If you were strolling around downtown Zurich trying to work off the kilogram of chocolate you just consumed for lunch and you came across a wide, empty plaza with an unpronounceable name…
…would you look out over that vast open space and say to yourself, “Hmmm…we could fit the shotput here, and the high jump over here…and everyone loves the pole vault, so we’ll put that there…and we don’t want to exclude the distance nerds, so we’ll need a temporary track for the 5,000…and we’ll have to build a couple of bridges over that track so spectators can get to the infield…and we’ll let everyone in for free and thousands will come, and we’ll build temporary stands for people who want to sit, and we’ll have concessions and give away green hats and a weird-looking furry mascot will wander around photo-bombing people’s selfies…and we’ll have maybe 48 hours to put the whole thing together and then 12 hours to take it apart afterwards. It will be fantastic!”
If the answer is yes, it is likely that you are Swiss.
I taught English for many years, and on the rare occasion that I wanted to punch one of my students in the face it was usually because they’d made snide remarks about Charles Dickens. “There are too many words in this book! Can’t he just get to the point? You know he was paid by the word, right? That’s why this book is soooo long!”
What my young scholars did not perceive–and it may be that their youth precluded them from doing so–is that Dickens was a master at depicting the long, slow, grotesque, hopeful, magnificent, heart-breaking roller coaster ride that is life.
And I wish he were here to write about Chase Ealey. From high school multi-multi-sport phenom (volleyball, basketball, softball, soccer, sprints, javelin, shot) to DI All-American glide shot putter, to second-ranked putter in the world in 2019 as a spinner, to seemingly washed up in 2021, to World Champion and Diamond League Champion and World #1 in 2022, to…who knows? Maybe a world record in 2023?
Chase and her coach, Paul Wilson, are honest about their belief that she can erase Natalya Lisovskaya’s 22.63m (thrown in 1987) from the record books. She spoke about that and other matters in this interview after her win in Zurich, and starting around the 56:20 mark of this vid of the pre-meet press conference.
Chase’s current PB is 20.51m, and a two-meter improvement is rare for someone at her age (28) and with her level of experience in the sport. When Val Adams was the same age, I asked her if she thought she could break Lisovskaya’s mark, and Val just laughed at my naiveté. Her PB at the time was 21.24m.
And she was right. She was not able to extend her PB by the time she retired in 2021, though her five World Championship and four Olympic medals make Val–in my humble opinion–the greatest putter of all time.
Chase may never match Val’s medal haul, but I agree with her and Paul that she has a chance at the world record. I base this on two factors. One, Chase believes she can do it. Two, she is a rotational putter.
I’ve been a high school coach since 1992, and during that time I’ve heard (and often shared) the following opinions regarding the rotational technique:
-It only works for stubby people.
-It is good for the occasional home run ball, but will not hold up in a high-pressure comp.
-It helps your discus technique.
-It wrecks your discus technique.
-Because the rotational technique is harder to learn, everyone should start out as a glider.
-Because the rotational technique is harder to learn, everyone should start out as a spinner.
-It works for men and not women because the 4k ball is so light.
-It is responsible for the current golden age of men’s putting.
-It is responsible for the current golden age of women’s putting.
A fun thing about coaching is that there is likely some truth to each of those statements. But I’ve heard some very high-level coaches express belief in those last two, and it is hard to argue with them.
Could Ryan Crouser have developed into a consistent 22.50m guy as a glider? Maybe. But would Joe Kovacs have hit 23.23m or Tom Walsh 22.90m with the glide? I don’t think so.
Same for Chase. Her glide PB was 18.46m and she had gone two years without hitting 18 meters when she joined up with Ryan Whiting and converted. That season, she improved to 19.68m. Clearly, she was better suited to the rotational technique. Without it, she would not have unlocked her massive potential. The same can be said of Sara Mitton (4th at Worlds, second here with a toss of 19.56m, twice over 20 meters this year) and Jessica Schilder (3rd at Worlds, 1st at the European Championships with 20.24m).
As for Chase, a case of long Covid just about sank her career in 2020-2021, but this winter she found health and happiness by relocating to Great Britain (I’m no Dickens, but I did my best to depict that phase of Chase’s life here) and produced an astonishingly consistent season featuring eight comps over 20 meters.
She showed up in Zurich wearing a boot on her left foot, the result of maybe a stress fracture or turf toe–she had not yet gotten a full diagnosis–but vowed to continue her streak of 20-meter performances. Which she did, blasting 20.19m in round three much to the delight of the spectators packed around the shot circle.
If anyone needed further evidence of Chase’s toughness and determination, she provided there on the Platz.
And that toughness, combined with remarkable athleticism (she was state champ in the 100 meters in high school), new found contentment (she is engaged to be married) and a commitment to get the most out of the rotational technique indicates to me that we may well witness an assault on the women’s shot record in the next couple of years.
I’ll post more coverage of the action on the platz and also Day 2 of the Weltklasse soon.
If I told you that three-time United States shot put champion Chase Ealey has ditched the sunny skies of Arizona and chosen instead to train in the dripping cold of jolly old England, you’d think I’d gone barmy, wouldn’t you?
You might even tell me to “Sod off!” and refer to me hereafter as a “cheeky wanker.”
Couldn’t blame you if you did, but facts are facts and not only has Chase decamped to the UK, but she’s feeling and throwing better than she has in years, which is brilliant news for throws fans even if it might be a load of tosh for her competitors.
Here’s how this all came about.
Chase, you may recall, was one of the great stories of the 2019 season. Working with two-time World Indoor champion Ryan Whiting, she transformed herself from a decent glider with an 18.46m PB into a rotational arse-beater. By year’s end, she was US indoor and outdoor champion and had raised her PB to 19.68m. She also made competing overseas against top competition seem easy peasy lemon squeezy by winning her first ever Diamond League meeting with a 19.58m bomb in Shanghai, and notching that 19.68m PB at the DL Final in Zurich.
That’s a gobsmacker of a season, and no one could blame Chase for thinking her momentum might continue through the World Championships in Doha.
“I don’t even want to set my goal at simply making it onto the podium,” she told a reporter that summer when asked about her outlook regarding the Worlds. “I want to win.”
It’s rare for a thrower to approach his or her best marks at their first World Championships or Olympics. Similar to getting married or having an MRI, one’s initial experience at a meet of that magnitude can be disorienting. Subsequent attempts usually go better.
It didn’t help that the environment in Doha was so strange. The intense heat made venturing out during daylight hours a dodgy proposition. Most athletes trained in the evening, but even then the humidity was such that putters had a hard time just keeping the shot against their neck while spinning. Then, the competition took place in an air-conditioned open-air stadium. Try saying that three times fast. Perhaps most disorienting was the fact that the Worlds were held in October, making the 2019 season a good five or six weeks longer than normal. When Chase stepped into the ring for the qualification round, eight months had passed since she’d won Indoor Nationals.
That’s a long road to travel, and under the circumstances making the final and finishing seventh was an accomplishment. But Chase felt disappointed at “only” throwing 18.82m after routinely surpassing nineteen meters all season, and she was still brooding about it when Covid showed up and turned the world inside out.
She still managed to throw 19.41m during the weird, truncated 2020 season, but a case of long Covid in the winter of 2020/2021 caused her bodyweight to drop by twenty-five kilograms in two months and robbed her of the vitality and explosiveness that had carried her through that magnificent 2019 campaign.
She entered the 2021 Olympic Trials as the defending US champion, a title she’d captured in 2019 by throwing 19.56m in the pouring rain in Des Moines, but she no longer had, in her words, “the same oomph” that had enabled her to easily blast throws over nineteen meters.
Much of her confidence was gone as well after all those months of feeling wretched, and Chase finished fifth at the Trials with a best of 18.39m. It was a pretty good throw considering her physical and mental state, but she felt gutted. Keep in mind that had Covid not intervened and she’d gone into a 2020 Olympic Games healthy, Chase might well have contended for a gold medal. Now, with the delayed Games finally happening a year later, she would not even be on the team.
The next month, she threw a 19.45m season’s best and also competed a few times in Europe, but nothing could assuage her disappointment. To make matters worse, her best friend and training partner Nick Ponzio left Whiting’s Desert High Performance group.
Long story short, she rolled into the winter of 2021/2022 feeling lousy.
One bright spot of the past two years was a growing friendship with the British putter Sophie McKinna. The two met at the 2019 Worlds and crossed paths regularly when Chase competed overseas.
This past January, Chase decided to join Sophie in England for a three week training camp. Initially, she had no intentions of staying there long term, but says that “after a week we were like ‘Holy shit, we train together really well!'”
One day, Chase and Sophie were throwing at the Loughborough High Performance Center when the British men’s shot put champion Scott Lincoln showed up accompanied by his long time coach, Paul Wilson.
Coach Wilson saw that Chase was struggling with her technique and “throwing it all over the place,” so he asked if she’d mind a suggestion or two.
She did not mind, and they quickly developed a nice rapport. Chase describes Paul as “very chill,” and says that she works well with “chillaxed people.”
Before long, Chase visited Paul at his home base in York, and they drew up plans. Paul would take over her coaching in the ring and in the weight room. They’d train together in person whenever possible, and virtually in between the live sessions.
“The video sessions actually work well,” she says. “We have Paul on a tripod, and we move him around whenever he needs a different view.”
One aspect of Paul’s coaching that Chase especially appreciates is that he expects collaboration on the part of the athlete.
Paul describes the coach/athlete relationship as a “partnership” and says that “you have to talk and communicate. You can’t dictate what they need to do and how to do it. They are adults. I say to Scott and Chase all the time, ‘You tell me what you think we should work on.'”
Paul is also careful to explain the rationale behind any suggestions he makes.
According to Chase, “He will tell me why I am doing stuff, which makes me feel more comfortable. It makes it easier to trust the process. He really cares about my input in the ring and in the weight room, which is nice.”
He also does his best to maintain a stress free environment. “We’re just here to train and encourage each other,” he says. “That’s the main mentality in my group, and I think that’s helping Chase. She’s also getting pushed every day by Sophie, which has been good for her, too.”
It didn’t take Chase long to realize that the situation she’d found in England was just what she needed.
When we spoke recently, she made it clear that she wasn’t looking to get away from Ryan Whiting and Desert High Performance. There was just something about training with Sophie and Paul in an entirely new environment that made her feel refreshed. And Whiting was supportive of the move.
According to Chase, Ryan told her that “as an athlete, you know when you need to make a change.” He recommended that she make the move now rather than wasting valuable time dithering over the decision. “Your career is short,” he advised her. “If something needs to happen, it has to happen now. Don’t wait.”
With Whiting’s blessing, she and Paul got to work on shoring up her technique, mainly by establishing a more balanced entry position.
According to Paul, the goal is for Chase to “rotate around the spine” as she moves left at the back of the ring. “I stand behind her and hold up my hand, and she has to go out and around me. She used to pull her left shoulder down on her entry, which threw her off balance. That’s the main thing, getting more consistent out of the back.”
Chase agreed that this was a weakness in her technique. “Remember,” she says, “I was a sprinter before I was a thrower, so my instinct out of the back was to sort of drop down and charge like a sprinter.”
She and Whiting made a conscious decision to leave her entry as it was when she started throwing far in 2019. They planned to set about fixing it after that season, but with the disappointment of her seventh-place finish at the World Championships and the difficulties brought on by the pandemic, her head was never in the right place to endure a painstaking technique renovation.
This January though, the time seemed right. “I’m much more open to working on things now,” she says. “And when you are open mentally to making changes, they actually work.”
Proof came when Chase hit marks of 19.21m and 19.20m on consecutive weekends earlier this month.
The plan now is to qualify for the Indoor Worlds by finishing in the top two at the USATF Indoor Nationals this coming weekend. After that, she’ll focus on getting ready for the Outdoor Nationals and hopefully another crack at a World Championships medal.
Paul, for one, thinks she can do it. He says that “During the last two or three weeks, her technique has been more consistent, and she’s been smiling. When she smiles during training, it shows she has confidence in what we are doing, which gives me the confidence to say she is going to throw far.”
If nothing else, Chase has endured some rough times physically and mentally and made it through. Now she’s ready to show that 2019 was just the first act of what promises to be a cracking good career.
Thirty thousand dollars–the prize for winning the Diamond League final–is a nice chunk of change, but is it enough to make up for a disastrous Olympic experience? Not for Johannes Vetter.
“I’m still sad,” he told reporters after the comp in Zurich, “that the producers of that f—ing surface in Tokyo…”
He did not finish that sentence, but he didn’t need to. Track fans know the story of Vetter’s Tokyo nightmare. He came into the Games the prohibitive gold medal favorite after surpassing ninety meters on seven occasions this season.
But Vetter ended up finishing a dismal ninth at the Games, a direct and disastrous result of that “f—ing surface.”
The surface in question was the same Mondo concoction that produced a spate of remarkable performances in the running events. Unfortunately, it turned out to be entirely unsuitable for javelin throwing.
When I contacted Tom Pukstys after the Games to get his thoughts on what had happened, he told me that the top layer of the Mondo surface softens up under extreme heat, causing it to come apart when a javelin thrower plants his left foot on release. “When you throw on Mondo,” he explained, “it just doesn’t hold. When the weather is hot like it was in Tokyo, you rip right through the top of it–especially if you have a dramatic block angle like Vetter.”
“And when your left foot slips on your block, even just an inch, it feels terrible.”
Pukstys says that it would help if javelin throwers were allowed to wear longer spikes on Mondo. Current regulations allow for spikes no more than twelve millimeters, but that leaves only about eight millimeters sticking out of the bottom of the shoe, not enough to handle the forces created when a thrower like Vetter slams his left foot down as he releases the implement. Vetter estimates that his left leg has to absorb one ton of pressure at that moment–an impossibility when the surface under his foot gives away.
The Mondo surface in Tokyo was more manageable for throwers who do not demand so much force absorption from their block leg, but bottom line, the jav runway should not have been covered with it. According to Vetter, he and his coach–Boris Obergföll–”have already had some good conversations with the company who made the surface in Eugene (host of the 2022 World Championships) and for Paris. We are trying to find a standard for every javelin thrower. If I have a good stand on the runup in the last eight meters, then anyone has a good situation to throw far. We are trying to make our sport equal for anybody.”
Shot putter Maggie Ewen endured her own disaster earlier this summer when she finished fourth at the Olympic Trials, three centimeters behind Adelaide Aquilla, and failed to make the team for Tokyo.
In Maggie’s case, the throwing surface was not a factor. The ring used at Eugene’s Hayward Stadium for the men’s and women’s shot finals was reportedly quite slick, but the results (five men over twenty-one meters, a world record for Ryan Crouser and an Olympic Trials record for Jessica Ramsey) indicated that the folks were comfortable throwing from it.
Maggie agreed. “With no rain, that ring is fine,” she said recently. “It was just one of those days where things didn’t quite come together for me.”
Her schedule left her no time to grieve. “I couldn’t take a week off after the Trials to sit down and be like ‘Oh, darn!’ because I had to be in Stockholm just a few days later.”
A throw of 19.04m at that July 4th Diamond League meeting lifted her spirits and helped restore some confidence.
Maggie’s coach, Kyle Long, says that her performance in Stockholm was “reassuring,” and after a week off, they revised Maggie’s training plan to focus on a new goal–winning the Diamond League final.
The Diamond League schedule would require Maggie to spend nearly a month in Europe training on her own without Kyle, and in preparation for that they tried to narrow her technical cues down to “two or three major thoughts.”
“If you are going to do something wrong,” Maggie explained, “it will probably be one of maybe three things, so we decided to focus on a few simple, basic cues to make the mental side of training easier without Kyle there to see me throw every day.”
The main focus of those cues was to create a seamless throw featuring a smooth buildup of momentum from start to finish.
One way to promote smoothness, according to Coach Long, was to “make sure when she turned out of the back that her shoulders and hips turned together.” Another was to adjust her right leg sweep.
“She had the habit of letting her right leg drift too wide,” Coach Long explained. “With some throwers, Ryan Crouser for example, there is a moment of pause as they sort of gather themselves coming out of the back to let the right leg get out wide, but that doesn’t work for Maggie.”
Cues in hand, Maggie set off for Europe where she set up shop at a training base in Belgium. She shook off the jet lag with an 18.68m performance in Bern on August 21st, then went 19.22m three days later in Budapest.
A 19.31m mark in Poland on September 5th showed that she was ready to contend in Zurich, where the men’s and women’s shot finals were combined into one flight and held in the center of the city.
It was, according to Maggie, “a cool setup, and the crowd seemed super invested. And it was fun to throw alongside the boys, although the competition had a little bit of a weird flow to it, especially after Tom (Walsh) broke the toeboard.”
That was near the end of round three. Maggie was leading at the time with a 19.41m opener, which, after a fifteen-minute delay to replace the broken board, an additional warmup period, and three more rounds of throwing, held up for the win.
Aside from the prize money and the positive energy that comes from finishing the year with a season’s best, Maggie will now enjoy the advantage of having an automatic berth in next summer’s World Championship.
“I wasn’t even thinking about that,” she says. “Joe and Ashley Kovacs were the first to mention it to me. ‘Hey, congrats on making it into the Worlds.’ I was like, ‘Excuse me?’”
“I already feel a little lighter looking ahead and not having to worry about qualifying at the US Championships.”
Speaking of those Championships, I inquired about the possibility of Maggie trying to make the team in the hammer as well. She did, after all, throw 75.04m as recently as 2019.
“That’s a tricky situation,” Kyle explained, “with the way the women’s hammer has taken off. When Maggie threw 75.04m, it was a tribute to her athleticism that she could do that only throwing the hammer twice a week. But, the women have pushed the event so far now that it might be disrespectful to think that we could compete with them when only training the hammer part time. It would take a lot of experimental training, and mental exhaustion might be a problem. Instead of chasing eighty meters in the hammer, our time might be better spent chasing twenty meters in the shot.”
Either way, Maggie’s win in Zurich has her feeling refreshed and looking forward to the 2022 Worlds.
“Who knows, maybe having the Worlds at home will be the magic I need. I‘ve had a lot of Hayward magic in my career. Hopefully, it will happen again.”
I’ll Take That As A Maybe
Like Maggie, Ryan Crouser has been world class in more than one event. When he threw 237’5’ in high school, it seemed like he was poised to become the long awaited Next Great American Discus Thrower. But he decided to focus on the shot instead, leaving it to Val Allman to show that Americans can throw seventy meters when it counts. Now, after definitively proving himself the best shot putter in history, could Crouser be ready for a new challenge?
“I get asked about the discus all the time,” he said after notching the win in Zurich with a third round toss of 22.67m (which, by the way, he threw from a static start while trying to regain his bearings after the exploding toeboard delay).
“And I’m always looking forward to the next step in my career, which is both a gift and a curse. My grandfather used to tell me to stop and smell the roses, but I’m always looking ahead and I still think I can throw farther in the shot. I’m excited to get back in the weight room, throw into the net, do drills.”
“For now, I have unfinished business in the shot. I owe the shot some farther throws. The event has done so much for me, and I want to get some farther throws out before transitioning to the discus.”
Raise your hand if you think that the “Final 3” format instituted by the Diamond League for the throws and horizontal jumps this year was a great idea. I’ll wait.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at how that experiment played out.
Under the Final 3 system, each thrower/jumper received five attempts, after which the top three competitors (after an often lengthy delay) would receive a sixth try. That sixth attempt would determine the order of finish no matter what had happened earlier in the comp. And those final three throws/jumps would often be the only ones included in the televised coverage of the meet.
Aside from regularly preventing the person with the best overall performance from winning the meet (You could, in theory, break the world record record in an early round and still not win the comp) the Top 3 format generally assured that the television audience would be treated to three crappy throws.
In Stockholm, for example, Valarie Adams, Auriol Dongmo and Maggie Ewen each broke nineteen meters during the first five rounds then failed to throw anywhere near that on their “winner take all” sixth attempt.
Afterwards, Val told Maggie that all she could think about on her sixth throw was “Oh god, what if I foul?”
Maggie says that she’d felt the same way in Gateshead where the Final 3 format debuted. “I was more ready for it in Stockholm, but to hear Val Adams say that after all she’s been through in her career, it just shows how stressful that format is.”
According to Maggie, there is a movement afoot to get the Diamond League to ditch the Final 3 format. “At the Diamond League final, all the throwers and jumpers had a big meeting. The athletes committee wants to propose an alternative idea. The Final 3 setup just confuses the average person. They’re like, ‘Wait, why did the girl who threw sixty-six meters not win?’”
“But, the Diamond League has basically already said no matter what we are not going back to the normal six throws. They are looking for a way to create “magic moments” for the TV audience, and they don’t understand that you can’t really force a “magic moment” to happen.”
One wonders if the Diamond League folks have ever watched a golf tournament. Viewers of the Ryder Cup event this past weekend, for example, saw plenty of “magic moments” as they played out naturally in various spots all over the course. These were captured using the ingenious strategy of having cameras set up at numerous holes. Viewers could be shown one player smashing a tee shot on sixteen, then another sinking a huge putt on eighteen and still another ripping a par-saving shot out of the rough on fifteen–all in the space of two or three minutes.
Golf has broadcast tournaments this way for, I don’t know, fifty years? And people love it because they get to see all the good stuff as it plays out naturally during the competition. Call me crazy, but couldn’t Diamond League meets be broadcast the same way? I remember sitting in Zurich’s Letzigrund Stadium one night during the 2014 European Championships as Anita Włodarczyk took shots at the hammer world record while Bohdan Bondarenko dueled with fellow Ukranian Andriy Protsenko in a high jump battle that came down to two centimeters while the crowd went nuts over the 1500-meter final. “Magic moments” seemed to be popping up all over the place. The same thing happens routinely at Diamond League meets, so why not share that with the viewers rather than trying and failing to engineer drama?
But, back to that show of hands. Those who loved the Final 3 format? Ah, yes, Lord Coe. Anyone else?
The Adidas Grand Prix meet in New York City is held at Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island, which sits in the East River off of the East Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan.
There are a couple of ways to get there.
If you are a genuine pansy, you can take a cab.
If you are a brave and indomitable urban warrior, you can take the subway to 103rd street and then hoof it the rest of the way.
Two years ago, my former thrower Peter Trofimuk and I took the manly route for the first time. It was bizarrely cold and gloomy that late May day, as indicated by this photo of me on the pedestrian bridge to Randall’s…
…and we nearly died of hypothermia, but after surviving the trek we vowed to repeat it whenever we were in town for the Adidas Grand Prix.
This year, we were joined by Peter’s twin brother Pat, also one of my former throwers and currently a coaching colleague at Wheaton North High School. Pat was not part of The Vow, but unfortunately for him, Peter and I insisted he accompany us on the long, rugged, character-building journey to Randall’s.
The three of us gathered in the lobby of the Hyatt Grand Central on the day before the meet. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, warm and cloudless and we decided to head over to Icahn in hopes of seeing some of the throwers practice.
The intensity of the afternoon sun made Pat a bit dubious about the whole Manly Walk concept, but Peter and I would brook no dissent. We strongly insinuated that he was a wussy boy, and threatened to shun, nay, to scorn him openly if he did not join us.
Of course he caved (What human would not?) and we promptly embarked on what would become known as “Death March, Part 1.”
Things started out rather smoothly, as is the case with many disasters (Napoleon’s incursion into Russia comes to mind), as we descended into the bowels of Grand Central Station and caught an uptown express train. Here are the Trofimuks, enjoying that ride.
We had to get off at 86th street to switch to a local train,and that’s where things started to get iffy.
First, we were viciously photo-bombed by a roving band of pre-teens…
Next came the long walk through East Harlem, followed by the steep climb up and over the pedestrian bridge, the ever-intrepid Peter leading the way.
Here is Pat, putting on a brave face at the summit of the bridge.
This is before Peter and I informed him that once over the bridge, we had at least a mile’s walk ahead of us before we reached Icahn.
I’m a married man, so I can tell when someone is about to rip me a new one. I guess you could say that I’ve developed a sixth sense about that.
Luckily for Peter and myself, Pat spotted some large birds circling overhead and had to weigh his inclination to assault us against the possibility that those might in fact be vultures coming to pick clean his dead carcass if we ditched him and let him find his own way to Icahn.
Long story short, we did make it to Icahn. All three of us.
And we had a great time once we got there!
Jordan Clarke, Tom Walsh, and Ryan Whiting were just finishing up some practice throws when we arrived, and I shanghaied Clarke for an interview straight away. You can read that interview here:
Once the pros cleared out, we had no choice but to get in the rings and demonstrate what great technique really looks like:
After that, it was time for the long walk home.
I’m not going to say much about that, as my therapist says it does not do any good to obsess over traumatic events. All I know is, the Donner Party probably thought they had it tough, but they never had to restrain a large, desperate man from hijacking a jet ski.
Next up: great times and big throws at the 2015 Adidas Grand Prix.
With the Adidas Grand Prix Diamond League Meeting in New York taking place on Saturday, June 13, Friday the 12th was a day for last minute arrivals and for loosening up at Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island.
The morning began with a press conference that featured some fine, engaging athletes (the great vaulterJenn Suhr, the 800-meter world-record holder David Rudisha) but no throwers.
I still attended, however, because the final athlete scheduled to make an appearance was none other than Usain Bolt.
He seemed tired as he ambled his way across the room and up to the podium…
…but I’m not gonna lie, it was exciting to be in the same room as him.
When I lived in New York in the 1980’s, Al Pacino appeared in a play on Broadway. I went to see it, and I still remember how jacked I was when he walked on stage. I kept thinking, “That’s Al Pacino up there! Al Pacino. Right there!”
It was the same way with Bolt.
The British guy that they brought in to announce the meet ran the press conference, and he started by asking Bolt a bunch of questions. I had a hard time listening because I knew at some point they would open it up for others to ask questions, and I was trying like heck to come up with a decent one.
I know nothing about sprinting. I’m a throws guy, so to me sprinters are just a bunch of skinny people who love drama.
A few years ago, I was covering the USA Championships in Des Moines, and I happened to be in the mixed area when one of the marquis sprint races ended and they brought the winner in to be interviewed. “Get me a chair!” he commanded. “I’m not talking without a chair.”
This was ridiculous behavior for two reasons. One, there were chairs all over the place and all he had to do was reach for one or to ask nicely and about twelve people would have offered him theirs. Two, he had just run a total of 200 meters. Or maybe 100, I can’t remember exactly which race it was. But seriously, he was that exhausted that he couldn’t stand up? I was in the media room again at that same meet when Ashton Eaton came in after competing in the decathlon for God’s sake and he stood there and happily answered about a thousand questions. But then again, for three tenths of each competition, Eaton is a thrower.
Jumpers, too, can get distracted by their own awesomeness. The New York press conference was meant to feature a very prominent jumper, but she arrived late and stood in the back of the room with her gaze focused firmly on her cell phone, acknowledging no one.
Like Eaton, though, Bolt has not a hint of the diva about him. He graciously answered the British guy’s questions, and laughed when asked what it was like to have to constantly pose for selfies. “Sometimes, they don’t even know how to take one!” he marveled. Reese Hoffa told me later that he had seen Bolt patiently oblige his fans, shaking hands and posing for pics long after his race had ended, not wanting anyone to leave disappointed.
When the moderator invited us to ask Bolt some questions, my hand shot up.
“Has your weight lifting routine changed at all as you’ve gotten older?”
It was the best I could do. Like I said, I know nothing about sprinting.
“Not really,” he replied. “I work a lot on my back and hamstrings.”
He answered tons more questions after that, and when the moderator finally cut everybody off we applauded politely if a bit perfunctorily.
Bolt leaned into the mic. “By the way, that was lame applause.”
Everybody laughed, delighted with his ability to make fun of his own celebrity.
And when he walked out of there, he left with at least one new fan.
The night before the night before the Adidas Grand Prix meet in New York I got to spend some time shooting the breeze with two of my favorite women.
One was my wife Alice.
Alice is the kind of person who, about eight years ago, decided she wanted to publish a book. Many of us pointed out that one does not just “decide to publish a book.” The book-publishing industry generally has something to say about whose books get published and whose don’t, and that industry had already entered the precipitous decline that continues to this day.
Alice chose to ignore our sage advice, and within two years of declaring her intention, Simon and Schuster commissioned her to write a book. Which they then published.
And her adventures with magical thinking continue. Today, Father’s Day, she ran out to the store ostensibly to purchase a grill (a good, manly Father’s Day gift if there ever was one) and instead returned home with a magenta-colored bicycle. For herself.
She figured that it would make me happy to see her happily pedaling around on that bike, and once again she was correct.
The other person I got to shoot the breeze with was the fine American discus thrower Gia Lewis-Smallwood.
Gia is as friendly a person as you will ever meet, and like my wife an ardent practitioner of magical thinking.
As evidence, I will offer up Gia’s year-by-year progression as listed on her IAAF profile page.
Gia graduated from the University of Illinois in 2001 with a PB of 57.76m.
Eight years and three coaches later, she finally broke 60 meters for the first time.
Compare that with Sandra Perkovic who became Olympic champion (with a throw of 69.11m at the London Games) a few weeks after her twenty-second birthday.
By the age of 33, Gia had bumped her PB up to a respectable 63.97m, but that throw came in Hawaii and hardly served as an indicator that she was ready to compete with the big gals in the big stadiums in Europe–which is what you have to do to be considered a legit world-class thrower.
Bottom line, approaching her mid-thirties, Gia had no concrete evidence that delaying entry into the “real world” in order to continue as a full-time thrower was in any way a good idea.
But continue she did, and in September of 2013 she threw 66.29m to hand Perkovic her only defeat of the season.
By July of 2014, Gia had thrown over 65 meters in European stadiums on four occasions, a feat that prompted me to post an article arguing that she was the greatest American female discus thrower ever. Here is that post:
Then, last August, Gia made me look like I sort of knew what I was talking about when she obliterated the American record not on the wind-swept coasts of California or Hawaii, but in a stadium in France. Her throw of 69.17m established her as a legitimate threat to medal in Beijing and Rio.
Take that, oh ye of little faith!
Anyway, it was fun to get my two favorite magical thinkers together, and we talked about all kinds of things. Rome (Gia had just competed there and found it to be awfully crowded and dirty, my wife had visited during college and remembered having to hold hands with another woman to discourage men from harassing them on the streets)…step-parenting (Gia has a 23-year-old stepson, my wife had two boys when we got married)…farming (Gia lives on a farm in western Illinois, my wife’s mother owns a farm in Nebraska)…finances (my wife’s book was about managing money, Gia talked about the challenge of managing money as a professional athlete.)
Every once in a while I snuck in a question about throwing. Gia’s best performance of the year so far was a 62.99m toss in Rome, and she explained that an infection in the index finger of her right hand (a very important appendage to a right-handed discus thrower) had limited her training earlier in the season, but that the finger was feeling much better and she was confident that she would soon regain her top form.
My wife actually asked an interesting question regarding throwing. Which thrower did Gia most admire?
It terms of straight up awesomeness, the answer was Virgilius Alekna, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Lithuania.
But Gia also has great affection for the Estonian thrower Gerd Kanter, the gold medalist at the Beijing games. Kanter, it turns out, is a humble guy and very generous in sharing the many lessons he has learned over his long career.
A piece of advice that stuck with Gia was that the prelim rounds in major competitions can be harder than the finals, and that she shouldn’t lose confidence if she doesn’t get off a big throw in the prelims. Just get through the qualification rounds and you’ll be able to relax in the finals.
That is advice that Gia hopes to put to good use this August in Beijing.
That’s Gia on the left. I think the guy might be Brad Pitt.
There is a large man handling the baggage. Literally and figuratively.
After a pleasant chat with Moscow discus silver medalist Melina Robert-Michon in the lobby of the Hyatt Grand Central, I turned around and ran into the gold medalist from that meet and from the London Olympics, Sandra Perkovic.
There is not a more dominant athlete on the planet right now than Sandra. Unlike the elite sprinters who for some reason get all the attention in track and field, she will show up anywhere, anytime, take on anybody, and more often than not smash them.
One thing I’ve noticed in talking to a couple of the dominant throwers of the past few years, and in observing Usain Bolt over the weekend in New York (more on that later) is that the effort required to stay on top can be exhausting.
The first time I spoke to Valeri Adams was at the New York Diamond League meet in 2010 when she was twenty-five years old, and the strain of the incessant travel and competition was already apparent. Granted, Val was going through some personal and professional upheavals at the time, but it sure didn’t seem like she was enjoying being the greatest shot putter in the world.
I interviewed her in New York again last year, just after she had nailed down her 50th consecutive victory making her arguably the greatest putter ever. She was polite, as always, but there was no sense of celebration about the milestone she had just achieved. On the brink of turning thirty and nursing a bad shoulder which would require off-season surgery, she seemed to look forward to a not-too-distant retirement.
When I talked with Robert Harting in New York last year, he too seemed to be looking forward to the end after several years of dominating his event. And that was before he injured his knee. I had a chance to watch him practice this past March, as he fought to regain his form following surgery on that knee and he literally seethed his way through the training session. He looked pissed off while stretching, while throwing, while retrieving his discs, while packing up his stuff. I initially took up a spot along a fence that ran behind the cage, but I was so intimidated by him that I finally hopped the fence just to have some kind of barrier between us.
But I don’t blame him for being upset. It must suck to feel mortal when you are used to being…well, a hell of a lot better than mortal. When you’ve entered the ring needing a PR on your final throw at the World Championships and nailed that PR in front of 60,000 fans, when you’ve won the Olympics and another World Championship on days when you didn’t have your best stuff, when you’ve always been able to conjure up the strength, will, savvy or whatever you needed on a particular day to gain a victory…it has to be very disconcerting to think that you might not ever be able to do that again.
Sandra, queen of the women’s discus for the past four years, seems, in contrast, still to be enjoying her reign. And I think the main reason for that was standing a few feet away as she checked in at the Hyatt.
Wrangling a small mountain of luggage was her boyfriend/coach, former NCAA shot put champion Edis Elkasevic.
Edis is a very large, very good-natured man and, I think. the perfect buffer between Sandra and the demons that can beset an elite athlete. I’ve seen Sandra compete three times since Edis became her coach, and it is really fun to watch them interact.
John Smith has said that the job of a coach during a competition is to “keep the train from going off the rails.” Edis does this masterfully.
He and Sandra confer after every throw, and though I do not speak Croatian, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him goad her, encourage her, give her technical advice, whatever it takes.
Clearly, Sandra derives great comfort from Edis’ presence, and I suspect that it is largely due to their relationship that she has not yet been done in by the stress of travelling the world while taking on all comers.
I went over to say hello to Edis, and to inquire how Sandra was feeling coming into the New York meet. “Good! Good!” he replied in his usual jovial manner. “She had a small injury but now everything is good. Her timing is better. With the 1k disc, timing is everything!”
With that, he gathered up the baggage, excused himself, and joined Sandra for the walk across the large, chaotic lobby. Wherever they were headed, they’d go there together.
This year’s New York stop on the Diamond League circuit featured the men’s javelin and shot put, along with the women’s discus. Accompanied by my wife Alice, a world class traveler and immensely patient woman, I headed to New York two days before the competition and took up residence in the lobby of the Hyatt Grand Central where the meet was headquartered.
My mission? Talk to some of the great throwers in town for the meet.
My method? Camp out in the hotel lounge overlooking the lobby and pounce on them like a panther from a tree when they least expected it.
My first victim…uh…new acquaintance? The fine French discus thrower Melina Robert -Michon, who made the mistake of lingering in the lobby after checking in.
Melina was silver-medalist at the Moscow World Championships with a throw of 66.28m, which I believe is still her PB.
And she is really nice! I know in this country we love to disparage the French as a bunch of arrogant quiche-eaters, but Melina, in spite of having just gotten off a trans-Atlantic flight could not have been more gracious.
She talked about what a crazy week it had been with a competition June 4th in Rome where she threw 63.09m, another June 7th in Birmingham where she threw 63.23m, still another June 9th in France where she threw a season-best 65.04m, and now the New York meet on June 13.
For her to travel and compete that much in that short a time and still act happy to talk to some knucklehead reporter when she probably wanted nothing more than to head to her room and collapse…well…maybe all of us should start eating quiche.
Melina lives and trains in Lyon, with the same coach she has had for fifteen years. She has a four-year-old daughter named Elyssa whom she misses terribly when traveling to competitions. She has a degree in sports management and hopes to compete for at least two more years. “I want to do Rio and maybe London because the 2012 Olympic games was my first competition after I was pregnant and there is another competition in London (the 2017 Worlds), so London to London…it would be nice.”
In terms of training, she does a lot of jumping, some squatting and snatching, and not a lot of bench pressing.How much can she snatch? “Not much. I don’t do a lot of exercises with a lot of weight. I do mostly exercises with low weights. Sometimes with squats I do 120 kilos, very slow going down and fast coming up.”
After a short chat, I wished Melina luck and of course requested a selfie, which came out blurry.
There must be something odd about the length of my arms because I suck at selfies. Here is an example of one I took a couple of days later, during the meet.
It was a perfectly sunny day! And yet, I am shrouded in shadow.
But, I digress. Meeting Melina was a great start to what turned out to be a fantastic weekend.
While the kids are battling it out this weekend in Eugene, some of the best professional throwers in the world will be competing at the Adidas Grand Prix Diamond League Meet in New York.
Here is a preview of what promises to be a fantastic day of competition.
It has been a long time since the United States developed a javelin thrower with the pop to medal at a Worlds or Olympic games, and the Adidas Grand Prix will feature three young Americans who hope to make that leap.
and Tim Glover…
…whose season best of 84.09m is the farthest throw by an American this year.
The goal for the Americans will be to show that they belong in a competition that also features 2013 World Champion Vitezslav Vesely of the Czech Republic…
,,,,two-time World Championship medalist Guillermo Martinez of Cuba…
…and one of the finest young throwers in the world, Thomas Rohler of Germany…
…who threw a PB of 87.63m at the Zurich Diamond League meet last August.
Watching Olympic champion Sandra Perkovic throw the discus is alone worth the price of admission. Nobody competes with more passion than the Croatian Sensation, who is always a threat to break the 70-meter mark.
That is especially true when Sandra is going against stiff competition.
Included in the field in New York will be the only woman to have defeated Perkovic over the past two years: Gia Lewis-Smallwood, a veteran American thrower who posted a huge 69.17m personal best last August.
Looking to gain ground in her attempt to secure a third Olympic berth in 2016, the 2008 Olympic champion Stephanie Brown-Trafton will also be competing in New York.
A young thrower just beginning to make some noise on the world scene is Cuba’s Yaimi Perez,…
…who has posted a PB of 66.23m already this season, and whose presence could provide Perkovic with the spark she needs to blast some big throws.
An astonishingly successful group of Americans will provide the fireworks in this event.
Joe Kovacs has the farthest throw in the world this year (22.35m)…
…while Christian Cantwell…
…and Reese Hoffa…
…are all former World Champions.
Toss in the young American Jordan Clarke (who finished second at the Rome DL meet)…
…the fine New Zealander Tom Walsh (PB 21.37m)…
…and O’Dayne Richards of Jamaica (PB 21.61m)…
…and you have the makings of a sensational competition.
Throws fans, don’t miss this chance to see some of the best in the world! Sunday. Randall’s Island. The jav begins at 9:40am, the disc follows at 10:55am, and the shot caps off the throwing events at 1:45.
Oh, and I hear some fellow named Bolt will be running the 200.
Probably the coolest part of the men’s shot competition was meeting some of the throwers in the hotel lobby the night before.
That’s Peter in the middle surrounded by an awful lot of shotputting firepower: Former NCAA champ Cory Martin, fourth-place Olympic Trials finisher Joe Kovacs, two-time Olympic Champion Tomasz Majewski, and World Indoor Champion Ryan Whiting.
They are all good guys, and it was fun chatting with them. Cory said he is training and working as a volunteer jumps coach at Indiana University. He hopes to become a full time college coach some day, so he is trying to get some experience in events other than the throws. He was really optimistic about this season, as he said he is feeling totally healthy for the first time in a couple of years.
Joe is training with Art Venegas at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. I last spoke with him a year ago during the NCAA meet in Des Moines, and at that time he was not sure about continuing his career post-collegiately. But that was before his sensational performance at the trials where he launched a 21.08 bomb and came within 20 centimeters of making the Olympic team. He is very happy with the setup in Chula Vista, and seems likely to contend for a spot on this summer’s World Championship team, especially with Reese Hoffa receiving a bye for winning the 2012 Diamond League shotput competition.
Majewski is a giant, and luckily for mankind seems to be quite friendly.
Whiting has been without a doubt the best shotputter in the world so far this season. He has accumulated tons of international experience over the past few years, and it has given him great confidence. The only thing that might slow him down for a couple of weeks this summer is the imminent birth of his first child.
We also ran into European indoor champion Asmir Kolasinac of Serbia. Here he is with Peter:
All in all, it was a pretty solid linup of putters.
Unfortunately, it rained like crazy throughout the warmup and competition. These guys are pros, and nobody lost control running the ring, but it had to make it hard to really let loose. Also, the landing area was covered with fresh, thick turf and the shots just about disappeared upon landing. All the guys were forced to spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning and drying the shots between throws.
Here are a bunch of photos from warmups that Peter took from the grandstand.
This is Cory Martin performing a step-around drill:
Hope you enjoy the photos and vids. Should be a fantastic summer of competetion in the shot. For Whiting to throw 21.27 in those conditions? Amazing. And you know Majewski will be there when it counts in Moscow.
by Dan McQuaid
this article originally appeared on the Illinois Track & Cross Country Coaches Association website on May 31, 2013