rounds, but this time she was able to keep climbing. “I learned a lot over the past year,” she said later. “And I was not going to be fifth again.”
Mackenzie produced her best throw on her last attempt, a 63.38m toss that won her the bronze.
And here I will tell you something crazy.
Mackenzie fought her way to the top of her sport while at the same time attending medical school. She is preparing for a career as a surgeon, and took her final exam on the flight from Sydney to Eugene for the DL final.
When asked how she managed this seemingly impossible task, Mackenzie shrugged. “Everyone in athletics has their passions outside. Mine just happens to be a little more structured. But I have a little more help than the average person with my coach taking care of me.”
Having played rugby at a high level while undertaking his chiropractic studies, McEntyre says he was able to relate to the challenges Mackenzie faced trying to balance athletics and academics.
“The biggest challenge for me,’ he says, “is to make sure she doesn’t get cooked or exhausted. I’ve always been careful around exam weeks, but it helps that the study side is more highly strung for her, so it can be a bit of a break when we switch to jav mode.”
McEntyre’s duties have included helping Mackenzie on practice quizzes, sometimes at unlikely moments. During early warmups prior to competing in Budapest, for example.
“We were having a contest to see who could get the most questions right,” he explained. “I guess most people might think that’s weird.”
Not as weird as being lucid and engaging while jet-lagged, as both “Macs” were on this exquisite afternoon.
“I’ve come to comps a little jet lagged and a little tired before,” Mackenzie told me. “It just builds my confidence. There’s no excuse for not throwing well. I am ready, though, for a big sleep.”
And with that, she left the shade of the media tent and strode off into a sun almost as bright as her future.
Another amicable Aussie competing in Eugene was discus thrower Matt Denny, a man who has mastered the art of throwing big when it counts. In 2018, for example, he produced a lifetime best of 64.03m to win the Australian Championships. A year later, he repeated as Australian champ with another PB, this time 65.28m, which he topped at the Doha Worlds by launching 65.43m to take sixth. He broke 67 meters for the first time during the Olympic final in 2021, and 68 meters for the first time this summer in Budapest.
Denny’s coach, Dale Stevenson, says that some people are just “exceptional competitors,” and Matt is one of them. “His happy place,” according to Stevenson, “is out there competing against the top athletes. It brings the best out of him.”
That was evident in Eugene, where Denny injected some much-needed brio into an otherwise subdued competition. He did his best to engage the crowd before each attempt, and refused to take it personally when they ignored him prior to his third throw. (The men’s 800 meters was about to begin and this was, after all, Eugene.)
The 66.36m he produced on that attempt put Denny in third place behind Kristjan Čeh and Daniel Ståhl, the twin Everests of the event.
A lesser individual might have been content with such a throw, coming as it did at the end of a loooong season. For unexplained reasons, winter here is summer in Australia, and Denny’s first comp took place way back on February 11th.
But Coach Stevenson knows his man, and throwing against giant World Champions (Kristjan, Daniel and Andrius Gudžius have won every World title since 2017) did in fact bring out the best of Denny on this gorgeous afternoon in Eugene.
He jumped ahead of Ståhl by a centimeter with a 67.37m toss in round four, then blasted a new PB of 68.43m on his final attempt to barge past Čeh for the title of 2023 Diamond League Champ, a win Denny described afterwards as “really satisfying.”
“You idolize the greats,” he explained. “You put them on a pedestal. Especially Daniel, who is probably the greatest ever as a competitor. So it was a special moment to get the win and have Daniel be the first guy to give me a hug and congratulate me. It reminded me of how good a community this is, for them to be like, ‘Lets go get some beers!’”
As to the varying levels of crowd support, Denny said he learned from Olympic and World champ high jumper Gimbo Tamberi that it’s best to get people’s attention by yelling before asking them to clap. He tried this before his sixth attempt and drew a spirited response. The extra bit of energy he absorbed from the crowd was all Denny needed on a day when he felt ready to rumble.
“I had some warmups of around 65 meters,” he explained. “And I know I’m in good nick if I’m doing that. When the comp began, I kept falling out of my delivery, but I knew there was something there.”
The next step will be getting on the podium at an Olympics or Worlds, no easy task with Čeh, Ståhl, and Mykolas Alekna throwing at historically high levels. With those three in the mix, it could conceivably take 70 meters to get on the stand in Paris and Tokyo.
In an effort to raise his game, Denny added a wrinkle to his technique this season by setting up for the throw with his right foot offset a bit then stepping forward after his windup. You’ve heard of the “Crouser slide”? Let’s call this the “Denny step.” If you say it fast like it’s one word it sounds pretty cool. Denny-step. Denny-step. Denny-step. See?
Matt and Dale, if you pursue a trademark, I’d like a t-shirt.
Dale says the Denny-step evolved to help Matt keep his hips “underneath his shoulders on entry,” and it might not be the end of their tinkering.
“We’re playing around with other variations, too,” he explained. “We’ll experiment with some of those during the Aussie domestic season from January to April.”
Dale did not divulge the exact nature of what they’ll be trying, but according to internet sources, he and Denny are considering everything from learning to cuss in Lithuanian to a never-before-seen discus move known as the “Kick-the-Crotch-of-Kristjan.”
In the meantime…
Are you free on 10-12th November?
If so, join me in beautiful Tallinn, Estonia, for the 2023 European Discus Conference which features excellent beer and major insights into the technique and training of guys like Daniel Ståhl, Sam Mattis, Kristjan Čeh, and Mykolas Alekna.
The coaches you see in the above photo will share their knowledge through a series of lectures and live demonstrations and, even better, you can ask follow-ups or just shoot the breeze with them and other coaches from all over the world while dining or maybe doing the backstroke at the amazing Tallink Spa and Conference Hotel where the conference is held. Here’s a bird’s-eye view:
And see this person popping out of the water?
On November 10-12th that might be Gerd Kanter or Kristjan Čeh or Dane Miller. I’ll end here so you can start checking flights.
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.
In the documentary film The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson, lead singer of the band “The Band,” describes touring as, “a goddamned impossible way of life.” The constant travel. The weird hours. The unfamiliar food. The ache of loneliness that wells up when the arena goes silent.
Professional track athletes know that scene. To make a living in the sport, they have to ply the European circuit for much of the summer while also managing trips to far-flung locales like Doha and Rabat.
And while traveling for a living might sound glamorous to those of us who make the same commute to the same office every day, think of this: When it goes badly at work, we still get to go home at the end of the day and sit on the couch with our spouse and share a glass of wine and watch a few episodes of “Friends” or “Shark Tank” and feel their warmth next to us all night before we have to get up and face the world again. But that’s not the way it works on the road. Not usually.
Russ Winger, formerly a world class shot and discus thrower and currently the coach and husband of Kara Winger, says that “when things are not going well in Europe, it’s the worst. You’re away from home, not competing well, not getting anything good out of the sport. That makes a lot of athletes decide they don’t want to continue.”
Kara experienced those feelings during the summer of 2021, when she struggled to find her rhythm while competing overseas. Looking ahead to 2022, which she had announced would be her final season, Kara realized that her last lap around the circuit would be much more enjoyable if Russ came with her. So, she asked him to be her coach.
It’s easy to imagine an arrangement like that going badly. Most of us do not like getting advice from our spouse on mundane matters such as driving directions or how best to fold a t-shirt, let alone having them remind us day after day to keep our javelin back.
But Russ and Kara made it work.
“I’ve loved being her coach,” he said recently. “It’s been fun because we know each other very well. I’ve seen her at her best and worst, and she has seen me at my best and worst, and that’s a perspective you can’t get from other folks.”
Bottom line, having Russ with her every day, especially on trips overseas, made Kara happy, and according to her longtime friend and strength coach Jamie Meyers, Kara “always does well when she’s happy.”
Her performance this summer would seem to support that assertion. In June, she won her ninth national title with a throw of 64.26m. A month later, she took her first-ever World Championships medal with a sixth-round toss of 64.05m. Two weeks after that, she won the Diamond League meeting in Brussels. The 68.11m she threw there was her first PB in twelve years. It was also the best throw in the world this year and is now the American record. She then finished her season by winning the Diamond League title for the first time.
As that meet in a sold-out Letzigrund Stadium concluded, the event winners were feted with a parade and fireworks and a mini-concert. After that, she made her way through the media gauntlet with her usual aplomb, providing thoughtful answers to mundane questions, making sure every reporter got what they needed. When there were no more queries, she looked around and smiled. “And now,” she announced, “I get to see Russ!”
ALong Time Coming
Had Joe Kovacs walked away from the sport during the winter of 2019, as it looked like he might, he’d have retired with the kind of resumé (a World Championship gold and silver, an Olympic silver, a 22.57m PB) that would have placed him among the top ten putters of all time. Not bad for a guy who finished fourth at the NCAA Championships in 2012, his senior year at Penn State, and wasn’t even sure he wanted to try competing as a professional. When I spoke with him after that NCAA final, his main goal in athletics seemed to be surpassing 500 pounds in the bench press. And they say shot putters are meatheads.
But later that summer, Joe hit a big PB–21.08m–at the Olympic Trials, which got him within twenty centimeters of making the team, which got him an invite to live and train in Chula Vista under the guidance of Art Venegas, which put him on the path to building a remarkable career.
He established himself as the best shot putter on the planet in 2015 by blasting a PB of 22.56m in July and then winning the World Championships later that summer in Beijing. And based on some titanic warmup throws (including a reputed 24-meter bomb at Triton in 2014) it looked like Joe might be on the way to taking down Randy Barnes’ world record of 23.12m and making a case for himself as the best putter of all time.
Then, Ryan Crouser happened.
Many people were surprised when Crouser, after flying under the radar all winter and spring, blasted 22.11m to win the Olympic Trials in 2016, but Joe and Art were not surprised. Ryan had been training in Chula Vista prior to the Trials, so they’d gotten a closeup view of his capabilities.
Joe threw 21.78m in Rio, a distance that would have won five of the previous six Games, but when Crouser bombed an Olympic record 22.52m for the gold, it was clear that a new era had dawned in the men’s shot.
Joe upped his PB to 22.57m the following year, and finished ahead of Crouser while taking silver at the London Worlds, but it still seemed likely that at some point Crouser would use his 6’7″ frame and silky smooth rhythm to dominate the event.
To counter that looming threat, Art and Joe began experimenting with technical modifications, which they hoped might turn Joe’s more compact build into an advantage. My understanding is that Joe began setting up in the ring much like the discus thrower you can see in this video. He and Art believed that this new starting position would give him a longer path of acceleration on the ball, which would ultimately translate to farther throws. It was also an approach that a larger thrower like Crouser probably could not employ within the confines of a shot put ring, so if Joe could make it work it would give him a leg up on his main rival.
Ideally, a thrower attempting a major technical change would take a year away from competition to perfect their new style, but that’s hard to do when you make your living as a shot putter, so Joe spent 2018 working on his new approach in practice while using his “old” technique in meets. Understandably, he struggled. He also got injured.
The following winter, newly married to the former Ashley Muffet and living in Columbus, Ohio, where Ashley worked as the throws coach at Ohio State, Joe found himself at a crossroads. He made occasional trips to California to train with Art, but the transition to the new technique did not seem to be working. Meanwhile, he had lost his feel for his “old” style of throwing and was struggling to hit 20 meters. At the same time, being married to Ashley made him realize that he could have a full and happy life outside of the ring, and he began to wonder if he should retire.
Luckily for the sport, Joe decided to stick with it for the 2019 season. Ashley took over as his coach and guided him to a World title in Doha in what will long be remembered as the greatest shot competition ever. It was a remarkable end to a remarkable season, which I wrote about in detail here.
It turns out that Joe and Art were correct in their assessment of Crouser’s potential. He broke the world record in 2021 with a toss of 23.37m, and has surpassed the 23-meter mark in six different comps. But with Ashley’s guidance, Joe has kept pace, taking silver at the Tokyo Games and at this summer’s Worlds with throws of 22.65m and 22.89m respectively.
After Worlds in July, Joe put together a sensational string of performances in Europe including 22.89m at the Gyulai István Memorial in Hungary, 22.65m at the Athletissima in Lausanne, and 22.61m at the Memorial Van Damme in Brussels.
And then, at the Diamond League final in Zurich, he finally breached the 23-meter line with a second-round blast of 23.23m, which put him ahead of Barnes on the all-time list. (You can view Joe’s post-meet comments here.)
Joe and Ashley moved to Nashville two years ago after she accepted a position at Vanderbilt, and they are expecting twins this fall. Will wrangling two babies prove more challenging than keeping up with Crouser? Likely.
But this golden Kovacs v. Crouser era is not going to end just yet. Joe believes that at 33, he is young enough to extend his new PB, and Crouser–who put 22.74m in Zurich despite having been sick for a month when a case of Covid morphed into a sinus infection–is not going anywhere.
However things play out, those gents now occupy the top two spots on the all-time performance list. As they should.
Rachel Dincoff’s first experience in the sport of track and field was as a 200-meter runner. She recalls being “relatively” fast, not “crazy fast,” and since she was tall for her age someone suggested she try the discus.
That was in the seventh grade.
She liked the discus just fine, and after participating in a few meets, decided to make it her life’s work.
“I will,” she informed her teachers, “be doing this in the Olympics some day.”
For that to happen, though, Rachel had to get really good at the discus. Not relatively good. Crazy good.
But for a long time, that did not appear likely. She did not break one hundred feet in middle school, and her high school PB was 143’7”. Val Allman, by way of comparison, she threw 184’2″ in high school.
After a year at Indiana University Purdue University – Fort Wayne (IPFW), Rachel transferred to Auburn where she put together a relatively good collegiate career scoring a ton of points for the Tigers, and making Second-Team All-American in the shot and disc. She graduated in 2016 with a PB of 55.80m and a burning conviction that she could be a great thrower if she could just hang in there long enough.
Meanwhile, Sandra Perkovic won the Olympics that year with a throw of 69.21m.
Rachel persuaded former world class discus thrower Doug Reynolds to become her coach, and began making the two-and-a-half hour drive to Tuscaloosa (Reynolds coached at the University of Alabama at the time) four days a week.
After a year, Reynolds accepted the head job at the University of New Mexico and offered to help Rachel find another coach. But Rachel knew that Reynolds shared her belief in her potential, and she was not ready to part ways.
“What day would you like me to report to New Mexico?” she asked.
She broke the sixty-meter barrier for the first time in 2018–a major milestone for a discus thrower–but a year later, after tinkering with her technique to “make it look like other throwers,” she lost her feel and fouled out of the US Championships.
For someone trying to hang on in the sport and maybe qualify for a bit of funding to supplement her earnings as a bartender/waitress/retail salesperson, that was a disaster.
But she and Reynolds went back to the desert and used the Covid year to hone a technical approach that felt comfortable for her and would–they hoped–hold up under the stress of a big competition.
Their work paid off when she surpassed the Olympic qualifying distance with a throw of 64.41m in May, but the real test came during the finals at this year’s Trials, by far the most stressful moment of her career.
According to Reynolds, “Not a single one of her warm up throws was any good. She fouled her first competition throw, which was a duck, threw a pop-up fifty-seven meters, then fouled the third one.”
“Those were not,” Rachel said afterwards, “the throws I imagined myself having here.”
That second throw–it was actually 57.74m—bought her three more, but she entered round four in seventh place.
Reynolds says that adrenaline was causing her to rush her entry. “She was a little anxious into and off of the corner, and wasn’t setting up her drive phase really well. She has a tendency to let her left arm pop up when she gets excited, and that makes her technique too rotational. She has to stay down and drive into the ring.”
He reminded Rachel about the left arm, and that simple cue did the trick as she moved up to fourth place with a toss of 59.35m. A throw of 60.21m in round five vaulted her into third, but she fouled her final attempt then had to stand by and wait. Long story short, if Kelsey Card and Whitney Ashley both jumped ahead of her on their final throws, Rachel would be off the squad for Tokyo.
They did not, and now Rachel is one of only thirty-four women in the entire world who will get to throw the discus at the Tokyo Games. Now that’s crazy.
Festival of Javs
Tom Pukstys believes that under the right conditions, people will throw the javelin far.
Those conditions include summer weather, fervent fans, and an enthusiastic announcer. All of those elements were present at the American Jav Fest in beautiful East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, a couple of weeks ago, and the results were outstanding.
Thirty-three percent of the entire field, according to Pukstys, produced PRs.
One of them, Michael Shuey, ended up ripping his shirt off, an appropriate response to breaking the eighty-five-meter barrier in front of a couple of dozen family members.
The atmosphere. The relatives. The fact that Curtis Thompson had just jumped ahead of him into first place with a toss of of 81.04m. All this, according to Pukstys, factored into Shuey’s breakthrough.
“When he stepped up for his last throw, the table was set,” says Pukstys, “and he went to dinner. He ran faster, pushed himself to the limit, and just whaled on that throw.”
“Where did that come from?” he asked Shuey aftwards.
“I don’t know,” replied Shuey. “I just had it inside me.”
Pukstys is optimistic that Shuey’s breakthrough is just that and not a one-off.
‘I think Michael’s got a great chance of throwing that again in Tokyo,’ he opined. “And Curtis is in eighty-five meter shape as well. He’s going to get mad and show us what he’s made of.”
In an ordinary year, shirtless Shuey would have been the highlight of the weekend, but this is no ordinary year. For the first time in forever, an American woman is among the javelin favorites going into an Olympic Games.
That woman is Maggie Malone, and after lofting a few (in the words of Pukstys) “mediocre” warm up throws, she crushed her first attempt in the competition.
When it landed, she looked at Tom and said, “That’s really far.”
“Yes,” he replied. “We are going to have to get you drug tested.”
The throw was 67.40m, a new American record…if Pukstys could arrange a drug test within the required ninety minutes. With the help of a local doctor, the good folks at USADA, and the staff at a nearby hospital, they managed to pull it off.
If Malone can reproduce that throw in Tokyo, the next time she gets drug tested she may well have a gold medal hanging from her neck.
“No one is better than her mentally right now,” says Pukstys. “I think she’s capable of a world record.”
I was under the impression that athletes and coaches would be allowed very little freedom of movement in the Olympic village due to Covid restrictions, but apparently that is not the case.
A coach who is currently there in the village told me that other than the mask-wearing and daily testing requirements, life at this Olympic Games is not much different than others he has attended.
Folks are free to move about and mingle with competitors from other countries, including in a cafeteria large enough to hold hundreds of diners.
How this will affect the issue of contract tracing when an athlete tests positive, as the American pole vaulter Sam Kendricks did yesterday, remains to be seen.
Presentations by three of the best throws coaches in the world are now available for purchase on Coachtube.
In one, René Sack, German women’s national discus coach, breaks down the form of multiple Euro Champs medalist Shanice Craft and multiple World Champs medalist Nadine Müller. René is fantastic coach, and this is a rare chance to hear his insights into the art of discus throwing.
Next up, we have Mike Barber, coach of javelin World Champ Kelsey-Lee Barber. Using video and still images, Mike examines Kelsey’s technique and discusses various aspects of training a javelin thrower.
Finally, we have a special presentation by German men’s national discus coach Torsten Lönnfors titled, “Youth Discus Training in the German Athletics Federation.”
In this lecture, Torsten, the coach of 2016 Olympic champ Chris Harting, explains the process used by the German federation to produce an unparalleled string of successful discus throwers. You may find Torsten’s presentation here.
Determined to become the focal point of the javelin universe, Mcthrows.com is set to follow up presentations by Mark Mirabelli and Mike Barber with a lecture by the German biomechanist Dr. Klaus Bartonietz and the world record holder Uwe Hohn.
Titled, “The Javelin Technique of Johannes Vetter, Thomas Röhler, and Neeraj Chora” this webinar will take place on Friday, May 29th at 11:00am CST.
Attendees will be able to submit questions throughout this presentation. It is free. Register here.
Outstanding Australian javelin coach Mike Barber will break down the technique of 2019 World Champion Kelsey-Lee Barber in a free webinar on Thursday, May 21, at 3:00pm CST. In advance of that appearance, Mike graciously provided some details about Kelsey-Lee’s career and their big night in Doha. You can register for Mike’s presentation here.
It was one of those moments that throws coaches long for and dread. In the fifth round of the women’s javelin final at the 2019 World Athletics Championships, Kelsey-Lee Barber sat in fourth place with a best throw of 62.95m. Occupying the top three spots were China’s Liu Shiying and Lyu Huihui, along with Germany’s Christin Hussong. Having set a PB of 67.70m two months before, Kelsey arrived in Doha as one of the favorites, and she still had an excellent chance to medal if she could find a groove on one of her two remaining attempts.
In the stands of Khalifa International Stadium, Mike Barber, Kelsey’s husband and coach, sat peering into the screen of an ipad. He normally did not watch video of Kelsey’s attempts during competitions but, as he said later, “Something wasn’t right,” and he needed to figure out what that was. After her solid opener, Kelsey had planted her next three throws just on either side of the sixty-meter line (61.40m, 58.34m, 60.90m) a full five meters below what she’d need to get on the podium. She seemed stuck, he needed to help her get unstuck, and they were running out of time.
To Mike, the video confirmed what he had suspected. Kelsey appeared a bit tentative. She seemed to be holding something back. As officials summoned her for her fifth attempt, Mike considered telling her to add half a meter to the length of her approach.“It looked like she needed more space to feel like she could run through the crossover,” he recalls. A longer run up might remove any worries she harbored about fouling and unleash her aggressiveness.
Or, it might not.
That’s what’s so great and so treacherous about these moments. The right adjustment at the right time can help an athlete unleash a big throw when they need it the most. The wrong advice, however–no matter how well intentioned–can cause them to overthink and lose their rhythm at the worst possible time.
We’ve all been there. Maybe not at a World Championships, but sometimes in the heat of a Conference or State championship we notice a flaw in our athlete’s technique and think “That’s it! Fix that, and we’re set!”
In our excitement, we begin shouting adjustments.
“Keep your eyes back!”
“Finish the throw!”
“Stay long! Be aggressive! But, relax!”
Sometimes it works, but sometimes advice delivered in the heat of battle can make an athlete self-conscious and muck up their rhythm.
One year at our State Meet, I had two shot putters competing simultaneously in separate flights in different spots within the oval. It took a lot of effort–I had to bolt back and forth from one side of the stadium to the other–but I managed to shout enough suggestions to make it impossible for either of them to get comfortable. Both threw poorly, and I realized afterwards that they’d have been much better off if I’d kept my mouth shut.
That night in Doha, Mike had to decide, as Kelsey stepped to the runway for her fifth throw, if the moment was right to suggest a change.
Luckily, he and Kelsey had survived plenty of high pressure moments during the five years they’d worked together. The entire 2016 season, for example. After taking bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and surpassing the sixty-three meter mark two years running, Kelsey hoped to make some noise at the Olympics, but instead spent the entire 2016 season trying to manage a stress fracture in her lower back. The focus of that year evolved into holding things together long enough to qualify for Rio and sample the Olympic experience–often an important step in a thrower’s development. Kelsey accomplished that goal–she finished 28th in Rio with a best of 55.25m–but the pain and uncertainty she faced made for a long and difficult summer.
She came back to set PBs in both 2017 (64.53m) and 2018 (64.57m) and picked up some additional big meet experience along the way. She made the final at the London World Championships in 2017, then won silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The 2019 season began in promising fashion as Kelsy won the Australian Nationals with a toss of 63.33m in April, displaying in Mike’s words “a lot of horsepower.”
“She just couldn’t quite get it through the jav, but we walked away thinking ‘there’s a big throw in there, we just have to find it.’”
They found it in Lucerne in July, when Kelsey smashed a 67.70m PB that announced her as a major contender in Doha.
Unfortunately, ten days later at the London Diamond League Meeting, she suffered a flareup of a shoulder injury she’d originally sustained in 2014. I asked Mike if an injury history like Kelsey’s (she also ruptured an elbow tendon in 2012) was simply a byproduct of making a living tossing the spear.
“You want to believe that you can make your athletes resilient enough to stay healthy,” he said. “But the stress that throwing a javelin puts on your joints is immense. And going from being a sixty-four-meter thrower to a sixty-seven-meter thrower creates an exponential increase in the force on the shoulder.”
They had to adjust Kelsey’s training, and between the London meeting and Doha she never threw with anything longer than a seven-step run up, aside from at the Diamond League Final in late August where she tossed 64.74m and finished second to China’s Lyu Huihui. After that competition, Kelsey informed Brian that in spite of her shoulder issues, “I can beat Lyu. I can win the World Championships.”
Kelsey’s confidence was encouraging, but the shoulder remained touchy right up to their final throwing session before the qualification round in Doha when Kelsey took a few tosses using a seven-step run up and experienced “a hell of a lot of pain.”
Kelsey was assigned to the first flight during qualification, and the best she could manage was 61.08m in round one. That was well short of the 63.50m automatic mark, and afterwards she and Mike retired to the indoor warmup facility to watch the live feed of the second flight and await their fate. In order to advance to the next night’s final, Kelsey would have to finish in the top twelve.
“That was the worst!” recalled Mike. “She was sitting fifth in her pool, and looking at the list of throwers in the second flight and their PBs and what we knew of them, there were definitely eight girls that could knock her out, and there was nothing we could do except prepare as if Kelsey was in the final. She started to go through her routine, and when we eventually saw that she had made it, she said, ‘I know what I did wrong. Let’s go out there and win tomorrow!’”
So, they’d been through a lot together by the time Kelsey stepped to the runway to line up for fifth attempt in the Doha final, and that gave Mike the confidence that she could handle a last-minute adjustment.
“Kelsey!” he called out. “Move back!”
She did, and it almost worked.
Kelsey’s throw measured 63.65m, to that point her best effort of the night, but when the fifth round ended she was still well behind Hussong (65.05m), Huihui (65.49m), and Shiying (65.88m).
Mike says that Kelsey “carried her momentum better” on that fifth attempt but “fell off it” a bit at the end. That did not, however, diminish her confidence. “I can do this,” she assured him as they conferred before her final attempt.
She used the lengthened run up again on her sixth throw, and this time there was no falling off at the finish. She smashed a 66.56m and vaulted into first.
She was now in for another wait, shorter than the qualification vigil but just as agonizing. Throwing behind Kelsey in the order, Hussong, Lyu each had another shot to overtake her.
Hussong’s 65.21m, Lyu’s 62.61m, and Liu’s 65.75m must have seemed to hang in the air forever, but they did not change the final order and Kelsey became the first Australian to win a World Championship gold in the throws since Dani Samuels took discus gold in Berlin in 2009.
If you’d like to learn more about Kelsey’s career and the technique that made her World Champion, join us this Thursday. Mike will break down Kelsey’s form using videos of some of her best throws. Attendees will be able to submit questions throughout. If you’d like to be part of this very special event, register here.
On Thursday, May 14 at 12:00pm CST, Mcthrows.com will present a free webinar with Mark Mirabelli, one of the country’s finest javelin coaches.
Mark was selected by the USA Olympic Committee as one of ten coaches to participate in the “Elite Javelin Coaches Camp” in San Diego. He is a nationally renowned speaker, and the owner of the “Mark Mirabelli Throwing School,” where he trains hundreds of HS and college throwers each year.
Under Mark’s tutelage, both of his sons have become outstanding javelin throwers. Christopher Mirabelli was a three-time Big Ten champion and All-American during his career at Rutgers, and Nickolas finished third at the 2019 USATF U20 Championships as a freshman at Texas A&M.
Mark, who has produced a series of “Mark Mirabelli Throwing” DVDs and has several courses on Coachtube, will detail the process he uses to help his athletes develop outstanding jav technique.
Attendees may submit questions throughout Mark’s presentation. Register here.
It all started in October of 2018 when she stabbed herself in the hand while carving a Halloween pumpkin for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It was her right hand, of course, her javelin hand, and she suffered nerve damage that had her “extremely worried” that her career might be over.
Which would have been a shame, since she’d thrown great at the Diamond League final in Zurich a few weeks earlier (64.75m to take third), and loved working with her current coaches, Dana Pounds Lyon and Jamie Myers.
So she had no interest in retiring, and immediately vowed “not to let this weird, accidental self-sabotage get in the way of what I had started to build with Jamie and Dana.” Luckily, the pain from the injury subsided after a few weeks, though it occasionally resurfaced at odd times (while closing the trunk of her car, for example) to remind her of how close she’d come to having her long and remarkably productive career (Kara has won eight national titles) come to a premature and embarrassing end.
One upshot of the injury was that it caused Kara to change the way she held the javelin. She dropped the “European grip” that she’d used her entire career, and adopted the “American” grip. “I worried about hand strength,” she explained. “With the European grip, you basically use three fingers. In the American grip you have all four fingers in contact with the chord, so I figured that if I had lost any strength this could help me compensate.”
It turned out that she was good at compensating. In May, Kara traveled to Chula Vista for a three-week training camp to try out the new grip. It worked just fine and, in spite of a “small, weird” calf strain that she sustained in practice, her first European trip of the 2019 season began in promising fashion with wins in Norway and Germany. She then took fourth at the Diamond League meeting in Rome with a toss of 63.11m. But the trip concluded on a sour note when she could manage a best of only 56.25m in Jena.
Kara had about three weeks at home after that, part of which she was able to spend with her husband, Russ, himself a former world class thrower who was in Wyoming for the summer guiding fishing trips. But she missed him badly when she returned to Colorado to train, and Dana, who coaches at the Air Force Academy, was busy with her collegiate throwers, so Kara was often left to practice alone and she found herself brooding over that performance in Jena.
Her confidence took another shot when her second European trip began as badly as the first had ended–a toss of 56.99m for ninth place (and no Diamond League points) in Lausanne.
She then rallied to break sixty meters in three consecutive meets, including a 62.89m toss in Luzern, but fell ill after that, struggled to maintain any rhythm in training, and ended up finishing ninth in the London Diamond League meeting on July 20th. That wrecked her chances of qualifying for the Diamond League Final.
Which was awfully disappointing after her third-place DL finish in 2018.
Kara had faced adversity before, including having to work her way back from a torn ACL suffered during the 2012 Olympic Trials. She threw in the London Olympics on that bad knee, had it surgically repaired, then fought her way back to the elite level of the sport, tossing a near PB of 66.47m in 2015.
So, she’s no wimp.
But there was something about the summer of 2019 that got her down. Maybe the shock of the Halloween injury had taken an emotional toll. Maybe all the travel was getting harder and lonelier after a decade of summers spent on the road. Maybe, with her career nearing its end, she was putting too much pressure on herself not to waste opportunities. Her determination to “carpe” all her remaining “diems” as a javelin thrower may have made it more difficult to shake off the occasional sucky diem–something that professional athletes have to be able to do.
Whatever the cause, she left Europe feeling low and desperate to–in her words–“freaking relax.”
Luckily, her next stop was Des Moines, Iowa, site of the 2019 US Championships. Des Moines has had an endorphin-inducing effect on Kara ever since she set the American record of 66.67m there in 2010. Also, Dana would be there to train with her and Russ would be there for moral support. And, it turns out that they have sensory deprivation tanks in Des Moines to help tense Iowans relax.
Sensory deprivation tanks (also known as “isolation tanks” or “flotation tanks”) come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but are basically containers of salt water large enough for a person to climb into, stretch out, and float. Some have lids that shut out all light. They were featured in a 1980 film called Altered States in which William Hurt starred as a scientist who used a deprivation tank not to relax but to devolve into a more primitive state. At one point, his colleagues open the tank and he pops out as a small caveman.
Kara’s experience was markedly different. A friend recommended that she try floating as a way to relieve stress, so she made an appointment as soon as she arrived in Des Moines. Her first ninety-minute session helped relieve some of the chronic neck pain and tightness that are the inevitable result of throwing a javelin for a living and, more importantly, allowed her to clear her head for the first time in months.
She had lunch with Dana and Jamie the next day, and the three conspired to salvage Kara’s season.
One thing they agreed on was that Kara should return to her old grip. Though the American grip allowed her to “control the angle of the javelin better,” she never quite got comfortable with it, and she and Dana decided that using her old grip might give her a better chance to “rediscover how to move through the finish.”
With only a couple of days before the women’s jav competition in Des Moines, they agreed that Kara would use the American grip one last time. With it, Kara threw 59.73m and finished second to her good friend Ariana Ince.
After that, it was off to Lima, Peru for the Pan American Games. Upon arriving in Lima, Kara had time to practice her old grip only once before blasting a season’s best 64.92m for the win.
She then returned home for a month of quality training and floating before traveling to Minsk for the US v. Europe match, which she won with a sixth-round toss of 64.63m.
Next came the World Championships. Previously, Kara’s best finish at a Worlds was eighth place in 2015. But, newly confident, newly relaxed, newly comfortable with her old grip she snagged fifth in Doha with a toss of 63.23m. No American woman had ever finished higher in the jav at Worlds.
Looking back, Kara views her week in Des Moines as the turning point to her season.
“I had a fantastic time at USA’s,” she recalled recently. “I got to hang out with my family and many of my closest friends. Ari and I hosted our first (hopefully annual) thrower party. And to have been surrounded by people I adore for an entire weekend after being disappointed in Europe for weeks was exactly what I needed.”
“I truly entered the second half of the season just wanting to have a great time with my friends at the three team meets I had left, and see what would happen if I went back to my old grip and just relaxed. I was just very done being worried and too serious all the time. I just wanted to bust out of whatever rut I was in this year, in a healthy and communicative way.”
After some time off to recover from a long and challenging season, Kara began throwing again a couple of weeks ago. She survived Halloween unscathed, and says that she is excited to be back in training. She floats regularly, and has been pleased to discover that “the warmth of the sensory deprivation tank is really nice during a Colorado winter.”
Doing her best to “remember the technical and mental things that made the end of 2019 so fun,” Kara is looking forward to taking her talents to Tokyo.
Which gives me an idea for a movie. It’s just like Altered States, except that when the scientists open the hatch on the tank, out pops a women’s javelin thrower with an Olympic medal around her neck. I know just the person to play that part.