Stipe Zunic can kick your butt!

stipe euro


In so very many ways.

Bench pressing?

He has put up  570lbs.

Javelin throwing?

He is a two-time All-American.


He is a former Junior World Champion in kickboxing.

stipe boxer


Shot putting?

Hmmm. A couple years ago, you might have had a chance. But since Stipe and his coach at the University of Florida, Steve Lemke, decided sixteen months ago to focus exclusively on that event  Zunic has made quite a bit of progress.

At the time, Stipe was recovering from shoulder and elbow surgery and Coach Lemke hoped, with a lot of hard work, to help him become an 18-meters-plus shot putter who could score points for his team at the 2014 SEC meet.

Turns out he did score points at that meet. In fact, he ended up winning…with a toss of 20.52m.

Then, last August he upped his PR to 20.68m and finished fourth while representing his native Croatia at the European Championships .

After a fall and winter spent refining his technique (Coach Lemke says that Stipe can be inconsistent with his sweep coming out of the back and sometimes gets a little tall in the middle of the ring) Stipe returned to Europe two weeks ago and set a new Croatian national record of 20.67m during the prelims of the European Indoor Championships in Prague.

The Stipe Express was briefly derailed by a jet-lagged night before the finals spent staring sleeplessly at the walls of his hotel room–he finished a disappointing 7th place with a throw of 20.28m–and who could blame him if he showed up at the University of Arkansas for the NCAA Indoor Championships a week later throwing like a man greatly in need of some alone time?

With triple NCAA champion Ryan Crouser of Texas leading a loaded field into Fayetteville, I’m not sure how many people other than Stipe figured he had a chance to win.

But, Stipe’s greatest asset right now in the shot (aside from size, strength, balance, and ridiculous hops) might be the fact that he is so new to the event it doesn’t occur to him that he should not be…well…great at it just yet.

I asked Coach Lemke if he and Stipe were worried about the surface of the ring in Fayetteville (it was  apparently quite rough) and he said that when they practiced at the facility on Thursday the condition of the ring never came up.

“Stipe has great balance and plenty of horsepower,” Lemke told me later,”and he is so new to the event that he didn’t know to worry about the surface of the ring. We never even discussed it.”

Apparently there was no need to, as during the competition on Saturday Stipe broke 20 meters on each of his six throws, including a third-round 20.85m which put him solidly into first until Crouser answered with 20.90m, and a fifth-round 21.11m which put him back into first and allowed him to hold off Crouser’s round six toss of 20.93m.

So when will Stipe finally get some well-deserved rest?

Good question.

With only two weeks until the Texas Relays and two months before another outdoor SEC meet and three months before the outdoor NCAAs and six months before the World Championships in Beijing?

That’s a lot of asses waiting to be kicked.

Rest will just have to wait.








John Smith loses an argument…and gains an NCAA champion

raven ncaa

Okay, I don’t know if it was a full-blown argument.

But John Smith, throws coach at Southern Illinois University, is a man who makes decisions based on data. So, if you are going to disagree with him, especially on something as important as how to get ready to throw bombs at the NCAA Indoor Championship, well…you’d better present a solid case.

According to Coach Smith, 80% of throwers perform better in big meets if they lift the day before. So when it came time to set up a training schedule for freshman phenom Raven Saunders as she prepared for last Saturday’s competition in Fayettville, he naturally penciled her in  for a lifting session on Friday.

It turns out, however, that during her national-record-setting high school career Raven had become accustomed to lifting two days prior to a big competition and then resting completely the day before. It worked for her then, and she insisted to Smith that, in spite of his data, it would work for her now.

The resulting impasse was finally settled when Smith called Raven’s high school coach, who confirmed that Raven responded well after lifting two days prior to a competition.

Smith caved, and told me later that the recommendations of Raven’s high school coach “likely won her a title.”

It turns out that Saunders needed every bit of whatever it is you get from peaking properly, as LSU’s Tori Bliss (who, by the way, attended the same high school as Coach Smith) blasted a fifth round PR of 18.32m to knock Raven and her third round best of 18.22m into second place on Saturday.

After Tori’s distance was announced, Smith told himself that he was “about to find out what I’ve got here.”

“When someone hits a PR ahead of you, you either die or attack,” he said afterwards.

Apparently preferring the latter, Raven barged into the ring and notched her own PR–an 18.62m bomb that was long enough to withstand Tori’s final round 18.47m.

One other bit of preparation may also have made a big difference for Raven.

In the weeks leading up to the NCAA Championships, Smith was told by a fellow coach that the newly-poured concrete rings in Fayettville were extremely rough.

To acclimate his throwers to a slow surface, he attached a toe board to a hammer insert and placed it on a mondo surface. For two weeks leading up to to the NCAA’s, that is what his throwers practiced on.

It took a while to get used to it, but based on the results (four All-American finishes) Smith’s throwers seemed well prepared on their arrival in Arkansas.



The Prospect from Prospect Comes Up Big

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So I’m at the Illinois state track meet a few years ago and on the day of the prelims it is cold and raining and the discus flights are delayed several hours. They finally start warmups for the flight that my athlete is in, and it is slow going.

Every kid has to wipe off the ring before his warmup throw, and even then the footing is dicey.

So, of course, the official in charge of this particular flight ignores the conditions and strictly enforces a 20-minute warmup period, which means that each kid gets in the ring twice.

My kid, who had come up big at the sectional the week before when he threw a PR of 155′ to qualify for the state meet, was totally rattled by the situation. The disc looked like it weighed about twelve pounds  when it left his half-frozen hand, and the best he could muster on his three prelim throws at state was 135 feet.

I wasn’t mad at him, because under those conditions it was hard to imagine anyone throwing far.

And yet…

There was this kid from Prospect High who did not exactly look ummm….gazelle-like moving through the ring, but seemed very strong and very determined.

I don’t remember how far he threw that day, but it was enough to move on to the final where he threw even farther and earned a spot on the podium.

Later on, someone told me that his name was Matt Babicz, and this was his first year in the sport.

The following year, this prospect from Prospect reached the 180’s and then…I wasn’t sure what happened to him.

He lacked the lanky looseness common to premier discus prospects, and also lacked the kind of shot put prowess (his high school PR was 57 feet) that would have attracted attention in that event.

It turns out that he ended up in the perfect place: Depaul University in Chicago, Illinois, under the care of throws coach Brandon Murer.

And it didn’t take Coach Murer long to figure out that this thick, tough, explosive-aggressive young man was best suited to throw the shot in college.

When Matt arrived on campus, he informed Coach Murer that he intended to be a discus thrower.

The first time he tried throwing the 16-lb shot he barely broke the 13-meter barrier.

But he finished his freshman campaign with a shot PR of 16.84m and a disc PR of 48.13m and started to realize that maybe, just maybe, coach knew what he was talking about.

As a sophomore he was Big East champion in the shot with a career-best throw of 18.33m.

The following year was lost to shoulder surgery.

Last year, Matt was again Big East champion and, in spite of a finger injury (the plague of many if not all shot putters) he hit 19.47m and qualified for nationals.

Surgery last summer relieved him of a couple of bone chips in a knuckle on his throwing hand and, combined with the maturity that all coaches hope to see in their veteran athletes (Matt now understands the importance of regular stretching, regular treatment for various aches and pains inherent to shot putting, and regular shall-we-say hitting of efficient positions rather than rushing through the throw) set him up for a very successful senior year.

In spite of his recent surgical experiences, Matt has been able to squat over 500 pounds and bench over 400 pounds.

More importantly, he has recently been named Depaul’s Scholar Athlete of the Year.

Oh, and by the way, he blasted a PR of 19.96 meters at Notre Dame’s Alex Wilson Invitational on February 21st to secure a spot in this year’s incredibly-competitive NCAA indoor championships.

And though he will be going up against the likes of Ryan Crouser and Stipe Zunic (4th place finisher at last year’s European Championships) don’t count this guy out.

I’ve seen him compete in less-than-ideal conditions.  He came up big then, and he may very well do the same this weekend.


The Next Croatian Sensation

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So my wife and I were stuck in a doctor’s office for nearly four hours this morning, which I imagine is a lot like spending time in purgatory but with less comfortable chairs.

The doctor was running two hours behind schedule, and it was becoming increasingly clear to me why Buddy the Elf started eating those cotton balls when I remembered that the European Indoor Championships started today. I’d had a very nice conversation with University of Florida throws coach Steve Lemke earlier in the week, and I was interested  to see how things were going for his shot putter, Stipe Zunic, who was in Prague representing Croatia.

Turns out things were going just fine.

So fine, in  fact, that when one of the nurses mentioned that she had grown up in Croatia, I was able to inform her that her country had a new indoor national shot put record of 20.67m.

She had no idea what a “shot put” was and seemed confused as to why I would be excited about a Croatian throwing one far, but my wife assured her that I was harmless, and something tells me that if I run into her again a couple of years from now, say after the 2016 Olympics, she’ll know all about the shot put and Stipe Zunic.

Recruited  out of Zadar, Croatia, Stipe was always, in the words of Coach Lemke, “a javelin thrower in a shot putter’s body.”

After earning All-American status in the jav as a freshman and sophomore, a shoulder injury forced Stipe to redshirt the 2013 season, and to consider becoming a shot putter in a shot putter’s body.

According to Coach Lemke, Stipe was so strong (he could bench 500 pounds) and athletic (he was a Junior World Champion in kick-boxing) that reaching 18 meters in the shot seemed like a realistic goal.

In  February of 2014, he threw 18.98m at the Texas A&M Invitational.

Outdoors, at the Texas Relays, he reached 19.30m.

Shortly thereafter, at the Florida State Twilight meet, he surpassed 19.80m four times and established a new PR of 19.52m

Then things started to get a little crazy.

20.52m at the conference meet.

20.60m at the NCAA East Preliminary Round.

A slightly disappointing 19.67m at the NCAA Championships.

And then a personal best of 20.68m at the European Championships last August.

I was at that competition, and I remember being confused because I had also been at the 2011 and 2012 NCAA championships when Stipe was still a javelin thrower.

Throughout the final in Zurich, I kept thinking “Wait, is that the same Stipe Zunic?”

The answer is “Yes and no.”

It is the same Stipe who placed in Des Moines in 2011 and 2012, but he  now weighs 286 pounds, benches 570, behind-the-neck jerks 455 and puts the shot 18 meters from the stand.

Coach Lemke says that Stipe has been reluctant to completely abandon the jav, and actually threw it at last year’s SEC outdoor championships but felt too “beat up” afterwards to throw again at the regional.

This year, they talked about having Stipe throw only the shot at the SEC meet then compete in both at the regional and NCAA finals, but that is not likely to happen now that the schedule for Eugene has been announced and the men’s shot and jav are to be held on the same day.

But, that’s still a ways down the road.

The European Indoor shot final is tomorrow, and if he can come away with a medal, Stipe will have taken another major step towards sharing the “Croatian Sensation” mantel with discus great Sandra Perkovic.

Here are Stipe’s throws from the qualification round: