When I first started coaching, John Godina was the best shot putter in the world, so I assumed my job was to get my athletes to throw like him. Technically, I mean. The way he set up at the back. The timing of his right leg sweep. The narrow power position.
Then Adam Nelson came along with a technique that looked nothing like Godina’s.
Nelson was followed by Reese Hoffa, who turned out of the back on his left heel. Then came Christian Cantwell, who seemed unable to bend his knees.
Each of these gents threw twenty-two meters and won major championships with very different technique.
And remember the old saying “many roads lead to Rome”? The same could be said last summer of the medal stand in Doha which Joe Kovacs, Ryan Crouser and Tom Walsh each ascended by putting their own unique spin on the spin technique.
So, what is a coach to make of this? How, when watching all these throwers launch bombs in a variety of ways, do we decide which of their technical quirks are worth emulating?
On Thursday, April 23rd at 7:00pm CST, Joe Frontier, the outstanding throws coach at Madison (WI) Memorial High School and the Madison Throws Club, will help us sort this matter out when he appears on the next Mcthrows.com webinar.
Joe’s presentation will be titled “Choosing a Technical Model for Your Throwers.” In it, he will show us how to differentiate between the sound fundamentals exhibited by world class throwers–fundamentals that we should encourage our athletes to imitate–and the idiosyncrasies that only a human of truly freakish ability could get away with.
Joe is one of the most successful throws coaches in the country today, and I encourage you to take the opportunity to learn from him. Attendees may submit questions throughout his presentation. Register here.
In his spare time, Joe also hosts a throws podcast featuring interviews with some of the best throwers and throws coaches in the world. Check them out at Throw Big Throw Far.com.
The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem, tells the story of Odysseus, a Greek noble who proves himself the greatest of all warriors during the conquest of Troy, but then for ten years is prevented from returning to his homeland, Ithaca, by the god Poseidon. It is a long, humbling journey, but in the end he finds salvation in the unbreakable fortitude of his wife, Penelope.
The Odyssey of Joe Kovacs began late in the summer of 2017, after a three-year run during which he’d established himself as one of the great shot putters of all time. He was twenty-eight years old, had tossed a PB of 22.57m earlier that season and appeared, outwardly at least, to be at the top of his game.
But there were gravitational forces at work behind the scenes in the sport and in Joe’s life, forces as powerful as the invisible hand of Poseidon. They would make the next two years the most challenging of Joe’s career.
Some of those forces were exerted by Joe’s planet-sized rival, Ryan Crouser, whose record-setting performance in Rio seemed to confirm suspicions that once a really big dude (Crouser is listed as 6’7”) figured out the rotational technique, the shot putting landscape would be irrevocably altered.
John Smith predicted such a moment in an article titled “Working the Earth” published in the old Long and Strong Thrower’s Journal in October of 2003. The article was inspired by Smith’s efforts to make the 6’6”, 330-pound Dan Taylor into a successful rotational putter. In it, he muses on the whole glide versus spin battle, details his training methods with Taylor, then concludes by writing…
Even though the rotational technique in the past has been a great equalizer for the smaller man to compete with the bigger man, I believe the evolution of the event is going to favor bigger men…if they can develop a move with good ground contact and leg action and learn to stay back and contained, I can envision the same throwing that we saw during the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. The long throws will happen, there is no doubt in my mind.
Art Venegas, arguably the best and most influential rotational shot coach the sport has produced, was also attuned at that time to the possibilities of a very large man mastering the spin. In a conversation I had with him this past October, Art recalled his impressions of the young and very large (6’10”) Carl Myerscough who he first came across in the late ‘90’s while coaching at UCLA and still describes as “the best young putter” he’s ever seen. “I never recruited foreigners,” Art remembered, “but I made an exception with Myerscough because I wanted the world to see what was possible.”
Myerscough did become a rotational putter, but he ended up throwing at Nebraska, where he won indoor and outdoor NCAA titles during a career marred by injuries and doping violations. He retired with a PB of 21.92m, but Art believes that Myerscough had possessed the raw potential to throw eighty feet clean.
Art left UCLA in 2009 without having the chance to unleash a giant spinner on the unsuspecting shot put world, but in 2013 he began what would turn out to be a remarkably successful partnership with the more conventionally-sized (6’0″, 295lbs) Joe Kovacs.
Joe took up residence at the Chula Vista training center and quickly flourished under Art’s tutelage. In 2014, he broke twenty-two meters and won his first national title. In 2015, he upped his PB to 22.56m at a Diamond League meet in Monaco and then won the World title in Beijing.
Joe remained the best thrower on the planet for most of the summer of 2016, winning Diamond League meets with twenty-two-meter-plus throws in May (the Prefontaine), June (Oslo) and July (London).
His 21.95m at the Olympic Trials easily put him on the team for Rio, but it was at those Trials that Crouser, who’d had an unremarkable season to that point, hit his stride throwing 22.11m for the win.
Then came Rio, where Crouser’s 22.52m took out the previous Olympic record of 22.47m set by Ulf Timmerman–a product of the East German state doping program–in 1988. Thus did Venegas and Smith’s premonitions about a giant-sized rotational putter finally come to fruition.
Crouser was only twenty-three years old at the time, and it seemed possible that he was about to take shot putting to a whole new level. Joe finished second behind Crouser at the Olympics with a put of 21.78m–a distance that would have won every Games from 1992-2008. In Rio, did not get him to within two feet of the gold.
Venegas, who had seen Crouser up close during practice sessions in Chula Vista, described him as “the most intelligent, coordinated, focused thrower I’ve ever seen.” Not that he was unbeatable. Crouser demonstrated in the 2017 Worlds (where he finished sixth) that he was capable of having a bad day. But watching him ease his way through the ring in Chula Vista and repeatedly drop practice throws on the twenty-two meter line, it was easy for Art to picture a not-so-distant future where it might take twenty-three meters to win a major championship.
That prospect gave Joe and Art a lot to think about in the summer of 2017. For the past two decades, the rotational technique had served as, to use Smith’s words, “the great equalizer,” allowing Joe and other throwers his size to successfully compete against 6’7” gliders. But now, here was a 6’7” dude who seemed to have mastered the spin.
How could Joe counter?
It turns out that the 2017 Worlds provided a clue. Joe defeated Crouser in London, taking silver with a toss of 21.66m. But the winner that night was Tom Walsh of New Zealand—another compactly-built spinner—who, in concert with his coach Dale Stevenson, may have shown a way forward for the stubby folk.
Tom joined the twenty-two meter club in 2016 when he was twenty-four years old. He finished third in Rio behind Crouser and Joe. In London, he threw a season’s best 22.14m in the prelims before taking the gold with a sixth-round 22.03m in the final.
Those fine performances in high pressure situations announced Tom as a force to be reckoned with, and his gregarious personality made him easy to root for. But what was most intriguing about Tom was his technique. He and Dale had modified what might be called “standard” rotational form by having Tom set up for the throw with his left foot at twelve o’clock and his right foot staggered back about half way between the edge and the center point of the circle. Tom began his throws by sweeping his left arm open aggressively then whipping his right leg around from that stepped-back position. The super long path of that right leg allowed Tom to generate tremendous speed as he yanked it back in to the center of circle. When successfully transferred to the shot, that speed created the potential for massive throws.
Tom’s victory in London raised the possibility that he and Dale had figured out a way to restore the rotational advantage to those compact and nimble enough to make a similar adjustment.
The question Joe and Art faced was whether to stay the course with Joe–he had, after all won a world title just two years earlier–or embark on an experimental path that might give him the means to defeat Crouser going forward.
They chose to experiment, and decided to have Joe start his throws from a position that Joe’s wife and current coach, Ashley, describes as “facing a full ninety degrees to the right” of a normal setup.
Art described their approach as “looking at what Walsh did but taking it a step further.”
He was convinced that if Joe could get comfortable with this adjustment and then “catch it just right” one day, he might well throw eighty feet. “It adds more distance to the movement,” Art explained. “Like the regular spin gives you more range than the glide.”
Even under the best of circumstances though, altering Joe’s technique (which had been ingrained by many thousands of throws over many years) was a risky gambit.
When we spoke this fall, I mentioned to Art that David Storl–who glided his way to two World titles and an Olympic silver medal–had in 2018 considered changing to the rotational technique. Art acknowledged the difficulty of a world class thrower making that change in the span of a single off-season. “You can’t just try it,” he cautioned. “A guy like that has to be taught for six to eight months, and he can’t even see a toeboard. He’s got to be given drills and do turns with a barbell and never even pick up a shot for a while.”
The challenge that Joe faced in altering his starting position may not have been as daunting as that faced by a veteran glider switching to the spin, but there was still no way of predicting how long it would take him to get to the point where he could regularly “catch it just right.”
And as a man who makes his living throwing the shot, Joe did not have the option of taking the 2018 season off to concentrate on perfecting his new technique.
But with no Worlds or Olympics in 2018, they felt like they had a window leading up to the 2019 Worlds in which to implement the changes. Joe would still compete in 2018, but his emphasis would be on mastering his new approach.
At that point, however, another gravitational force intervened, this time exerted by the planet Life.
Joe and Ashley (at the time Ashley Muffet) had for some time been involved in a serious relationship, and with Ashley settled in as the immensely successful throws coach at Ohio State University, it became clear that it was time for Joe to relocate to Columbus.
Joe made the move that winter, with the idea that Art would coach him remotely. Ashley says that “at the time when he came here, we never talked about me coaching him. I would watch his practices, but I didn’t have a whole lot to add to it because what they were doing with the new technique was truly an experiment. It was nothing I had ever seen before, so I didn’t feel comfortable weighing in.”
Joe did not compete during the 2018 indoor season. He lived and trained in Columbus with occasional trips to work with Art in person. As the outdoor campaign began, he wasn’t comfortable enough with his new technique to use it in competition, so he continued working on it in practice while occasionally switching back to his “normal” technique for meets.
He tore a groin muscle working on the new setup early in the outdoor season, then switched back to his old technique ten days prior to the 2018 Prefontaine Classic, where he finished eighth with a throw of 20.36m.
Joe and Ashley then traveled to Los Angeles the week before the 2018 US Championships so he and Art could resume work on the new technique. Joe finished fifth at those Championships, using his old technique to produce a best of 20.74m.
The experiment continued that winter until finally, in December of 2018, they all agreed that it would be best for Joe to return full time to his old style of throwing.
Art says that he realized that it was unfair to Ashley and Joe to ask them to continue with the experiment when it became apparent that “it couldn’t work fast enough.”
They all decided that Joe should go back to basics, to hitting the positions that had helped Joe become World champion in the first place. This was an approach in which Ashley felt much more comfortable taking an active roll. “Besides,” she said later, “the way he was throwing at that point, I didn’t think I could make things any worse.”
It turned out, though, that switching back to his old technique was not an easy thing for Joe to do. He struggled to find his rhythm, opening in January with a 20.77m toss at a meet in New York, followed by a 20.86m mark at the Millrose Games and then a humiliating 19.52m at a meet in Columbus on February 15th.
He rebounded to finish second at the Indoor Nationals with a throw of 21.40m, but Crouser’s winning toss of 22.22m was a stark reminder of how far Joe still had to go to get back into the upper echelon of the sport.
According to Ashley, the struggle to regain his form was at times so discouraging that Joe questioned if he should continue competing.
He now had a house, a wife, an “adult life he hadn’t had before.” Maybe it was time to move on.
Had Joe fallen in love with anyone else, his career may well have ended last winter. But, like Penelope, Ashley turned out to be a woman of great strength. It also helped that she was a world class throws coach.
Art had met Ashley when she did a coaching internship at Chula Vista, and what he saw convinced him that she was going to become one of the best in the business and “change the landscape for women coaches.”
With Joe fighting to salvage his career, Ashley proved Art correct.
Her first priority was to get Joe to forget about the past, forget about the future, forget about everything except the things he could do to get a little bit better every day. “It was hard to see Joe miserable,” she recalled later. “But, I tell my Ohio State kids that if they are upset about how they’re doing, they need to fix it. I ask them why they think they deserve to throw far if they hit terrible positions or their rhythm is terrible. Stop complaining and fix it. That’s not an easy thing to say to your husband, by the way.”
“But, I told Joe that he had to forget about what Ryan or Darrell Hill were throwing. He had to pretend like he wasn’t even in the mix. Everyone thought he was washed up, and he hated that because one of the things he likes the most about throwing is the competing aspect. He loves to put on a show and do things people don’t think he can do.”
“I told him, ‘Yes, you’ve thrown 22.50m, but right now you’re throwing twenty meters in practice. You have to accept that and build yourself up from there.’”
In spite of opening outdoors with four consecutive meets under twenty-one meters (including a 19.77m clunker in Stockholm) Joe listened and persevered.
And as the season wore on, there were hopeful signs. Ashley recalls “a lot of meets where there were twenty-two meter fouls or warm-ups, so we knew it was there.” One of those meets was the 2019 Prefontaine Classic where Joe finished fifth with a throw of 21.39m but said afterwards that seeing the ball travel twenty-two meters even in warm-ups gave him hope that a breakthrough was coming.
It came three weeks later at the US Championships in Des Moines where his first three throws traveled 21.99m, 22.00m, and 22.31m.
This, according to Ashley, was the “turning point.”
“We were happy,” she recalls. “But we knew he had at least another fifty centimeters in him.”
Joe finished second to Crouser’s 22.62m at USA’s, but a month later hit 22.11m in Paris.
His last meet before Worlds was the Diamond League Final in Brussels where he suffered a major setback, finishing eighth with a best of 20.60m. Ashley says that “he didn’t like that a bit, but I kept telling him ‘it doesn’t matter. Stay focused.’”
Before Joe left for Doha, Art reminded him that “he has a better history of winning medals in big meets than any of those guys.”
Still, Crouser had extended his PB to 22.74m earlier in the summer. Walsh had broken twenty-two meters on six different occasions. Darlan Romani had set a new Diamond League record of 22.61m at the Pre. And Hill, Joe’s old teammate at Chula Vista, had gone 22.35m in September at the Europe v. USA match in Belarus.
Ashley, who had “learned something about horses” while going to school at Kentucky, had been advising Joe all season to “put blinders on,” but one has to imagine that even a blind horse could sense his competitors thundering past as Joe’s rivals seemed poised to do in Doha.
With Ashley serving as throws coach for Team USA, she and Joe arrived at Worlds ten days before the prelims and were forced to train each night in heat and humidity so oppressive that it was sometimes difficult for Joe to keep the shot from falling out of his hand as he ran the ring. It was one more challenge in a season full of them.
When the men’s shot prelims finally rolled around, he looked solid, surpassing the automatic qualification mark with 20.92m on his first attempt.
He looked solid again while warming up for the final. Ashley says that people with a clear view told her that some of Joe’s warm-up throws were “really far,” but she couldn’t see exactly where they landed.
Crouser was up first in the final, and wasted no time in knocking another ’80’s glider out of the record books. Werner Gunthor’s Championship mark of 22.23m had stood since 1987. Crouser relieved him of it with a toss of 22.36m.
Joe opened with 20.90m and Ashley thought that his tempo was “really slow” and “a little too passive.”
Walsh ended the first round with a monstrous PB and new Championship record of 22.90m.
Venegas says that in any other throwing event, a toss like that in the first round would have effectively ended the competition because everyone would have tightened up and lost their timing. But the shot is an “emotional event” where competitors can feed off of each other’s excitement. Romani illustrated this by crushing a 22.53m with his second toss.
Joe guaranteed himself a full six throws with a second-round 21.63m and followed that up with 21.24m in the third. As the fourth round began, he sat in fifth place behind Walsh, Romani, Crouser, and Hill, who had hit 21.65m in round three.
Joe’s 21.95m in round four moved him into fourth place, but a spot on the medal stand was still a long way off as Crouser hit 22.71m to knock Romani into third.
Ashley was still concerned about Joe’s tempo. “He didn’t have any fouls,” she recalled, “which is unusual.” After the 21.95m, she told him, “It doesn’t matter. Anything less than 22.50-22.60m might as well be a foul. It’s either a PR or a foul. We’ve got nothing to lose, so keep swinging.”
He reached 21.94m in round five, still in fourth behind Romani’s 22.53m.
At the end of Homer’s epic, Odysseus returns to Ithaca only to find his house occupied by murderous rivals bent on dividing his estate and erasing his legacy. He disguises himself as a beggar and approaches his palace just in time to see his favorite dog, who has loyally pined for him for twenty years, expire on a pile of dung. His enemies do not recognize him, but just for grins one of them picks up a foot stool and smacks him with it. It was an immensely frustrating situation for an immensely proud man. This close to redemption, but still likely to lose everything he had strived for.
And so it must have felt for Joe. Over the past two years he had been supplanted in the shot put rankings by Crouser, Walsh, Romani, Hill and–truth be told–many lesser throwers as well. He wasn’t exactly forgotten, but many assumed that his days of contending for gold medals were behind him.
Then, he fights his way back to the twenty-two-meter level only to find that it now took more than 22.50m to contend for a medal.
When Joe stepped into the ring for his final throw, I was at a park playing with my grandson. A few minutes later, I received a text that read, “Three guys over 75 feet!! Unbelievable!!”
I assumed the three had been Crouser, Walsh, and either Romani or Hill. Imagine my surprise when, later that afternoon, I sat down and watched a replay of the webcast.
Joe’s throw of 22.91m was one of the great performances in the history of the sport, made greater still when Crouser answered with his own PB of 22.90m, which knocked Walsh into third on the countback.
All three over seventy-five feet. Unbelievable, indeed.
Ashley says that speed made the difference on Joe’s winning toss. “I think he was more aggressive from the beginning of that throw,” she explained. “Technically, all day he looked pretty good, but because he brought more velocity into that throw I think he caught the ball back a little farther. He stayed connected to it, and the ball stayed on his hand for a long time, all from the speed he brought to it.”
Like Joe, Odysseus conquered his rivals. Only he used a sword, which is how manly men settled things in those days. His odyssey over, he and his wife settled in to enjoy the leisurely life of the landed nobility. Homer did not write a sequel, so we’ll never know if Odysseus ever sallied forth on further adventures.
In Joe’s case, the sequel is about to begin. He will open his Olympic campaign against Crouser at the Millrose Games in February. A summer of rematches with Hill, Romani, Walsh and the rest is not far off.
Call it what you want, but if you are a fan of the shot put, what took place in the shadow of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the heart of Berlin today was pretty close to perfect.
Especially when you consider that this spot, known as Breitscheidplatz, was the site of a terrorist attack in the winter of 2016. Typical of such incidents, the attack was meant to destroy Breitscheidplatz as a thriving public place (the attacker struck during a popular Christmas market).
Part of the German response to that effort was to wedge a world class shot put competition into the narrow confines of the Platz.
They built a wooden platform approximately four feet high, covered it with turf, erected some temporary bleachers, and invited people to come and watch for free.
And come they did. The atmosphere (and I mean this as a compliment) reminded me of a high school football game on a warm September evening in a small town in the United States. People cheered and chanted and dressed in semi-ridiculous outfits. An entire section wore matching red hats and lime green t-shirts.
There was an endearingly lame pep band. There was recorded music (everything from Michael Jacksons’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” which elicited a 19.54m toss from Luxembourg’s Bob Bertemes, to Billy Squier’s “Slowly Stroke Me” which greeted Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Kemal Mesic as he walked into the ring for his third throw sitting on two fouls. He went 18.70m and missed the final).
There were large video screens. The one that I was facing showed a slo-mo replay of every…single…throw.
There was drama. In round three, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Mesud Pezer dropped one right at the automatic qualifying line of 20.40m only to have his effort nullified as a foul. He protested, and as the officials discussed the matter, the crowd was treated to several slo-motion replays of the throw, which caused them to boo lustily when it appeared that Pezer had commited no obvious infraction. It seems that he was called for the phantom right heel on the toeboard on his reverse, similar to what happened to Joe Kovacs in last year’s World Championships. This time, however, reason prevailed and the call was overturned. Pezer’s throw turned out to be 20.16m, enough to secure him a spot in the final.
There was big time homerism. Homegrown favorite David Storl received an ovation for warming up (two fixed-feet glides, one around 19.00m and another around 20.60m), for being introduced, and for hitting an automatic qualifier of 20.63m on his first attempt (he reversed on that one).
As round two ended for Storl’s group, the competition was briefly halted while the MC for the night interviewed David.
I ‘m not sure that was totally fair to those in the field who were still hoping to hit a qualifying mark, but the crowd loved it.
And that’s the thing. The crowd was active and happy and alive throughout the entire competition. How often can you say that about any track and field preliminary?
One thrower who thrived on the atmosphere was Nick Scarvelis, representing Greece.
”Qualifying situations are almost always in an empty stadium at nine in the morning on the opposite side of the track from some empty stands,” he told me after making it through to Wednesday’s final with a season best of 20.20m. “So I ‘d like to see more of this type of thing.”
I was curious as to where the throwers took most of their warmup attempts, as they seemed to be allowed only two on site. Had they warmed up at the Olympic Stadium practice facility before traveling to the Platz?
“No,” Nick explained. “We warmed up at another practice track. They actually put a ring in the middle of a park inside of a university. There was like a three-hundred-year-old column next to the shot put ring. But it was still a twenty-minute drive away, so it wasn’t exactly ideal. A lot of guys were complaining, but I didn’t mind. The music. The atmosphere. Throwing in the shadow of the church. I loved It.”
Two others who prospered were Craoatia’s Stipe Zürich, the bronze medalist in last year’s World Championships, and Poland’s Michael Haratyk, the silver medalist from the 2016 European Championships in Amersterdam. Each surpassed the automatic qualifying mark on his first attempt, and they are the two most likely to give Storl some trouble as he strives to notch his fourth European Championships title.
The final will take place inside the Olympic Stadium on Tuesday night, and though there might well be 50,000 fans going nuts for Storl, I don’t know if the atmosphere there or anywhere else can match what the Germans created tonight.
At one point during the competition, the bells of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church rang out.
I won’t say they were heralding a German shot put renaissance, a return of David Storl to his top form. There was something more to that sound. A little defiance maybe, and a lot of joy over thousands of people coming together on a warm Berlin night to…well…to have fun.
Coach Nathan Fanger of Kent State University spent an hour with us this past Thursday breaking down the rotational shot put technique of Danniel Thomas-Dodd, the 2017 NCAA champion and 2018 Indoor World silver-medalist.
It was a fantastic presentation.
I have spent twenty-seven years obsessively tinkering with how best to coach the rotational shot, and I learned a bunch from Coach Fanger’s analysis of Danniel’s form.
His approach with Danniel is very different from anything I’ve tried over the years, and I can’t wait to work on some of his concepts with my athletes.
Those attending the webinar live were able to get their questions answered directly by Coach Fanger. You won’t be able to do that, but if you are at all interested in the rotational shot, I think you’ll love the video of his talk. Here it is:
McThrows.com is extremely jacked to present a free webinar on rotational shot put technique with Nathan Fanger, the long time throws coach at Kent State University.
This webinar will take place on Thursday, July 26 at 7:00pm Central Standard time. You can register here.
During his time at Kent State, Coach Fanger’s throwers have won fifty Mid American Conference titles. Thirty-three of Nathan’s throwers have qualified for the NCAA Championships, with fourteen finishing as All-Americans including Reggie Jagers (who last month won the USATF title in the discus) and Danniel Thomas-Dodd, 2017 NCAA shot put champion, 2018 Indoor World Championships silver medalist, and 2018 Commonwealth Games champion.
In this webinar, Coach Fanger will break down Thomas-Dodd’s rotational shot put technique, which is quite a bit different than the standard American approach to rotational throwing.
A year ago, I interviewed Nathan on this topic, and his explanation of Danniel’s technique was really interesting. You can find that interview here.
This webinar will be a unique opportunity to get an inside look at the technique of a world class thrower. Participants may submit questions to Nathan throughout the presentation. Whether you coach beginning or advanced throwers, I think you’ll find this to be fascinating discussion.
Remember that moment in Rocky when out of nowhere he decks Apollo Creed in the first round? Nobody in the place thinks he’ll so much as lay a glove on Creed,, and then…Bam!…he lands a haymaker. In the end, Rocky did not win the that fight, but that punch and his ability to hang tough for fifteen rounds against overwhelming odds gave him credibility as an athlete and changed the course of his career and his life.
Okay, I know Rocky is a movie. Don’t mistake me for those Game of Thrones fans who can’t wait for time travel to be invented so they can go back and get a look at a dragon.
But I witnessed a very Rocky-like moment in real life recently. It occurred, ironically enough, during the first round of the women’s shot at the USATF Championships in Des Moines.
As I sat down on that perfect Sunday afternoon to watch flight two warm-up, I anticipated a hard-fought battle between the current NCAA shot put champion Maggie Ewen and the defending USATF champion Raven Saunders.
I’d also hoped that Rio Olympic champ Michelle Carter would push the youngsters and make it a three-way contest, but it became clear during warm-ups that she was not in shape to do that. (Afterwards, Michelle revealed that that she was still recovering from off-season knee surgery.)
No other thrower seemed likely to break 18 meters, and since Ewen and Saunders were reliable 19-meter throwers, this was clearly going to be a two-person race.
It turned out, however, that I’d missed something during warm-ups, a clear sign that a third contestant might just upset the form chart.
Twenty-six-year-old Jessica Ramsey, who had finished fifth in the hammer competition a day earlier and who came to Des Moines with a lifetime best in the shot of 18.42m, had warmed up with several non-reverse throws, each of which had traveled around 17 meters.
As signs go, this was admittedly a subtle one.
According to the Bible, signs foreshadowing an earth shaking event may include “distress of nations in perplexity…the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding.”
Nothing in there about fixed-feet fulls.
But to two people present in Drake Stadium that day, Ramsey and her coach John Smith, those warm-up throws portended a cosmic shift in the women’s shot.
Ramsey recalled later that those warm-up tosses “told me I was going to get it.”
Smith recalls seeing them and thinking, “Okay, here it comes.”
And come, it did.
Ramsey strode into the ring on her first throw and absolutely killed one.
“After warm-ups,” she recalled later, “I prayed and did my little meditation. Then, on that first throw when I hit the middle and I stayed in, I felt like it was a good one.”
It was. The throw measured 19.23m.
It was a three-foot PR and the seventh best throw in the world this year. In the space of a couple of seconds, Ramsey had gone from an anonymous member of a large group of better-than-average American female shot putters to one of the best in the world at her event.
Actually, it took a little longer than a couple of seconds.
Ramsey graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2014 having put together a fine college career (seven-time conference champion, all-American in the shot) under a fine college coach (Ashley Muffet, now at Ohio State). Her PRs though (53.84m in the disc, 61.44m in the hammer, and 17.49m in the shot) were not necessarily those of a future world-class thrower. Ewen, by comparison, just graduated from Arizona State having thrown 62.47m in the disc, 74.56m in the hammer, and 19.46m in the shot.
In spite of this, Ramsey was determined to pursue a career in the professional ranks, so she packed her belongings and relocated to Carbondale, Illinois, to train with Smith, at that time the throws coach at Southern Illinois University.
Two months after her arrival, Ramsey’s determination received its first test when Coach Smith and his wife Connie Price Smith accepted an offer to take over the track program at Ole Miss. Ramsey describes that moment as “very hard for me. I had just moved to Carbondale! I’d packed up everything and spent all my money to move there, and a couple of months later I had to pack up again.”
After settling in Oxford, Mississippi, Ramsey had to figure out how to support herself while also leaving time to train.
“When I first came to Mississippi, I worked at a senior care facility, a daycare facility, and a company called Insomnia Cookies. That kind of hindered my practicing.”
“Later, I got a raise at Insomnia, so I dropped the senior care job. After that, I got hired at Dicks Sporting Goods, so I dropped the daycare job. That’s where I’m at now. Most of the time, I work seven days a week just to pay the bills.”
In spite of this, under Smith’s tutelage Ramsey kept improving in the hammer and the shot.
As a glide shot putter, Ramsey could not have found a better, more experienced coach than Smith. Many years ago, Smith developed a reputation as the best glide shot coach in the United States. He honed his skills at teaching the glide while guiding Connie to a long and remarkably successful career that began in the 1980’s when winning international medals meant beating the Commies, and lasted until the early 2000’s by which time the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the advent of stricter drug testing protocols had significantly altered the nature of the sport.
Throughout most of Connie’s career, all evidence indicated that the glide technique was the most reliable path for a female shot putter to win a medal at a major championship.
It was not until Jill Camarena-Williams nabbed bronze at the 2011 Worlds that a rotational shot putter broke through. Prior to that, every World and Olympic medal awarded in the women’s shot had been won by a glider.
But the increasing success of the rotational technique among the men (including a sweep of shot medals at the 2000 Olympics) caused Smith to believe that women could benefit from adopting the rotational technique as well.
In March of 2014, shortly before Ramsey joined his training group, Smith posted an article in which he made a compelling case that it was time for female putters to abandon the glide.
So Ramsey was in for a bit of a surprise when she arrived in Oxford. Smith wanted to convert her to the spin.
She did not give in easily.
“The first year,” Smith told me a couple of days after the USATF meet, “she fought me on it. If the spin wasn’t working for her in practice, she’d go back to the glide.”
Ramsey has similar memories of that period. “I didn’t want to change because I was consistently throwing 58-59 feet with the glide, and when we tried the spin it was so hard! Some days I’d be like, ‘I got this!’ Then other days, I’d be slipping in the middle, fouling, dropping my elbow, and I’d think, ‘I’m going back to the glide!’ The thing about the spin is, if you miss one thing then the whole throw is messed up! That’s what’s frustrating about it. Even at meets, I’d sometimes start with the spin and then switch to the glide.”
Complicating matters was the fact that over her first two seasons with Smith, Ramsey pushed her glide PR into the 18-meter range. But Smith still felt that she was wasting her potential.
“She’s 5’6”, which is too small to be more than a sixty-foot glider. She’s explosive as hell, but her top end in the glide will never be what it is in the spin.”
Matters came to a head at the 2016 Olympic Trials.
“She didn’t throw worth a crap at the Trials,“ Smith recalled, “and a couple of days later at practice right there in Eugene, I said, ‘You need to change to the spin. I know for a fact from training people over the years that the spin is nine to nine-and-a-half percent better than the glide. If you add that on to your glide, you’re a sixty-six-footer!’”
Finally, a year ago, Ramsey committed fully to the rotational technique. Job one was to master the art of using the ground or, as Smith calls it, “working the Earth.”
Over many years of careful observation, Smith came to believe that gliders and non-reverse discus throwers shared a quality that was often missing from the technique of rotational putters: a strong connection with the ground. As he saw it, discus throwers and rotational putters who focused too much on getting air time–whether during the non-support phase or as they launched the implement from the power position–were sacrificing distance and reliability.
He discussed his theory in this article first posted in 2003. (Note: Check out Smith’s vision of the kind of rotational putter who might eventually threaten the men’s world record. It calls to mind a certain Sasquatch-sized Olympic record holder who was eleven years old at the time Smith wrote the article.)
Long story short, Smith made Ramsey take a whole lotta fixed-feet throws over the past year.
It all finally came together in Des Moines. After her huge throw, Ramsey felt the emotions welling but tried to hold them back. “I had to compose myself because I didn’t want it to look like I didn’t know I had a throw like that in me.”
She didn’t come close to 19 meters again (her series went 19.23m, 17.65m, 17.61m, F, 18.24m, F), and she didn’t win (Ewen passed her in round five with a toss of 19.29m) but that one throw was enough to get her an invitation to her first Diamond League meeting (in Rabat on July 13th) and perhaps usher in further life changes that will make staying in the upper echelon of putters a bit easier than getting there in the first place.
A strong showing in Rabat could get her invited to the Diamond League meeting in Monaco on July 19th. She is also scheduled to compete at the NACAC Championships in Toronto in early August.
If she finishes the year with a top-ten world ranking, Ramsey will likely qualify for the USATF tier system, which will allow her to have health insurance for the first time since leaving college.
Additionally, Ramsey hopes to soon be sponsored by the New York Athletic Club. Should that happen, she would be able to cut down to working only one job and have more time to recover from her daily training sessions.
Owing to the brutal financial calculus of the sport of track and field, Ramsey’s performance in this next handful of meets may determine whether or not her days of averaging five hours of sleep, of trying to get by on $300-$400 dollars worth of food per month, or praying that she doesn’t sustain an injury for which she cannot afford treatment, are over.
Either way, Ramsey is committed to continuing her journey.
“Confidence is the biggest thing in this track industry, and I’ve got it. I believe I am going to throw great in Rabat and that will open more doors for me.”
Not a bad attitude for a young athlete who wants nothing more out of life than a little extra free time that she can devote to mastering the fine art of “working the Earth.”
(You can find additional coverage of the USATF women’s shot competition including videotaped interviews with Jessica, Michelle, and Maggie here.)
Like Tom Walsh on the men’s side, Michelle Carter of the United States rolled the dice on a double peak in this Olympic year and the early returns were outstanding: a monumental 20.21m toss on her final throw in Portland for the win. Unfortunately, she injured her back on that attempt and has yet to regain top form. Her best toss so far outdoors was her 19.59m winner at the Trials. Her ability to medal will depend entirely on her health. When fit, she has the experience, toughness, and horsepower to compete with anyone.
Like Carter, Anita Marton of Hungary went all-in for Portland, blasting a sixth-round 19.33m to take the silver. Unlike Carter, she has been able to surpass that sterling performance outdoors, hitting 19.49m earlier this month. Twenty-seven years old and possessing fine rotational technique, she is in her prime and throwing great. Unfortunately, at this Olympics it may well take 20 meters to medal, and that is out of her range. She’ll make the final, but not the podium.
Another rotational thrower likely to make the final in Rio is RavenSaunders of the United States, the twenty-year-old enfant terrible of the women’s shot. She set the NCAA meet record of 19.33m in June, followed that up with 19.24m to take second at the Trials and, under the direction of veteran Coach John Smith, will likely surpass 19 meters again at the Olympics. A top five finish would be a huge accomplishment, and if we had to pick an early favorite for Tokyo, it would be her.
My money is on Felisha Johnson to make the final as well. She hit a PR of 19.26m in a low-pressure meet at North Central College in beautiful Naperville, Illinois, this summer (full disclosure: I live there) and backed that up with a 19.23m toss at the highest high-pressure meet of her life: the Trials. A similar distance won’t get her anywhere near the podium in Rio, but hopefully she will find a way to stay in the sport and put her Olympic experience to use in Tokyo.
China’s GongLijiao has thrown at least 20 meters in seven of the past eight years including a PR of 20.43m two months ago, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say that she will very likely throw 20 meters in Rio and contend for the gold. Her most recent effort was a 19.73m toss on July 29.
Since finishing 7th at the 2004 Olympics, New Zealand’s Valerie Adams has won two Olympic golds, four outdoor World Championship golds, and three Indoor World golds. She could finish 57th in Rio and still be considered by folks in the know (well, by me anyway) the best shot putter in history.
Not that it’s been easy for her lately. Multiple surgeries kept her from throwing 20 meters last year for the first time since 2005. This winter, she took third in Portland with a 19.25m toss and began the long, slow climb back to the top.
Unfortunately for the rest of the world, she appears to have made it. Twice this month, she surpassed 20 meters with a best of 20.19m on July 18th.
It turns out that Val’s beloved coach Jean-Pierre Egger will not be able to make the trip to Rio due to a bum knee, but my guess is that his absence will only make Val more determined to bring home the win. And a determined, healthy Valerie Adams will be hard to beat.
Germany’s Christina Schwanitz won gold at the Worlds last year in Val’s absence, but got a late start this spring due to knee surgery. Like Val, though, she seems to be rounding into form just at the right time winning the European title with a 20.17m chuck. I’ve heard that a German biomechanics study determined that the base in her power position is inefficiently wide, but her fixed-feet glide technique reliably produces 20-meter throws with no fear of fouling. That makes her a formidable opponent in any big meet.
Bronze: Carter. Having grown up in Texas with a former NFL defensive lineman (and Olympic medalist) for a father, she is not going to let a little thing like back pain slow her down.
Silver: Schwanitz.The fixed feet glide can be deadly in a high-pressure meet.
Gold: Adams. She’s been a dominant competitor and tireless ambassador for the sport for a dozen years. Plus, her brother (NBA star Steven Adams) can beat up your brother.