Category Archives: NCAA

USATF Championships Day 1 Interviews

On a rainy evening in Des Moines, the always ebullient Kara Winger nabbed her eighth national title in the javelin with a sixth round toss of 62.88m.

Here she is in a post-competition interview:


Earlier that day, Stanford’s Valarie Allman won her first national title with a toss of 63.55m–an impressive throw in humid, basically wind-free conditions.

Go here to listen to a very happy Val share her thoughts on becoming USA champion:

Finishing second to Val was Maggie Ewen, arguably the greatest NCAA thrower of all time. Maggie’s best throw of 61.13m came in round five.

Here are some comments by Maggie after the competition. Sorry about the abrupt finish to this interview. Technical difficulties!



Georgia Throws Coach Don Babbitt on Denzel Comenentia and the Art of Coaching

One of the great moments of the 2018 NCAA Championships came early when Georgia’s Denzel Comenentia won the men’s hammer and shot put titles…on…the…same…day. His heroics gave Georgia the impetus they needed to take home the team title.

In order to get some insight into how Denzel pulled off this remarkable double, I spoke with his coach, Don Babbitt.

Followers of the sport know that Don has long maintained a powerhouse throws program at Georgia in addition to guiding all-time greats Reese Hoffa and Adam Nelson to the top of the professional ranks.

After reading this slightly edited version of our conversation, I think you’ll understand why Don has been so successful and why Reese and Adam trusted and relied on him for all those years.

So, how did Denzel manage his historic double? The short answer is, he’s a supremely talented athlete who rises to the occasion at big moments. The long answer is a bit more complicated and reveals much about the art of coaching the throws.

Coach, I was in Des Moines when Cory Martin won the shot and hammer at the 2008 NCAA Championships, and I thought that was an amazing accomplishment. But he didn’t have to throw both in the same day.

This was pretty amazing to me, too. Denzel’s freshman year we went through the same thing with having to compete in the hammer and shot on the same day, and last year as well, so we knew what to expect and we’ve been practicing for it. The key for Denzel was knowing him and how his body was going feel.  Having the two trial runs in 2016 and 2017 was really helpful.

How did your approach to getting him ready for the hammer/shot double evolve over the years?

What’s interesting is that even before he enrolled at Georgia, he made the final of both the hammer and shot at the World Juniors in 2014. And the schedule for that was just as bad. On the same day, he had shot prelims in the morning, then hammer qualifying right afterwards, and then he had the shot final that night.

So he had three things in one day, and I wondered, is he going to crash and burn in the shot final? But he ended up throwing 20.17m in the first round, and that held up for the silver. And  I thought, wow, that’s incredible that he was able to do that.

So I knew before he even came to us that he could handle something like that mentally.

His freshman year, 2016, at NCAA’s, he had the hammer first, and he had thrown 69.42m  that year and he ended up throwing 68.80m. He didn’t make the final, so he only had three throws. Then we went to the shot and he threw 18.85m and just couldn’t get it going powerwise. He had thrown 19.54m that year. So, he dropped a little in both. And he told me that he was kind of tired for the shot.

In getting ready for the next year, we had to figure out how to treat the season, the training pattern, and we made one big change. Denzel was a guy who, when we threw the shot in practice, he just kind of went for it. He was kind of wild and crazy, and he fouled a lot. Then in competition, he’d catch one throw maybe two throws, kind of like the way Adam Nelson used to compete. He’d just swing for the fences. If he caught one, it was big, and if he didn’t it would be a foul or it would be short. 

So the next year, we came into the fall season and we decided that he needed to be a little more steady so that whatever energy he had in major competitions, he could make the most of it. So, we held everything in in practice. And at first, his practice marks weren’t as good as they had been, but after about five months he was throwing just as far as he used to but was way more steady. 

Indoors his sophomore year, he got second in the shot at NCAA’s. We didn’t throw the weight that year; we just worked on his movement in the hammer with the main goal of making him steady in both in major competitions.

Outdoors, at the 2017 Southestern Conference meet, he won both and was really steady. There the hammer was first and shot second, but they were two days apart just like Cory had it in 2008. When we came to Eugene last year, he threw get fifth in the hammer. He missed the Dutch record by two centimeters That was a PR for him, and he had another throw that was a PR for him too, so he had a really good competition. Then he went over to the shot, where he got fifth as well, but he had six fair throws. His best was 19.63m–his PR at the time was 20.33m–and his worst throw was 19.54m. So he was really steady, he just didn’t have the pop to get near his PR in the shot.

So, we got the equation partly right.  We got the good performance in the hammer, and in the shot we thought if he threw well he could have gotten third, but he just didn’t have the power left from throwing the hammer.

So for this year, we had to figure out a way for him to have more power in the second event.

This last year we really worked on power training. All his Olympic lifting went up in terms of max strength, and he was also able to move fairly heavy weights fast. His freshman year he cleaned about 310 pounds for a single, and this past year we got to a point where he could do a set of five with 310 in about six seconds. So his power output was way up.

This past winter we started throwing the weight as well, and I think it really helped to steady his pattern in the hammer. He threw 23.71m in the weight his first year throwing it. When we went to indoor NCAA’s the shot was first and he threw really well–20.29m to finish second. When we went to the weight the next day he was a little tired, and he wasn’t used to competing with the weight tired. He threw 22.45m which was the second best throw of his life, and he got sixth but he just didn’t have the power to go over 23 meters.

The last thing we had to figure out with his training was he usually threw the hammer a bit better when he was in heavy training. With the shot though, we had figured out that he needs a long taper to be explosive.

So how did you reconcile that?

We had to choose one.  We decided he’d be able to figure out the hammer even after the long taper, so we chose to appease the shot.

That brings us to this past Wednesday.

Right. To start off, the hammer went well. If he could have thrown 76.41m earlier instead of round five, we might have passed the final rounds, but you can’t underestimate your opponents,  so we only passed the last throw after he had it won.

Warming up for the shot, it was obvious that he had more power than last year. Last year he was really steady at about 19.50m;  this year he was steady at around 20.00m. But, it looked like even though we had raised his threshold throwing shot after the hammer to 20 meters, that wasn’t going to be good enough. It looked like it would take 20.50m to win. So, he was sitting there in  fifth place going into the final, then all of a sudden he was in sixth, seventh, eighth place. All those guys got hot. And he just responded and hit that 20.61m in round five.

The one thing that Denzel does really well is he responds. The best way to get him to throw really far is to have someone throw far right in front of him, which is great for a big meet. He dug deep to get that 20.61m out there. That wasn’t coaching, that was just him responding

But I thought we did a good job of trying to put him into a position of success.

We took notes over the past couple of years, and I was always asking him how he felt, asking him in different ways to get him to be more introspective to help me devise the training plan.

The one other thing that we considered is that he is a pretty good discus thrower. I’m dead serious about this. We practiced the discus twice this year and he’d done three meets. So, he barely touched the discus and he threw 58.81m. So, in looking at the regional, the discus was in between the shot and  the hammer, and he’s good enough in the discus that he could make it through no problem. So, I said to him, “Man, that first day at NCAA’s is a bear with the hammer and the shot, but then you get two days to rest before the discus. You’re a good athlete. If you catch one, who knows? Maybe you could get some more points in the discus.”

But one thing I know about him is that to really do well he has to mentally prepare. Prior to a big competition he takes a day or two to really focus. And he really didn’t want to think about the discus at all.  He just wanted to focus on doing a good job in the shot and hammer.

It sounds like he’s a pretty mature young man, him being confident enough to tell you something like that.

He is. He’s a quiet guy. He told me early on, “I’m a simple guy to coach. You don’t have to tell me much.” But what separates him from almost all the athletes I’ve coached, if you tell him to make an adjustment, he can make it almost right away. He has a great feel. He knows his throw so well, that I don’t spend a lot of time cuing him and talking to him because he’s able to be so efficient. That’s a lot of reason for his success. He doesn’t waste a lot of time spinning his wheels trying to figure things out.

How would you compare Denzel to Adam and Reese?

I’m trying to think of what those guys were like when they were Denzel’s age. I’ll say this, he really rises to the occasion. He’ll show you a lot more in a meet than in practice like Adam did. I thought that was Adam’s special gift. Reese was a little bit more steady all the way through. He could practice really well once he figured out how to really be good. In terms of physical ability, Denzel is probably at the same age just as gifted as either one of those guys.

Having been through it with Reese and Adam, I can say to Denzel, “You’re probably at least a 71-foot guy.” I’ve seen enough people to be able to say that. A lot has to go right for him to do that, but he has the talent.

But I also look at the landscape and think he could be one of the top hammer throwers. There are not many guys over 80 meters. If you look at the guys who have a similar PR to Denzel, they’re a little bit up and down. But in the meets he cared about this year, he threw 76.29, 75.97, 75.92, and 75.41m. He’s basically a rock solid 76-meter thrower. So if you look at a major championship meet, he might get fifth place in the hammer, but probably not in the shot because the shot is on fire this year.

Which event will Denzel focus on as pro?

His first love is the shot. He’d like to be a great shot putter. If he really wanted to throw the discus, he’d be a 63-65 meter discus guy. But, you can’t do everything.

I told him to keep on doing both the shot and hammer. Each one seems to make the other better for him. And that would be a unique double. He could be a 21-meter shot putter and an 80-meter hammer thrower, something that nobody has ever done before.

The other factor is though, is that the shot pays the bills.

Cory Martin actually threw his hammer PR after college in a Grand Prix meet in Brazil. But, he made about one third of the money throwing a PR in the hammer as he did with an average performance in the shot.

For Denzel, if he wants international medals, maybe the hammer is the easier path right now. But if you’re talking about money, which he may need to keep throwing at a high level, he would make the same amount of money as an 80-meter hammer thrower as he would as a 20.80m shot putter.

So, do you want money or titles? Or do you try to balance both?

The thing is, you see how the distance runners do it. They get a little slower, they move to the 5,000. They get a little more slower, they move to the 10,000, then the marathon, so at the age of forty they are still competing. Maybe Denzel could be a shot guy and later on focus on hammer when he gets into his mid-to-late thirties.

So, there hasn’t been any decision made yet.

When he’s done at Georgia, will the Netherlands give him some support?

Yes. We’ve talked with the head coach of the Netherlands about that. Denzel is going to have one more year of school after he finishes his eligibility. They’ll give him some pretty good support. He’s an A-level athlete for them in two events, so he’s a bargain for them.

Will he compete in the European Championships this August?

That’s the plan. One thing that kind of sucks is that the shot and hammer are at the exact same time. They’re doing the shot in the street by the Brandenburg Gate, which will be pretty cool.

I’m sure your next question is “which one will he do?”

That is my next question.

I think throwing the street shot would be really cool, but he might have a chance at medaling in the hammer. So, we’ll see.

We’ll have to see how training is going. And he’ll have a couple more meets this summer to kind of gauge where he’s at.

Speaking of training, one thing that always amazes me is how some athletes  manage to compete at a high level for several months–like what Tom Walsh has done the last couple of years. You obviously did a peak for the NCAA’s. How will you regroup for the European Championships?

What we are going to do is based off of what we did last summer with the Euro U23’s. He got the silver in the shot there.

We’ll rest up this weekend, then do a three-week hard training cycle that will take us up to about July first. Then we’ll start a four-week taper that will take him right up to the European Championships.  Basically, what we do in heavy training is 3’s and 4’s in a lot of the core lifts. We work off straight percentages, about 91 percent for 3’s, 88 percent for 4’s, 95 percent for sets of two, working off of one-rep maxes from the fall.  We don’t really try to get one-rep maxes during the season. Hopefully, if things are going well and he does a triple at 90 percent, he’ll do it easier than he did during the winter. So, we’ll know he’s getting stronger without having to execute a big single lift.

When I say a four-week taper, we’ll keep it at sets of three and four, but he’ll go like 80 percent, 70 percent, 60 percent, 55 percent, lifting for speed.

When we did a seven-week taper for the NCAA’s, we basically did three weeks heavy right at the beginning of outdoors then we went 80, 75, 70, 65, 60. We were just tapering all the way through the season.

That’s basically what he did before he came to Georgia. Then when he got here he wasn’t that strong, so I had him lift a little heavier and it kind of made him a bit tired, and he told me when he lifted like that he felt kind of slow and sluggish, so we went back to doing what he had done before–we just fine-tuned it to match up with the college season.

Then last summer, we tried the three-week build-up then taper, and it worked pretty well. He threw 20.33m during the college season last year, then he went back home in the middle of the summer and threw 20.20m. I was really happy that he could maintain such a high level, so we are going off of what we did last year to get him ready for the European Championships this year.

It’s not really what the textbooks say to do.

It’s great that you and Denzel can work together to figure out what works best for him.

I tell him “You have to help me to help you.” Having that feedback is really good. One thing I did with Reese over the years that helped him be so consistent was that we probably lifted a third as often as most of the top throwers. Most training is built off of fear and superstition. The idea that you have to outwork your opponent. But you don’t “outwork your opponent” when you are throwing six throws. It’s about quality.

The superstition is “the world record holder” trained this way. I’ve been around long enough where I’ve seen that not work out. Training from fear rather than really thinking about what you’re doing. So, when  Denzel started and we talked about that long taper, I thought “How are you going to be powerful if you taper that long?” But then I thought about how he had done it before and that I can’t be scared to do something that conflicted with my preconceptions. That’s how innovation happens. That’s how you make progress.  

Some people feel like they have to throw up a heavy max to make themselves feel good, but I’m not sure what that has to do with throwing far.

Is the key to have that relationship with each athlete to figure out what works best for them?

Definitely. And usually what happens is that a lot of times the training group ends up doing what the best athlete does. And that’s natural. You see how the top athlete trains and you want to reach their level, so you think, “If I train like them, I’ll be as good as them.”

But a saying I once heard is “To copy champions is to copy their mistakes.”

And what that means is you have to really understand what you are trying to do, otherwise you could be copying the thing that sticks out the most when it might be the thing that athlete is trying to get rid of the most.

Kind of like Reese’s heel turn in the shot. We tried to get rid of it and couldn’t, so after a while we just embraced it. But it stuck out, so people thought that must be why he was so good.

You really have to look at yourself to see what works for you. I always feel like great athletes find their own way. So when they get into a position that’s unique, maybe that’s a position that because of their musculature they feel comfortable in and then they can really  do what they want to do a little better, instead of trying to hit positions that someone else does well.

I’ve changed my coaching over the years a lot. As a younger coach, I tried to get athletes to be “perfect.” So, I ended up forcing some athletes to do things that I thought were “perfect” when in actuality they will often find their best self just kind of doing it. And when they hit positions that you haven’t seen before, you sometimes think “We can’t do that. We have to look like Mac Wilkins out of the back.”  But, maybe that’s the position that they are comfortable hitting because of their musculature.

I use the analogy of taking a log at the top of the Mississippi River, and you’re going to float this log all the way to the Gulf.

At the beginning, you have to push it out into the current to get it going. You have to do some work to get it going. But then as that log floats down the river, you sort of walk along beside it and and it takes the journey and you just make sure things are going okay. And eventually it hits a snag and you have to work with it to get it out and push it back out in the river again. So, you’re not pushing it down the river all the time. That would be pretty inefficient. You want to let go as much as possible. When there is a problem you step in.

I tend to do that now, coaching wise.

Denzel knows what he’s doing, but I’m always there to jump in when needed.

It was like that with Reese late in his career. Maybe three or four times a year he’d really need my advice and I was the best person to step in because we’d spent so much time together.

That’s kind of how it is with Denzel. So I think he’s got a good future.

Here are some throws from the men’s shot and hammer final:

Meeting Mac Wilkins (and discussing the NCAA Oregon decision)

When I was in high school, I wanted to be Mac Wilkins. He had just won the gold medal in the discus at the Montreal games, he threw with a unique blend of grace and savagery, he came across as sharply funny and intelligent during interviews, and he had an amazing beard.

So, I went out and bought a pair of throwing shoes and a warmup suit just like the ones Mac used. I tried to mimic his technique. Though never interviewed, I did my best to make sardonic comments each day in the lunch room. I stopped shaving. I brought home two puppies without getting permission from my parents, and I named them Mac Wilkins and Al Feuerbach. When my parents made me give back one of the puppies, I gave back Al Feuerbach.

Unfortunately, the results were not exactly what I expected. I could reproduce Mac’s barbaric passion in the ring, but not his grace and athleticism, unless you call falling down while firing the disc 80 feet out of bounds graceful and athletic. The guys at my lunch table did not appreciate my biting wit. No one noticed that I had stopped shaving.

The one positive result of my “be like Mac” campaign was that puppy Mac grew into my mom’s all time favorite dog. She treasures his memory to this day.

Needless to say, then, that when my friend Jim Aikens told me he’d gotten human Mac to appear at this year’s Illinois Coaches Association Clinic, I was stoked.

And I am even more stoked now, after meeting him. Our clinic was last weekend, and Mac, in spite of spending much of the day at the airport due to mechanical problems, graciously agreed to attend the coaches social held the night before the clinic where he told some hilarious stories about Bill Bowerman including one involving elephant dung. I’m not making that up.

He remained completely friendly and gracious while I asked him approximately 90 million questions about his career.  Here is a link to his response when I asked him about the NCAA decision to award the outdoor championships to Oregon for the forseeable future.  Sorry about the background noise!

I think he sums it up well. It would be nice for fans across the country if the NCAA championships could continue to rotate to different regions, but only Oregon has shown a consistent ability to draw spectators.

So, I surrender. If Mac Wilkins tells me it’s probably for the best that the meet settles in Eugene, then I’m just going to have to start planning some trips to Eugene.

We are still editing my conversation with Mac and his presentation at the clinic. Stay tuned.

The Oregon Monopoly: A response from the NCAA

Wanting to find out more about the logic behind the NCAA decision to award the Outdoor Track and Field Championships to Eugene for the next eight years,  I contacted their Media Relations department and received a response almost immediately.  Here is our exchange:

I’d appreciate it if you could give me some insight into how the decision was made so that I could share that info with the online community of track and field fans. I basically have two questions: What factors (attendance, corporate sponsorship, athletes’ preference, or whatever) figured into this decision? Why an 8-year commitment? Thanks much! -Dan McQuaid 

  Thank you for your inquiry. The Division I Track and Field Committee, comprised of coaches and administrators within Division I, is the deciding group on where to award championships sites based on the bids submitted, and they ultimately recommended the bid be awarded to the University of Oregon in Eugene. A variety of factors were considered in the committee’s deliberations, however, the experience for the student-athletes was the piece they continually want to enhance the most. The opportunity to compete in facilities of great quality with thousands of fans who are knowledgeable and passionate about track and field was of paramount importance. The past experiences NCAA student-athletes have had at Hayward Field, including the 2013 championships, was a differentiating factor for the committee.
Additionally, the committee weighed the overall components of the bid (budget, facility, layout, amenities, hotels, travel, etc.) into their discussion as well. The factors that enhanced the experience for the student-athletes, fans and NCAA far outweighed any of the other parts that could potentially be seen as a reason not to have the championships in Eugene.
The length of the term commitment was an important strategy by the committee to attempt to grow and sustain a fan base around the NCAA Track and Field Championships hoping, one day, to have more than 20,000+ people per session at the event.
I hope this helps and thanks again.
Cameron Schuh
Associate Director for Public and Media Relations
Cam:Thanks very much!

A quick follow up. Did the committee have in mind the model of the NCAA baseball tournament with its permanent home in Omaha? And did it seem to them, after trying a variety of locations in the past that none offered the crowd-building potential of Eugene?

Thanks again.

–Dan McQuaid

  The committee did not have a specific model in mind when making the determination. They wanted to give it a long-range plan in order to promote the growth, henceforth the length of the term for this championship. And based on previous championship experiences, the committee believes hosting the championships in Eugene provides the best potential for a passionate fan base in attendance at this time.
Thanks again.
Though they might not have had the baseball championship model specifically in mind when considering the future of the track championships, clearly that is the direction the NCAA has chosen. And who can blame them?  The NCAA baseball tournament has been a huge success. The head baseball coach at my high school has made the journey to Omaha several times, and he told me that it is a fantastic experience. They consistently draw great crowds, and there are high school tournaments held in Omaha concurrently with the college tournament, so he brings his players along with him.
The reason he is able to do that, though, is because Omaha is only 450 miles away. It takes them maybe seven hours to get there and nobody has to worry about renting a car  so their travel costs can be kept to a minimum.  And, as Omaha is basically in the middle of the United States, people from many different regions can drive there.
Eugene, on the other hand, is obviously not in the middle of the country. So, unlike the NCAA baseball tournament, the track championships are not going to draw mini-buses full of high school athletes and their coaches from Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, Colorado, and all the other areas that are within a reasonable driving distance of Omaha.
Based on the numerous meets that Eugene has hosted in the past few years, the NCAA is going to get the big crowds that it desires, but those crowds are likely to be made up almost exclusively of fans who live in the Northwest corner of the country.
The NCAA Outdoor Track and Field meet will–for majority of track fans–be turned into a made-for-TV event. Is this the best way to grow the sport? I guess we’ll find out over the next eight years.
–Dan McQuaid

More on the Oregon track monopoly.

First of all, thanks much for the comments.

When I wrote that last post, I was sort of shooting from the hip. Just expressing my disappointment over the announcement that the next eight NCAA outdoor championships will be very difficult to attend for those of us who live beyond driving distance of Eugene.

But those responses made me realize that I’d better take a step back and do a little research on the issue. First, I emailed Scott Cappos, the long time throws coach at the University of Iowa. You’d think that if anyone would want to see the NCAA meet contested at Drake regularly (as it has been over the past few years) it would be Scott, as Iowa City is less than a two-hour drive from Des Moines.  Wouldn’t any coach want his athletes to avoid the hassles of a long flight–the frequent delays, the cramped seats, the difficulty of stowing javelins securely in the overhead compartment–prior to an important competition?  Not necessarily.

“Despite the location,” Scott replied, “Oregon is the best place to experience track and field in America…National Championships suffer from poor attendance and atmosphere elsewhere.”
This sentiment was also expressed by Danny Block, the fine shot and discus thrower from the University of Wisconsin.  “As an athlete, I personally love throwing at Oregon and wouldn’t mind having NCAA’s there every year. The atmosphere is electric. The discus is contested inside the track for all to see, and they treat the athletes great.”  The only fly in the ointment? “My parents aren’t a fan of it…[they] go to almost every meet, but can never make it to Oregon because of the travel.”
Clearly, the magic of Hayward Field is not a myth.
And if the athletes and coaches are happy with the decision to move the championship meet to Eugene on what seems an awful lot like a permanent basis, then far be it from me to keep insisting that it’s a lousy idea.
But, I wonder about a couple of things. First, at the risk of sounding cynical, I have trouble believing that this decision was based on the wishes of the coaches and athletes. Having attended the three recent NCAA championships held at Drake,  and having interviewed a whole bunch of throwers and their coaches I can tell you that most of them dislike the current system of placing the athletes into two randomly selected flights for the prelims. This forces the flight-one throwers who qualify for the finals to sit around for a good 90 minutes and then to warm up again before competing against the finalists from flight two–who did not have to endure that potentially momentum-killing delay. The coaches and athletes I spoke with believed that the flights should be seeded so that the better throwers could enjoy the smoother transition from flight two into the finals.
But I don’t see the NCAA making that change–a remarkably simple one–in an effort to please the coaches and athletes.
So would they make the unprecedented decision to hold the meet 8 consectutive years in Eugene just to make the participants happy? And if not, what was the basis for this decision?
I googled around a little bit today to try to get some insight into the matter, but so far all I’ve come up with is a 2009 press release announcing that the 2011 and 2012 championships had been awarded to Drake and the 2013 and 2014 championships to Eugene.
You can find the press release here:
Here is a quote from it that I found rather intriguing:

“The committee has worked really hard over the last several months to ensure we were awarding the championships to the best sites possible,” said Holly Sheilley, chair of the Division I Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Committee and assistant athletic director for student development and championships at the University of Louisville. “Drake and Oregon have shown in the past they put on world-class meets, and we are confident they will do a great job hosting our future NCAA outdoor championships. The committee felt strongly about having the championships in two different sites within the four-year period to enhance the student-athlete experience.”

So, what has changed since?  Did things go so badly at Drake in 2011 and 2012 and so well last year at Hayward that it became clear to the NCAA that Eugene should become the permanent site for the meet?

I feel like the answer to that holds some interesting implications for the sport of track and field. I’m going to do some more detecting over the next few days and will report on whatever I’m able to come up with. If anyone out there has some insight into what prompted this decision, please chime in.

Thanks again to those who posted comments. There is a lot more to discuss regarding the NCAA meet and the current state of track and field in this country.


Is the Oregon monopoly on the NCAA meet good for track fans?

Let me begin with some reasons why I love the University of Oregon:

1. That logo they have featuring Donald Duck looking to kick someone’s ass is awesome.

2. I attended the 1999 U.S. Championships in Eugene with some of my throwers (I am a high school coach) and one of their parents. We were sitting  on some portable bleachers outside the stadium watching the men’s hammer competition when who comes and sits near us but John Godina and Art Venegas.  Godina was the best shotputter in the world at the time (he ended up throwing 22 meters at that meet) and UCLA had the best collegiate throwing program in the universe so we were totally jacked to be in their presence. Venegas sat down next to a young man named Justin Rapp, a rather large individual who threw for me and then went on to become DIII national champ in the shot while competing at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. We were all too scared to strike up a conversation with either John or Art, but after a few minutes, Art turns to Justin Rapp, looks him slowly up and down and says, “Hey! How much do you weigh?” as if he were afraid that the bleachers might buckle beneath beneath him.

3. Another of my former throwers, Pat Trofimuk, threw at Illinois State University for the current Oregon throws coach, Erik Whitsitt. At the time, Erik had three world class throwers in his stable: NCAA jav champ Tim Glover, NCAA medalist in the shot and hammer Brittany Smith, and current NCAA leader in the shot Curt Jensen. Pat was not a world class thrower, but a great, hard-working dude, the kind of guy who makes your program better by setting an example of how to do things the right way. In spite of the fact that Pat was never going to qualify for the NCAA meet, Erik valued him and treated him very well. And because of that, Erik will always have a special place in my heart. And in the new millennium, men are allowed to say that about each other.

4. I am a big fan of the head strength coach at Oregon, Jim Radcliffe. Last January, Jim presented at a strength and conditioning clinic in beautiful Mattoon, Illinois hosted by Marty Schnorf of the Charleston Weightlifting Club. You’d think a guy who ran the strength program for one of the premier football teams in the country might be at best a tad arrogant, at worst a complete tool. (One of my throwers got a football scholarship a few years back to a major powerhouse which shall remain nameless and the head strength coach was a maniac. He delighted in forcing the athletes to attempt bizarre feats of derring-do such as having my guy–a 310 pounder–try to jump onto a box that was higher than his belly button–the kid still has the scar on his shins–and he once reamed the kid out for having solid technique on overhead squats. I’m not making that up.) But Jim was courteous , helpful, and most importantly, really thoughtful in his approach to strength training. I hope the Oregon athletes know how lucky they are.

5. While in high school, I named my dog after Mac Wilkins, and dammit, Mac Wilkins went to Oregon.

So, I am not here to bash the Ducks. But I am more than a little chapped that the NCAA has awarded the next eight outdoor track and field championships to Oregon.

According to an article on, ( this decision was made, at least in part, to “emphasize the fan experience.”

And certainly, the fan experience at a meet in Eugene can be fantastic. I know nothing about distance events, but when I got my free cowbell at the meet in Eugene I shook the hell out of it every time one of those poor, anorexic dudes or dudettes staggered down the home stretch. When we walked into town for lunch, I ordered a veggie burrito and I liked it.  When the air temperature fluctuated ten degrees every five minutes, I didn’t complain. I walked over to the bookstore and bought a sweatshirt with mean Donald Duck on it that I treasure to this day. Every track fan, in my opinion, should attend a meet in Eugene before shuffling off to that great Olympia in the sky.

But eight consecutive years?

As a track fan who lives in the midwest, I am astonished that the NCAA has basically frozen me out of attending an NCAA championship.  Two years ago, I went to the NCAA meet in Des Moines.  Driving my Prius from the suburbs of Chicago, it cost me less than $30 to get there.  A hotel room was approximately $100 dollars per night. I stayed for two days of fantastic throwing, and then drove home for another $30.

Getting to Eugene, on the other hand, would cost at least $500 for the plane ticket and another $200 for car rental. Throw in the hotel room, and we are talking about at least $1000 dollars to attend the meet without factoring in food costs.  If you’ve ever read my stuff, you know that I have an extremely patient wife. But I’m a high school teacher, and $1000 for a trip to Eugene when it cost me $60 to get to and from Des Moines?

You tell me, which “fans” are the NCAA appealing to?

–Dan McQuaid





2008 NCAA Outdoor Championships

Friday, June 13th


Tim and I arrived at the outskirts of Des Moines around 3:00pm, uncertain as to what we’d find when we entered the city. In many respects, it was a perfect summer’s day. Bright sun. Light breeze. Eighty degrees. But we’d seen enough inundated fields, swollen rivers and coyote carcasses on our eight-hour journey to know that the previous day’s storms had done some damage. Flooding had already forced us to abandon Highway 80, the main road into Des Moines from the east, and follow a long, looping detour across the northern part of the state. Weather reports warned that although the rains had passed, runoff from the storms might cause already bloated rivers to spill their banks, and the Des Moines River runs right through downtown Des Moines. As we approached our exit, a strange-looking convoy sped past us going in the opposite direction: three yellow school buses escorted by half a dozen squad cars with their lights flashing heading out of Des Moines. Was this the beginning of some sort of evacuation?  Would the meet be cancelled? We didn’t know.


Tim has enrolled at Drake for the fall semester and is familiar with the campus, so with him navigating we quickly found parking, slapped on some sun block and scrambled toward the stadium. Within minutes we’d secured our media passes and planted ourselves behind the discus cage just as round two of the men’s discus final began. I took a moment to catch my breath and look around, and everything…seemed…perfect. Not a hint of flooding. No panic. No talk of an evacuation. The venerable Drake stadium, built of brick and situated in the middle of a neighborhood, exuded a quaint, old-school charm like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. The throwing area, a large, fenced-in square of plush grass attached to the north end of the stadium was alive with brightly uniformed athletes competing from two rings. The rings sat in different corners of the square field, maybe one hundred meters apart and connected by a long, low hill filled with spectators lounging back in the grass and enjoying the competition. A Sunday-school picnic could not have been more placid.  It felt surreal, but Tim and I had work to do, so we whipped out our notebooks and got down to business.


Men’s Discus


The early rounds of the men’s discus final were oddly subdued. Whether because of nerves or a slight tailwind or a combination of both, no one seemed able to muster Mr. Mojo. Many throwers struggled to get a proper flight on the disc, unable to keep the front edge from tipping up. Everyone seemed frustrated.  Leif Arrhenius, the sophomore from BYU, took the lead with a toss of 57.27m early in the second round, but that was the first throw of the day past 57 meters. The next came from Russ Winger, the fine all-around thrower from Idaho whose 57.17m pulled him into second. There were no other changes in the top two until Liberty’s Clendon Henderson stuck a 58.36m in round three to take the lead. At the break, the top five consisted of Henderson, Arrhenius, Winger, Jason Schutz of ColoradoState (56.76m) and Greg Garza of UCLA (56.71m).  I have to think that Garza, a veteran of many big competitions and owner of a 64.53m PR, would have been considered the favorite coming in, but he could not find his timing out of the back and each throw saw him crowding the front of the ring near the left foul line.


While the officials calculated and re-ordered the nine final finalists, several throwers took advantage of the delay to step into the ring and try to conjure some rhythm. At that point, every thrower who qualified for the final three rounds had to be thinking that he could win if he could just get a hold of one. Most took a couple of practice throws, and the disc seemed to be flying better out of everyone’s hand. Yemi Ayeni, a long-limbed University of Virginia junior sitting in eighth place at 55.17m, picked up a baseball and performed several dry throws. This apparently did the trick, as right after the break Ayeni, throwing second in the fourth round, stepped in and drilled a 59.50m to take the lead.


His reign was brief. Throwing third in round four was Rashaud Scott of Kentucky. Scott struggled mightily with his balance in the early rounds producing a 56.05m and two fouls, and Ayeni’s throw had just bumped him into eighth place. A powerfully built junior, he stepped into the ring, wound, turned, and lurched badly toward the left foul line as he sprinted out of the back. He almost fell down during his reverse, and I commented to Tim that he looked “way off balance on that one.”  Balance, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder. Scott’s throw measured 60.87m and put him in the lead.


Henderson also contributed a bit of round four excitement with his best throw of the day, 58.70m, which buttressed his hold on third place.  Ayeni backed up his 59.50m with a 59.23m in round five, but no one could catch Scott.


As round six began, Art Venegas, the great UCLA coach, left his perch on the hill overlooking the throwing rings and slowly walked over to Garza. Facing the last throw of his college career, Garza looked glum as Venegas spoke to him, and I wondered if the pressure of being the favorite, of maybe restoring some of the luster that the UCLA program has lost in the last few years weighed too heavily on him. He looked listless on his final throw and intentionally fouled it.


No one was able to come within two meters of Scott during the last round, and when Henderson fouled the final throw of the competition, Scott became champion.


Afterwards, Tim and I attempted to interview Scott. We had a mini tape recorder that a reporter who covers our meets back home lent us, and Scott was very polite about answering our questions. But warm-ups for the women’s disc had just begun and every time a throw headed anywhere near one of the foul lines an official let rip with a blast from an air horn as a way of warning the other officials to watch out, so the taped conversation ended up sounding like something from one of those reality TV shows where they beep out all the cusswords. As best I could tell, though, Scott said that during the first three rounds he felt like he was close to nailing one if he could just stop dropping his left arm out of the back. Whatever adjustment he made, it certainly worked. He’ll be back next year to defend his title, and if Ayeni remembers to pack his baseball theirs should be one heck of a battle.


  Women’s Hammer


A battle for first place between Eva Orban of USC and Brittany Riley of Southern Illinois started as a rout and ended with a close call. I’m kind of bummed that we couldn’t track down Orban after the competition, because she sounds like she’d make a great interview. According to a transcript that we found in the media room, a reporter had asked her after Wednesday’s prelims if she was worried because Riley threw farther that day. “No,” was her refreshingly honest reply. “The game’s on Friday.”


Indeed it was, and Orban made clear her intention of winning Friday’s “game” with a round one salvo of 68.27m.  Riley, the defending USATF champion and no shrinking violet herself, answered with 65.26m. Orban extended her lead in round two by hitting 68.71m, and seemed to have the title firmly in hand when Riley fouled her next four attempts. In round six, however, Riley launched a throw that appeared close to matching Orban’s best. It turned out to be 67.44m, which moved Riley from fourth place to second but left Orban the champion. Orban later told the USC website that had Riley jumped into first with that throw, she (Orban) was “ready to throw it farther.”  Considering that Orban has never finished lower than third in the Pac-10, NCAA Regional, or NCAA Championship meets, it is hard to doubt her word.


Another bit of drama in the women’s hammer was provided by the ladies of ASU. Defending team champions, ArizonaState needed a boatload of points in the throws to have any chance of repeating. That’s a lot of pressure to carry into the ring, but Sarah Stevens and Jessica Pressley both came through. In round five, Stevens launched a 66.37m throw to move from seventh place to third. Pressley did her part with a sixth-round 65.28m to nail down fourth place. As it turned out, those eleven points were just the beginning of a remarkable two days for the ASU women.


Men’s Javelin


As expected, the men’s javelin competition came down to a battle between the only three collegiate throwers to break the eighty-meter barrier this year: Cory White of USC, Adam Montague of Florida, and Chris Hill of Georgia.


Of these three, White threw first in round one and opened with 73.49m. Montague followed and topped White with 74.48m. Hill then took the lead with a 76.21m opener. White improved to 74.57m in round two to move into second place, only to see Hill extend his lead to 78.41m. White had his best throw, 77.79m, in round three, but there were no changes in the top three places for the rest of the competition.


According to the Georgia athletics website, Hill’s javelin title is the first in school history. Don Babbitt, Georgia’s highly regarded throws coach told the website that Hill “did a very good job holding off a couple great competitors today. He executed well and handled his first national championship with great composure.”


Hill returned the compliment saying, “There is no way I’d be where I am now without the help of Coach Babbitt.”


Men’s Hammer


Heading into Friday’s final, the men’s hammer competition shaped up as a battle between Auburn’s Jake Dunkleberger, the defending champion, and his teammate Cory Martin. However, as Auburn throws coach Jerry Clayton sagely reminded us, “There’s a big difference between coming in ranked one and two and actually finishing that way.” Though Clayton had faith in Martin and Dunkleberger, and referred to them both as “great competitors,” he was worried that Igor Agafonov of Kansas might pull off an upset. “He’s got a great coach, and he’s really dangerous,” said Clayton. “As long as he’s got a throw left, the competition is not over.”


It looked like Martin was determined to end the competition on the very first throw of the day, as he stepped into the ring and set a new Drake Stadium record of 72.83m. Agafonov responded with 69.51m, but the first round ended with Martin separated from the rest of the field by more than three meters.


Martin opened round two with 71.39m, and walked out of the ring hanging his head. Clayton told us that Martin had been throwing well in practice, and apparently the tall, bearded senior from Bloomington, Indiana felt he was ready to go farther than that 72.83m.


The battle for second place heated up in round two.  Dunkleberger showed some life with a 68.84m and Boldi Kocsor, much to the delight of the large UCLA cheering section perched on the hill above and to the right of the cage, knocked Agafonov into third with a toss of 69.92m. A fun moment came when Oregon senior Colin Veldman let loose with his second-round toss. Lance Deal, currently the Oregon throws coach, yelled “Come on!” as the hammer arced through the air, and the hammer wisely responded by traveling 66.94m, which would turn out to be Veldman’s best throw of the day. I asked Deal later if he was optimistic about the state of the hammer in this country. “When I see a big guy like Cory Martin throw with great technique rather that just muscling it? When I see Boldi Kocsor three-turn seventy-meters? Yeah, I’m optimistic.”


The Auburn boys provided further justification for that optimism in round three, as Martin hit 72.43m (and once again hung his head in disappointment) and Dunkleberger grabbed second place with a 70.51m toss. Rounding out the top five at the break were Kocsor, Agafonov, and Virginia Tech’s Matej Muza in fifth with a third round 68.18m which delighted his small but vocal fan base so much that one of them screamed, “Let’s go get some pizza!” Muza, showing remarkable restraint for a thrower, declined the offer and stuck around for three more throws. It was a wise choice on his part, because his best was still to come.


So was Dunkelberger’s. Throwing eighth in round four he showed he was not ready to relinquish his title just yet.  Clayton told us that Dunkleberger had been feeling sluggish during the last part of the season and had complained that the implement felt heavy, “So we mixed in some throws with an overweight implement to try to get him to work the ground better.” Mission accomplished.  Dunkelberger stepped in and smoked a 72.98m to take over first and set another new stadium record.


There was some late round maneuvering among the rest of the field as Agafonov jumped into third with 69.92m and Muza tightened his grip on fifth with a 69.83m, but everyone’s attention focused on the Auburn boys. Martin answered Dunkelberger’s bomb with a 72.77m. Dunkelberger hit 71.90m in round five. Martin replied with 71.36m. Dunkelberger finished the day with a sixth round 69.72m and then stepped aside as Martin entered the ring for the final throw of the day. We asked Martin later what was going through his head at that moment. “Just that it was time to lay it all on the line, not worry about fouling or whatever. Just put everything into it. I really had nothing to lose, so why not go for it?”  As his throw hung in the air he bellowed, “Go!” The crowd roared when the hammer planted well beyond the 70-meter line. It measured out to 74.13m, a new PR for Martin and, of course, a new stadium record.


We spoke with Coach Clayton after the competition, and I was struck with how gracious and humble he was. If anyone had reason to crow at that moment, it was him, but he gave all the credit to Martin and Dunkelberger, praising their competitiveness and willingness to accept coaching. Before we parted ways, I asked if he thought that Martin would have anything left for the shot. “I think the hammer takes more out of your legs than the other throws do,” he replied. “And, of course, you’ve got the big three in the shot, Whiting, Winger, and Lloyd. But I’d never count Cory out.”



Women’s Discus


Having gained momentum in the hammer, the ASU women spent the discus competition handing out extra-large slices of whupass pie.


The first three rounds saw ASU’s Tai Battle locked in a struggle for first place with Texas Tech’s D’Andra Carter. Battle improved on each of her first three attempts, culminating with a PR of 55.69m in round three. Carter stayed close with her own round- three bomb of 55.34m.  Sarah Stevens, fresh off of her third place finish in the hammer, stuck a round two 53.44m which temporarily put her in third place here as well.  Stevens and her teammate Jessica Pressley both had to report to the discus almost immediately after the completion of the hammer, and the quick turnaround may have flustered Pressley a bit, as she fouled her first two attempts and stepped in for round three facing elimination.


Stevens told us later that having teammates competing in the same flight really helped the ASU throwers to stay calm in high-pressure situations. She also credited her coach, Dave Dumble. “He’s always so relaxed and positive, he makes it easy for us to be that way.” Dumble, the former UCLA discus All-American who has built a powerhouse throws program at ASU, was a very busy man on this day, at one point having to hobble back and forth between the women’s hammer and men’s discus where Ryan Whiting ended up finishing ninth. I say “hobbled” because Coach Dumble spent the weekend on crutches after injuring himself demonstrating how to throw on a wet ring during a practice meant to prepare for the forecasted Iowa rains. “I’m thirty-two years old now,” he explained sheepishly. “Not as young as I used to be.”


Whether due to girl power, positive coaching, or simply out of determination to “win one for the gimper,” Pressley came through with a throw of 49.48m in round three, which put her in eighth place and qualified her for three more throws.


At the break, the top five consisted of Battle (55.69m), Carter (55.34m), Stevens (53.44m), McKenzie Garberg of WashingtonState (51.68m) and Khadija Talley of Miami (51.09m).


During warm-ups prior to the final three rounds, Stevens picked up a towel and performed several dry throws in the ring. She told us later that she felt like she had a big throw in her if she could just find her rhythm.


It turns out her suspicions were correct, as she nailed a fourth-round 56.14m to vault into first.


Battle responded with a 55.41m, and Carter finished her day with a 55.04m toss in the sixth round, but those were the only two throws that came close to matching Stevens. Meanwhile, Pressley finished with a sixth-round 50.27m which lifted her into seventh place and secured two more precious points for ASU.


After the competition, an ecstatic Stevens ran up the hill among the spectators to celebrate with her family and friends. Only a junior, she’s already experienced a lifetime’s worth of ups and downs at championship meets including a victory in the indoor shot in 2007, and a big disappointment in last year’s discus competition when she was favored to win but did not make the final.


After each event, the top eight finishers were escorted through the media room and we found Stevens there radiant and surprisingly articulate at the end of what must have been an exhausting day. I asked her how she was able to keep her energy over this long day of competition. “It’s easy, because this is what I love to do. Actually, throwing the hammer first today probably helped me in the discus because it let me work off some of my nervous energy.”


By the time the throws finished up on Friday, Tim and I were exhausted as well. We dazedly watched a few running events, then headed to our hotel where we were again reminded of the flooding that was causing havoc all over Iowa. Some members of a minor league baseball team in town to play the Iowa Cubs were lounging around the lobby speculating on whether or not the flooded baseball stadium could be made ready for a game. “I don’t think so,” I overheard one of them say. “The groundskeeper told me there’s fish swimming in the dugouts.”


I also overheard a stranded railroad employee telling the desk clerk about an empty train that had been intentionally parked on a bridge over one of the swelling rivers as a way of helping to stabilize the bridge. The river swept away both the empty train and the bridge.


The nightly news reported that many buildings in downtown Des Moines were flooding, including the jail, which had to be evacuated. That explained the convoy of busses we’d seen leaving town as we drove in Friday afternoon.



Saturday, June 14th


Another surreal day. The morning news was dominated by images of flooding and evacuation, including a photo of a river running directly over Highway 80, the route Tim and I had hoped to take home that evening. There were also calls for volunteers to fill sandbags in downtown Des Moines. Once again, though, conditions at the track were perfect. And the people working the meet, the police officers directing traffic outside the stadium, the concession workers, the security guard who jumped up to open the door to the media room each time Tim and I approached, were remarkably polite and helpful as if they had nothing else in the world to be concerned about other than the comfort of the spectators. Amazing.



Women’s Shot  


The field was loaded with former champions. Sarah Stevens won indoors in 2007. Jessica Pressley won outdoors in 2007. Mariam Kevkhishvilli, a native of the Republic of Georgia, won the 2008 indoor title throwing for the University of Florida.


Once again, the ASU women carried with them the pressure of keeping their team in the championship hunt, and once again they handled it magnificently.


Susan King of Memphis set the pace in the first round with a 17.02m toss, but Pressley, exhibiting a beautifully smooth spin technique, took over the lead for good in round two with a put of 17.94m.  King launched her best throw of the day, 17.68m, in round three. Kevkishvilli, a glider, hit her best throw of 17.43m in round three as well. Kevkishvilli seemed a bit uncomfortable and repeatedly looked to her coach in the stands for guidance as to where to line up her right foot at the back of the ring. We asked her about this afterwards, and she told us that her coach, from his vantage point, felt that the left foul line was incorrectly angled and wanted to be sure that Mariam did not throw that way. From where we were sitting, we could not tell if there was a problem with the foul line, but I wonder if worrying about it may have cost Kevkishvilli some of her focus.


The most exciting moment of the first three rounds came when Northern Iowa’s Rachel Jansen, sitting on two fouls, drilled a PR of 17.36m. Jansen has a very aggressive spin technique with a violent right-leg action that caused Tim to dub her “Mrs. Kovago” after the Hungarian discus thrower. Jansen’s throw moved her into fourth place and caused a joyous celebration among her fans.


Also in this eventful third round, Stevens hit her best throw of the outdoor season, 17.21m, to take over fifth place.


At the break, Stevens and Pressley came over to the stands to confer with Coach Dumble. He gave them technical advice, encouraging Pressley to let her right leg get ahead out of the back and Stevens to slow her shoulders and hit a more wrapped power position. The girls smiled frequently as he gently encouraged them, and I was impressed by their demeanor. In the middle of this pressure-packed competition the three might as well have been sitting around a Starbucks enjoying iced lattes. I complimented Dumble on his coaching style later that afternoon, and he told me that one of his former throwers who ended up studying sports psychology advised him that the best way to give technical suggestions was to sandwich them between two positive comments. I think most coaches would agree that it is best to stay upbeat during high-pressure competitions, but agreeing with it and actually doing it when your knee is killing you and the success of your team depends on your throwers amassing ungodly amounts of points is a whole different matter.  Staying calm, though, seems to come naturally to the amiable Dumble, and his even-temperedness combined with his technical expertise make him a masterful coach.


With Kevkhishvilli off her game it seemed during the final three rounds that if anyone was going to catch Pressley it would have to be King, an aggressive and explosive athlete. But Pressley extended her lead with a round five 18.13m and the strain of trying to match that caused King to foul her final three attempts, including one that landed outside the left sector in round six. It looked to me like Pressley’s superior technique made the difference. Each of her throws was smooth and balanced. She’d sweep a long right leg through the right half of the ring and let that carry her out of the back. All of her momentum traveled down the center of the ring and out into the throw. King, on the other hand, seemed to use her shoulders to develop momentum out of the back. This caused her to tip towards the left foul line and, when the heat was on, made it difficult to stay in the ring.


On her final throw, Patience Knight of Texas Tech hit 17.26m to knock Stevens down to sixth. But it was another great day for Dumble’s women, who finished the weekend with a total of forty-four points.


Afterwards, Pressley, having successfully defended her title, dedicated her performance as a birthday present to her father. Like Stevens, she was gracious and articulate in victory, deflecting credit to the coaching of Dumble and the support of her teammates. I, for one, hope that Pressley finds a way to continue throwing as she looks to have the potential to some day succeed on the international level.





Women’s Javelin


Near the end of the women’s shot, the stadium announcer encouraged spectators to head over to watch the women’s javelin final which “featured four of the best throwers in NCAA history.” I’m not sure if Oregon’s Rachel Yurkovich was one of those “four greats” referred to by the announcer, but she came out on top in this competition.


The first three rounds featured a tight battle between Yurkovich, New   Mexico’s Katie Coronado, Nebraska’s Kayla Wilkinson, Purdue’s Kara Patterson, and Andrea Kvetova of SMU.  Yurkovich opened the proceedings with a toss of 52.53m and followed that up with 53.94m in the second round. Patterson (53.39m) and Kvetova (54.47m) stayed close, while Wilkinson briefly took the lead with her second round throw of 54.60m. Yurkovich responded with 54.71m to retake the lead in the third round. Also in that round, Coronado moved into fourth place with a 54.11m toss.


At the break, the top three were separated by little more that half a meter, but Yurkovich broke things open with her fifth round toss of 56.58m, the eventual winner. Meanwhile, Coronado moved into second with her final throw of 54.71m. Wilkinson’s 54.60 held up for third, with Kvetova and Patterson rounding out the top five.


Yurkovich later told the Oregon athletics website that she “was really nervous going in, but once I got on the field, my goal was just to keep improving with each throw and it turned out great in the end.”


Tim and I found Lance Deal, Yurkovich’s coach, after the competition and asked if he was able to lend some of his vast experience to his athletes as they competed over this weekend. “They probably get sick of hearing all my stories. This morning I told them about the time at the World Championships that I traveled forty-five minutes by bus to a practice area then opened my bag and found out I’d packed two left shoes. I just wanted to remind them that everyone is human.”  Just then, Yurkovich, fresh off the awards stand, came along and enveloped her coach in a long embrace.



Men’s Shot


The men’s shot, the most highly anticipated throwing event of the weekend, began much like the men’s discus, with a tentative first three rounds. Whiting set the pace with a first round 19.83m, but did not look especially comfortable. He’s an interesting thrower, Whiting. There were probably half a dozen putters in the final with more refined technique, including Winger and all three Arizona guys. He tends to stay on his left a long time coming out of the back, something that Dumble told me was a result of relying on his upper body strength to initiate his spin. But he seems to have an innate gift of being able to generate a tremendous amount of force. Watching him, I was reminded of having seen John Godina throw the shot in 1998 or Robert Fazekas throw the disc in 2003. Those guys could just bring it better than any of their competitors, and so can Whiting. If he stays healthy for two more years of working with Dumble, and develops some of the rhythm that Godina possessed, holy cow.


Winger’s first throw was a sector foul down the right side, as was his final attempt in the discus the day before. It seemed like he was just pulling the trigger a little early, which is understandable in a meet like this, but he needed to find his timing if he wanted to hang with Whiting.


The Arizona throwers, Zach Lloyd, Shawn Best, and Jarred Sola, looked very smooth, although none produced big throws in the first round. Lloyd hit 18.35m, Best reached 18.52m, and Sola settled for 17.74m.  Cory Martin, fresh off his big win in the hammer on Friday, produced a first round 18.33m.


The second round developed similarly to the first, without much in the way of fireworks. Whiting fouled. Winger looked tentative but locked up a spot in the final nine with a toss of 18.84m.  Lloyd improved to 19.19m, but did not look at all pleased with his effort. Martin showed some life with a 19.32m, which moved him to second.


Whiting extended his lead in round three with a throw of 20.24m.  Winger, looking ever more frustrated, again threw down the right side of the sector and did not improve on his second round toss. Lloyd seemed to find a bit of comfort and moved into second place with a throw of 19.35m.


After three rounds, Whiting held the lead by nearly a meter, but neither he nor anyone else looked happy with their performance. Dumble told us later that Whiting said the throwing surface was kind of slow, and this may have crossed up the rotational throwers. The lone glider among the twelve finalists, Justin Clickett of Virginia Tech, could not seem to get comfortable with his release.  Maybe it was the pressure. Maybe these guys were a bit gassed at the end of a long season. Just about all of them compete in two events outdoors and some in even more. Julie Taylor, the Idaho throws coach told us that Winger, though sick with the flu at the time, insisted on throwing the shot, disc, hammer and javelin at their conference meet. That can exact a toll even on these great athletes.


Several throwers ratcheted up their aggressiveness after the break. Winger charged into second place with a 19.63m effort, by far his most comfortable and vocal throw of the day.  Martin, throwing next, matched Winger’s yell and bettered his toss by hitting 19.89m.  Lloyd then produced his best effort of the day, 19.40m, to remain in fourth.  Whiting finished the round with a 19.78m toss.


The fifth round was uneventful until Martin stepped in and consolidated his hold on second with a throw of 20.16m. Whiting fouled his fifth attempt, and so entered the final round with his lead cut to eight centimeters.


Winger finished a fantastic college career with his best throw of the day, 19.73m, to take third. Cory Martin entered the ring next, needing a PR to overtake Whiting. During the warm-ups between rounds three and four, Martin uncorked a big throw that traveled in a higher arc than any of his other tosses. From his perch in the stands, Jerry Clayton now gestured to Martin to raise the shot up as he turned into the power position so he could once again find that higher arc. After the competition, Martin told us that he trusted Clayton so much he’d, “eat dog poop if Coach told me it would make me throw better.” In this case, just raising the shot a bit sufficed, as Martin unleashed a high, arcing bomb that measured 20.35m and put him in first.


Next up was Lloyd, who fouled what looked like a big throw and had to settle for fourth place. It all came down to Whiting’s final attempt.  Whiting showed at the indoor meet that he is quite capable of hammering a big throw under pressure, and he kept his wits about him here. But his final effort, 19.98m, though more than respectable was not enough to overtake Martin who became the first man since 1922 to win the NCAA hammer and shot.

And thus ended a fantastic weekend of competition. Thanks to Glenn for commissioning us to cover the meet. Thanks to Tim for his navigational skill, moral support, and technical expertise in figuring out how to work the tape recorder. Thanks to all the athletes and coaches who patiently spoke into that recorder. Thanks especially to the people of Des Moines for hosting a great meet under very difficult circumstances.

-Dan McQuaid is an English teacher and throws coach at Wheaton North High School

-Tim Batten is a 2008 graduate of Wheaton North

by Dan McQuaid

2011 NCAA Outdoor Championships

The NCAA Championship Meet, held at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, represented the culmination of a very challenging few weeks for the nation’s top collegiate throwers. After attempting to peak for their conference meets, they had to muster up the special sauce again at regionals where a top-twelve finish was required to earn a ticket to Des Moines. Once admitted to the Big Show, these athletes had to deal with unpredictable weather and a sometimes controversial format in an effort to get on the podium.


Women’s Disc

An early casualty of this end-of-the-season grind was the 2010 champion in the women’s discus, Jeneva McCall of Southern Illinois, who did not advance out of the Eugene regional. That left the door open for the 2010 second place finisher, Oklahoma’s Brittany Borman, and for the possessors of the top marks coming out of regionals, namely Tennessee’s Annie Alexander (58.58m) and Arizona State’s Anna Jelmini (57.09m). Were I a betting man, I’d have put the house, the car, and maybe one of the stepsons on Jelmini who, despite her youth (she’s a redshirt freshmen) has chalked up lots of big meet experience over the past couple of years. I saw her throw at the 2010 Diamond League Meet in New York and she did not strike me as being a bit intimidated by sitting at the big table with the grownups.

Despite having the top two regional throws, Alexander and Jelmini were placed in different flights in Des Moines, and this is where the “controversial” aspect of the format came into play. The powers-that-be at the NCAA decided that the twenty-four throwers who qualified out of the regionals would be divided into two randomly selected flights at the Championships. Those throwing in flight one would have to chillax for at least an hour afterwards while flight two warmed up and competed. Any flight one throwers finishing among the top nine at the conclusion of both prelim flights would have to quickly rummage through their equipment bag to try to find enough leftover swagga to get them through another warm-up period and three more rounds of competition. Virginia Tech throws coach Greg Jack for one, was not a big fan of this setup, arguing that the top throwers from the regionals earned the right to compete in the second flight. “It is very unfortunate that they don’t rank these throwers by their ability level,” he said, “because they are hurting the top-ranked throwers. It doesn’t set up for a good competition, a fluid competition. It’s stupidity. Whoever is making that call is ignorant of our events…probably some distance coach!”

However one feels about the randomized flights or about distance coaches, it was interesting to observe the effect they had on the various throwing events.

Borman, slotted to throw in flight one, bowed out quickly with three fouls. Alexander seemed about to follow Borman out of the competition after opening at 41.19m and following that up with a round-two 41.40m, but a third-round 54.28m saved her day and put her into second place behind Southern Methodist’s Simone du Toit, who popped a 54.94m in round one.

Throwing next-to-last in flight two, Jelmini cranked a 56.67m on her first throw to take the overall lead, and later improved on that with a third-round 57.11m. Sneaking into the number two spot behind Jelmini was Northwestern State’s Tracey Rew with a round-two PR throw of 55.31m. I say “sneaking” because in spite of posting a very respectable 54.96m at regionals, Rew entered the meet with very little name recognition among discus prognosticators. Perhaps because she fouled out of last year’s meet in Eugene, she was not listed among the top ten women collegiate discus throwers as posted by Track and Field News a couple of weeks prior to the Championships. Life outside the spotlight seemed to suit her, though, as that 55.31m was only the beginning of an epic series for Rew.

After the nine finalists were identified it became clear that Annie Alexander had gone to a happy place during her enforced idle as she hammered a round-four 57.55m to seize the lead. Jelmini answered with 56.73m, while Michigan State’s Beth Rohl bumped Rew into fourth place with a toss of 55.39m.

Jelmini retook the lead in round five with a throw of 57.61m while Rew moved back into third place with 56.76m, her second PR of the day. That left Rohl in fourth and the freshman from Arizona, Baille Gibson in fifth at 55.29m.

Gibson jumped ahead of Rohl with a final-round 56.46m and was jumped in turn by du Toit who, more than two hours after her first warm-up throw of the day, drilled a 56.83m to finish fourth. Alexander finished her roller coaster of a day with a toss of 52.39m, and into the ring stepped Rew. “I knew it was the last throw of my collegiate career,” she said later. “I just stayed calm and worked on my technique like I’ve been doing. But I added a little bit of aggression and it paid off.”


Her calmly aggressive approach resulted in a throw of 58.64m, a three-meter-plus improvement over her best throw prior to this competition.

That throw had to feel like a sock in the jaw to Jelmini, and I’m not talking about a love tap. But she responded like a champion, popping up off the canvas to hit her best throw of the day, 57.97m. Unfortunately, she will have to wait another year to claim a national title. This day belonged to Tracy Rew.


Men’s Javelin

Probably the best way for a highly-ranked thrower to handle being stuck in the first flight would be to knock the crap out of one early and then let everyone else figure out how to respond. “There you go, fellas. Chew on that for awhile. I’ll be in the tent, if you need me.”

That pretty much describes the men’s javelin competition, as Illinois State sophomore Tim Glover opened with a monster throw of 80.33m (a PR, a school record, a Missouri Valley Conference record, and the best collegiate throw of the year) and spent the rest of the afternoon watching his competitors flail away at that mark. At the end of flight one, the second best thrower, Florida sophomore Stipe Zunic, was more than five meters back at 75.01m.

How did Glover feel having to sit back and watch flight two?  “It was pretty nerve-wracking. Especially because they had us stay down there, but then they shipped us off to another tent then they kicked us out and we had to go back and wait by the runway. I’d say we had at least an hour to wait while the second flight threw.”

“My coaches were freaking out when they had us sitting out here instead of keeping cool. I figured I had a good throw out there and they had to chase it and if someone got off a good one I knew what I had to do”

“I’m kind of used to that from the summer meets, waiting around. You’re supposed to throw at eight and you end up throwing at three.”

None of the flight two throwers did much to pierce Glover’s cocoon of nerve-wracked serenity, and he and Zunic held the top two spots entering the finals. Sam Humphreys, a sophomore from Texas A&M, sat in third place with a throw of 74.88, a nice improvement over the 70.32m that netted him fifth place in 2010. Another sophomore, Matias Treff from Virginia Tech by way of Nuremburg, Germany, held fourth place with 74.80m, followed by Kansas freshman Johannes Swanepoel in fifth with a first-round 72.24m which would turn out to be his only mark of the day.

The final rounds were drama-free until Treff stepped up on his last throw and banged out a 77.88m to move into second. Humphreys responded with his best throw of the day, 75.05m, to knock Zunic into fourth. Swanepoel, passing on all three throws, held on to fifth.

Afterwards, Glover faced what for him was the most anxiety-inducing moment of the day: the drug test. “I’m a shy pee-er,” he said. Competing for three hours in ninety-degree weather probably didn’t make that any easier.

The javelin is an odd event in that injuries seem more common than in the other throws and can make it difficult to predict future results. Ten of last year’s top twelve finishers were underclassmen, but only six of them made it to Des Moines, and only Glover and Humphreys improved on their 2010 finish.

That said, Glover would appear to have a bright future. He feels like he’s got a long way to go technically, and considers himself “one of the weakest javelin throwers I know,” with a 105k bench and 110k hang clean. Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildson, by comparison, benches 195k and hang cleans 155k.


Men’s Discus

Two of the top three finishers from 2010 returned: sophomores Mason Finley of Kansas and Julian Wruck of Texas Tech. Both threw very well at this year’s Big 12 meet, Finley hitting 60.37m to finish second behind Wruck’s record-breaking throw of 63.42m. Senior Leif Arrhenius of BYU also appeared to be in top form after hitting 59.11m at his conference meet and following up with 59.87m at the regional.

For someone to pull a Tracey Rew, each of these “Big Three” would have to falter.

They did not.

Wruck, an amiable Australian who said he likes to open easy with “about 90% effort just to be sure I’m in the finals,” threw down the gauntlet in round one of flight one with 60.08m. Finley replied with 60.11m. Wruck cranked it up for round two and fired a 61.81m. Finley finished with two fouls, and Wruck fouled his third effort, so the two sat first and second as the first flight concluded.

Just behind Wruck and Finley were two Nebraska throwers, freshman Chad Wright at 56.28m, and junior Tyler Hitchler at 55.48m. The fact that these two were able to compete at all, let alone to throw so well was a remarkable display of mental toughness as they were informed not long before the competition that their coach, Mark Colligan, had been found in his hotel room that morning dead of an apparent heart attack.

“We had to stay focused. It really didn’t sink in, so we tried to keep it business as usual,” Hitchler told ESPN afterwards. “We tried to stick with the motions. It was a shock, so the emotional side wasn’t there yet.”

“I thought about it the whole time during competition. After every throw, I instinctively looked at the sidelines for coaching on my technique. It was quiet. I had my dad and some other support there, but the face I had looked toward my entire career at Nebraska was gone.”

Arrhenius came out smoking in flight two, hitting 61.36m on his first throw to knock Finley into third. He did not improve after that, and there would be no final-round fireworks. Finley improved to 60.16m in round four, but the top three spots did not change. Colin Boevers of Kentucky nailed  56.88m to finish fourth, Central Michigan’s Alex Rose earned fifth place with a round four 56.64m, and Wright and Hitchler held on to sixth and seventh.

Afterwards, Wruck said that he had not been bothered by the randomized flights, and that he felt like he’d developed a strong mental approach to competition.

“This year was the first year I’ve been able to go to any meet and not feel nervous. I try not to see people as numbers. During warm-ups, you see everyone else as human beings just like you. They have fears just like you. I don’t see people as linear systems of better or worse. They might be thinking (when they throw a big warm-up throw) ‘Hey that was a lucky throw!’ You don’t know what they are thinking, so I try to get a lift out of the competition and if someone throws a big throw I try to look at it as an opportunity to throw one far as well.”

Wruck hopes to put this mental approach to use at the 2012 Olympics, and said he is likely to remain in Australia next year to prepare.




Men’s Hammer

How’s this for a loaded field? Two former champions, LSU senior Walter Henning (2010) and Virginia Tech senior Marcel Lomnicky (2009) along with Alex Ziegler, another Virginia Tech senior and last year’s runner-up.

Lomnicky, of the Czech Republic, looked to be the favorite after unloading a 75.84m bomb at the ACC Championships and hitting 73.91m at regionals. He was the only member of this “Big Three” slotted into the first flight, and I’m sure he hoped to replicate Tim Glover’s performance in the javelin. Drop a big one and let everyone fight for second place. According to Coach Jack, Marcel had been throwing very well in practice and was ready to launch one, but he opened with a foul, followed by a “safe” 71.49m, and a third-round 72.32m—a fine throw but one that had to leave Ziegler and Henning feeling that the door was definitely still open.

Both assured themselves a spot in the finals with their first efforts, Henning with 66.41m, Ziegler with 70.25m. Both fouled their second throws then improved in round three, Henning hitting 68.26m and Zielger reaching 70.32m.

Going into the finals, fourth place belonged to Alec Faldermeyer, a UCLA freshman who threw 66.95m in round three. Henning’s teammate, Michael Lauro, sat in fifth with a throw of 66.49m.

In spite of the long wait between flight one and the finals (Coach Jack compared it to “icing” a kicker in football), Marcel improved in round four with a toss of 72.35m. Ziegler also improved, hitting 72.01m, but remained in second. Faldermeyer (67.46m) and Lauro (67.45m) both had their best throws of the day in round four, as did Sam Houston State’s Chris Cralle(66.48m).

None of the finalists improved in round five.

Sitting seventh, Trey Henderson of USC popped a round six 67.58m to move into fourth place. And then came the Big Three. On the last throw of a fine college career, Henning hit 69.03m, his best of the day but not enough to move him into second. So, Ziegler stepped into the ring with one shot to unseat his teammate. Interestingly, this was only the third meet of the outdoor season for Alex. Coach Jack said that he’d had a little trouble transitioning from the weight throw indoors and since he had a long summer of throwing ahead of him in his native Germany, they did not see any reason to rush things along. Apparently they knew what they were doing, as Ziegler launched the hammer 72.69m and launched himself into first place. Lomnicky’s final effort came up short at 71.29m.

Coach Jack was not surprised at Ziegler’s success. “He’s been throwing great in practice,” he said afterwards. “If you follow the hammer, don’t be surprised to see Alex throw 76 meters this summer.”



Women’s Javelin

After fouling out of the discus, Oklahoma’s Brittany Borman had to be wondering why she ever tried this sport in the first place. After hitting a best of 50.70m during the first flight of the javelin prelims (well short of the 53.00m PR that got her second place in 2010) she could not be blamed for thinking thoughts that might not be printable in a genteel magazine like Long and Strong.

Sitting second to Stanford’s Eda Karesin (52.33m) after flight one and struggling to find a groove Borman, like Lomnicky in the hammer, had a lot of time to mull over possibilities.

“I was little nervous about yesterday’s performance in the discus, but I tried to come back today with a clear mind and forget all of that,” said Borman later. “After the prelims, I sat on the side and thought about what I needed to do and talked to Coach (Brian) Blutreich. I was a little tight and after doing that I was more relaxed. I knew that I had to get loose and let it fly and it showed on my fourth throw.”

True that. Marissa Tschida of Washington State had dropped Borman to third place by throwing 51.06m in the second prelim flight, then, throwing just ahead of Borman in the finals, increased her lead with a 52.20m toss in round four.  Maybe Tschida’s throw got Borman fired up. Maybe Blutreich found the magic words that all coaches wish they could find when one of their athletes is struggling. Whichever, Borman stepped up and fired a new PR of 54.32m that vaulted her from third to first. Spectators later reported hearing a loud thud that sounded a lot like a large monkey falling off of someone’s back.

There were no surprises in rounds five or six, although Borman punctuated her title with a 53.71m toss.

Karesin held onto second and Tschida to third, while Tulane junior Ana Ruzevic finished 4th (50.40m), Emalie Humphreys of Texas A&M finished fifth (50.26) and Illinois State junior Leigh Petranoff sixth (49.42m).


Women’s Hammer

With four of the top five finishers from 2010 returning, this promised to be a fierce competition. Though her training had been disrupted by off-season knee surgery, defending champion Nicole Lomnicka of Georgia appeared to be rounding into form. She won the SEC meet with a throw of 63.51m, and posted a respectable 62.88m at regionals. Last year’s second place finisher, Dorotea Habazin of Virginia Tech, came to Des Moines with a PR of 68.36m and a regional throw of 67.51m. Southern Illinois senior Gwen Berry led the nation with a 70.52m bomb that she unleashed at this very stadium in April. Amanda Bingson of UNLV chalked up a 67.92m at regionals. And nobody was more focused than Berry’s teammate Geneva McCall who hit 67.24m at regionals and came to Des Moines determined to make amends for her failure to qualify in the discus.

Unfortunately, a steady rain began falling just as flight one warm-ups began and threatened to turn the competition into a battle of attrition. There were numerous horrific-looking wipeouts as several competitors stepped a bit too far on their final turn and ended up on top of the insert. In these conditions, that was like stepping on an oil slick.

McCall was the only big gun competing in flight one, and she showed right away that she was not going to be intimidated by the foul weather. She opened with 65.37m, followed that with 66.45m, and improved to 66.47m in round three. That gave her a healthy lead over UNLV’s Chelsea Cassulo (64.07m), and the way the rain was pelting down I wondered if she’d pulled a Glover and sewn up the title during prelims.

Habazin quickly disabused me of that notion with a first-round 66.23m, followed by a second-round 66.14m, and a round three blast of 68.15m—an amazing throw under these conditions. I asked Coach Jack afterwards how Habazin was able to produce a throw like that when many of her competitors struggled to simply stay upright. “That’s good old beautiful Blacksburg weather right there,” he said. “We train in it all the time, rain or shine. We like it because it puts other throwers at a disadvantage.”

That was clearly the case with Berry, who fouled all three of her prelim throws, and Bingson who could not come within three meters of her regional best. Going into the finals, she sat fourth behind Habazin, McCall, and Lomnicka who showed some toughness of her own by hitting 64.88m in round three. This was less than a meter below the mark that won her the title in 2010.

There was not a lot of action in the finals until McCall stepped in for her final throw and showed her grit by launching one that looked to be very close to unseating Habazin. It was close—67.74m—but not quite enough, and Habazin, whose next goal is to represent her native Croatia in the 2012 Olympics, ended her Virginia Tech career as national champion.


Men’s Shot

Mason Finley finished second as a true freshman in 2010. He finished second at the 2011 Indoor Championships with a throw of 19.75m and came to Des Moines with a season’s best of 20.71m—a put that would dominate pretty much any collegiate competition that did not involve a Godina or a Whiting. Finley threw that 20.71m indoors, but you get the picture.  He was the man to beat, and having been slotted into flight two there would be no momentum-killing wait between prelims and finals. If he could get his groove on early it seemed probable that he’d steamroll his way to the title.

His main competition appeared likely to come from indoor champion Leif Arrhenius, who carried a season’s best of 19.92m—the mark that won him the indoor title.

Arrhenius was tabbed to throw in the first prelim flight, and luck appeared to smile on him and the other flight one competitors as the rain faded away during warm-ups. The ground remained wet, and there was the matter of keeping the bottom of one’s shoes dry, but unlike in the women’s hammer, the shot warm-up seemed to go smoothly. Arrhenius looked sharp and very confident. One other competitor stood out—Arizona State‘s Jordan Clarke, looking mighty BA under his fauxhawk and mighty smooth out of the back of the ring.

Clarke opened with an easy-looking 19.14m, a throw certain to get him into the finals. Arrhenius took over first place with a round-two 19.37m, and then Clarke took it back with a third-round PR of 19.53m. Michel Putman, a Florida State junior, filled out the top three with a third-round throw of 18.90m.  Clarke and Arrhenius both looked jovial as they as took a seat to watch flight-two warm-ups, confident that they’d earned a place on the podium. Finley also had reason to feel confident, as the top spot was still well within his reach.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature chose that moment to intervene, and it began to rain again during flight two warm-ups. The rain seemed bother Finley and pretty much everyone else in the flight. There were no big warm-up throws, and Finley’s 18.80m was by far the best toss of the first round. Then, just at Finley stepped into the ring for his second throw, an announcement came over the PA system that all fans and competitors had to clear the stadium immediately due to a lightning alert. Suddenly, throwing in flight two became a disadvantage as those competitors would have to sit out the delay, then warm up again before resuming their competition throws.

The fans were ordered to take shelter in the nearby field house, but my friend and I could not find the entrance. A nearby tavern graciously offered shelter, so we choked down a couple of beers just to be sociable and headed back to the stadium in time to watch flight two resume their warm-ups in an even heavier downpour.

By this point, Finley was starting to look a bit lost. His technique seemed to be quite different than I remembered it from watching him throw at last year’s USA Championship meet. He seemed very slow and deliberate out of the back, rising up and almost pausing on a straight left leg. More than once, he made eye contact with his coach in the stands and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “I don’t know why it’s not going farther.”

When the competition resumed, he fouled his second-round throw before hitting 18.94m in round three. This put him in fourth behind Clarke, Arrhenius, and Penn State’s Joe Kovacs (19.06m) as the finals began.

The rain continued to pound down, and of the final twenty-seven throws, fourteen would be fouls. Finley reached 18.53m in round four, while Arrhenius fouled and Clarke tossed 18.94m. Finley fouled his fifth throw, while Arrhenius reached 18.66m. On the brink of a very much unexpected victory, Clarke must have caught a sudden endorphin buzz as he shook off the conditions and any malaise he felt from the long delay to hammer out another PR—a fifth round toss of 19.75m.

That was the dagger.

Hayden Ballio of Texas knocked Finley into fifth place with a final-round toss of 18.95m. Finley tried to answer by putting a lot of juice on his final throw, and he got off a nice toss (somewhere near 20 meters) but his momentum carried him out of the front of the ring. That left Arrhenius, who was determined not to waste the final throw of his college career. He too, dropped one in the vicinity of the 20-meter line, but this was Clarke’s day, not his and he could not keep the throw, stepping out just to the left of the toeboard.

I asked Arizona State coach Dave Dumble afterwards if he was surprised by Clarke’s performance. “He threw a season best at Pac 10’s, went to the Tuscon elite and he had a great series there so there were signs that he was figuring out his entry and setting up his power position, so we knew he was going to throw well…but two PR’s? You know, when he’s happy and he’s confident he can do stuff like that.”

And what had they done during the delay? ”We just sat and talked had a couple of granola bars. He was so relaxed. He knew these guys still had to go out and warm up and compete, and he was so happy with how well he threw in the first three throws that even if he didn’t win he was still going to be happy with it. Everybody else was pressing, maybe trying to get a big throw, and he was just happy with wherever he placed.”

Women’s Shot

The Julie Labonte “Here Comes An Ass-Beating” Tour picked a perfect day to roll into Des Moines. Sunny. Seventy-something degrees. And who could blame Mother Nature for getting out of the way for this final throwing event on the final day of the NCAA Championships? Since finishing fourth in the nation a year ago Labonte, a native of Quebec Province, had developed into something of a force of nature herself. She had not lost against collegiate competition indoors or out in 2011, and came into the Outdoor Championships with a PR of 18.21m. Très bien, eh?

Should Labonte falter for the first time all season, a trio of fine throwers was lined up to challenge her. Tia Brooks of Oklahoma finished second to Labonte indoors with a solid throw of 17.40m. Indiana’s Faith Sherrill came in with the number two regional mark of 17.51m. And Tennessee’s Annie Alexander was SEC champion with a 17.50m put.

Brooks and Alexander both threw in flight one. I’m a big fan of the fixed-feet glide, and I got a kick out of Brooks’ violent finish. She hammers her right hip against her block. Ka-pow!  Her 17.21m in round two put her into first place after the first flight with Texas Tech sophomore Ifeatu Okafor (16.96m) and Alexander (16.92m) occupying second and third.

Just about everybody else seemed flat during the first flight, though. Throw after throw barely crossed the 16.00m mark. That trend continued during flight-two warm-ups until Labonte got limbered up and dropped one on the 18.00m line. That was what we English teachers refer to as “foreshadowing.”

Even Labonte looked a bit off though, as flight two got rolling, intentionally fouling a lousy first effort. Her second throw was a bit better: a PR and new Canadian record of 18.31m.

Like Tia Brooks, Labonte is a fixed-feet glider, although she has a slightly different finish. Her right foot sort of slides forward as the shot leaves her hand, making her look less explosive than Brooks, but in this case looks are deceiving. Labonte also puts the lie to the notion that gliders need superior strength to throw far. She benches 100k and squats around 160k. Not exactly what you’d expect from an 18.00m thrower, and as those numbers improve over the next couple of years…well…mon dieu!

The rest of the field finally shook off their lethargy during round five as Sherrill hit 17.54m to move into third and Samira Burkhardt, a Virginia Tech freshman, reached 17.09m to take over fifth place. Alexander held onto fourth with a round-five 17.18m and then all of a sudden Brooks’ morning cup of Joe must have kicked in as she pounded out a PR and school record throw of 18.00m.

Labonte admitted later that the excitement of hitting a PR and reaching the Olympic A-standard on her second throw had left her feeling a little queasy, and she had followed her bomb with 17.38m in round three and a foul in round four. Brooks’ big toss provided a dose of smelling salts though, and a newly- awakened Labonte responded with her second-best effort of the day, 18.19m. The highlight of the final round was a 17.66m PR by Alexander that netted her third place. Brooks finished with 17.40m and Labonte with 17.22m.

Next up was a trip back to Canada and an effort to qualify for the World Championships this August.

by Dan McQuaid

2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships

Tucked into the cornfields of Iowa, there is magic place. A place where courtesy is the rule and not the exception. A place where you can get a reasonably-priced motel room even when the World Pork Expo is in town. A place where you can get one of the comfy seats at Starbucks at 8:00 on a Saturday morning. A place where they will charge you $6 for a milkshake but only $3 for a quality beer. A place where almost every June world class throwers gather to compete.

Yep, I’m talking about Des Moines, Iowa, site of this year’s NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships. With four winners from 2011 returning to defend their titles in the throws and some formidable challengers eager to knock them off, there promised to be plenty of drama at this year’s meet. Determined to witness it first hand, my friend Pat Trofimuk and I piled into my Prius on a hot June morning and hauled butt “Born to be Wild” style across three hundred miles of sun-drenched cornfields. Our motto: If they chuck it, we will come.


Men’s Discus

We arrived in Des Moines and made our way to Drake University just in time to catch the flight one warm-ups for the men’s discus. The layout at Drake is spectator-friendly. The long throws are contested on a large field outside the stadium, but not so far away that you feel like you’ve been banished to a remote island. There are two throwing cages, one right next to the stadium and one about 100 meters distant. The farther cage is right next to the javelin runway, which allows the discus or hammer to be contested concurrently with the jav. This layout would come in handy on a couple of occasions during the week ahead.

There is a grass berm running along one side of the field that wraps around behind the farther cage and the javelin runway providing an excellent vantage point for spectators. That’s where the discus was contested, and as warm-ups began, Pat and I staked out a nice spot on the grass directly behind and above the cage.

With defending champion Julian Wruck taking a redshirt year to prepare for the Olympics and manage a transfer to UCLA, this competition was wide open.  The top returning finishers from last year, Mason Finley of Kansas (3rd), Chad Wright of Nebraska by way of Jamaica (6th), and Tyler Hitchler of Nebraska by way of Nebraska (7th) were all slotted into flight one.  This was a matter of chance because, as was the case in 2011, the twenty-four qualifiers from regionals were divided into two randomly-selected flights.

It was a nice day to throw the disc. Sunny. Eighty-some degrees. It was hard to pin down the direction of the wind (they had divider flags strung all over the place and it seemed like they kept blowing in different directions), but it definitely wasn’t a bad wind and if nothing else it kept the humidity at bay.

As seems to often be the case in high-pressure meets, most of the throwers looked a bit tentative in the early going. Wright got off the best throw of the first flight, 59.29m in round three. He doesn’t have the height of the classic discus thrower (I’d guess he’s around 6’2”) but he looks like he’s got long arms and he moves really well. Same for Hitchler, who put himself into second place with a round-two toss of 59.09m, and Andrew Evans of Kentucky, a sophomore who came in with a regional seed of 55.67m, opened with 51.91m then improved to 58.91m in the second round. Next best after Evans was Geoffrey Tabor, a junior from Stanford, who reached 58.67m in round two. Tabor is another guy who does not look like he’s tall enough to be a top-notch discus thrower, but he uses an extremely aggressive right leg sweep to develop speed out of the back (kind of like the Hungarian thrower Zoltan Kövágó) and attacks every throw with passion. Out of all the throwers we’d see throughout the week he had my favorite yell. It’s hard to describe, but even the Incredible Hulk would be impressed.

Finley’s best in prelims was 57.93m. He doesn’t have the classic discus build either. He’s certainly got the height, but at 420 pounds he is much thicker than any elite discus thrower I’ve ever seen. Current world champion Robert Harting, for example, is 6’7” and weighs around 280.  Finley was not happy with his performance in prelims, as 57.93m did not assure him a spot in the finals. He told us later that his coach kept admonishing him to stop dropping his left shoulder out of the back and pulling his head through the power position, but that he just couldn’t feel what he was doing wrong.

As flight one finished up, the competitors from flight two were marched out to the cage. They had been gathered in a holding tent near the edge of the stadium, and that’s where the flight one throwers would spend the next hour or so waiting to see if they’d made the finals (the top nine overall advanced).

The big gun in flight two was Oklahoma senior Luke Bryant, another smooth, technically excellent thrower who looks a bit undersized for the discus. He came in with the best throw out of regionals (60.24m). Other possible contenders were Jared Thomas, a senior from South Florida with a PR of 61.26m, and Lonnie Pugh, a Michigan State junior who finished eighth last year and came in with a 58.39m regional toss.

The main attraction in flight two, though, was the Texas freshman Ryan Crouser.  He has that classic, lanky discus-thrower build, but is also powerful enough to have put the shot 20.29m indoors. That combination of size and strength is generally limited to Marvel Comics characters, and many American throws fans are hoping that young Ryan eventually mutates into World Class Discus Man and rescues us from the current European domination of that event.

Bryant was Mr. Steady during prelims, going 59.50m, 59.36m, and 59.11m. That put him into the overall lead, and throwing in flight two meant that he could roll right into the finals without having to go bake in the holding tent for an hour.

Thomas secured his spot in the finals with a third-round toss of 59.26m. I thought that Crouser looked a bit cautious. There has been talk of him struggling with injuries during the outdoor season, and he didn’t seem that dynamic in the ring. He clenches his left arm as he turns out of the back the way Suzy Powell-Roos does, and he lacked the fluidity of most of the other throwers. That said, he punched his ticket to the finals with a round-two 58.13m.

The guy from flight two who really impressed me was Texas A&M freshman Dalton Rowan.  He is tall and lanky like Crouser, but what set him apart was his speed. All twenty-four throwers seemed to be using the same basic technique template. Slide the left armpit over the left knee. Get the right foot off the ground quickly. Generate power with an aggressive right leg sweep. Finish with a violent reverse. What stood out about Rowan was that he moved through those positions faster than anybody else. He’s still pretty light in the butt (232 pounds) and not super strong (bench:255lbs for 3 sets of 3, hang clean: 125k for 1 of 3) but he can really haul.

He also is a young man of great enthusiasm and confidence. His secret for handling big meet pressure? “Got to have the memory of a goldfish, dude. No matter what happens I just tell myself, ‘you already know how to do it, so just get out there and do it.’” After opening with 55.55m and 56.72m, he needed a big effort in round three to get in the finals. Summoning his inner gold fish, he banged a 58.85m to move temporarily into sixth place overall.

As the flight two guys took their third throws, the flight one throwers were marched from the holding tent back out to the throwing area. At that point, Finley was hanging on to the number nine spot. Just as he and his fellow flight one competitors neared the discus cage, Pugh unleashed what appeared to be a 60-meter throw. Finley said later that when he saw that throw land his heart “dropped.” Luckily for him, and for the local EMTs, Pugh stepped on the front of the ring for a foul.

Mason did not immediately take advantage of his reprieve. His opening throw of the finals was a disappointing 56.16m. Crouser, sitting in eighth and up next, nailed a 59.77m to move into third place, a remarkable throw for a freshman under any circumstances and truly amazing if he was, as we suspected, not at one hundred percent.

No one else made any noise in round four until Wright (60.98) became the first to break the 60-meter barrier. Bryant responded with 60.94m.

Mason remained stuck in neutral in round five (56.98), while Rowan, Tabor, and Hitchler all hit respectable 58-meter throws without moving up. Evans and Crouser fouled, making for a pretty uneventful round until Wright stepped into the ring then quickly stepped back out in order to let an official sweep a bug out of the way.

Those who follow the sport will remember what he and Hitchler went through last year as their coach, Mark Colligan, shockingly, passed away here in Des Moines the day of the discus final. Carrie Lane, hired in September to succeed Colligan, told me later about the difficulty of replacing a beloved coach who adhered to a rather idiosyncratic technical model. She had to figure out the best way to proceed with each individual thrower: help them improve while sticking with the technique they had gotten used to, or move them toward the more standard throwing style that she favored. In Wright’s case, Lane discovered that her approach to technique meshed quite easily with the way he had learned to throw growing up in Jamaica, so they were able to find common ground without too much trouble. Lane even found herself, late in the season, adjusting Wright’s technique using “Mark Colligan terms.” This Colligan/Lane combo proved to be a powerful mix, as Wright drilled a fifth-round 62.79m to take a commanding lead.

Bryant responded with a foul, and then Mason ambled into the ring having apparently decided to try a novel approach: listening to his coach. “On my last throw,” he said later, “I just figured he must be right so I just trusted him and really over-exaggerated not pulling my head and not dipping my shoulder.” The result was enough to warm the heart of coaches everywhere: a three-meter improvement to 61.02m which launched him from ninth place all the way to second.

That was it in terms of final-round fireworks. Wright finished with a foul and Bryant closed with 60.42m to end up third.


Women’s Javelin

The women’s javelin competition ran concurrently with the men’s discus, but no worries. Because they were using the discus cage that sits right next to the javelin runway, it was possible to follow both events at the same time.

That was nice, because I really wanted to see Oklahoma’s Brittany Borman try to defend her title. Borman, who looks like what the actress Emma Stone would look like if Emma Stone could clean 100k, has had a fantastic throwing career at Oklahoma but one characterized by dramatic unpredictability. She finished second in the NCAA discus in 2010, came into the 2011 meet as one of the favorites and… fouled out of the prelims. She also finished second in the jav in 2010, came into the 2011 meet as the clear favorite and…looked very shaky in the prelims before righting her ship and knocking out a fourth-round 54.32m for the win. In April of this year she launched a 59.42m missile, thus announcing herself as a potentially world class javelin thrower and…hit only 50.89m at the regional and came into Des Moines ranked second behind Stanford freshman Brianna Bain (50.92m). So, it would be interesting to see which version of Borman showed up.

The illogical logic of randomization put Bain in flight one and Borman in flight two, thus giving Bain the chance to maybe get into Borman’s head a little bit by knocking the crap out of one early, but she couldn’t manage it. Her first-round 50.01m was her best throw of the prelims, putting her in second behind Emily Tyrrell of Montana State (50.50m).

Borman took over the lead with her first attempt (52.15m) then pretty much sealed the deal with a round-two toss of 56.27m.

That throw seemed to take the starch out of  the rest of the field, as the first two rounds of the finals produced only two fifty-meter throws, Borman’s fourth-round 53.09m and Bain’s fifth-round 51.11m.

The snoozefest continued into round six until, out of the blue, Bain hammered one. I imagine Borman had an uncomfortable moment or two there while waiting for the measurement. Kind of like me when the doorbell rings and I have reason to suspect that one of my sisters-in-law might be in town. But she needn’t have worried. Bain’s 54.93m gave her a new PR and sent a message to her fellow underclassmen that she’ll be the one to beat in 2013, but it was not enough to pull off the upset.


Women’s Discus

Last year, Arizona State’s Anna Jelmini came to Des Moines as one of the favorites, threw quite well (57.97m), held first place going into round six, and lost the title to an unheralded thrower, Tracey Rew of Northwestern Louisiana who PR’d by three meters.

No way something like that could happen two years in a row, right?

Aside from Jelmini, the top returners from 2011 were Tennessee’s Annie Alexander (3rd), Michigan State’s Beth Rohl (6th), and San Diego State’s Whitney Ashley (7th), none of whom had come within two meters of Jelmini at regionals where she posted 57.49m.

Rohl and Ashley were both slotted in flight one, and as warm-ups began (around 5:00) the sun started to ease up a bit and a light breeze continued wafting in, making the conditions quite pleasant for throwers and spectators.

Rohl and Ashley each punched their ticket to the finals during round one, Rohl hitting 55.69m and Ashley producing a 42-centimeter PR of 56.22m. None of the other flight-one throwers would advance. That included Brittany Borman, who had to skip the javelin awards ceremony in order to report for the discus. She looked really smooth technically, but just didn’t seem to have much pop and could manage only a round-two 52.48m. I asked her afterwards if she was exhausted after throwing the jav in that sun for two hours but she no, she felt fine and was not sure why she couldn’t get off a better throw in the disc. It was kind of a sad way to end what had been an outstanding college discus career, but she was already looking forward to competing in the javelin in the Olympic Trials and beyond. She plans to continue training at OU under her current coach, Brian Blutreich, and with two NCAA jav titles and the Olympic B-standard under her belt, she could not be blamed for losing a bit of focus in the discus.

Jelmini had to be feeling pretty good as flight two was brought out to take their warm-up throws. The weather was getting nicer by the minute, and nobody in flight one had done anything that might cause her undo worry. She snapped off a couple of warm-up throws in the 60-meter range, and looked relaxed and confident even when she mistimed one and yanked it badly down the left foul line. Her coach, Dave Dumble, encouraged her to “face the throw longer” as she appeared to be pulling down a bit with her head and left arm as she sprinted out of the back of the ring.

Speaking of technique, it was interesting to note the variety of approaches found among the women. While almost all the male discus throwers looked alike technically, almost none of the women did. Jelmini has a unique way of holding the discus—she sort of cups it against her forearm, and she chalks her throwing arm from wrist to elbow to keep the disc from sticking. Whitney Ashley lets the disc drop down near her right knee as she leaves the back of the ring. Nebraska junior Morgan Wilken seems to throw her head and right arm towards the center of the ring as a way of creating momentum out of the back and then sprints under the discus and into the power position. Also, unlike the men, there were several fixed-feet throwers among the ladies, including Ashley and Morgan.

Throwing sixth in her flight, Jelmini stepped in and took control right away. Her 58.79m opener put her into the lead by two-and-a-half meters. She followed that up with a round-two foul (another yanker down the left foul line) and a round-three 55.12m. Queuing up behind her and into medal contention were Alexander at 56.69m and Ashley Hearn of UC Davis who smoked a second-round 56.30m, ran over to the spectator berm, flashed her coach a big smile and declared, “That, was a PR!”

The top five heading into the final then were Jelmini, Alexander, Hearn, Rohl, and Ashley.

Jelmini got back on track in round four and fired a 58.34m—again almost two meters better than everyone else, but not quite the coup de grâce she was hoping for.  Otherwise, it was a quiet round, with no changes in the rankings.

Suddenly, in round five, things got interesting. By then, the weather was just about perfect. The harsh sun was gone. The breeze was blowing in. The opportunity was there for someone to nail a big throw.

The first to take advantage was Rohl. Her 56.85m jumped her into third place.

Next up was Whitney Ashley, and she absolutely killed one. Her coach let out a yell as the disc bit near the 60meter line.  A few seconds later the exact distance flashed up on the board: 59.99m, four meters farther than her PR coming into this meet. She was now in first place.

Ashley Hearn was up next and, remarkably, came veeeery close to trumping Whitney Ashley’s bomb as she hit the sixty-meter line…but just barely fouled at the front of the ring.

God only knows what was going through Jelmini’s head as she stepped up for her fifth throw. The conditions were right for her to throw 60 meters and retake the lead, but could she do it after being knocked out of first by a miracle throw two consecutive years? She did an impressive job of keeping her composure, but could only reach 58.19m.

Not much action in round six until Hearn got in and drilled 57.94m. She told us later that she had struggled the entire year until just before regionals when she and her coach decided to change her windup so that she kept more weight on her left leg. That helped her get out of the back efficiently, and basically saved her career. That sixty-meter foul has her determined to continue throwing post-collegiately.

Whitney Ashley finished with a 56.41m toss. Jelmini had one more shot at retaking the lead, but could manage only 56.75m. She stood in the ring for a long time after the throw landed.


Men’s Javelin

Covering the throws in the heat of June makes a man powerful thirsty, so after the first day’s events were over we retired to a West Des Moines pub called Old Chicago where they have an awesome beer selection and where, on Wednesday nights, every third beer is free. Yes, you read that correctly.

We woke up Thursday morning feeling thoroughly refreshed, and headed to the Blank Park Zoo to while away some time before the Day 2 throwing events. My favorite exhibits were the tortoises and the animatronic mastodon. I also came away with a very nice blackmail picture of Pat cuddling a baby seal doll.

Last year, Tim Glover of Illinois State had the javelin title sewn up after his first throw—an 80.33m bomb that left everyone else fighting for second place. A year later he arrived in Des Moines stronger (a 125k bench—up from 105k, and a 130k hang clean—up from 110k), more experienced, and determined not only to defend his title but to reach the Olympic A standard of 82.00m. He had come close earlier this season with a toss of 81.31m at the Sea Rays Relays.

Stepping up to challenge Glover were 2011 runner-up Matthias Treff of Virginia Tech, Texas A&M’s Sam Humphreys (3rd in 2011) and Florida sophomore Stipe Zunic (4th in 2011). Also in the hunt was Oregon freshman Sam Crouser, who posted a fine 76.70m toss in the regionals. Humphreys likely posed the biggest threat, as he came in with the leading throw out of regionals (77.94m) after winning the Big 12 meet with a PR toss of 78.98m. He is also a very large man who looks like he could punch out a steer.

Glover, Treff, and Crouser were all slotted into flight one. Warmups began at 2:00, and it was smoking hot out by then. There are a few small trees scattered on the spectator hill overlooking the jav runway, so Pat and I grabbed a spot underneath one of them, but there was still no escaping the oppressive heat. I know that journalists are meant to be impartial, but Pat is a teammate of Glover’s, so I’m not going lie—we were rooting for him big time and hoping that he’d open up with a monster toss like last year.

Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.

Glover put together an okay series, 73.46m, 75.42m, 71.69m, but could not deliver a knockout blow. He ended up second in the flight, behind Treff’s 75.83m. Crouser, like Humphreys an imposing physical specimen, could manage only 70.09m.

Out marched flight two, and into the tent went Glover with a lot of time to think things over.

Now it was Humphreys’ chance to turn up the heat, and he wasted no time, opening with 76.93m to take the lead. But that was the best he could muster (he followed up with 75.01m and 76.76m) and it was not likely to hold up against Glover.

Heading into the final then, it was Humphreys, Treff, and Glover, followed by two seniors—Ignacio Guerra of Western Kentucky (74.84m) and Ben Chretien of McNeese State (74.78m).

Illinois State throws coach Erik Whitsitt told us later that the lack of a big throw from the second flight gave him a chance to help Glover regroup. “Ever since Tim hit his big one at the Sea Ray Relays, he’s been focused on getting the A standard rather than competing. Before the final, I just had to settle him down…convince him to just go out and get the win and stop thinking about throwing 82 meters.”

Mission accomplished. The newly relaxed Glover hammered an 81.69m to take a commanding lead. Humphreys responded with 79.62m in round five. They were the only two who managed to improve over their preliminary throws.

I asked Pat if he was worried when Glover started slowly in prelims. “No,” he replied. “The thing about Tim is that he’s got a heart and a cannon.” Both came in handy on this day.

The good news for javelin fans? Each of the top three will be back next year.


Women’s Hammer

Going in, this appeared to be a contest between three throwers each of whom had a remarkable month of May.

Alena Krechyk of Kansas by way of Belarus had set a school and conference record of 69.02m at the Big 12 meet and followed that up with a 68.23m toss at regionals.  Jeneva McCall of Southern Illinois had broken the Missouri Valley Conference record with a throw of 68.58m and then nailed 69.13m at regionals. Amanda Bingson of UNLV did not break the Mountain West Conference record when she won her third consecutive title with a throw of 67.94m, but her 71.04m regional toss led all qualifiers.

All three of these ladies were slotted into the second flight.

The women’s hammer ran concurrently with the men’s jav, and my vote for Man Most Likely to Suffer Heat Stroke went to Coach Whitsitt who had to scramble around the spectator hill for two hours trying to coax a jav title out of Tim Glover while also keeping tabs on ISU hammer thrower Brittany Smith. A 2011 finalist, Smith tossed a solid 66.19m at regionals but then, according to Whitsitt, fell into a bit of a funk. “The big thing with us,” he explained, “is that we are expected to compete at the conference level so we have to peak them a little bit…then we have to create another mini-peak for the regional and national championships. Brittany’s last week of practice was probably one of her worst all year just because she was kind of feeling beat to crap, but she started to liven up a bit the last two days.”

She certainly looked lively during warm-ups, dropping a couple in the 65-meter range and flashing Coach Whitsitt a thumbs up. She then took charge of flight one with a fine series: 67.31m, 67.54m, and 68.45m. Behind her were the 6’3” Swede, Ida Storm of UCLA (65.68m), and Jenny Ozorai, a native of Hungary competing for USC (65.20m).

Of the flight two throwers, McCall may have faced the greatest mental challenge as she was competing in three events (discus, hammer, shot put) the first of which had not gone well.  The 2010 discus champion, this year she managed a best of 54.05m in the prelims and did not advance to the final. Bitterly disappointed, she let herself grieve for a couple of hours afterwards and then took in a showing of the film “Battleship.” That apparently did the trick, as her opening salvo of 68.47m in the hammer put her into first place.

Meanwhile, neither Krechyk nor Bingson could get it rolling. Krechyk’s second-round 64.58m assured her a spot on the podium, but did not put her in the hunt for the title. Bingson opened with two fouls. “I was just really confused about what was going on because I’d picked up some habits I’d never had before,” she said later. Facing a really lousy end to a fine college career, Bingson stepped over to the spectator area, coaxed her eight-year-old cousin into giving her a hug, and then stepped into the ring and hit 66.96m which put her into third place behind McCall and Smith.

The final was uneventful. Smith, after an hour break, could not recapture her prelim luster. Her best throw in the finals was a round-four 66.26m. McCall extended her lead a bit with a round-four 68.67m, but Bingson continued to struggle, sandwiching a 63.80m between two fouls. Ozorai’s fifth-round 65.91m jumped her over Storm into fourth. Georgia’s Nicole Lomnicka, the 2010 champion, finished an injury-plagued career with a sixth-round 64.55m that moved her from ninth into seventh-place, just behind Krechyk.

That was the last throwing event of the day, which was lucky since both Pat and I felt dangerously dehydrated at that point. Fortunately, Peggy’s Tavern is just a short walk from the track, and they helped us regain our vigor with some of those aforementioned $3.00 beers.


Men’s Hammer

Friday morning’s Des Moines Register contained a nice article about Tim Glover, although they referred to him by the rather unfortunate nickname of “Tiny Tim.” Regardless, Pat tucked it in his bag as a souvenir for his teammate, and we headed for the track.

Going in, this shaped up as a ferocious battle: 2010 World Junior Champion Connor McCullough of Princeton vs. 2011 NCAA Champion Alex Ziegler of Virginia Tech. Unfortunately, a few days after McCullough won the East Regional with a throw of 72.40m, it was announced that he had been declared academically ineligible.

That left Ziegler to defend his title against the likes of Florida junior Jeremy Postin (70.23m at Drake, 66.50m at regionals) and UCLA sophomore Alec Faldermeyer (69.89m at Mt. SAC, 67.04m at regionals).

No offense to those guys, but everyone knew that with McCullough absent this was Ziegler’s meet to win, and he wasted no time in doing just that. Throwing in flight one on another sun-scorched afternoon, he opened with 70.86m, improved to 72.96m, and then sealed the deal with a third-round toss of 73.35m.

Postin, also in flight one, put together a pretty nice series himself (69.47m, 69.36m, F) but the way Ziegler was dealing, he had no shot.

Faldermeyer was the class of flight two, his third round 68.37m ensconcing him comfortably into third place. But when the finalists were sorted out and the competition resumed, so did the butt-whipping. You could tell by Ziegler’s reaction to his prelim throws that he felt a big one brewing. He did not look especially thrilled with any of them, and he again showed a little frustration after his round-four toss of 72.59m. Finally, in round five he grooved one, encouraging it in flight with a long, loud yell. When a hammer is in the air long enough to travel 75.78m it leaves you plenty of time to vocalize, and Alex took full advantage.

The effort must have tired him out, as he finished the day with a pedestrian 70.29m, which by the way, would still have been good enough for the win.

Afterwards, Alex said that the break between flights probably helped him. His coach, Greg Jack, had exhorted him during prelims to “finish” his throws and the down time gave him a chance to digest that advice.  I got a chuckle out of this, because I know that his coach, Greg Jack is not a fan of randomized prelim flights. He told me quite emphatically last year that the best throwers deserve the chance to throw in flight two so that they can build on their prelim performances without a momentum-killing interruption. I guess it worked out okay this time, though.

Ziegler is German, and planned to return home after NCAA’s to compete in his National Championships. I am a huge fan of German throwers like Robert Harting and Ralph Bartels, and it was fun talking to Alex about them. Harting, apparently, is a man of strong opinions. I won’t tell you what he said about people who wear straps when they lift, but take it from me—if you ever find yourself sharing a platform with him, leave the straps in your locker.

If he is able to snag the qualifying mark of 76.00m, Alex would then move on to the European Championships before returning to Virginia Tech for summer school. He has one more year of eligibility remaining, so hammer fans might finally get to see a Ziegler/McCullough heavyweight bout next year.


Women’s Shot Put

Last year, Arizona’s Julie Labonté steamrolled through a season in which she never lost a collegiate competition. This year, with Lebonté redshirting outdoors, Oklahoma’s Tia Brooks took over as Avenger of the women’s shot.

She also broke my heart.

I love the non-reverse glide, and last year Brooks had a great one. This year, on the advice of her coach, Brian Blutreich, she began using a reverse to “get out over the toe board better” while still being able to save the throw. Whaaaatever.

It’s not like it worked or anything. Okay, she threw 19 meters indoors. She won the indoor NCAA meet by more than a meter over a field that included Labonté. She won the Big 12 title indoors and out. She won the Drake Relays while hitting the Olympic A standard.  She…never mind.

The only collegiate thrower to defeat Brooks this year was Arizona’s Alyssa Hasslen, who blasted an 18.35m toss at Mt. SAC. Unfortunately, Hasslen had since been derailed by injury and would not be competing in Des Moines.

Slotted into flight one, Brooks took the Ziegler approach and let everyone know right away that she wasn’t here to mess. First throw: 18.14m. Second throw: 18.13m. It would take a Whitney Ashley style thunderbolt for someone to challenge Brooks. Redshirt freshman Kearsten Peoples, a spinner who finished second to Brooks in the Big 12 meet and in the regional was probably the only thrower in flight one with a chance to stay close. Peoples qualified in the discus and hammer as well, and certainly has the potential to become an elite shot putter. She’s big, and she can move as evidenced by her sixth-place finish in the disc. Her best toss in prelims though, was a second-round 17.31m, well below her regional mark of 17.74m and not enough to bother Brooks who fouled her third throw and then retired to the holding area with a substantial lead.

Two throwers in the second flight seemed to have at least an outside shot at challenging Brooks. Hammer champion Jeneva McCall had used her highly unusual non-reverse spin technique to reach 17.89m at her conference meet. Hammer runner-up Brittany Smith had thrown 17.92m at Sea Rays. Could one of them find some magic?

It sure didn’t look like it would be Smith, as she struggled mightily to find her rhythm going 16.61m, 16.70m, and 16.52. That put her into eighth place heading into the final.

McCall opened tentatively with 16.06m, but quickly got her bearings and took over second place with a round-two 17.67m.

The top five heading into the finals were Brooks, McCall, senior Annie Alexander of Tennessee (17.36m), Peoples, and Louisville senior Chinwe Okoro (17.21m).

In each of the throwing events, the finalists were given a few minutes to take some warm-up throws, and Smith put that time to good use. After three subpar prelim throws, she was able to find some rhythm during warm-ups and on her first attempt of the finals moved from eighth to second with a toss of 17.80m.

Brooks quickly put an end to any thoughts of an upset with a fourth-round 18.44m. The only other finalist to move up in the standings was Indiana State junior Felisha Johnson whose round-six 17.35m moved her from ninth to fifth.

Afterwards, an ebullient Brooks told us that her favorite lift is the jerk (her max is 130k) and that she had plenty left in the tank for the Olympic Trials,  Coach Blutreich having adjusted her training after she nailed the A-standard indoors.

Pat and I decided to adjust our training as well. Three days of that heat was just too much for us, and knowing that we’d need to leave something in the tank for tomorrow’s men’s shot put competition, we had dinner at Panera and packed it in for the night.


Men’s Shot Put

If anyone has figured out the secret to throwing well under pressure, it is Arizona State junior Jordan Clark. Yes, he is a big, powerful man (485 bench, 175k clean) but according to Coach Dumble, Clark’s greatest asset is that “he’s got it between the ears.”

“He’s level-headed and confident. He thinks he can win every meet, but he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself.”

That mental strength, combined with Clark’s physical gifts and outstanding technique make him a hard man to beat.

This was not, however, likely to be a one-person show like the men’s hammer and women’s shot. The field was loaded with possible contenders. The first prelim flight alone featured Mason Finley, Auburn’s Stephen Saenz, and the Texas trio of Hayden Ballio, Ryan Crouser, and Jacob Thormaehlen.

As in the men’s disc though, the contenders struggled to find some rhythm in the early going.

Finley opened the proceedings on this, you guessed it, hot, sun-bleached morning by way over-rotating and spinning out of the ring to the left of the toe board for a foul. Crouser stopped in the middle of his first attempt, reset, then threw 18.50m. Clark over-rotated badly on his first attempt and tossed it out of bounds to the left. Ballio, employing an unusual start to his throw (he winds, starts to open to his left, then rewinds and carries out the throw) opened with 18.60m. Thormaehlen hit only 18.13m.

Ohio State’s Matt DeChant was the first to find some comfort. A lefty who throws his free arm way ahead out of the back in the manner of Christian Cantwell, he took the early lead with a round-one 19.46m.

The token glider of the group, Bozidar Antunovic, a 6’6” Serbian throwing for the University of Arizona, opened with 19.25m.

Mason, once again running down the left foul line, got on the board in round two with a toss of 19.33m. Clark took over the lead with 19.56m. Ballio moved up with a 19.24m toss. DeChant reclaimed the lead with 19.57m. Thormaehlen got into the mix with 19.43m, as did Saenz with 19.54

With both flights full of top-notch putters, it was difficult to predict what it might take to make the final, so several throwers stepped into the ring for round three anxious to move up. The first was Finley, whose 19.33m had him sitting in fifth. He did not help himself, though, once again over-rotating badly and stepping over the left side of the toe board for a foul. Crouser, sitting ninth, fouled as well and walked out of the ring clutching his right hand. Ballio’s 19.24m had him in seventh, and all he could manage was 18.94m. Thormaehlen, who finished second indoors, seemed to be intent on hammering a big one, but reached only 18.34m with his third effort and unleashed a growl of frustration as he exited the ring.

Meanwhile, Clark, looking very smooth, popped a 19.57m to tie DeChant (who fouled his third throw) for the lead. He was not on top for long, though, as Saenz blasted a 19.71m to take over first.

Flight two featured two veterans from the Big 10 Conference, Penn State’s Joe Kovacs and Nebraska’s Luke Pinkelman, both of whom had to be considered serious contenders here. If they could match their efforts from the Big 10 Conference meet (Kovacs: 20.85m, Pinkelman: 20.02m) they’d be tough to beat.

Like many of the flight one contestants, Kovacs opened tentatively, hitting only 18.77m. Pinkelman, on the other hand, put himself securely in the final with his opening toss of 19.50m. Kovacs took over second place with his round-two 19.58m, but then Pinkelman (channeling his inner Tressa Thompson with his bent-over windup) drilled a 19.72m to seize the overall lead and drop Kovacs into third. Like Thormaehlen, Kovacs seemed to ratchet up his aggressiveness each throw in an effort to launch one. He got the crowd clapping before his third effort, but could reach only 19.30m. As he left the ring he motioned to his coach that the shot had come off of his hand wrong.

Pinkelman and Kovacs turned out to be the only two throwers from their flight to make the final.

Forty-eight centimeters now separated Pinkelman in first from Ballio in ninth. Literally every one of the finalists had to be sitting there thinking, “You know what? I just might be able to win this thing.”

Round four started slowly though, with only Ballio (19.26m) and Finley (19.38m) bettering their prelim efforts until Clark stepped into the ring. Shot putting is fun to watch, even for the casual fan, because of the aggressiveness of the athletes. I remember NBC doing a feature on Adam Nelson during the 2000 Olympics that focused on his pre-throw routine of shouting, chucking his shirt, and stomping around looking like he wanted to bite someone. NBC figured that would capture people’s interest, and they were right. It is fun to watch guys go a little nuts. I think it is largely because of Nelson that we now have those shot put only competitions in places like the Zurich train station.

But Clark is kind of the anti-Nelson during competition. In spite of the heat, in spite of the pressure of defending his title against a stacked field, his expression never changed, the rhythm of his throws never changed. He rarely yelled. He sure didn’t on his fourth throw. He just stepped in and smoothed it out there 20.40m to take the lead. He actually clapped a couple of times after it landed, but he quickly got his wits about him and took a seat.

Kovacs was up next. He is a powerful young man (his back squat PR is 750), but again could not quite line one up and settled for 19.45m. Saenz followed. He had been chucking with a lot of confidence all day. I was filming the competition and almost missed a couple of his throws because he got into the ring so quickly when his name was called. Accordingly, he jumped in during round four and hit 19.78m to take over second place. Pinkelman responded with a foul.

Not much action in round five. Clark stayed locked in and hit 20.20m. Saenz fouled a 20-meter throw. Kovacs and Pinkelman fouled as well.

And so began round six. Ballio ended a disappointing day with 18.95m. A junior, he will likely be a contender next year. Finley notched his fourth foul of the competition. He told us that his goal for next year was to get his weight down to around 350 pounds so that he can get faster. I, for one, hope he succeeds. He’s a very polite, humble dude who seems a bit lost right now in the shot put ring. If he can find a groove, he’ll certainly be in the mix in 2013.

Thormaehlen, a senior, improved slightly to 19.45m. He looked dynamic in the ring the whole competition, but just could not hit one. Antunovic struck a blow for gliders by hitting 19.51m to jump from ninth to sixth. He’ll return next year. DeChant, another senior, fouled his final attempt. Throwing in the first flight may have messed him up, as he could not find his rhythm after the long break.

Clark urged the crowd to get behind him for his last throw, then let out his first yell of the day as he released it. He hit 19.92m. All three of his throws in the finals would have been good enough for the win.

Kovacs finished with 19.14m, and took his disappointment philosophically. “Sometimes you just fall into positions,” he told us, but on this day he couldn’t quite line one up. He plans to go into coaching and will be looking for a graduate assistant job for next year. He was not sure if he would continue throwing after the Olympic Trials.

Saenz, a sophomore, finished with another foul. He has the Olympic B standard and hopes to represent Mexico at the Games.

Pinkelman never got rolling in the finals and finished his collegiate career with 19.24m, which kept him in third place.

Clark will return to defend his title. He suffers from a couple of herniated discs in his lower back, but he and Dumble have figured out ways to train around that (he squats, for example, using a device called a Pit Shark). If Crouser makes it through next year healthy, if Finley loses some weight and gains some confidence, if Saenz keeps improving, then maybe one of them will dethrone Clark. But, I don’t know. Even in this era of Marvel Comics Superheroes, it won’t be easy beating Superman.

Thanks, Des Moines, for putting on another great meet. Thanks to Pat for his invaluable navigational skills, his vast knowledge of the college throwing scene, and his remarkable patience—he never complained once about the air-conditioning in my Prius not working. Thanks, especially, to my wife and daughter for letting me go off on these jaunts every summer and acting like they are glad to see me when I return.

by Dan McQuaid