Category Archives: Meets

More Tidbits from the trials

Strange Days Across the Pond

Maggie Ewen is a veteran of the Diamond League circuit, as is Chase Ealey, and both were invited to compete in Gateshead, England, in late May. 

It was, in Maggie’s words, “refreshing to be back into the pattern we were used to of traveling to meets,” but there were a couple of aspects of the experience that were downright weird.  Maggie says that the athletes were quarantined to the hotel and the dining area. “They had people watching the doors to make sure we didn’t leave, and the English athletes were kept in a separate hotel to try to prevent cross contamination.”

Such precautions are understandable in a pandemic, but there was another aspect to Maggie’s Gateshead adventure that defies explanation.

This year, in an effort to make the throwing events more “exciting” for a television audience, the folks at the Diamond League came up with a new competition format. All throwers in the field receive five attempts, and then the top three up to that point are each given a “bonus” throw that determines their final placing. 

In Gateshead, Maggie tossed 18.54m in round three, which turned out to be the second-best throw of the day. But, because she had a lousy throw in the “bonus round” and was beaten by the other two finalists, she was credited with a third-place finish and awarded third-place prize money. 

Val Allman had a similar experience at the Doha Diamond League meeting. She produced the day’s best throw (65.57m) in round four, but is listed as finishing second because Yaime Pérez threw 61.35m on her “bonus” throw, while Val could manage only 58.58m.

If the women’s discus final at the Trials had been run the same way, Val, in spite of posting a monster 69.92m toss in round two and five consecutive throws over 66.99m, would have lost to Micaela Hazelwood, who threw 59.72m in round six while Val fouled. 

According to Maggie, the athletes in Gateshead were not even informed until just before the competition that only three of them would receive a sixth throw. Then, as the “bonus round” was about to commence, “They were like, ‘by the way, your throws don’t matter up to this point.’”

I assume the idea here is to make it easier for the TV people to decide which throws to include in the broadcast. Rather than having to monitor the flow of the competition–as television networks do quite easily and effectively when broadcasting professional golf tournaments–TV producers only have to worry about capturing those three final attempts.

To someone who has no regard for the sport, it probably sounds like a great idea.

It’s not.

Nostalgic No More

UCLA’s Alyssa Wilson is one of the most versatile and talented throwers in the world, and in 2019 she put together an epic season, launching the shot 18.02m, the hammer 70.63m, and  the disc 60.76m.

Then came the pandemic.

With 2020 a washout, Alyssa was gearing up for big things this season when she contracted the virus over the winter and was quarantined in her dorm room for three weeks. “I lost twenty pounds,” she recalled, “and it took me a long time to build up my strength. Then, I still had nauseous feelings, especially on meet days.”

She qualified for the NCAA meet in two events, but had a terrible time in both, finishing nineteenth in the disc and tenth in the hammer.

A week later, though, she found her footing.  Her comeback began with a 58.80m season’s best in discus qualifying at the Trials, a full six-meters better than what she’d managed at NCAAs. 

She followed that up with a 57.63m toss to take eighth in the final.

Then came the hammer qualification round. Alyssa opened with a 70.97m PB, then crushed a 73.75m bomb. At the NCAA meet, she had thrown 66.52m.

She fell back a bit in the final, finishing sixth with a best of 69.04m, but what a week.

Alyssa said afterwards that a bad day in the hammer at NCAAs carried over into the disc, but in the days before the Trials she “got her mindset back on track.” 

“Then, having that great season-best in the disc…I wasn’t expecting to take eighth in the final, and I took more self-confidence from that, and I carried it over to the hammer.”

Throwing a PB in front of someone like DeAnna Price, who Alyssa describes as ‘one of my idols,” made the day even more special.

“And it was my first hammer PR since 2019,” she said afterwards. ”As soon as I saw the  mark, I started to tear up. This whole year, I was always thinking, ‘Alyssa, your sophomore self is better than you!”

Not anymore.

Cyclone Power

You may have noticed that women’s shot winner Jessica Ramsey set up for her throws by placing her left foot on the center line and right foot back about twelve inches from the edge of the ring. 

A similar starting position has been used to great effect by 2017 men’s shot World Champion Tom Walsh of New Zealand, but according to Jessica’s coach, John Smith, that’s not where he got the idea.

“I set up that way when I threw the disc in high school,” he explained. “We called it the ‘cyclone spin.’” (Just to be clear, Walsh was not yet born when Smith was in high school. You’re welcome, Coach.)

Smith had Ramsey go cyclone as a way of making sure she loaded her left leg on entry.

“Dropping the right foot back forces you to keep your weight on your left,” he explained. “And  keeps you from falling back into the ring.”

At times, Ramsey has struggled with the all-important “get left” phase of the entry because of a balky left knee.

She clearly had that figured out in Eugene and will spend the next few weeks with Smith back in Oxford, Mississippi, preparing the cyclone for its Olympic debut.

Sometimes, the best Laid Plans…work.

At the 2018 US Championships in Des Moines, the women’s shot shaped up as a battle between Maggie Ewen and Raven Saunders over who would represent the future of the event in this country. Raven came in as the defending US champion with a PB of 19.76m. Maggie, a phenomenally successful NCAA thrower in the shot, disc, and hammer, had stretched her PB out to 19.46m earlier in the season. 

I had barely sat down to enjoy the show when a thrower I did not recognize spun her first attempt out past the nineteen-meter line. “Who was that?” I asked the folks sitting around me. “Jessica Ramsey,” came the reply, which did not help. Some frantic Googling revealed that her season’s best the year before had been a whopping 17.76m. The year before that she’d gone 17.74m. Now, suddenly, she was the early leader and a likely medalist at the US Championships with a toss of 19.23m. How in the world, I sat there wondering, did that happen?

Here’s how.

Ramsey, it turns out, was a former glider who threw for Ashley Muffet (now Ashley Kovacs–yes, that Ashley Kovacs) at Western Kentucky, then joined John Smith’s group of post-collegiate throwers first in Carbondale, Illinois, and then Oxford, Mississippi where he still resides as the throws coach at Ole Miss.

A two-year tug of war ensued, with Smith trying to convince the 5’6” Ramsey that her future lay in converting to the rotational technique and Ramsey sometimes acquiescing, sometimes pushing back. (I describe those days in more detail in a piece you can find here.)  

The huge toss in Des Moines finally settled matters, but afterwards, Ramsey slipped back into a state of semi-anonymity, posting season’s bests of 19.01m in 2019 and 18.64m last season.

She sometimes had trouble with a balky left knee, she struggled to balance a full time job delivering for Insomnia Cookies with the full time training necessary to reach her potential, and looking back Ramsey admits that during the long months of the pandemic she “sometimes lost focus a little.”

But Smith is not one to lose focus, and he was able to secure access to an abandoned sportsplex outside of Oxford where his post-collegiates could continue throwing. There, Ramsey worked endlessly to improve her technique.

Smith also used what was essentially twelve months of off-season training to experiment with set/rep schemes in the weight room in an effort to discern what type of program might bring out the best in each of his throwers when they would need it the most.

In the days leading up to the Trials, I checked results for possible podium contenders, and it was hard to tell based on Ramsey’s season so far, whether or not she was ready to battle for a spot on the team. She produced a huge 19.50m toss indoors in February, but then slipped back into the mid-to-upper eighteen-meter range in all of her outdoor meets. 

Was she injured? Struggling with motivation?

“No,” explained Smith. “All spring we were doing hard training, and she still threw over sixty-one feet in every meet, so I was very happy.”

“Hard training” in Smith’s world means–in addition to lifting–lots of non-reverse throws into a net using a variety of implements. 

“She lived in the net,” Smith recalls. “We did non-reverse throws with light and heavy shots practice after practice.”

Those were tough workouts, especially on mornings after Ramsey had worked until 1:00 or 2:00am. But, she persevered.

In March, Smith shared with Ramsey the plan he had drawn up to get her on the podium at the Trials. It reflected his years of experience guiding his wife Connie (now head coach at Ole Miss) and Raven Saunders, whom he mentored to a fifth-place finish in Rio but no longer trains.

“It was a good plan,” Smith said recently. “But, in order for it to work you have to have an athlete that buys in, and she did one hundred percent.”

A vital component of the plan was preparing Ramsey to compete in qualification and final rounds on the same day. Several weeks before the Trials, Smith arranged her workouts so that she threw twice on certain days–once in the morning and again in the evening, as would be the case at the Trials.

At first, Ramsey struggled with that practice pattern. Smith says that for a while, “her numbers were all over the place. Sometimes she’d throw well in the morning, and sometimes at night.”

Eventually, she adapted and was able to consistently produce far throws in both sessions.

She looked great warming up for the qualification round in Eugene, producing a non-reverse throw in the 18.50m range.

“After seeing that,” Smith says, “ I asked ‘Are you sure you don’t want to just non-reverse this and make the final?’ but she said no.”

Instead, Ramsey used her full technique to power her first throw out to 18.82m and then packed it in to prepare for the final.

Smith described her as looking a bit “shaky” warming up that evening, but at some point she launched another 18.50m non-reverse, after which Connie advised her husband to “leave her alone. She knows what she’s doing.”

Truer words.

Ramsey opened with a 19.45m that was very likely to put her on the team, but Smith knew she had more in her. He reminded her that there were several women in the field capable of throwing that far, and admonished her to “keep pushing.”

If Ramsey was feeling any kind of letdown, her friend and former training partner Saunders snapped her out of it by blasting a 19.96m PB in round three.

Once she threw that,” Ramsey recalled afterwards, “I was like ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’  Then I had to zone in.”

She responded to Raven’s challenge by blasting a new Trials record of 20.12m.

“I did not know it was that big a throw,” Ramsey recalled afterwards. “But, they always say the best throws are the ones that don’t feel like they are going far.”

Smith remembers telling Ramsey in March that “we are going to stick to our plan no matter what, and at the end you should have the stuff to make the team.”

They did and she did. 

Now it’s time for a new plan. Maybe they’ll call this one “Operation Olympic Gold.”

Olympic trials Report: women’s Hammer

Photo credit: Adam Eberhardt for TrackTown USA

Growing up in Chicago, I learned to revere athletes who could stare daggers and talk smack, guys like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Michael Jordan whose inner ferocity was on full outward display. 

What am I to make, then, of DeAnna Price, who is as passionately committed to winning as any of those gents, but generally prefers to crush her opponents with kindness? She actually looked  embarrassed each time she approached the cage during the women’s hammer final on Saturday, a little sheepish over the fuss she was causing by rewriting the history of the event. After every epic throw, she’d confer with her husband and coach JC Lambert, and I imagine their conversations going something like this:

JC: You’re in world record shape, so stay focused!

DeAnna: Got it. That official over there looks like he’s having a hard day. I’ll give him a hug!

JC: I said, stay focused!

DeAnna: Right. It’s really hot out.  I knew I should have brought lemonade for everyone!

Her closest rival on this day was Brooke Andersen whose second-round bomb of 77.72m pulled her to within ten centimeters of DeAnna’s opener. DeAnna’s response? Throws of 78.51m, 79.98m, and 80.31m, each of which she celebrated by engaging in a long, heartfelt hug with…Brooke Andersen.

And how does DeAnna feel about her next biggest American rival, former US champion and record-holder Gwen Berry? 

“Gwen is great!  We’re both Southern Illinois University alums, so she’s my sister and I’m proud of her!”

When asked about Anita Wlodarczyk, the woman she has been striving to unseat as the best hammer thrower in the world, and the only other woman to have surpassed the eighty-meter mark, DeAnna told an anecdote about competing against the Polish powerhouse at the 2015 Worlds and being totally honored when she sat next to her once between throws. 

“Anita is a genuinely nice person,” she assured us, which loosely translated means, “I plan to kick her butt in Tokyo and then give her an amazing hug.”

Perhaps the most amazing thing about DeAnna’s performance on Saturday was that she was able to compete at all. After breaking her own American record with a 78.60m toss in early April, she was felled by an illness–possibly celiac disease–that threatened her season. 

Feeling awful during her next competition, she managed to throw 76.15m but afterwards endured emergency room visits and endless tests including an MRI, none of which gave her a conclusive diagnosis.

After losing ten pounds in the space of a week, she and JC decided to cut bread and dairy products from her diet and to consume only home-cooked meals. Those changes did the trick, and she found her stride in training just in time for the Trials.

Hearing DeAnna describe her ordeal this spring brought to mind similar troubles she endured in 2019 on her way to winning the Worlds. That year, she’d overcome career-threatening back troubles, which makes me wonder if, like Michael Jordan, she is at her most ferocious when responding to adversity. 

Photo credit: Adam Eberhardt for TrackTown USA

Speaking of adversity, Brook Andersen faced her own variety this year when a combination of circumstances left her with no facilities at which to train. The hammer final was, she said, “about the tenth time I’ve been in an actual ring this whole season.” Her main practice facility was a park where she drew a circle on a sidewalk with a sharpie. 

Then, at the April meet where DeAnna fell ill, Brooke fell literally and suffered a concussion and shoulder injury. 

Despite surpassing seventy-five meters in three of her five competitions before the Trials, including the season’s and personal best of 78.18m she launched in Wichita on April 10th, she struggled with nerves in the qualification round and ended up caging two of three attempts.

Fortunately, her one valid throw of 72.16m got her to the final where an opener of 74.38m paved the way for that second-round 77.72m, which turned the competition into a battle for third place. 

Photo credit: Adam Eberhardt for TrackTown USA

That contest was a mano a mano affair between Berry and Janee Kassanavoid, who joined the seventy-five-meter club at the USATF Throws Fest this May. 

Gwen opened with 73.50m, and Janee responded with throws of 72.73m and 73.45m. Gwen, who said afterwards that her body “was not working today,” was unable to better her opening mark, but the pressure of trying to vault her got to Janee. She caged her third attempt and then wiped out on her fourth. She shook that off and finished with throws of 72.41m and 72.32m, but could not quite reel in Gwen.

A kerfuffle ensued when the newly-minted Tokyo hammer squad was ushered to the podium and greeted there by a recording of the Star Spangled Banner. Gwen has been a controversial figure since her 2019 podium demonstration at the Pan American Games, which foreshadowed the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and has caused much wringing of hands on the part of USATF and the International Olympic Committee over whether or not to permit such actions in Tokyo.

Gwen responded to the playing of the anthem by turning her back to the flag and pulling her shirt over her head. She said afterwards that she felt like she’d been “set up,” as the anthem is generally not played during medal ceremonies at the Trials. USATF released a statement saying that the anthem had been scheduled to be played at 5:20, but offered no reason as to why it was delayed until 5:25 when the hammer medalists had already mounted the podium.  

It certainly was not in USATF’s interests to take the focus off the magnificent performances popping up everywhere you looked on Saturday. In addition to DeAnna’s hammer bomb, American athletes produced world leads in the women’s pole vault, men’s 400-meter hurdles, and women’s 200-meter dash.

 NBC?

Well, what network doesn’t love a good controversy? 

But, if NBC was genuinely concerned about maximizing the number of viewers for these Trials, I would think the person in charge of those blocks that keep registering phantom false starts would have been found strangled in his hotel room after Friday’s fiasco in the hurdle races. 

If it was a setup, it certainly did nothing to take the starch out of Gwen. who remains determined to be heard.

“I want to impact the world,” she explained. “There are things going on in the world that are bigger than sport. As athletes, we should use our voices to bring awareness to these issues.”

I asked her after the prelims on Thursday if her activism put more pressure on her in meets like the Trials.

“No,” she responded. “I feel like being black in America is enough pressure.The neighborhood I grew up in is enough pressure. The things I have to deal with and that I have to protect my son from is enough pressure.”

I checked the website of the International Olympic Committee to see if I could get some insight into how they might respond to Gwen in Tokyo. There, I found this statement:

The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

I read this, and I wonder if maybe the IOC has finally found someone willing to stand up for its highest ideals.

Trials Tidbits: Saturday Edition

Kovacs with the Assist

Is it me, or does Joe Kovacs seem to be everywhere at the Trials?

After punching his own Tokyo ticket with a monster toss of 22.34m last Friday, he had a busy day this Thursday helping his wife Ashley coach Adelaide Aquilla through the women’s shot prelims and finals and onto the Tokyo squad.

As if that were not enough, he stepped up when discus thrower Reggie Jagers needed help in Thursday’s qualification round.

Jagers, the 2018 US champion, was struggling to get comfortable with the (in his words) “super fast” surface of the discus ring at Hayward.

After he “blew out” his current pair of Nike Zoom Rotationals while practicing early in the week, Reggie was faced with the prospect of having to use a fresh pair in the qualification round. But, the soles on Zoom Rotationals are notoriously slick themselves when brand new, and using slick shoes on a slick surface might have resulted in disaster. 

Fortunately for Reggie, Joe Kovacs was ready to lend a hand–in the form of shoes.

“Joe’s Velaasa shoes are a lot slower than my normal pair of Nikes,” he explained. “So, he gave me a pair, and they let me feel the ground a little bit better.”

One complicating factor, according to Reggie, was that Kovacs is “about 330 pounds, and I’m 260, so his feet are a lot wider than mine and it wasn’t easy to get the shoes to form to my foot.”

In the end, it all worked out. Reggie easily advanced to Friday’s final with his opening toss of 62.55m, then secured his spot on the Olympic team with a clutch sixth-round toss of 62.61m in Saturday’s final.

“Whatever the shoes,” he continued, “I’m always going to go all out, groove my technique, keep good posture.”

“But, the changeup with Joe sure worked out for me.”

MVP

Tom Pukstys, former US javelin champ and current coach/chauffeur/mentor/shepherd of the USA Javelin Project, says that the highlight of any Trials is “the euphoria of welcoming people to the Olympic team.”

Maggie Malone, who set a new American record of 66.82m this season, felt the euphoria of making the 2016 Olympic squad, but a year or so later found herself injured, discouraged, and badly in need of a reset if she was going to make a run at Tokyo.

One day, she came across Pukstys at a meet and made a proposal. “Let’s start a javelin group,” she suggested. “And you’ll run it.”

Maggie liked the idea of a team of javelinists training together and providing the kind of supportive environment that can be hard to come by for track and field athletes. Pukstys like the idea as well.

“It had always been my dream,” he says.

One potential problem was the fact that running a javelin group does not pay the bills.

Luckily for Maggie, Curtis Thompson, and the rest of the throwers who make up what has become known as the USA Javelin Project, Tom married the right person.

His wife Anne, whom he describes as “a wicked collaborator and team player, nonstop,” and who has a job directing the three largest accounts for Alabama Blue Cross Blue Shield, gave Tom her blessing to embark upon this endeavor.

“Anne will do anything to make me happy,” Tom explained, “and she knows that I am happiest when I’m coaching.”

Now, post-collegiate javers willing to relocate to Birmingham can avail themselves to top-notch coaching and a group dynamic that, according to Pukstys, “lifts everyone.”

“No college coach can be as available to their post-collegiate athletes as I can,” Tom says. “They just don’t have time. But, I’m there on a daily basis for these kids.”

The results have been promising, as Curtis won Monday’s jav final and Maggie is not only the favorite in Eugene, but also a genuine threat to make the final in Tokyo. 

With Kara Winger announcing that these will be her final Trials and Olympic Games, Maggie seems ready to accept the passing of the javelin torch, something which the event desperately needed. 

And for that, we can thank Anne.

Still Hucking

As discussed in a previous post, Micaela Hazlewood, who took second in the discus final here with a PB toss of 62.53m, is not yet eligible to compete in the Olympic Games. In order to cement a spot on the Tokyo team, she has until June 29th to record a throw of at least 63.50m in a competition sanctioned by the USATF and World Athletics, or to move into the top thirty-two in the World Athletics rankings. 

It might (and there are a lot of “mays” and “mights” in this story) take participating in several sanctioned meets to move her up in the rankings, so it looks like her best chance to make the team is to throw the qualifier.

In order to do that, though, Micaela and her coach, Keith McBride had to figure out how to get her into at least one more meet before the deadline. 

So far, they’ve come up with two. Micaela competed today in the Bahamas Olympic Trials (She’s not Bahamian–they allowed open competitors) but managed a best throw of only 57.47m.

Next up, a Monday comp at the University of Michigan. Jerry Clayton, Michigan’s head coach, put together a sanctioned meet in order to give UMich decathlete Ayden Owens one more crack at reaching the Olympic standard. If he gets it, he will represent Puerto Rico in the Tokyo Games.

At the request of Coach McBride, Jerry has added the women’s discus to the meet. 

“We’ve had a big wind here the last three days,” Clayton–also one of the best throws coaches in the world–informed me on Friday. “And there is supposed to be a 10-15 mph wind on Monday. So, we’ll see.”

McBride describes Hazelwood as “a fighter” who “will do anything she can to make the team.” He also believes she is in “64.00m shape.”

Meanwhile, Kelsey Card, who finished fourth at the Trials and who is ranked in the top thirty-two by World Athletics, awaits her fate. 

American Renaissance

Over the past two decades, American hammer throwers have struggled in the Olympics.

Since the 2000 Games, the only American hammer finalist among the men has been Kibwe Johnson, who finished ninth in 2012. The women have done better, producing four finalists in that time, including Amber Campbell and DeAnna Price in Rio, but no American woman has won an Olympic hammer medal. 

But, all that may be about to change. The three men who made the team on Sunday, Rudy Winkler, Daniel Haugh, and Alex Young are all potential finalists in Tokyo. Rudy, who set an American record of 82.71m, has a legit chance to be the first American Olympic hammer gold medalist since Hal Connelly in 1956.

Thursday’s women’s hammer prelims will feature the three top-ranked women in the world–defending World champion DeAnna Price, Brooke Andersen, and Gwen Berry–along with 8th-ranked Janee Kassanavoid. 

DeAnna, Brooke, and Gwen all have a ton of experience competing internationally, and each would be a threat to medal in Tokyo, with DeAnna–assuming she makes the squad–the favorite to win.

What is behind this surge of hammer excellence in the United States? Let’s examine some possibilities.

Iron Sharpens Iron

The United States has sent strong groups of men’s shot putters to the Games since forever. The men have won seven shot put medals since 2000, including two golds, and it could be that our depth in that event is self-perpetuating. Guys like John Godina raised the standard of performance for Adam Nelson and Andy Bloom, who raised the bar for Reese Hoffa and Christian Cantwell, who showed the way for Ryan Whiting and Joe Kovacs, who inspired Darrell Hill and Ryan Crouser to feats of greatness, and so on…

This theory says that if Payton Otterdahl only needed to throw 21.00m to make the squad last Friday, that’s probably what he’d have thrown rather than the 21.92m bomb that got him on the podium. 

“Competition brings out the best in people,” Lance Deal observed after Sunday’s men’s hammer final, and the US hammer scene is now fiercely competitive. 

Rudy won decisively on Sunday, but if he falters even a little going forward, Alex and Daniel are right there to overtake him, as is Sean Donnelly, who did not make the team but is currently ranked seventh in the world. DeAnna is arguably the best in the world right now, but Brooke and Gwen, as mentioned, are ranked right behind her with Janee also in the top ten. 

Amin Nikfar, who coaches Alex Young, told me that with all the great throwers in the United States today, everyone knows they can’t afford to have a letdown, which forces everyone to constantly raise their game. “After all,” he opined, “iron sharpens iron.”

We Are Family

After Sunday’s hammer final, I asked Alex Young how he felt each time Conor McCullough entered the ring and tried to break his heart by knocking him out of third place. His reply?  

“I love my man Conor!”

When asked how it felt to watch Rudy break the American record, he became even more effusive.

“Rudy? He’s my best friend!”

Faced with the same question, Daniel Haugh described Rudy as “a beast” and “an absolute stud!” 

For his part, Rudy said he “couldn’t be happier” to have Alex and Daniel joining him in Tokyo. “Alex is one of my best friends,” he effused. “And Daniel was my roommate in Doha. We’re going to feed off each other and do something incredible in Tokyo.”

According to Lance Deal, this type of camaraderie among combatants is a positive development. “When I started throwing,” he recalls, “most of us were ‘civil competitors,’ but we didn’t really like each other. Or, maybe everyone just hated me. But, the way these guys are now, this is a much healthier way to compete. It feels like everyone–the men and the women–are part of the same family, and that’s a good thing.”

Tom Pukstys, formerly a six-time US javelin champion and currently the head of the USA Javelin Project, agrees with Lance that things were not so friendly among competitors back in the day, and points out that the current supportive atmosphere lends itself to the sharing of information. “Nobody helped each other out in the ‘80’s,” he told me. “But, the current athletes and their coaches trade ideas, which helps them all improve.”

The King is Dead

When Hal Connelly won his gold in Melbourne, he was joined on the podium by two Russians, This turned out to be foreshadowing, as the Soviet Union basically took over the event for several decades. Soviet throwers swept the men’s hammer at the 1976 Olympic Games. They did it again in 1980, 1988, and (technically representing the “Unified Team”) 1992. Between 1960 and 1992, Soviet hammer throwers took the gold in every Olympics they competed in with the exception of 1968 when they were beaten by a Hungarian who was, no doubt, trained in the “Soviet system.” 

That’s a long era of dominance, and it gave Russian and other Eastern European throwers an aura of invincibility. Kibwé Johnson believes that before the sport could thrive in the US, the Soviet myth had to be punctured. 

A first step toward demythologizing the Soviets came when Russin hammer guru and 1972 gold medalist Anatoliy Bondarchuk relocated to Canada around 2005 and American athletes including Kibwé went to train with him. 

“Up to that point,” he remembers, “we in America had only ever heard stories of the Soviets. I remembered those stories and I’d ask Dr. B., ‘Is this true?’ and he always said ‘No.’ I’d heard, for example, that Yuriy Sedykh could wind-and-release sixty meters. I asked Dr. B and he was like, ‘Nope. No way.’”

Bondarchuk disabused American hammer throwers and coaches of the notion that the Soviets had found the way to develop hammer throwers, and that the key to success was to learn and copy their system. Kibwé believes that this attitude had made athletes trained in the Russian system appear unbeatable and inhibited hammer development in this country.

A more recent step towards removing the veil of invincibility from the Eastern European throwers is the USATF Hammer Initiative, that Tom Pukstys remembers being conceived at a 2014 meeting he attended. Some folks at USATF had a small amount of money they could invest in hammer development, and on the advice of people like Tom, Lance, and Kibwé, they began using that money to give up-and-coming hammer throwers the chance to compete in Europe.

“It is tough,” Kibwé explained, “when you  show up at a major international competition and the only thing you know about these guys is that they have PRs that are a lot better than yours. It really helps when you train over there alongside someone you think is really good and you see them make a bad throw or miss a lift. It shows you that they are just like you and takes away your fear of them.”

“And,” he continued, “that is one thing about our current group of hammer throwers. There is no fear there.”

Ladies First

The women throwers were actually the first to puncture the myth of Soviet/Eastern European invincibility, and Jeneva Stevens struck the first blow a year before the Hammer Initiative was conceived. 

Her breakthrough came when she won the gold medal at the 2013 World University Games, held, appropriately enough, in Russia. 

Later that summer, she and Amanda Bingson made the final at the World Championships in Moscow, and though the Chinese had now joined the Eastern Europeans at the top of the hammer rankings, the US had the proverbial foot in the door.

Finally, in 2019, DeAnna kicked in that door when she took the gold in Doha.

According to Rudy Winkler, DeAnna’s success has had a big impact on the men as well. 

“DeAnna,” he reflected, “and the other American women showed that it doesn’t really take anything special to throw far other than staying true to yourself and working as hard as you can. DeAnna has been a huge source of inspiration to all of us, and I don’t think we would be doing so well without her doing well.”

Syncretism. (I’ll Explain)

If we are going to call this moment a “renaissance” in American hammer throwing, a revival of a time before the Soviets took over the sport, then maybe we should use a Renaissance term to explain it. One way to look at the real Renaissance is as an intellectual unsticking. Roman Catholic orthodoxy had dominated the life of the mind in Europe during the Middle Ages, and for progress to be made, for forward thinking to occur, the Catholic monopoly on intellectual endeavors had to be broken.

Enter syncretism, which was (according to the Google machine) “the amalgamation of different religions, cultures, and schools of thought.”

Current American coaches do not worry about mimicking a mythical Soviet system. Instead, as with the shot put, a variety of them have developed their own highly successful approaches to hammer throwing. 

According to Kibwé  “All these hammer throwers that are having success today, they and their coaches are following their own thing, making their own way. If you were to sit down and ask Dr. B about it, he would say that this is the way it should be.”

If the actual Renaissance was fostered by forward-thinking scholars like Petrarch, Erasmus, Montaigne, and Thomas More, it may be that the American hammer renaissance has come about because of forward-thinking coaches like John Smith, Greg Watson, and Paddy McGrath.  

While coaching at Ohio State and Southern Illinois, Smith created a system of hammer training that produced Jeneva Stevens, Gwen Berry, and De Anna Price, who stayed on at Southern when Smith took the job at Mississippi and has continued to train under Smith disciple JC Lambert. Smith has continued to refine his approach while coaching at Ole Miss, and believes that one of his current throwers–Shey Taiwo–might someday be an international medal contender as well. While Smith was developing his methods, Greg Watson was turning Amanda Bingson into a world class thrower and is now using his own concepts to train Janee Kassanavoid. Meanwhile, Paddy McGrath set up a hammer club in New York state, and has used his own Irish-influenced methods to train Rudy Winkler. 

Bottom line, the United States now has a plethora of high level hammer coaches who compete, collaborate, and influence each other for the ultimate betterment of the event.

All these factors have converged to foster a culture of hammer excellence in the US, and today at the Trials, we’ll get to see a bunch of that excellence on display in the women’s hammer qualification round. Fasten your seatbelt. 

Trials Tidbits: Wednesday Edition

Seasoned

This past May at the USATF Throws Fest in Tucson, javelinist Kara Winger produced the following series:

57.96m, 59.22m, 57.34m, 60.52m, 58.66m, 60.97m.

It would not be an overstatement to call those results astonishing, as Kara had, nine months earlier, torn the ACL in her left knee for the second time.

Her coach, Dana Pounds Lyon showed off her psychic powers by predicting a 60-meter toss from Kara in Tucson, but I’m not sure Kara herself would have put money on it. Her farthest training throw since the surgery had been 53 meters. 

Inspired, however, by the presence of many old friends/competitors (in Kara’s world, all competitors eventually become friends–they have no choice) she somehow mustered the courage to once again use her left knee as a crash test dummy. 

Even on those 60-meter throws though, she held back a bit. 

“The speed was 70-percent at best,” she recalled. “I basically used a glorified seven-step. But, because I was going slower I was able to be patient with my throwing arm. Also, I’m six-foot-two and…well, I’ve been doing this a long time.”

I suggested that, were she male, the technical term for what made the jav fly that day would be “old man’s strength.”

“Definitely,” she replied. “I’ve been in touch with my old woman strength for years.”

At the risk of sounding sexist, the term “old woman strength” doesn’t seem suitable for someone as young and ebullient as Kara. Luckily, a chat with former discus great Doug Reynolds, provided an alternative.

Doug is the coach of Rachel Dincoff, who made her first Olympic team last Saturday, a joyous occasion but one that might have killed a lesser man as he was forced to sit idly by while Whitney Ashley, Kelsey Card, and Gia Lewis-Smallwood took turns trying to bump Rachel from a top-three spot.

“Rachel has been more consistent than anyone but Val Allman this year,” he pointed out. “But, the throwers trying to catch her were seasoned veterans, and they had the ability to jump her if they hit one clean.”

“There is something about having experience in competitions like this that gives you an advantage,” he continued. “When I made a comeback in 2008, I really had no business competing at the Trials. I was hurt and not throwing very well, but I came within a centimeter of making the Olympic team because I was seasoned.”

In the end, Rachel withstood the charge of the veterans, and Doug provided me with a new adjective to add to my arsenal when describing Kara. Indomitable. Fierce. Courageous. And now, “seasoned.”

Shoes

As mentioned previously, the discus ring–and at least one of the shot rings–at Hayward Field is very slick. Luckily, the venue has been available for practice sessions, so throwers have had a chance to get comfortable with what might be the fastest rings they’ve ever encountered. 

One way these athletes deal with the variety of surfaces they are required to throw from is by carrying a variety of shoes, everything from a fresh pair of Zoom Rotationals for a fairly grippy surface to an old pair of trainers in case of rain. I once saw John Godina wear a running shoe on one foot and a throwing shoe on the other at a meet where it was drizzling.

Vésteinn Hafsteinsson, former coach of Gerd Kanter and current coach of World discus champion Daniel Stahl, recently told me that during his career as a discus thrower he would show up for meets with no fewer than four different pairs of shoes–some that he doctored himself, mad-scientist style. 

“You heat them in an oven,” he explained, “and then you can remove the sole and replace it with another. A running shoe, maybe, so that you can throw easily in the rain.”

The kind of heat that is expected to prevail in Eugene over the next couple of days can also affect the way a thrower’s shoes interact with the surface, but that shouldn’t bother Turner Washington as he competes in the men’s discus prelims and finals in predicted ninety-degree temps on Thursday and Friday. Turner’s father, former discus World champion Anthony Washington, is no doubt a great source of advice as to how to manage in any kind of conditions. 

And I’ve heard that Brian Blutreich, Turner’s coach at Arizona State, is himself a talented shoe-baker, so we can expect Turner to be properly geared up as he fights to make his first Olympic team.

Unexpected

Payton Otterdahl turned in an epic performance in the men’s shot final on Friday. Not only did he launch a PB of 21.92m in the biggest meet of his life, but he competed like a champ. Holding on to third place by six centimeters over Darrell Hill, Payton fouled a throw that looked to be just short of twenty-two meters in round four, only to have Darrell jump ahead of him by half-a-meter in round five. This being Payton’s first experience in the Trials pressure-cooker, he could understandably have folded right there, but instead he came back with that 21.92m PB which ended up putting him on the team.

Payton’s coach, Justin St. Clair, told me afterwards that in an effort to prepare for “any and all possibilities,” they’d rehearsed just such a scenario in practice. 

Most throwing coaches I’ve spoken to devote practice time to trying to inure their athletes to the vagaries of chance they will inevitably face in big comps. Slick rings. Bad weather. Delays. A competitor jumping past you in a late round when you have only one or two throws to answer back.

It still drives coaches crazy, though, when their athletes face unexpected challenges that seem to be inflicted for no logical reason.

Last Friday, for example, flight one of the women’s discus prelims was told they would have thirty minutes to take warm up throws. They were required to take those throws in the order they were listed on the flight sheet. There were twelve competitors, so if you were near the end of the order you might have waited ten minutes before taking your first throws. That’s fine if everyone is guaranteed the same number of warm ups, but they weren’t. Then, the warm up period was interrupted, first by the playing of the National Anthem and then by the introduction of the athletes. No time was added to make up for those disruptions, so when the thirty-minute warm up window ended, some of the competitors had taken only four throws. Contrast that with the NCAA meet, held at Hayward a week earlier, where the throwers had time to take up to eight warm up tosses. Some of the athletes in flight one at the Trials had competed in that meet and might understandably have been unsettled by having to adjust on the fly to fewer warm ups.

Every coach will tell you that it is up to the athlete to respond to adversity, that you can’t let yourself be brought down by factors you can’t control. 

Val Allman told me a couple of years ago the she developed the habit of taking only two warm up throws because sometimes at big meets like the Worlds, that’s all you get.

Her experience overseas taking on the best throwers in the world in all kinds of scenarios has hardened her to the point where she could probably uber from the airport, drop her luggage by the cage, step in the ring and bang out a sixty-five-meter throw in Crocs.

And that’s the way you have to be if you want to compete at the top level.

Meanwhile, wouldn’t it be nice to think that some consideration would be given to the athletes at the Trials who want nothing more than to put forward their best effort in the biggest competition of their lives?

The Olympic Trials Women’s disc: A Coronation and a Controversy

Val Allman came into Eugene as the defending two-time national champ in the discus, so she was already the queen of the event in this country, but her winning distances of 63.55m in 2018 and 64.34m in 2019 were less than regal, nothing like the sixty-nine-meters-plus throws that Croatia’s Sandra Perković and Cuba’s Yaime Pérez had produced in winning World and Olympic gold over the past ten years. 

They are the sovereigns of the sport at the world level, and for Val to ascend to their station she would need to one, start popping some huge throws, and two, demonstrate that she could throw big in a stadium under pressure. 

She took care of that first item last August with a 70.15m bomb that broke the American record, but that toss came at a throwers meet in Idaho which, in terms of pressure and atmosphere, is nothing like an Olympics or Worlds. That 70.15m was like a pro golfer carding a 67 on a Korn Ferry Tour event–impressive, but do it on a Sunday at the Masters and then we’ll talk.

Val showed signs that she might be ready to go big on the big stage when she made the final at the 2019 Worlds and then returned to Doha this May and took out both Pérez and Perković with a solid 65.57m toss–impressive because it was done overseas in a stadium against top competition.  

(Note: Do not be confused if you look up the Diamond League results and see Val listed as having placed second. She threw farther than everyone else at that meet but was denied the win by a new format instituted by the Diamond League seemingly to kill interest in the sport. I’ll touch on this more at a later date.)

Last week in Eugene, Val’s training sessions generated some intriguing gossip. I heard that one practice featured multiple throws over sixty-seven meters. Another began with numerous attempts rifled into the cage..followed by multiple throws over sixty-five meters. 

My spies also tell me that the ring at Heyward is very, very slick. Sometimes, the top throwers like it that way. But, sometimes an unusually fast surface can get in the head of even the best of the best and sow a little doubt. 

There would be pressure at the Trials, even for a clear favorite like Val. How would she respond? On Friday, in the qualification round, the throwing world got a chance to see.

The NBC live feed showed a few warm up throws before Val’s flight, and I noticed that she caged her final attempt. I don’t know how many warm ups she took. In 2019, she told me that she had developed the habit of taking only two, as that is all you get at some of the bigger comps. Assuming she did that on Friday, she had at most one decent throw prior to the competition. Stepping into the ring in a high pressure meet with your ears still ringing from the sound of your final warm up throw whanging into the cage cannot be good for one’s sense of well being, and when Val produced a round-one clunker that was not even worth marking, I started to wonder.

I’ve heard from many throwers that the pressure of a qualification round can be ghastly. The first women’s discus flight in Eugene provided a clear and awful illustration when Laulauga Tausaga, like Val a finalist at the Doha Worlds, went three fouls and out. 

With two throws left to earn her way to Saturday’s final, was Val starting to feel the pressure?

In round two she stepped in and smashed a Trials record of 70.01m, so…apparently not.

She passed her final qualification attempt, then on Saturday picked up where she’d left off. Her series of 69.45m, 69.92m, 66.36m (get that poop out of here!), 68.55m, 68.46m, foul, in a stadium, under pressure, makes her–in my opinion–the favorite to win gold in Tokyo.

True, there was nobody like Perković or Pérez to contend with on Saturday. The second place finisher was Micaela Hazlewood, who came up big with a PB of 62.54m–a fantastic throw, but one that posed no threat to Val. Again, though, I’ve spoken with some fine throwers who say that there is no pressure quite like the pressure at the Trials. Joe Kovacs touched on it after the men’s shot final on Friday night, saying that it will be easier for him to “go crazy” and smash some huge throws in Tokyo now that the burden of getting through the Trials has been lifted.

So, if Val can put together a series like that in Hayward Stadium (site of the 2022 Worlds, by the way) in the pressure cooker of the US Trials…well, all hail the queen.

And now the matter of who will join Val in Tokyo.

Back in the day, the key for an American track and field athlete to make the Olympic team was to achieve the Olympic standard set by World Athletics (formerly the IAAF) and to finish in the top three at the Trials. An athlete who finished in the top three but who had not achieved the Olympic standard during the set qualification window would be replaced by the next lowest Trials finisher who had hit the standard. 

This kind of thing never happened in events like the shot put where many competitors would have already achieved the Olympic standard prior to the Trials, and where you’d have to throw well above that standard anyway to have any chance of a top-three finish at the Trials. So, when the event ended, you knew that those three athletes out there struggling through a victory lap were the ones who would represent the US in the Olympics.

But in events like the javelin and, in some years, the hammer, where there were not a lot of Americans with the Olympic standard, things could get tricky.

Often, the qualification window extended a month or so beyond the Trials, so top-three finishers who had not hit the Olympic mark would go “standard hunting” in sanctioned meets whenever and wherever they could find them. If those standard-hunters failed, it opened the door for a lower Trials finisher to make the team provided they had achieved the Olympic mark. 

That made things a bit complicated for the athletes in those events and for fans of throwing, but one thing we all hung onto was the importance of hitting the Olympic standard.

The situation became a bit more muddied this year because after the 2016 Olympics, World Athletics made some changes in the Olympic qualifying process. They raised the Olympic standards to a borderline ridiculous level–for example, 77.50m in the men’s hammer, a distance that might get someone on the podium in Tokyo–and started compiling a points system that would carry equal weight as the qualifying standards. Athletes receive points for competing in sanctioned meets–with the number of points awarded depending on the quality of the meet. I assume they did this to encourage athletes to compete in a lot of meets rather than hitting the standard early in the qualification window and then laying low until the Games.

Now, any thrower coming into the Trials having either achieved the standard or holding a spot in the top thirty-two in the World Athletics point rankings would be considered as having qualified for the Games. 

If someone finished in the top three in Eugene but had not hit the Olympic mark and was not ranked in the top thirty-two, they could be replaced on the team by the next highest Trials finish who had done one or both of those things.

In the women’s discus, Val, Laulauga, Rachel Dincoff and Whitney Ashley had each achieved the Olympic qualifying mark of 63.50m. Kelsey Card had not, but she was ranked twenty-third on the World Athletics table. And this year, for the first time ever, that ranking carried equal weight with the qualifying standard.

So, when Lagi did not advance to the final, the contenders for Tokyo came down to Val, Rachel, Whitney, and Kelsey, along with anyone who might grab a spot in the top three and throw at least 63.50m in the process.

When the dust cleared on Friday night, Val and Rachel had cemented their spot on the team by finishing in the top three, but with Micaela possessing neither the Olympic standard or a ranking in the top thirty-two, the door was opened for either Kelsey or Ashley to take the third spot on the Tokyo squad.

Kelsey, by finishing ahead of Ashley, appears to have won that spot.

And that has caused some confusion.

Ashley, a veteran of the old standards-based system, assumed that she had made the team and this morning expressed her consternation in a video posted to Twitter.

Meanwhile, Micaela and her coach, Keith McBride, believe that she has until July 1st to either throw 63.50m in a sanctioned meet or to compete in however many meets it takes to move her into the top thirty-two on the points rankings. She currently sits fiftieth.

Stay tuned. More updates to follow!

What in the…? A report on the Olympic Trials Men’s shot

Well, that certainly lived up to expectations.

First time in history that five putters hit at least 21.84m. 

Joe Kovacs showed that, as was the case in the weeks leading up to the 2019 Worlds, he is rounding into form at the perfect time.

Payton Otterdahl seized the mantle as the next potentially great American shot putter.

Oh, and Ryan Crouser broke the world record.

He foreshadowed that with a first-round toss of 22.92m in the morning qualification round, and I was very surprised to see him step in the ring for a second attempt after he had emphatically secured his place in the final. Turns out, he was thinking he might be able to get the record then and there.

“I used a static start on the first throw,” he explained after the final. “Not my usual windup and shift. A static start is safer–less can go wrong, and the point this morning was to qualify for the final. But, that 22.92m was a massive PR with the static start, so I thought I could put a little bit more on it…but then I tightened up on the second throw and only hit 22.64m. After that, I  realized that World Athletics has a new rule that they take your shoes after a world record, so I wouldn’t have the right shoes for the final, so I decided to call it after that second throw.”

Yes, you read that correctly. He had to intentionally hold off on breaking the world record so that World Athletics did not take his shoes. 

If you are asking yourself what in the hell is going on with the sport of shot putting, if maybe we’ve entered a very weird alternate universe where a guy can choose whether he wants to break a thirty-two-year-old record in the morning or the evening, imagine for a second how Joe Kovacs must feel. His best effort today of 22.34m was a monster toss, the kind of distance that only the best of the best have achieved, further evidence that Joe might in fact be the best putter that ever lived…if not for Crouser, who beat him by over a meter. 

Joe, by the way, remains confident. “I’m slow playing this season,” he said after the final. “My job here was to punch the ticket to Tokyo. I love to go crazy, but I had to keep myself regulated. Now, I’m excited to go to Tokyo.”

The drama here turned out to be the battle for third. Darrell Hill, the favorite to take that spot and a man who might one day be recognized as an all time great himself, struggled just enough to let Otterdahl, who afterwards would call this the “best day of my life” snach it from him.

Not that Darrell made it easy. His 21.13m seemed like it might have been enough to disabuse the youngsters like Otterdahl, Jordan Geist, Josh Awotunde, and Andrew Liskowitz of any notion that they might contend for a spot on the podium, but the youngsters just kept coming.

Otterdahl answered with 21.30m to seize the third spot, Darrell came back with 21.24m, Otterdahl fouled a throw near the 22.00m line, Darrell knocked him out of third with a fifth-round 21.89m, and Otterdahl came right back with a 21.92m PB that held up as Darrell finished with a foul.

Meanwhile, the other young bucks did not sit idly by. Awotunde finished with a PB of 21.84m, Liskowitz a season’s best of 20.97m, and Geist a season’s best of 20.80m.

All, too, can say they were part of history, as can the sport’s own mountain man, the venerable Kurt Jensen who himself hit a season’s best of 20.62m before being given the unenviable task of taking the throw just after Crouser’s record. He responded with a toss of 19.99m, a world class distance and a mere eleven feet short of Crouser’s mark.

Back to Otterdahl, his achievement on this night was all the more remarkable considering that he’d struggled to find his form all season, and as recently as May 22nd turned in a 20.25m clunker that got him tenth at the USATF Throws Fest. 

In the intervening weeks, he and his coach, Justin St.Clair, spent some quality time ironing out a few technical flaws, the fixing of which, in the words of Justin, “boosted the mental confidence.”

Truer words…

There is much else to report from this momentous Day One of the Trials, including a seventy-meter bombola from Val Allman, but that will have to wait for another day.

Right now, it is off to sleep for me, and likely a night filled with dreams of Joe Kovacs, Ryan Crouser, Payton Otterdahl, going crazy, godzilla style on the rest of the field in Tokyo.

Trials Tidbits: Friday Edition

The Dana Pounds Rule

There will be an automatic qualifying mark for each of the throwing events at the Trials, but what exactly that mark will be for each event seems to be a mystery. I have spoken with several coaches and athletes and have yet to find anyone who knows for sure. Several have speculated that it will be the Olympic qualifying distance, which seems kind of harsh as those distances are extremely beefy this year. 

In the men’s hammer, the Olympic standard is 77.50m, a mark that will likely get someone into the top five in Tokyo. In the women’s disc, it is 66.00m–again, a distance that will get anyone who throws it at the Games pretty darn close to a medal. 

One reason to have an auto qualifier at the Trials should be to allow the best throwers a chance to go “one-and-done” and save energy for the final. Why then, use such tough marks?

Sean Donnelly pointed me in the right direction. “I think,” he explained, “that it has something to do with Kara Winger and the 2008 Trials.”

I went to the source, and it turns out that Kara was tangentially involved, but not the reason for USATF using such high auto qualifiers.

The person in question turns out to have been Dana Pounds Lyon, currently a coach at the Air Force Academy and of Kara Winger. 

According to Kara, at the 2008 Trials, Dana “threw 58 meters on her first attempt in qualifying with the auto mark set at around 54 meters. So, they made her stop.”

Why would the officials have had to “make” Dana stop throwing when it is most people’s goal to go one-and-done in the prelims? 

Because she had not yet achieved the Olympic A standard, which Kara estimates was in the 60.50m to 61.00m range. And, according to Kara, Dana was feeling “awesome” in the prelims and wanted very much to take two more whacks at that standard.

And, there is a sad coda to this tale.

“Dana threw at one more meet after the Trials, and as the heartbreaking story goes, hugged the foul line to get every last inch of distance, but couldn’t stay behind it on a giant throw.”

She did not end up qualifying for Beijing, and the memory of that has made Kara all the more determined to make the Tokyo squad and finally give Dana an Olympic experience.

This Just In

Well, I just watched the live stream of the men’s shot prelims, and Ryan Crouser opened at 22.92m, well past the Olympic standard of 21.10m. He then stepped in and took another throw (which went 22.64m) before passing his final attempt. So, they apparently are giving one-and-done folks the option of continuing.

Stability, Part 1

When I asked Rudy Winkler to explain the factors that have allowed him to blossom into an eighty-meter thrower, he emphasized stability. It is no easy task for a post-collegiate thrower in this country to find a way to stay in the sport long enough to reach their prime. USATF does not provide much funding, and endorsements are hard to come by, even for the top performers. World champions Tom Walsh and Daniel Stahl, for example, currently have no shoe contract.

So, it is up to the athlete to figure out a way to eat and train and get coached and pay the rent. Rudy has recently taken a job with a cyber security firm whose CEO is a former Rutgers University hammer thrower. They have, he says, been very understanding about his need to take time off for competitions. 

“And the money has been very helpful,” he explained. “I don’t have to go into competitions worrying about prize money or anything like that. I can just compete.”

Rudy has also settled in with his longtime coach Paddy McGrath, with whom he has worked since high school. 

North Carolina throws coach Amin Nikfar also coaches hammer contender Alex Young, and he told me that stability has been a big factor for all the participants in the recent American hammer surge.

“Rudy has been with Paddy forever,” he pointed out. “Daniel Haugh has a great thing going with Mike Judge. And Alex has managed to follow me around the country, to Stanford and now North Carolina. Maintaining our relationship as coach and athlete has given him the stability he needed to develop.”

Discus thrower Kelsey Card has been able to remain in Madison, Wisconsin training with her college coach, Dave Astrauskas since graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 2016. Kelsy works as a marriage and family therapist which, according to Coach Astrauskas, gives her the flexibility to train. 

Speaking of stability, my marriage is going great, but if my wife and I ever hit a tough patch, I’m calling Kelsey. Here’s how I imagine it going:

My Wife: “All he ever does is watch throwing videos!”

Kelsey: “That is a perfectly normal activity.”

The Rings

The word out of the NCAA meet was that the two shot put rings have very different surfaces. One is super fast. As I am writing this, the shot qualification just finished and all the expected contenders advanced, so I do not know if the quality of the surface had any effect on the competition.

I’m told that the discus ring is fast as well. Luckily, the competition rings were open all week for athletes to try out, and these folks are the best at what they do, so they should be ready even on an unusually quick surface.

One Last Thing

NCAA shot and disc champ Turner Washington did not compete in the shot today due, I am told, to a sore groin muscle that he has been dealing with for several weeks. Turner will, however, compete in the discus.

Experience Not Required…But It Sure Helps. Part 2 of our Look Back at Doha

Based on post-Doha conversations with various athletes and coaches, it seems that previous big meet experience–sometimes painfully acquired–was a major factor in allowing throwers to flourish at these World Championships.

Rudy Winkler is a prime example.

The 77.06m PB he nailed in round three of the Doha prelims was the result, he said afterwards “of just following the plan set forth by my coaches. Every practice we would work on the same cues, so I knew if I just worked on those cues in the meet, I would throw far.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? But when a thrower is new to international competition, sticking to a plan can be quite difficult.

Rudy discovered this while struggling mightily at the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2017 London World Championships. He arrived in Rio after setting a new PB of 76.76m at the Olympic Trials, but managed a top throw of only 71.89m in the qualification round there. His performance in London was equally disappointing as he failed to dent the 70-meter line.

Those were not pleasant experiences, but they laid the groundwork for Rudy’s success at the 2019 Worlds.

“At past international competitions,” he explained, “ I tended to change what I did because I saw other people doing things that I liked. This time around, I stuck to what I knew and did on a daily basis. Plus, you get used to these meets the more you go to them. The first ones you attend are exciting because you see all these athletes you’ve admired for years, and it’s like being at Disneyland. Now they are acquaintances and friends of mine, which makes it easier to focus.”

Rudy’s performance in Doha confirmed that he has gotten much better at competing at championship-caliber meets. It also revealed the next hurdle he has to overcome if he wants to contend for a World or Olympic medal. 

Unable to match his prelim distance in the finals, he finished eleventh with a best of 75.20m.  Rudy attributed his drop-off to one, being tired after having given his all in the previous day’s prelims and two, letting himself get a bit too excited. 

“I was going after throws a little too hard,” he said in retrospect, “instead of just doing what I did the day before.”


It is likely that no thrower in the world gained more experience in 2019 than Laulauga Tausaga. Her IAAF profile lists her first competition of the year as having taken place on January 11. That was an indoor meet at the University of Iowa where she was just beginning her junior season, which would not end until ten months later with the women’s discus final in Doha.

Like Rudy Winkler, Lagi launched a PB in the prelims at Doha, reaching 63.94m in the second round. Unlike Rudy, Lagi had never before competed in an Olympics or World Championships. 

Luckily, she is a quick learner and competing in the USA v. Europe match in Belarus in September provided her with some valuable experience that she put to use at Worlds.

I recently wrote about the challenges presented by the heat and humidity in Doha. On the days they competed, athletes were forced to choose between exposing themselves to 120-degree heat by taking warm-up throws in an outdoor facility next to Khalifa Stadium, or accepting the possibility of having to make due with only two warm-up throws inside the stadium just prior to their flight. 

That’s a lot of pressure to put on an athlete as young as Lagi (she turned twenty-one in May), but according to her coach, Eric Werskey, she had taken only a few warm-up tosses in Belarus prior to drilling a 63.71m PB, and that experience gave her the confidence to lay low and avoid wearing herself out in the hours before competing in Doha. 

Another aspect of the USA v. Europe meeting that helped prepare Lagi for Worlds was competing against two-time Olympic and two-time World Champion Sandra Perkovic. Though she faced tough competition at the NCAA and US Championships, Lagi had never before gone head-to-head with a thrower of Perkovic’s stature, and as Rudy pointed out, the first time you are around people like that in person it can be hard to maintain one’s focus.

But tossing that PB and finishing second to Sandra in Belarus prepared Lagi well for the Doha “Disneyland.” 

According to Werskey, Lagi showed up at Worlds feeling confident. Her 61.33m opener in the prelims was “maybe her best opener all year,” and her 63.94m gave her the automatic qualifier and turned out to be the best throw among the American women at the Championships.

Lagi’s experience in the final was similar to Rudy’s in that she couldn’t recapture the rhythm she’d found in the qualifying round. She entered the finals determined to contend for a medal, and ended up with three fouls. Werksey said that she might have been a little “overzealous” on those throws, but all in all “the biggest thing for her was that despite three fouls she walked away with her head high, knowing that she was one of the youngest in the field and she can hang with the best in the world.”

No one in Doha demonstrated the value of accrued big meet experience as clearly as DeAnna Price. 

DeAnna has been throwing world class distances in the hammer since the 2015 season when she earned a spot in the Beijing World Championships with a toss of 72.30m at the US Championships.

Her best throw in Beijing, though, was 68.69m which put her in 18th place.

In 2016, DeAnna hit 73.09m to take third at the Olympic Trials and qualify for the Rio Games. This time, she advanced to the final with a throw of 70.79m. She then slightly improved on that mark in the finals and finished eighth with a toss of 70.95m. 

The following year she raised her PB to 74.91m, finished third in the US Championships with a throw of 74.06m and advanced to the World Championships in London where she produced the fifth best throw in the prelims–72.78m. 

She was unable to match that distance in the finals, and finished ninth with a toss of 70.04m.

According to J.C. Lambert, DeAnna’s coach and husband, a breakthrough came during the 2018 campaign when DeAnna finished first at the Continental Cup in Ostrava. Though her winning throw of 75.46m did not match the PB 78.12m she tossed earlier in the summer to win her first national title, J.C. says that finishing first in Ostrava was a “confidence booster. It showed her she could win overseas.”

Armed with a wealth of championship meet experience, DeAnna and J.C. were ready for anything in Doha. Job one was to shake off the rigors of travel and establish a comfortable sleeping pattern. J.C. says that he’s “learned as a coach how to deal with travel and jet lag.” He and DeAnna rely on an app called Timeshifter. “You plug in your schedule, info about your normal sleep habits, plug in all the info about your trip, and it tells you when you need to go to sleep, to wake up, when you need to have some coffee to help adjust, when you need to go outside or open your blinds up to get the most light possible, when you should avoid caffeine, when you should take melatonin.”

Timeshifter helped DeAnna fall into a healthy daily rhythm. According to J.C. she had trouble sleeping only once, after a heavy lifting workout.

J.C. says that the ups and downs of competing at two previous Worlds and one Olympics taught DeAnna that “those who learn to roll with the punches will be successful.”

That lesson came in handy the night of their first throwing session in Doha when they arrived at the practice facility to find that the hammer ring was unavailable. “They were redoing the rings,” J.C. recalled, “because apparently someone said they were too fast, that they were dangerous.”

Not wanting to completely lose a day of training, DeAnna took one full throw from the javelin runway. It traveled seventy-two meters. (Fun fact: it ended up taking 71.35m to make the final in Doha.)

The qualification round went smoothly as DeAnna surpassed the automatic qualifying distance on her first throw with a toss of 73.77m.

As noted above, DeAnna had made the final in both Rio and London but then turned in disappointing performances and did not challenge for a medal. 

Now, in Doha, she and J.C. put to use a lesson they’d learned from those experiences. 

According to J.C., “DeAnna did a quick lift that night after qualifying. She throws her best when she does a quick lift the night before competing. In London in 2017, I’d set her up to do her quick lift the night before qualifying so she could make it to the finals. She qualified no problem, but for the final she was completely dead and finished ninth She just did not look like herself. She was flat and said she was tired and sore after the qualifying round. This time around we treated qualifying like a practice.”

It worked.

DeAnna came out smokin’ in the final, drilling a 76.87m opener and extending that to 77.54m (the eventual winning distance) in round three. Joanna Fiodorow of Poland took silver PB of 76.35m.

Next year in Tokyo, Rudy and Lagi will hope to follow DeAnna’s example and translate hard-won experience into a spot on the medal stand. As for DeAnna, defending her title (especially with the expected return to health of world record holder Anita Wlodarczyk) will present an entirely new challenge. 

For throws fans, watching this battle-tested trio go against the best in the world should be a highlight of 2020.