What is it that makes Australians so nice? Do the crocodiles eat all the mean people there? Or does growing up around koala bears naturally make folks more relaxed and outgoing?
We’ll never know.
One thing’s for sure, though. I greatly enjoyed speaking with members of the Australian contingent at the 2023 Diamond League Final.
The women’s jav kicked off the comp at 11 a.m. on a lovely Saturday morning in Eugene. At that moment, it was 5 a.m. Sunday in Sydney, which is where 2023 World Championships bronze medalist Mackenzie Little lives and trains. I might have been a tad grouchy were I experiencing the level of jet lag that Mackenzie and her coach, Angus McEntyre, must have been feeling at that moment, but they appeared to be having a wonderful time, smiling and laughing whenever she bopped over for a quick chat at the rail between attempts.
Mackenzie did not have her best stuff on this day. She set a PB of 65.70m at the Lausanne Diamond League Meeting earlier this season, and went 63.38m in winning her Budapest bronze, but she reached the 60-meter line only once in Eugene and settled for a best of 61.24m to take third behind Worlds champ Haruka Kitaguchi and fellow Australasian Tori Peeters.
That did not, however, harsh Mackenzie’s mellow. She was happy and gracious during a post-comp chat.
“I had a good time,” she admitted. “Not because I got the throws I wanted necessarily, but this core group of throwers has gotten quite close and I was excited watching them.”
When asked why the javelin ladies seem to get on so well, Mackenzie explained, “You can’t have an ego when you throw jav. I think we all know how frustrating it can be sometimes, so we understand each other.”
The most frustrating time for Mackenzie came when she returned to Australia after a stellar career representing Stanford, for whom she was NCAA champion in 2018 and 2019.
The transition from collegiate to pro athlete can be tricky, and Mackenzie had trouble finding her footing. Lingering shoulder and elbow problems did not help. She reached out to McEntyre on the recommendation of the head Australian jav coach, but her level of frustration gave him pause.
“I think we can make this work,” he told her at the time, “But I can’t do much if you’re stuck in a negative headspace.”
“She was,” McEntyre recalls, “a bit lost. I was coaching one of her good friends, a javelin thrower named Chrissie Grun, and Mackenzie told Chrissie, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ But Chrissie said, ‘Yes, you can, and Angus is someone you can work with.’”
It was a plus that Coach McEntyre’s “day job” was running a chiropractic clinic, so he was able to help Mackenzie mend as they got to know each other. Looking back, he says “it was the chiropractic that started the relationship. During the Covid period we built up her shoulder and elbow, which also helped us build trust.”
In October of 2020, she reached 60 meters for the first time in two years, hitting a PB 61.47m at a comp in Sydney.
She PB’d again during the Olympic qualification round a year later in Tokyo, and ended up finishing eighth in the final. McEntyre says they’ve been “on cruise control since,” with only the occasional “hiccup” along the way.
At the 2022 Worlds, Mackenzie squeaked through qualifying in 12th place, then hit a 63.22m PB on her opener in the final. She was unable to build on that though, and finished in fifth, just five excruciating centimeters short of the podium.
This summer, she started slowly in the Budapest qualification round before bashing 63.45m on her third attempt, then started slowly again in the final. A best of 61.41m had her in fifth after three rounds, but this time she was able to keep climbing. “I learned a lot over the past year,” she said later. “And I was not going to be fifth again.”
Mackenzie produced her best throw on her last attempt, a 63.38m toss that won her the bronze.
And here I will tell you something crazy.
Mackenzie fought her way to the top of her sport while at the same time attending medical school. She is preparing for a career as a surgeon, and took her final exam on the flight from Sydney to Eugene for the DL final.
When asked how she managed this seemingly impossible task, Mackenzie shrugged. “Everyone in athletics has their passions outside. Mine just happens to be a little more structured. But I have a little more help than the average person with my coach taking care of me.”
Having played rugby at a high level while undertaking his chiropractic studies, McEntyre says he was able to relate to the challenges Mackenzie faced trying to balance athletics and academics.
“The biggest challenge for me,’ he says, “is to make sure she doesn’t get cooked or exhausted. I’ve always been careful around exam weeks, but it helps that the study side is more highly strung for her, so it can be a bit of a break when we switch to jav mode.”
McEntyre’s duties have included helping Mackenzie on practice quizzes, sometimes at unlikely moments. During early warmups prior to competing in Budapest, for example.
“We were having a contest to see who could get the most questions right,” he explained. “I guess most people might think that’s weird.”
Not as weird as being lucid and engaging while jet-lagged, as both “Macs” were on this exquisite afternoon.
“I’ve come to comps a little jet lagged and a little tired before,” Mackenzie told me. “It just builds my confidence. There’s no excuse for not throwing well. I am ready, though, for a big sleep.”
And with that, she left the shade of the media tent and strode off into a sun almost as bright as her future.
Another amicable Aussie competing in Eugene was discus thrower Matt Denny, a man who has mastered the art of throwing big when it counts. In 2018, for example, he produced a lifetime best of 64.03m to win the Australian Championships. A year later, he repeated as Australian champ with another PB, this time 65.28m, which he topped at the Doha Worlds by launching 65.43m to take sixth. He broke 67 meters for the first time during the Olympic final in 2021, and 68 meters for the first time this summer in Budapest.
Denny’s coach, Dale Stevenson, says that some people are just “exceptional competitors,” and Matt is one of them. “His happy place,” according to Stevenson, “is out there competing against the top athletes. It brings the best out of him.”
That was evident in Eugene, where Denny injected some much-needed brio into an otherwise subdued competition. He did his best to engage the crowd before each attempt, and refused to take it personally when they ignored him prior to his third throw. (The men’s 800 meters was about to begin and this was, after all, Eugene.)
A lesser individual might have been content with such a throw, coming as it did at the end of a loooong season. For unexplained reasons, winter here is summer in Australia, and Denny’s first comp took place way back on February 11th.
But Coach Stevenson knows his man, and throwing against giant World Champions (Kristjan, Daniel and Andrius Gudžius have won every World title since 2017) did in fact bring out the best of Denny on this gorgeous afternoon in Eugene.
He jumped ahead of Ståhl by a centimeter with a 67.37m toss in round four, then blasted a new PB of 68.43m on his final attempt to barge past Čeh for the title of 2023 Diamond League Champ, a win Denny described afterwards as “really satisfying.”
“You idolize the greats,” he explained. “You put them on a pedestal. Especially Daniel, who is probably the greatest ever as a competitor. So it was a special moment to get the win and have Daniel be the first guy to give me a hug and congratulate me. It reminded me of how good a community this is, for them to be like, ‘Lets go get some beers!’”
As to the varying levels of crowd support, Denny said he learned from Olympic and World champ high jumper Gimbo Tamberi that it’s best to get people’s attention by yelling before asking them to clap. He tried this before his sixth attempt and drew a spirited response. The extra bit of energy he absorbed from the crowd was all Denny needed on a day when he felt ready to rumble.
“I had some warmups of around 65 meters,” he explained. “And I know I’m in good nick if I’m doing that. When the comp began, I kept falling out of my delivery, but I knew there was something there.”
The next step will be getting on the podium at an Olympics or Worlds, no easy task with Čeh, Ståhl, and Mykolas Alekna throwing at historically high levels. With those three in the mix, it could conceivably take 70 meters to get on the stand in Paris and Tokyo.
In an effort to raise his game, Denny added a wrinkle to his technique this season by setting up for the throw with his right foot offset a bit then stepping forward after his windup. You’ve heard of the “Crouser slide”? Let’s call this the “Denny step.” If you say it fast like it’s one word it sounds pretty cool. Denny-step. Denny-step. Denny-step. See?
Matt and Dale, if you pursue a trademark, I’d like a t-shirt.
Dale says the Denny-step evolved to help Matt keep his hips “underneath his shoulders on entry,” and it might not be the end of their tinkering.
“We’re playing around with other variations, too,” he explained. “We’ll experiment with some of those during the Aussie domestic season from January to April.”
Dale did not divulge the exact nature of what they’ll be trying, but according to internet sources, he and Denny are considering everything from learning to cuss in Lithuanian to a never-before-seen discus move known as the “Kick-the-Crotch-of-Kristjan.”
In the meantime…
Are you free on 10-12th November?
If so, join me in beautiful Tallinn, Estonia, for the 2023 European Discus Conference which features excellent beer and major insights into the technique and training of guys like Daniel Ståhl, Sam Mattis, Kristjan Čeh, and Mykolas Alekna.
The coaches you see in the above photo will share their knowledge through a series of lectures and live demonstrations and, even better, you can ask follow-ups or just shoot the breeze with them and other coaches from all over the world while dining or maybe doing the backstroke at the amazing Tallink Spa and Conference Hotel where the conference is held. Here’s a bird’s-eye view:
And see this person popping out of the water?
On November 10-12th that might be Gerd Kanter or Kristjan Čeh or Dane Miller. I’ll end here so you can start checking flights.