I always remembered Paolo Dal Soglio as the guy who crashed the party in the men’s shot put at the 1996 Olympic Games. When I turned on my television that July evening, I was expecting to see an epic battle between European gliders and American spinners, but was greeted instead by the sight of Paolo (an Italian spinner!) having the time of his life. He held the lead until round five, and though he ended up missing the podium by a centimeter, he stole the show with his high-pitched screams and unabashed joy at performing on the big stage.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021, and I found myself greatly entertained by the sight of another Italian spinner having the time of his life at an Olympic Games. At first, I thought there’d been a mix up and the officials had accidentally put a decathlete in the men’s shot final there in Tokyo, but it turned out that this guy Zane Weir could really throw! He ended up launching a PB of 21.41m to take fifth, and has since raised that PB to 21.99m.
It also turns out that Paolo is Zane’s coach, and they will present together at the upcoming 2022 European Shot Put Conference to be held October 28th-30th in Tallinn, Estonia.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Paolo recently as we taped an episode of the Throw Big Throw Far Podcast hosted by my friend Joe Frontier, and I was impressed with his thoughtful approach to coaching the rotational shot.
Like most putters from his era, Paolo started out as a glider. His coach for his entire career was a man named Aldo Pedron, and at some point Paolo and Aldo sought advice from the German coach Peter Tschiene, who suggested trying the rotational technique.
“We trained one month with the spin,” Paolo recalls, “and Peter said if I throw within 50 centimeters of my glide PB, we would change.”
He did, and they did.
This was 1991, in the Dark Ages before YouTube, and there was not a lot of information available on how to make the glide-to-spin conversion, so Aldo, Peter, and Paolo set about finding their own way.
Paolo says that they tried many options and experimented with different approaches to each phase of the throw, including his setup at the back. “We tried starting with a very deep bend in the knees,” he says, “and also standing straight up. The hardest thing was changing where I held the shot on my neck. That took a long time to get right.”
A big breakthrough came one day when Paolo was training in a cramped indoor space and launching many throws out of the sector. Those throws were “destroying things,” so Peter suggested that Paolo move to his right on his setup.
Immediately, that adjustment felt “amazing.”
“I felt like I had a bigger circle,” he recalls. “I could get my lower body ahead and build torsion.”
Along with Zane, Paolo also coaches Leonardo Fabbri (21.99m PB) and both those gents use the offset setup. That does not mean, however, that Paolo tries to make them copy his technique, as many people assumed he would when he began coaching.
“People were worried. They said, ‘Paolo has a big kick. Not good!'”
But Paolo believes that each athlete has to find their own way to make the shot go far. One key, he says, is creating torsion.
“You have two different engines,” he explains, “the upper body and the lower body. They work separately for most of the throw then at the end together.”
He also emphasized the need for trust between an athlete and coach, and the importance of determination, especially once an athlete reaches a level where improvement comes slowly.
“When you start out,” he says, “every day is like Christmas. But after that, are you willing to work keep working? Are you able mentally to train one year for a little bit of improvement?”
At the upcoming conference, Paolo and Zane will demonstrate the approach they used to help Zane improve from an anonymous skinny dude with a 19.09m PB into one of the world’s top putters.
World champion Chase Ealey and her coach, Paul Wilson will also present, as will Paulo Reis, coach of Auriol Dongmo.
It should be a fantastic weekend! You’ll find registration info here.
Going into last week’s USATF Outdoor Championships, Arianna Ince knew what she had to do to make the squad for Worlds: finish in the top three and throw 60 meters.
That combination of results would give her a spot in the top 32 on the World Athletics Road to Oregon rankings and guarantee her a return trip to Eugene in mid July.
And it seemed eminently doable. “I knew I could nail 60 meters if I just hit two cues. I like to run down the runway as fast as I can, so it’s important that my left foot stays parallel to the foul line on my transition so my hips don’t open. Also, I have to leave the jav tip on my cheek as long as I can. That helps me keep the tip down and the jav back.”
Ari reminded herself of those cues often in the days and hours leading up to Saturday’s comp, and then when it came time for her first round throw, she promptly forgot them.
“I became obsessed with the distance,” she explained later. “And that usually doesn’t work.”
It certainly didn’t in this case, as Ari opened with 54.97m and a foul.
Fortunately, this was not Ari’s first time throwing in a high pressure situation. She made the Worlds team in 2017 and 2019, and the Olympic squad last summer.
So before her third attempt Ari took a breath and went through her pre-throw routine. “I will tap the side of my foot,” she explained. “Then withdraw the jav back to my eye. That provides some tactile feedback for my body to rely on and helps me refocus on what I’m trying to do.”
That did the trick. She tossed 60.42m in round three, and followed that with 60.43m in round four. That gives Ari confidence that she can make her first international championship final next month. “I went back to the cues and 60 meters came right out. Knowing I can do that after a shaky start, I’m really proud of that.”
Another confidence booster is the fact that she possesses the 15th best throw in the world this season–a 62.74m toss at Chula Vista in June. Even better, she is the only woman in the top 32 whose ranking points came almost entirely from competitions that took place during the past month.
I asked Ari how she managed to get on a roll at just the right time, and it turns out there is a very specific reason.
Aside from a few months during the peak of the pandemic when she went to live with Kara and Russ Winger in Colorado, the Elite Athlete Center in Chula Vista has been her training base since 2019. But, as of September, throwers will no longer be part of the Elite Athlete program there, so for the early part of this summer Ari spent a lot of psychic energy worrying about how and where she would continue her athletic career. Then, a little more than a month ago, she settled on a plan. I am not allowed to reveal the details of that plan here, but suffice it to say that Ari is now thoroughly excited about her future in the sport.
She credits that decision, that “feeling of certainty” with freeing her up to focus on throwing far. “All I have to worry about now is what’s going on on the runway,” she says. “And for a professional thrower, that’s the easy part.”
Too stubborn to quit
None of us will forget the cloud that fell over the world in March of 2020, but javelin thrower Tim Glover had been dealing with darkness for some time before the pandemic hit.
Tim, the 2011 and 2012 NCAA champion, had thrown well early in his pro career, but then suffered an elbow injury which required surgery and cost him the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Then, he was with his mother one day in the fall of 2018 when she received a call telling her that Tim’s sister had been found dead in her apartment in Chicago. He threw again in the 2019 season but injured his shoulder and had to have another surgery. That spring, his mother suffered a fatal heart attack.
Tim ended up moving to Virginia with his girlfriend, and started throwing a bit in the spring of 2021. “I was seven-stepping over 70 meters,” he says, “but I went back too hard too soon. My shoulder felt lousy, and after a while I knew there was no way I’d be throwing that season.”
He refused to hang it up, though. “I guess I was just too stubborn to quit. I didn’t want to let an injury take me out. I knew that my mom had wanted to see me get healthy and compete again, so I wanted to give it one more go.”
He had PRP (Platelet Rich Plasma) therapy, rested his shoulder, and was finally able to experiment with a light jav this past March. After throwing 75.36m and 78.52m in two April comps, he showed that the “old guy” still had it by breaking 80 meters in each of his next two outings. It had been seven years since he last threw that far.
Even more remarkable was that Tim was surpassing 80 meters while rarely training with an actual javelin. “I only throw balls in practice,” he explained. “My shoulder still can’t take throwing a jav regularly. I pick once a week, but I never throw off a runway. You’d laugh if you could see how little I do in practice.”
He maintained that routine right up to the US Championships, where he finished fifth with a best of 76.37m. That was enough, though, to send him to Worlds. Entering Sunday’s comp, only Tim, Curtis Thompson and Michael Shuey had qualified (Shuey by hitting the standard, Tim and Curtis on ranking) but the University of Virginia’s Ethan Dabbs shocked everyone by tossing 81.29m for the win. That was enough to move him up forty places in the World Athletics rankings, so when the dust cleared, Shuey, who finished seventh on Sunday, was the odd man out.
It will be Tim’s first international championships, and he says that it might come down to a “coin flip” as far as whether he’ll retire afterwards. “I’d love to go out on making a big team for the first time,” he said. “I know my shoulder will never be one hundred percent. But the next Olympics is only two years away, so…we’ll see.”
What the heart wants
Maggie Ewen won the Diamond League shot put title last year, which earned her a bye into the 2022 Worlds. That made for a “weird” experience at USA’s. With no need to fight for a podium spot, Maggie did heavy cleans the day before the shot comp, and went in just hoping to road test some of the technical adjustments she’d been working on in practice.
She ended up finishing fifth with a toss of 18.79m, her best outdoor result since going 19.32m in Doha on May 13th.
The competition at World’s will be hellacious, with fellow American Chase Ealey, Canadian Sara Mitton, and Jiayuan Song of China all throwing past 20 meters in recent comps. Maggie has a PB of 19.79m, but going forward, will likely have to find a way to crack the 20-meter mark if she wants to get on an Olympic or World Championship podium.
Or, could there be another way?
During a wildly successful career at Arizona State that ended in 2018, she broke the collegiate record in the shot put (19.46m)…and in the hammer (74.56m).
She continued throwing both during the 2019 season and did quite well, thank you very much. She just missed making the Worlds squad in the hammer when she nailed a PB of 75.04m at the US Championships, and not only made the team in the shot but ended up finishing fourth at Worlds.
Things got complicated when the schedule for the 2020 Olympics came out and the women’s shot final was scheduled on the same day (and at the exact same time) as the women’s hammer qualification.
“My agent told me they petitioned to have it changed but got turned down,” Maggie recalled, “so I had to pick one. Then Covid happened, and I didn’t have a place to throw the hammer, so Kyle and I decided to just go forward with the shot and get that figured out.”
Kyle is Maggie’s coach, Kyle Long, and when competition resumed during the winter of 2021, they did in fact seem to have “figured out” the shot. Maggie belted a PB of 19.54m in February and seemed a sure bet to make the team for Tokyo. Her fourth-place finish at the Trials was a shocker, but she shook it off like a champ and went on to win the Diamond League Final.
When Maggie extended her PB to 19.79m at this year’s US Indoor Champs, most people probably assumed that she’d put the hammer away for good, but…
“Having a bye in the shot this year, we thought, ‘Why not pick up the hammer?’ Trying both again would give us a good idea of whether or not we can do this at an elite level.”
Maggie started tossing the hammer around shortly after the Indoor Worlds and integrated it into her practices as best she could when not on the road competing in the shot.
“We approached it a lot like during college days,” she explained. “We’d basically switch off every other day, and it really wasn’t that hard to find a balance. I was much busier in college when I was throwing the disc, too. Honestly, it’s been refreshing. I get in the habit of overthinking when I’m only doing shot, so it helps when I’m forced to take my mind off of it every other day.”
“And it felt great to be back throwing the hammer in that environment at USAs again and it was fun to be with the hammer girls. Each group of girls has their own little vibe, and it was amazing to be with them again.”
Make no mistake, though, Maggie did not enter last week’s hammer comp just to catch up with old friends. She had every intention of making the team, and came damn close to doing it. Her 72.70m in round six was a season’s best and a Worlds qualifier and left her one spot away from having to make a very interesting decision.
It turns out that women’s hammer and shot qualifying are scheduled for the same day at Worlds. If Maggie made the team in the hammer and was placed in Qualification Group B, she’d have had only a short break before reporting for the shot. That might be manageable at an NCAA meet, but probably not when going against the world’s best.
Maggie didn’t say which she’d have chosen, but says she believes her “top end” in the hammer is “way higher” than in the shot.
“I only threw it for four years and got it to go 75 meters,” she says. “I have so much untapped potential. But shot is where you make your money. It’s indoor and outdoor, and more meets host it. I would love to be throwing the hammer way more. I guess the future depends on how the world is going and how I’m going.”
After taking third place at the 2022 USATF Indoor Championships with a toss of 18.70m this February, shot putter Jessica Woodard told me that she was “close” to some 19 meter throws.
Ahhh, but the best laid plans.
After hitting 18.77m in Walnut, California, in April, Jess traveled to Brazil for two meets. Unfortunately, when she arrived in Miami her connecting flight had been canceled. She got out the next day, but arrived in Brazil at 12:30am and then had to compete that evening. Exhausted, she went 17.98m and 17.94m in two meets in São Paulo, then returned home with a case of Covid.
Her best mark during May was 18.54m. In her final competition prior to the US Championships, she threw 17.65m. That was at a meet in Canada on June 8th.
Jess knew she’d have to find a way to get past the 19 meter mark at USAs to have any chance of making the team for the World Championships but felt stuck, she says, “in a little bit of a funk. It felt like everything was hard. Usually that time of year things fall into place and the ball starts going far, but the ball wasn’t going far and I felt like I was drowning a little bit going into the championship season.”
With the support of her coach, Ryan Whiting, and boyfriend/training partner Darrell Hill, Jess finally found some rhythm a week before the US Outdoor Championships, but then in her final squat workout a few days before the comp she “tweaked her back pretty good.”
She flew to Eugene shortly after, and was able to get physical therapy there while gutting her way through her final practices.
With Maggie Ewen holding a wildcard as defending Diamond League champion, Jess needed to finish among the top three throwers without the last name Ewen in order to make the Worlds team.
That did not turn out to be easy.
She had her best opener ever, 18.79m, then fouled her next two attempts as Chase Ealey (20.51m), Adelaide Aquilla (19.45m), and Raven Saunders (18.95m) passed her. That’s a formidable trio, and in the past Jess might have wilted. “I had always struggled,”she says,” to move into that top group.”
A ten-minute break between rounds three and four seemed to last “forever,” and when the comp resumed she tossed another 18.79m.
A week earlier in practice Jess realized that most of her missed throws were the result of her not being aggressive enough, so she decided to “push it” a bit in round five.
The result was a 19.40m PB.
Some anxious moments ensued, as Raven–the Olympic silver medalist–still had two more whacks at overtaking her. But Raven went foul, 18.72m, and Jess was on the team.
How did that feel?
“I kind of blacked out on that throw,” she says, “but afterwards, I felt joy. And relief!”
Back on the attack
Shot putter Joshua Awotunde finished fifth at the 2022 World Indoor Championships, opened his outdoor campaign with a 21.63m toss at Mt. SAC, then essentially disappeared from competition.
A strained pec was the culprit.
It came during an April training session when he tried to “go for it” on his last attempt of the day. It turned out to be a serious strain, and when he resumed throwing after two weeks of rest and rehab, Josh had to content himself with using a 12-pound shot. It took him four weeks to work up to the 14, and he did not attempt a full throw with a 16 until early June.
Josh missed two Diamond League comps during that span, which is not ideal if you are trying to eke out a living as a shot putter, but he did not want to risk aggravating the pec and possibly having to shut down for the season.
Two days before the Champs in Eugene, Josh threw a practice PB of 23.40m with the 14, an indication that he had not lost his pop, but two months without a competition left him wondering if he’d be able to find his rhythm in the heat of battle.
“I just wanted to throw 70 feet again,” he says. “ I just wanted to execute my technique.”
A 21.50m warmup throw made him think he might be in better shape than he’d thought, and a 21.24m opener put him in the hunt for the Worlds team. The situation for the dudes was the same as it had been for the ladies. One thrower–in this case Joe Kovacs–had a bye, so the US would be allowed to send four competitors to Worlds. That turned out to be a good thing, as Joe, playing with house money, opened with a 22.87m bomb.
Josh went 20.68m in round two, which left him in fourth behind Joe, Ryan Crouser, and Tripp Piperi.
That was not a comfortable place to be, considering that Roger Steen, Jordan Geist, and Darrell Hill all looked capable of jumping ahead of him.
Josh needed to shake off the rust, pronto. He took a minute to confer with Crouser before taking his third attempt.
“I’m slow today,” Josh told him.
“Yeah,” Crouser replied. “You’re not attacking like you did indoors.”
Josh’s coach, Mike Sergent, agreed, so Josh entered the ring for round three with one thought in mind–push harder out of the back.
It worked. He went 21.51m, nowhere near his PB of 22.00m, but a satisfying result after not competing for two months, and good enough to move him into third.
And there he stayed, in spite of a great day by Piperi (six throws over 21.00m) and Steen (a 21.14m PB).
Meanwhile, Crouser and Joe waged a titanic battle for the title. Some have speculated that the way to beat a healthy Crouser is to throw a haymaker early to knock him off his rhythm. Joe did that and more when he hit 22.87m again in round two.
But it didn’t matter. Crouser wasn’t able to extend his World Record of 23.37m, but check out this series: 22.42m, F, 23.12m, 23.01m, 23.11m, 22.98m.
Apparently, he can take a punch.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Darrell Hill situation. “Nightmare” might be more accurate. “Recurring nightmare,” actually, because a similar scenario unfolded at the US Indoor Champs. In both comps, Darrell got called for a questionable foul on a throw that might have put him on the podium. In both comps, he protested and was allowed to throw in the finals while the protest was being adjudicated. In both comps, his protest was denied and he was removed from the final.
Friday’s situation contained a bizarre twist. Darrell was originally told that he’d fouled his first attempt by brushing the top of the toeboard on his reverse. After reviewing the video, though, the officials changed their mind. They agreed with Darrell that he had not touched the top of the toeboard, but claimed instead that he had fouled at the back of the ring.
The whole thing devolved into a huge mess with Darrell maintaining a running debate with the officials while also trying to remain composed enough to get off a solid throw. Afterwards, he posted an Instagram video in which he explained all the crazy and frustrating details. It’s worth watching.
I am told that he’s not going to let the matter drop and is intent on forcing USATF to find a more consistent way to determine fouls. If he succeeds, Darrell will have done the sport a great service. In the meantime, it looks like he will not make the squad for Worlds.
In his absence, the US will still send a formidable crew of putters. Crouser and Kovacs will likely resume their Godzilla v. Destoroyah battle, and Josh believes he can improve on his World Indoor finish.
“I know I need to work on reversing and confidently getting through the shot,” he says. “But my experience at Indoor Worlds will help me. And it will be great to have home court advantage. I know we are going to want to put on a show. I asked my coach, ‘Can we sweep?” and he said, ‘Yeah.’ We’ve got some work to do, but it would be fun to make history.”
He’d blasted a PB of 85.67m less than three weeks earlier, so there was no reason to doubt his fitness.
But sleeping on an uncomfortable bed and walking everywhere in the Olympic village made him feel a little tight in the hips. Having to wake up at 4:00am the day of the qualification round was not ideal, nor was the 90-degree temperature and 96 percent humidity that morning.
There is also a lot of sitting and waiting involved at a major championships. He felt good at the warmup track, but then had to chill out for nearly an hour in call room number one, and again in call room number two before being taken into the stadium.
Also, the runway was falling apart. The Tokyo organizers had installed a super special Mondo track surface designed to propel runners to Olympic and World records, which it did. But when subjected to the one-ton of pressure exerted each time a javelin thrower slammed his blocking foot into the ground, the spongy top layer of that surface shredded, creating a very dicey situation for the athletes.
It could have been any of those things, or none of them. The fact is that sprinting twenty meters then hitting the breaks while whipping a light spear as far as you can is none too good for the joints.
Whatever the case may be, Michael Shuey was not thinking about the hazards of his chosen profession last August when he stepped up to take his first throw as an Olympian. He was thinking about his technique.
“My cue on round one,” he recalled recently, “was to run down there easy, then drop my right knee into the throw as hard as I could.”
That’s a common cue for javeliners, a simple way to make sure they get the most out of their right hip as they blast into the throw. But on this attempt Mike’s right heel got stuck, and his knee paid the price.
“I felt like I dislocated my kneecap,” he says. “All I could think about was that everyone back home just watched me blow out my knee.”
The kindness of strangers
“I went back to my seat and wrapped it. The Romanian guy, Novac, was like ‘Hey Mike, you need my tape?’ He lent me some, and one of the Finnish guys said, ‘Hey, I’m not using my knee brace. Do you want to use it?’ I really appreciated that. It was a cool experience. I just hope I never have to have it again.”
Kindness, part two
“Getting injured at Olympics is a whole different realm. They scheduled me for an MRI, and I thought ‘Oh good, I’ll get to see some of Tokyo on the way to the hospital.’ But the hospital was right there in the village, next to the cafeteria. They had orthopedic doctors. Physical therapists. Even a dentist. I was talking to them, and they told me that since some countries don’t have access to health care, they let athletes get stuff taken care of at the Olympics. For example, a guy from Africa had a decayed tooth in back of his mouth that was completely hollowed out. They pulled it, and I asked him how long he’d been dealing with that tooth. He said two years!”
The road back
It turned out to be a posterolateral corner injury, which is Latin for “a really messed up knee.” Torn meniscus. Torn cartilage. Sprained lateral ligaments.
Once he arrived back home, Mike underwent microfracture surgery, which involves drilling small holes into the ends of the bones near the damaged cartilage. The holes are meant to stimulate the production of fresh cartilage cells.
After the surgery, Mike was told that he would need to rest his knee for six months. That meant rehab and walking throws only.
The knee swelled up a lot. He had PRP (platelet-rich plasma injection) therapy and did his best not to lose his feel for making a javelin go far.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” he says. ” I will definitely try to get my rehab plan published after this.”
Mike has competed once this season, producing a toss of 75.25m at the USATF Throws Fest in Tucson in May. Before that meet, he’d had a total of two practices during which he’d gone beyond walking throws and threw using a short approach.
His training continues to be a mix of rehab and throwing drills, with the knee a constant consideration. He uses a variety of javs when he throws, everything from a 1-kilo down to a 600-gram implement.
Mike says his knee feels “moderately okay” right now, and that he is working to find the feel on his throws.
“I have my footwork down now, I just need to get connected with the jav and hit solid, line drive throws.”
In terms of qualifying for the World Championships, Mike’s big toss from last July has put him in a great spot. He is currently the only American man to have hit the World Athletics qualifying mark, which makes him a virtual lock to make the squad. Tim Glover and Curtis Thompson are likely to join him on the Worlds team, based on their current WA ranking.
What’s the meaning of this?
Assuming he makes the team, Mike says that qualifying for Worlds “will give me self validation that regardless of what hardships happen to me, I can come back better. It might not bring me fame and riches, but emotionally it will do a lot for me. My big goal is to make finals at Worlds, and I think I can do it.”
Ready to take a chance again
Mike is cognizant of the risk he will be taking when he once again unleashes his full technique at full speed. He says that a javelin thrower’s body has to be comfortable enough with that range of motion you need to make a big throw. “When you put yourself in that elongated, somewhat treacherous position, your body can be like ‘Noooo!’ and bail out of it. That’s why you always throw farther in a meet than in practice. You need that adrenaline to help you push your limits.”
Limit pushing time in the men’s javelin will take place on Sunday at 11:35am Pacific.
Marcus Gustaveson left his mark on Wheaton North High School in the suburbs of Chicago. Lots of marks, actually. The dents in the support post on the right side of the discus cage there bear silent testament to his ferocious and–in those days–uncontrolled power.
I coach the throws at Wheaton North, and was very excited when Marcus decided to try the shot and disc in the winter of his junior year. He was a super nice kid and, more importantly, had long levers and great pop.
But like a lot of young dudes still in the process of sprouting upwards, he struggled with footwork and timing, and in our two years together we were never able to harness his potential. His best discus throw in high school was 144 feet, although had there been no cage or foul lines he might have gone 200.
Our first winter together I started him off as a glide shot putter, so of course one day he decided to improvise a spin. I’ve never seen a giraffe caught in a tornado, but after witnessing Marcus’s first attempt at rotational putting, I never want to.
“Dear god!” I told him. “Promise me you’ll never try that again!”
After high school, Marcus enrolled at Concordia University, St. Paul, where he competed in both football and track. Participating in spring football practices limited his throwing to one session a week that first season, but he still managed to break the Concordia freshman record in the shot with a throw of 15.98m (Fun Fact: His coach that year was hammer thrower Sean Donnelly).
He spent very little time working on the discus. “I’d take maybe two throws each practice,” he recalls. “Then Sean would laugh at me because it was so ugly, and we’d stop.” His best toss that season was 43.32m.
The next year, Donnelly left to become a resident athlete at Chula Vista, and was replaced by former University of Minnesota javelin thrower Rachel Melum. Though still mainly focused on football, under Melum’s guidance Marcus was able to improve his discus PB to 50.78m.
Melum departed after one season, and was replaced by Lina Baker, a former DIII All-American in the hammer. Baker recognized Marcus’s potential as a discus thrower, and encouraged him to shift his focus from football to track. Marcus took her advice and did not participate in spring football during his junior year.
With the clock ticking on his throwing career, Baker also convinced him to ditch his glide and try spinning in the shot in hopes that doing so would accelerate his progress in the disc. It was not the smoothest of transitions, and Marcus competed mostly from a half turn, but he threw 15.99m and the effort he put into learning rotational shot did seem to transfer to the disc.
He only improved his discus PB by a meter during that 2019 season, but he and Coach Baker could tell that he was on the brink of much bigger throws. The following February, he put the shot 16.98m and felt ready to do serious damage in the disc when…the world shut down.
A career lost then found
Marcus’s parents had moved to Colorado after he graduated from high school, and he joined them there while trying to sort out his future. When it became clear that the pandemic would wipe out the rest of the track season, he told Baker that he was calling it a career.
Later that spring, though, he came across a discus in his garage and decided to toss it around a bit. He ended up taking some full throws in tennis shoes on a sidewalk, launching the disc into an open field. It felt good.
He bought a pair of throwing shoes and a few more discs. Before long, he was throwing at a local high school track and sending videos to Lina.
In the fall of 2020, he returned to St. Paul and began working forty hours a week at Enterprise while also training and taking classes toward an MBA. He lifted with Lina at 4:00am, and threw with her at 7:00pm.
Their work paid off in the spring when he threw 61.53m at the Tucson Elite meet. That got him into the Olympic Trials, and while in Eugene he was invited to become a resident athlete at Chula Vista.
It turns out that the resident athlete program for throwers was about to be phased out, so he ended up renting an apartment with hammer thrower Autavia Fluker and javeliner Mike Shuey.
Marcus spent the fall and winter working, volunteer coaching at a local high school, and training at the center under the guidance of John Dagata. It was a grind similar to his final year at Concordia, but the payoff came this spring when he opened with a 64.46m bomb at a meet in Long Beach.
The Next Step
Now a certifiably world class thrower, Marcus enters this week’s USATF Championships as a longshot to make the team for Worlds. He will need to climb into the top 32 to qualify by ranking, and that is not likely as he currently sits at 63. That means hitting the performance standard of 66.00m.
If he can do that, the impact on his career would be significant. “Everything would change,” he surmises. “If you make an Olympic or World team, you get noticed, get more funding, maybe get invited to international meets. It just makes everything more achievable.”
Easy, Big Fella
Those are exciting possibilities, but possibilities are not something you want to be mulling over as you enter the ring. Marcus has surpassed 60 meters only twice since tossing that PB in Long Beach, and he attributes his struggles to being too focused on nailing the 66.00m qualifier.
His plan for Thursday is to start easy, with maybe eighty percent effort, knowing that when the adrenaline kicks in at a big meet, staying under control and feeling positions is more important than trying to generate speed.
His goal is to “build a good series, with every throw over 60 meters. Throw a little bit better each round and ignore what other guys are doing. If I get the standard, great, but I’d really like to finish in the top three. I’ve done a lot of learning this year, and a top three finish would be a big step for me.”
A bit more on Thursday’s discus comp
The only American in the top 32 right now is Sam Mattis. Sam also has the standard, having nailed a PB of 68.69m in May.
Andrew Evans, who did not post a mark in 2020 or 2021, reappeared this season and reached 66.74m last month. He has been over 63.00m in five of his six comps this year.
Brian Williams has had an up-and-down season with three meets under 60.00m and five over. His season’s best of 66.14m came in early May, but he’s a veteran of these championship meets and made the team for Doha by throwing a then PB of 65.76m at the 2019 US Championships. His experience will make him a contender to make this year’s squad as well.
My head says those three will make the podium, but in my heart I’ll be pulling for Marcus.
The men’s discus comp will take place on Thursday at 5:45pm Pacific.
In February, Roger Steen achieved a major career breakthrough by placing third at the USATF Indoor Championships.
If he can match that finish at this week’s Outdoor Championships, he will make the US squad for the upcoming Worlds–quite an achievement for a former DIII athlete in this country’s most hellaciously competitive event.
I checked in with Roger last week to talk about his career and his preparation for this Friday’s shot competition.
Staying in the game
There are no million-dollar signing bonuses for shot putters when they turn pro, so even the most accomplished collegiate throwers have to figure out a way to support themselves as they continue training and competing. To pay the bills, Roger manages an assisted living facility in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He has worked there since his college days and says his employer is understanding about the need to occasionally take time off to travel to meets–an important consideration for an itinerant shot putter.
Navigating the pandemic
During “normal” times, finding a way to support yourself while training and competing is tough enough. Throw in a pandemic that shut down practice facilities and basically wiped out the 2020 season, and someone in Roger’s shoes could not be blamed for calling it a career. Several factors helped him stay the course. The assisted living facility where he works stayed open, so his income was not affected. He and his long time training partner Curt Jensen (21.63m PB) were already lifting in a garage, so they did not miss any strength sessions. Of the throwing events, the shot put is the easiest when it comes to improvising a place to chuck. Perhaps most importantly, Roger and Curt developed some serious camaraderie with a couple of fellow throwers who they invited to share their garage weight room. Fellow putter Adam Strouf (currently of the University of Indiana) and UW Stout hammer thrower, Jacob Bugella trained there regularly. Between those four, there was “always someone at the facility, always someone ready to throw.”
Roger recalls that “in 2020, as soon as we found out there would be no Olympic Trials, all of us started on a heavy training cycle. We suffered together, and that got us through.”
Qualifying for Worlds
To satisfy the requirements set forth by World Athletics, Roger has to either hit the qualifying standard of 21.10m, or climb into the top 32 in the World Rankings.
He is currently ranked at number 33 and has a PB of 21.07m, so he’s close on both counts.
The tougher challenge will be placing high enough at the US Championships to make the team. Joe Kovacs earned a bye into the 2022 Worlds by winning in 2019, and the US will be allowed to send three putters in addition to Joe, so that will help.
But he’ll still have to battle guys like Ryan Crouser, Darrell Hill, Payton Otterdahl, Josh Awotunde, Adrian Piperi, and Jordan Geist for one of those three spots.
That might sound like a tall order for a former University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire Blugold, but–as evidenced by his showing this winter in Spokane–Roger has gotten to the point where he throws his best against the best.
“I’ve competed against all those guys,” he told me. “I was at last year’s Trials when Ryan threw the World Record. He beat me by almost three meters, but I had my best series ever to that point. So, it’s not about what the other guys do. It all depends on if my training is right. Curt always tells me it’s best to be ‘strong like bull and smart like tractor.’ In other words, don’t waste time thinking about ifs or buts. Just get in there and do what you have to do.”
“Also, I like all the guys I’ll be throwing against. We’re all friends, and it’s fun trying to beat your friends.”
A quick side note regarding World Championship byes. Crouser actually qualified for one as well by winning last year’s Diamond League final, but each country is only allowed to use one bye per event, and I’m told that the USATF has chosen to honor Joe’s.
So, to review, Joe goes to Worlds no matter what. Everyone else will fight for three spots as the US will be allowed to send four putters.
Don’t go changing
I asked Roger if qualifying for Worlds would have a big effect on his career. “Honestly,” he says, “it would be an awesome accomplishment, but I’ll still take things one year at a time. I’m just focused on seeing how far I can throw the shot put, and that won’t change no matter what happens at the Trials. Kurt and I both agree that we won’t ever not lift heavy. We like the pain and the sense of accomplishment of lifting and throwing, so whatever happens next week I’ll just go back to my job and back to training.”
Time to peak
I spoke to Roger on Friday, June 17th, and at that point he was one week into a tapering phase meant to prepare him for the Trials. That night he planned to do a practice competition during which he’d take 8-10 hard throws with the 16lb implement. On Saturday, he planned to do a lift featuring “top end” squats and bench in which he’d have help from bands during the concentric part of those lifts. That would be his last lifting session before competing on the 24th.
He intended to throw both heavy and light shots on Sunday, with a 2-1 ratio of heavy to light implements, then take Monday off.
A light throwing practice on Tuesday morning will be followed by travel to Eugene where he will do one final throwing session of 4-6 hard fulls in the competition ring.
He will rest on Thursday before “showtime” on Friday.
With Curt’s help, Roger has been carefully tracking the way that different types of lifting and throwing workouts have prepared him for competition, and he is confident that he knows when and how to take his foot off the pedal in training without disrupting his routine. He’s feeling good right now, a “lot more responsive in the ring,” and ready to belt some big throws.
Adrenaline: frenemy of throwers
Under the right circumstances, the adrenaline that comes from throwing in a big comp can help produce huge throws. But adrenaline is a little like nitroglycerine or a pet bobcat. Handled incorrectly, it can wreck your day.
Roger says he likes the adrenaline rush he feels when competing against the best, and is confident that he can handle it.
He recalls that when he was younger he used to get tight and worry about letting people down, but now, he says he feels like “everyone” is behind him.
He’s confident in his training, and knows that whatever happens in any given competition, he will still have his day job.
“However I throw on Friday,” he says, “it won’t make or break me. I’m not doing this to put bread on the table. I’m doing this because I love throwing the shot.”
The men’s shot comp will take place at 6:42pm Pacific Time on Friday.
This past weekend, shot putter Josh Awotunde opened his outdoor season with a solid 21.63m toss to take second place behind Darrell Hill at the Mt. SAC relays. Seeing Josh back in action reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about a conversation I had with him following his stellar performance at the Indoor World Championships in March, so here goes.
Even for throwers who have thrived at high stakes comps like the NCAA Championships or Olympic Trials, a World Championships or Olympic Games presents a special set of challenges. This is especially true for an athlete competing at an international championships for the first time. That was the case with Josh at Indoor Worlds, but he somehow managed to finish fifth in a loaded field where it took 22.31m to get on the awards stand. A few days afterwards, he was kind enough to explain how he did it.
The first thing that Josh had to figure out after qualifying for the Indoor Worlds squad with a toss of 21.74m at the USATF Championships in Spokane in February, was how to manage the travel from his home in South Carolina to Belgrade,Serbia–site of the Indoor Worlds–with as little disruption to his normal training schedule as possible.
Josh trains at his alma mater, the University of South Carolina, with Mike Sergent, his college coach, and he normally throws three sessions per week, two a little easier and one with high intensity. Mondays he focuses on technique, Wednesdays on rhythm, and Fridays on distance.
As it turned out, that schedule matched up well with the demands of traveling to Belgrade for a Saturday competition. Josh was able to do his normal technique day at home that Monday, travel on Tuesday, do his rhythm session while recovering from the flight on Wednesday, then delay his Friday distance session to Saturday, where instead of throwing full out in a practice, he’d be doing so in the actual competition.
Josh’s ability to maintain a fairly normal routine made it a lot easier to feel comfortable that week in spite of the rigors of travel and the inevitable jet lag.
The next challenge Josh had to navigate involved implements.
At the Indoor Worlds (and at all indoor meets in Europe), the putters actually use the outdoor shot. That would not generally pose a problem for someone who trains in South Carolina where the weather is conducive to throwing outdoors during the winter months. It’s not like Josh had to scramble to find somewhere to throw the outdoor implement during the three weeks between the US and World Championships. But at competitions like the Indoor Worlds there is a catch–the meet organizers provide the implements.
A putter is allowed to throw his or her own shot only if it is of a brand that the organizers do not provide, and I’m told that this is rarely the case.
No big deal, right? Shots are shots. But the implements provided to the athletes are typically brand new with their nice, slick coat of paint unblemished by wear. And having, in the middle of the biggest competition of your life, to figure out how to get comfortable gripping an implement with an odd feel to it is no easy task. Can you imagine someone handing Tiger Woods a brand new driver as he walked to the first tee at the Masters and telling him he was required to use that club? Me either. Luckily, Josh kept his cool and was able to manage with the shot they provided.
Another tricky aspect of competing at meets like Indoor Worlds is the pre-competition procedure, which tends to be quite different from that followed at other meets. At the USATF Indoor Championships, for example, the putters were taken to the competition ring about thirty minutes before the action started. I was there in the arena watching, and I made note of the number of throws guys like Josh, Ryan Crouser, Payton Otterdahl, and Darrell Hill took prior to the comp. Most got in eight. Then, after a pause of maybe ten minutes for introductions, round one commenced.
The situation at Indoor Worlds was very different. According to Josh, on the night of the men’s shot comp, the putters were given an hour to take throws at a ring away from the main venue. They were then deposited in a call room where they sat for thirty or forty minutes. After that, they were taken into the oval where each thrower was allowed no more than three warmup throws in the competition ring. Then, there was a ten-minute delay for introductions. All this stopping and starting can make it difficult to find your rhythm. If you need eight throws to feel ready, you obviously have to take several during the early warmup period. But then you’d be sitting around for at least half an hour before completing your throws. And if you start burning energy two hours prior to the comp, you might run out of gas when the throws actually count.
Luckily for Josh, Ryan Crouser was also throwing in Belgrade and he’d been through this drill many times. After talking to Ryan, Josh decided not to take any throws in the early warmup period, and to make due with the three he’d get in the competition ring.
“It was the fewest warmup throws I’ve ever had for a meet,” he says, “so I went straight to fulls.”
This is something I saw Val Allman experiment with at the US Outdoor Championships in Des Moines in 2019. Her flight of the women’s discus was given an extremely long warmup period, something like forty minutes, but Val just sat back and relaxed for most of it. Then, a few minutes before the competition began, she stepped in and took two full throws. Afterwards, she explained that this was a routine she’d developed to prepare for championship meets where you can’t count on more than a couple warmup attempts.
The Indoor Worlds was Josh’s first experience with that approach to warming up, but he went in knowing what to expect and didn’t let the relative strangeness of it bother him.
Which was a good thing, since the odd rhythm of competing at Indoor Worlds did not end once the comp began. There were eighteen men’s putters in Belgrade, and they were all lumped into one flight. For Josh, who was twelfth in the order, that meant a thirty-minute delay between his final warmup throw and first competition throw, and an unusually long wait between attempts during the first three rounds due to the size of the field. Luckily, Josh was prepared for this as well.
He explained that, “During the competition I’d relax until there were six throws left before I was up, then I’d do some drills. When I was three throws away, I’d take off my warmups and tell myself, ‘Allright, it is time to go!’”
The plan allowed Josh to keep his chill, avoid the dreaded opening-round foul (he opened with 20.74m and followed that with 21.41m), and nearly equal his indoor PB with that 21.70m in round three.
That put him in fourth, well behind Darlan Romani (22.53m), Crouser (22.44m) and Tom Walsh (22.29m) but safely in the final. At that point, most observers–myself included–probably thought, “Okay, Josh, good job. Now you can relax, because there is no way you are breaking into that top three.”
But, that’s not what Josh was thinking, and his attitude may explain why–in addition to his considerable talent and the friendly advice from Crouser that helped him prepare–he was able to throw so well in his first Worlds. As the final three rounds began and the rest of the shot putting community was getting ready to enjoy a fight to the finish between Romani, Crouser, and Walsh, Josh was sitting there thinking, “I could win this.”
“I haven’t seen any throws over 22.50m in practice,” he recounted later, “but I watched Auriol Dongmo win on her last throw in the women’s comp, and my motto in practice has always been ‘last throw/best throw’, so I tried to get as pumped up as I could and just see what would happen.”
He fouled his fourth and fifth attempts, then entered the ring for his final throw “pissed off” and determined to unleash a big one.
“I tried to speed up out of the back a little bit. Of course, I have to be patient with my upper body at the start and the initial movement out to ninety degrees has to be easy, but once I move out wide around my left and get into position, it is time to go.”
The result was a throw that landed past the twenty-two meter line, but…was called a foul by an official who determined that Josh had just barely stepped on the ring to the right of the toeboard on his reverse.
Josh immediately protested, and the ever-helpful Crouser stepped up and reminded him to walk out the back of the ring, so they couldn’t nick him on that.
Unfortunately, there was no video available from an angle that would have provided a clear view of the spot where Josh might have fouled, so his protest was disallowed.
Most would agree that fifth place at your first World Championships is a successful outing for an up-and-coming thrower, but Josh’s takeaway was that he should have thrown farther.
Of the big foul, he says that “the finish was too short and quick. I did a lot of non-reverse throws in practice getting ready for the Worlds, and that usually helps me, but now I think I should have focused more on my reverse a couple of days before the comp. My reverse in the meet ended up being super quick and short, so I didn’t get everything out of the finish. When I’m at my best, I’m out over the toeboard, but in Belgrade it looked like I was doing a discus reverse. If I had really extended over the toeboard, that last throw would have been crazy.”
With guys like Romani, Walsh, Crouser, Hill, Joe Kovacs, and Zane Weir (who had a huge foul of his own in Belgrade–reportedly in the 22.70m range) lining up to do battle at this summer’s Outdoor Worlds, shot put fans can expect a lot of crazy in the near future.
And with the experience he gained in Serbia combined with his phenomenal physical talent, it will be no surprise to see Josh battling for a spot on the podium again in July.
I’ve never wrestled an anaconda, but I imagine it’s similar to competing against Ryan Crouser–you go in with very little chance of winning and come out feeling thoroughly pulverized.
And like an anaconda, Crouser takes his time pulping you. With Ryan, it is a very deliberate process that begins during warmups. At the recent USATF Indoor Championships in Spokane, he started with an easy, walking stand throw, followed by a regular non-reverse stand and a half-speed, non-reverse full that plopped down on the twenty-meter line.
He began his next full with a static start, and dropped that one around twenty-one meters. Another full from a static start went 21.50m. He used a longer windup only on his final two warmups. One reached 21.75m, the other 22.00m.
Notice a pattern there? We’ve all seen throwers blast away during warmups, desperate to build confidence by launching bombs. As Olympic champion (twice) and current world record holder, Crouser is long past the confidence-building stage, so he uses warmups to…warm up. In Spokane, he slowly and precisely increased the amount of effort he put into each attempt, staying under control and refusing to be rushed. He seemed assured that the big throws would come if he just maintained his rhythm, and he was right.
Throwing last in the order, Crouser began applying the death squeeze with a toss of 22.03m from a static start. He missfired on his second attempt and walked out the front. Then, sticking with the static start in round three, he went 22.34m, to essentially put the top spot out of reach.
Those, by the way, were the164th and 165th throws over twenty-two meters in Ryan’s career. To put that in perspective, John Godina, a four-time World Champion and the best putter in the business from 1995 to 2005, threw twenty-two meters exactly three times. Ever.
Oh, and Crouser is not yet thirty years old.
One might think that the folks running the meet there in Spokane would have made it a priority to keep the momentum rolling considering they had the world record holder putting on a show center stage, but alas, other, inexplicable considerations took precedence and the shot comp was paused for fifteen minutes.
When festivities resumed, Crouser set about asphyxiating any remaining hopes of an upset.
He later said that after his first three attempts he decided to stop “dancing around” and so began using his full windup. The result was a 22.51m toss, the fifth time in his career that he surpassed seventy-three feet.
He followed that up with 23.39m and a foul.
When it was over, one question remained. Even in this current Golden Age of shot putting, with its proliferation of twenty-two-meter throwers, can Crouser, barring injury, be beaten?
What if, for example, a competitor dropped a monster throw early, and instead of leading by half-a-meter or more from the get go, Crouser had to play catch up? Would that knock him off his game?
Well, at the 2019 Worlds, you may recall that Tom Walsh opened with a meeting record 22.90m, which Joe Kovacs surpassed by a centimeter in round six. Minutes later, Crouser stepped in for his final attempt. The result? A 22.90m PB.
He didn’t win that night, but he showed that he can take a punch and not get rattled.
And he is a significantly better and more consistent shot putter now than he was three years ago in Doha.
Walsh and Kovacs will no doubt be in Eugene this summer for a Worlds rematch. Walsh has reportedly separated from his longtime coach, Dale Stevenson, and it remains to be seen how that will affect his season. Joe, has been holed up in Nashville (his wife and coach, Ashley, works at Vanderbilt), apparently plotting his title defense…
Maggie Ewen, certainly an astute judge of throwing potential, told me back in 2019 that Darrell Hill (more about him below) has as much talent as Crouser or Kovacs. After a difficult, injury-plagued 2021 season, can he get it together and challenge Crouser? Can any of these guys?
Time will tell, but one thing is for sure. There has never been a better moment to be a shot put fan.
If you are looking for a doable challenge, I’d recommend trying something easy like becoming an astronaut or breaking the world hotdog eating record (seventy-six in ten minutes) before taking a whack at making a US Olympic or Worlds team in the men’s shot.
Right now, nine of the top twenty male putters in the World Athletics rankings throw for the United States, and that does not include defending World Champion and Olympic silver medalist Joe Kovacs, who has yet to compete this season.
Even with the United States likely to be granted four spots in the men’s shot at the 2022 Worlds, at least six of the planet’s best putters who happen to be American will be stuck watching from home when the new World shot put champion is crowned on July 17th.
A quick word on the number of entries for Worlds. In individual events, a nation is allowed to send three athletes who have met the World Athletics entry standards–four if an athlete from that country has received a bye. The defending World champion gets one. That’s Joe. The current Diamond League champion gets one. That’s Crouser. However, even with both of those guys receiving byes, no country can send more than four competitors in an individual event, so the US Championships will basically come down to a battle for the remaining two spots. If somehow Joe or Crouser were to finish out of the top four at those Championships, then…I don’t know what the hell happens because the USATF places a premium on order of finish at the National Championships in selecting the team. Stay tuned.
However you slice it, making the Worlds team for the US will be at least seventy-seven hotdogs hard, which is why few would blame Josh Awotunde for taking advantage of his dual citizenship (US/Nigeria) to avoid the process altogether–especially after a PB toss of 21.84m at last summer’s Olympic Trials left him in fifth place and off the squad for Tokyo.
But, speaking a few days prior to the US indoor Championships last month, Josh said he was determined to represent the US on the world stage.
He called the idea of making the team for Indoor Worlds a “dream come true” and added that he wanted nothing more than to compete in an Olympics or Worlds wearing the “red white and blue.”
He made that dream a reality in Spokane by dropping an indoor PB of 21.74m in round two. That throw held up for second place, and a similar toss in Belgrade might put him in line for his first World Championship medal.
Roger Steen finished four places behind Josh at the Trials, despite producing a PB of 20.41m. Considering that he was twenty-nine years old and finished the season ranked number fifty-two by World Athletics (with sixteen Americans rated ahead of him) the sensible move after last summer would probably have been to take a bow, call it a career, and walk away satisfied with the fact that it was a huge accomplishment for a former DIII athlete to place in the top ten at one of the greatest shot put competitions ever.
But Roger chose to soldier on, and for five rounds in Spokane (19.55m, two fouls around 20.00m, 20.04m, 20.33m) it seemed not to have been such a good decision. He resembled a stubby Don Quixote tilting at windmill-sized competitors like Crouser, Payton Otterdahl, and Darrell Hill.
Then, on his final attempt, Roger Steen, former University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire “Blugold” (don’t ask), joined the world of bigtime shot putters with his first ever twenty-one meter toss.
That throw–21.07m to be exact–didn’t get him on the squad for Indoor Worlds (he finished third in Spokane, and only the top two make the team), and he’ll have to add nearly a meter to it at the Outdoor Championships to give himself a chance to make the podium there, but…Roger Steen believes. When asked after the comp how he plans to get in the mix outdoors, he replied that he just needs to “keep doing what we’re doing.”
Fair is Foul
The rotational technique has revolutionized shot putting, and also made life more complicated for officials. When a glider reverses at the end of a throw, they generally land with their right foot flat on the ground against the toeboard. If they foul, it is usually because they lose their balance and have to step over the toeboard and out of the ring to regain it. Easy to see and easy to call. Rotational putters, on the other hand, typically land high on the ball of the right foot after reversing, then hop around a bit as they struggle to manage the rotational forces they’ve created. As they do, it is not uncommon for the bottom the their right foot to make contact with the toeboard. As long as their foot touches only the side and not the top of the toeboard, a foul should not be called.
Easy to explain, but difficult to discern in real time with the naked eye. And every once in a while, an official–perhaps struggling with the pressure to make an accurate call–will start assessing fouls that appear to exist only in their imagination.
Tom Walsh’s experience during the qualification round in Tokyo comes to mind. The official watching the toeboard flagged him on two of his three attempts, though he clearly had not fouled. Fortunately, throwers are allowed to protest questionable calls, and Tom’s third throw was declared legal after video review. That toss got him into the final, where he finished with the bronze medal.
Darrell Hill had a similar experience in Spokane, minus the happy ending. After finishing fourth at the Trials last summer, he came into Spokane on Sunday looking to re-establish himself as a top contender for Eugene 2022 as Maggie Ewen and Chase Ealey had done in the women’s shot the previous day.
And he looked strong during the first three rounds, approaching twenty-two meters on his second attempt.
Unfortunately, all three of Darrell’s efforts were deemed fouls, with the official apparently dinging him for touching the top of the toeboard with his heel.
Darrell protested after his third throw, but the officials had trouble getting the replay to function.
In the meantime, they granted him an additional attempt, which was measured as 20.93m. Had it counted, that throw would have allowed Darrell to continue in rounds four, five, and six, but a moment later an official informed him that they were finally able to examine the replay of his third attempt and that the foul call would stand.
That had to be extremely disappointing for Darrell, but one thing he can take away from the experience is that he is in twenty-two meter form with several months of training still ahead before the Outdoor Nationals.
I remember covering the Prefontaine Classic in June of 2019, and watching Joe Kovacs launch twenty-two meter throws in warmups (Joe takes a very different approach to warming up than does Crouser).His best toss in the competition was 21.39m, but he told me afterwards that he was encouraged by the capacity he showed in being able to move the ball far with the Doha Worlds still months away.
Things turned out pretty well for Joe that year, and they just might for Darrell this time around.
Take my advice and do not look away when Jessica Ramsey steps into the shot put ring. I speak from from personal experience regarding this matter.
I showed up to cover the 2018 USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines four years ago, certain that the women’s shot competition would come down to a battle between Maggie Ewen, Raven Saunders, and Michelle Carter, so when Ramsey stepped in to take her first toss, I was paying absolutely no attention. I can’t recall now if I was playing on my phone or looking around and trying to determine my odds of making it to the bratwurst stand and back before the comp really got rolling, but next thing I knew, “19.23m” appeared on the scoreboard and I had absolutely no idea who had thrown it.
Turns out it was Ramsey.
She ended up finishing second to Ewen that day, which was pretty remarkable considering Ramsey’s season’s best in 2017 had been all of 17.76m.
After the meet, I found out what the deal was. Following a very successful career at Western Kentucky during which she won Sun Belt Conference titles in the shot, disc, and hammer, Ramsey had found her way to John Smith’s throwing group, which is based at the University of Mississippi. She continued to throw the hammer and shot under Smith’s guidance–in fact, the day before her 19.23m toss in Des Moines she finished fifth in the hammer with a mark of 70.41m–but Smith could see that her future lay in the shot…provided she would agree to switch from the glide to rotational technique.
It took a while for Jessica to get completely on board with that plan, and for a couple of years she switched back and forth between the two styles of throwing. Sometime in 2018, she decided to fully embrace her rotational potential, and the result was that lightning strike in Des Moines.
She regressed slightly in 2019, producing a season’s best of 19.01m, and then came Covid.
Prevented from training at the university due to the lockdown, Smith improvised by setting up a facility outside of town that he named “the Barn.” He and Ramsey and the hammer thrower Janeah Stewart spent the next few months training at the Barn, determined to be ready when the season resumed.
It turned out there were not a lot of opportunities to compete that summer, but a 19.50m toss indoors in February of 2021 showed that the time at the Barn had been well spent.
Still, was anybody–aside from Smith–expecting the 20.12m Olympic Trials record she unleashed in Eugene last summer?
Anyhow, I’d recommend paying attention when the women’s shot gets going at 2:35 Pacific time this Saturday.
Jessica’s best toss so far this year came two weeks ago in Nashville where she hit 18.83m, but Smith says she’s close to making bigger throws. When I spoke to him last week, he reported that Jessica had recently achieved four or five training PR’s, and estimated that she’d have the “ability” to throw well over nineteen meters in Spokane.
And though it is early in the season, and her best throws will certainly come this summer, Smith says, “We take every opportunity for a national title seriously.”
Ramsey says that it would “mean a lot” to make her first Indoor Worlds team. She has been maintaining her normal hectic schedule since last summer, training, working at Insomnia Cookies, volunteering at Court Appointed Special Advocates–an organization devoted to helping abused or neglected children–and even doing a bit of coaching at a local high school where she sometimes trains.
She says she’d like to compete for another ten years, and then maybe go into social work full time.
This weekend, she’s likely in for a tough battle with Ewen and Chase Ealey for a spot in the top two and a trip to the Indoor Worlds. But she feels ready.
“I don’t try to put pressure on myself,” she explained. “I try to have fun and always give one thousand percent.”
That approach has led to some pretty amazing performances in the past, and if she produces another one this weekend, I for one, will be paying attention.
If you happen to walk through the fieldhouse at the University of Mississippi one day and come across this scene…
…do not be alarmed. The Ole Miss football team has not begun recruiting infants. As far as I know. Although, one more loss to Alabama and…never mind.
Anyway, that child is unlikely to ever to set foot on the gridiron, so all you football recruiters…stand down. If you coach at a major track program, however, you might want to grab a letter of intent and a couple of crayons and head to Oxford, Mississippi, immediately because if genetics mean anything, that young lady has serious potential.
Her name is Ja’Myri, and her mother is 2018 NCAA hammer champion Janeah Stewart.
This weekend in Spokane, Janeah will be looking for her third USATF Indoor title in the weight, her first since giving birth to Ja’Myri last April.
It has been a long and difficult path from that NCAA hammer title, which she won with a throw of 72.92m, to these 2022 USATF Indoor Championships, where she is seeded third in the weight with a season’s best throw of 23.98m.
After graduating from Ole Miss, Janeah stuck around Oxford to train with her college throws coach John Smith, and in 2019 raised her hammer PB to 75.43m. That December, she launched the weight 25.08m, and was preparing to defend her national title when Covid put a halt to the season.
Smith’s entire throws crew, the college kids along with Janeah and shot putter Jessica Ramsey, were suddenly left with no place to train. But if you know Coach Smith, you will not be surprised to hear that he did not go home to sit on the couch and wait for better times.
“I spent three days driving all over the place, trying to find a place to train,” he recalled recently. “Then I found out that the people who sold us our house also owned a piece of land about ten miles outside of town.”
Smith describes the place as a “semi-abandoned” sportsplex, which the owners were happy to let him use. Exploring it, he found a large pavillion with a concrete floor that was “perfect for throwing.”
Covid regulations forbid him from working with the college athletes, but he installed throwing rings for Stewart and Ramsey and got to work.
They spent the next several months banging away at this ersatz facility that Smith refers to as “the Barn,” and he credits Ramsey’s 20.12m bomb at the 2021 Olympic Trials to the work they accomplished there in 2020.
Janeah appeared to be on her way to a similar breakthrough with the hammer. According to Smith, she hit thirty-two training PB’s at the Barn, including a seventy-seven meter toss with the competition implement.
Stewart remembers the excitement of throwing “really well” there, and it would be the memory of those throws and the feeling of being on the brink of a potentially great career that would carry her through when life got even more complicated.
First, she contracted the virus late in July of 2020. That cost her a month of training. Not long after, she realized she was pregnant. She did not lift or throw again for a year.
Smith says that in his experience very few throwers are able to return to the sport after giving birth. “I’d estimate the odds were about eighty-percent against Janeah coming back,” he says now.
It is not hard to understand why. Making a living as a hammer thrower is a dicey proposition even if you are only trying to support yourself. You have to be among the absolute best in the world to earn any prize money, and making it to that level requires an almost narcissistic level of focus on your training, recovery, and diet.
Anyone who has raised a child can tell you that selfish habits, things like sleeping eight consecutive hours or eating with both hands, go out the window as soon as you bring your baby home.
But Janeah was determined to make a go of it. She returned to lifting last summer and remembers being “in pain and out of breath.” Her first day back throwing, she told Smith she’d hit 200 feet, but could barely break 160.
But, according to Smith, Janeah can be stubborn, and whenever anyone suggested that she bag it, she’d get “pissed off” and train even harder.
It helped that Smith, his wife Connie (the head track coach at Ole Miss) and the rest of their throwing group rallied around Janeah and Ja’Myri.
Janeah says that Ja’Myri attends nearly every throwing and lifting session. She generally watches contentedly from her walker, but recently has gotten so active that Stewart has had to surround her with football dummies as shown in the photo, or she’d be “all over the place.”
Though encouraged by her 23.98m toss from earlier this month, Janeah says she is struggling to find her timing in the throw. She is also still fighting to regain her strength in the weight room. Her power clean PB in the Barn days was around 280 pounds, and she estimates that right now she could do 230.
She and Smith have been working on the hammer as well, and he is optimistic that she will be ready to get in the mix at what promises to be an epic Outdoor Championships with three spots on the Worlds team up for grabs.
“If we can get her over eight feet (24.38m) in the weight,” he says, that will set her up well for the outdoor season. Right now, she’s about ninety percent of where she needs to be in the hammer.”
A big throw this weekend would be a big step in the right direction.
The women’s weight competition is scheduled for 2:05pm Pacific time on Sunday.