Michigan to open throws palace in 2018


michigan field house


Next January, the University of Michigan will inaugurate a new indoor and outdoor track facility. Currently under construction, it is  known as the “Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus Athletics South Competition and Performance Project” but it won’t be long before it picks up a catchier name among throws aficionados, something along the lines of “The Stephen M. Ross Palace of Awesomeness.”

Ok, it won’t just be a throwing facility.

The field house will also contain a state-of-the-art, 200-meter, banked, hydraulic track surrounded by a three-lane, 300-meter practice track, a weight room with 42 platforms, training facilities for the rowing, soccer, tennis, wrestling, lacrosse, and  gymnastics teams, and enough locker room space for a good chunk of the civilized world.

But, the fact that you are reading this article on this site tells me that you are not terribly interested in banked tracks or gymnastics facilities, so let’s get to the good stuff.

Four years ago, Michigan hired this man…

…Jerry Clayton, as head coach of the men’s track team.  He brought with him thirty years of experience at the University of Illinois, Southwest Texas State, the University of Florida, and Auburn. During that time he coached…

• 2 World champions

• 2 Olympic Medalists (Silver, Bronze)

• 16 individual NCAA Champions

• 80+ All-Americans

He also accumulated quite a bit of expertise in the construction of track and field facilities, so when  the athletic department acquired two old warehouses on the edge of campus and decided that the land they occupied would be an ideal spot on which to build new indoor and outdoor track arenas, Jerry was the perfect guy to have on hand.

Fortunately, the  administration at Michigan realized that and gave Jerry lots of leeway in designing the new facility.

Those of you who have been involved in the construction of a track venue know that this is a rare and wondrous occurrence. When my school rebuilt our athletic facilities a few years ago, our principal called me into his office and demanded to know why we had to have a concrete pad from which to throw the discus. “Can’t they just spin around on the grass?” he fumed. We got our concrete, but I always felt like he resented it as an unnecessary expense.

Jerry’s experience at Michigan has been just the opposite.

“During the fall of my second year, they really started serious planning,” Jerry told me in a recent interview. “They knew that I had built facilities at three of my previous four jobs, and it was incredible how much the administration allowed my input.”

Jerry is one of those guys who could probably coach any event in track and field, so he was able to pitch in with advice on everything from the layout of the track to the ideal seating capacity (2,000 permanent seats, which can be expanded to 3,500 if he gets his wish to someday host the Big Ten and NCAA championships).

But his area of expertise is the throws, and three decades of coaching world class shot putters and discus throwers  such as Mike Lehmann, Gabor Mate,  Edis Elkasevic, and Cory Martin gave him a chance to visit a great variety of training and competition venues  across the United States and Europe. Jerry also encouraged his athletes to send him pictures of the facilities they came across on their travels overseas.

Given the opportunity to design the new facility at Michigan, he tried to combine the best features of all these places, some as close as Lincoln, Nebraska, others as far afield as Berlin, Germany.

A top priority was creating a space that would allow for year-round training of the long throws.

“At one end of the indoor facility (see the illustration above) we will be able to throw the hammer and discus into nets outside of the oval and also outside of the 300-meter track so athletes can still train on those tracks while we throw.”

The finished product will look something like this…

One trick to constructing an effective indoor training space is  to find the right material in which to throw the  hammer. It has to be flexible enough so that the implement does not rebound back at the thrower, but sturdy enough to withstand a lot of abuse.  Luckily, Jerry’s former putter Eric Werskey spent a lot of time in Germany over the past couple of years and was able to obtain the exact specs for the materials the Germans use in their indoor throwing facilities.  According to Jerry, “they  throw the hammer into strips of  PVC vinyl, one quarter inch thick (see photo below). You hang the strips so that they overlap and you can throw a hammer into it and it will only deflect maybe a foot and a half.”  The Michigan space will use that exact grade of PVC.

While many coaches working in a northern climate would be thrilled for their athletes to have the ability to launch hammers and discs into a net all winter, the new facility will allow Jerry to take cold weather training a step further.  If you are a true throws geek, you have likely seen this video of Robert Harting:

He is throwing from an indoor ring through a large open doorway onto an outdoor grass field. Here is another view of a similar facility:

Notice how misty/rainy/crappy the weather looks outside. Kind of like a typical day in the Midwest between November and March.  But with a setup like this, who cares? Your athletes can throw from a dry, covered ring and still know how far their attempts are traveling, which is a distinct advantage over throwing into a net.

Here is a closeup look at the end of the field house where Jerry’s rings will be located:

Two of those rings will be like the ones in those videos, where the athletes will be able to throw from inside the field house onto…

…these outdoor throwing fields.

What makes the Michigan facility potentially better than the German training centers will be the ability to throw the javelin from indoors to out as well. Notice on those blueprints that an extended straightaway from the practice track ends just short of the throwing rings. Jav throwers will be able to use that section of the track as a runway while launching the spear out onto the grass.

One more aspect of the Michigan facility bears mention, though it does not pertain strictly to the throws.

As much as I love the sport of track and field, I  think I can speak for most coaches, athletes and fans when I say that sometimes meets, especially indoor meets, can drag on a bit too long, A lot too long when you have a field of elite pole vaulters.

Jerry has sought to remedy that situation by setting up his new facility so that not only can the weight, shot, and  high jump be run concurrently, but so can two long jump and two (Thank you, Jesus!) pole vault runways.

The facility is set to open in January, 2018, with a quad featuring Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State. Jerry predicts that meet can be completed in two hours.

He is also trying to put together a Big 10 v. ACC challenge featuring at least nine teams, which he believes will take no more than five hours, start to finish.

And speaking of making track and field more fan-friendly, Jerry also designed the new facility to allow live streaming of practices and competitions.

“I made sure they put the conduit in, and also put in  locations for cameras, with a toggle switch in a control room so you can cover the meet live.  The parents will be able to sit at home and watch. That’s the direction that track needs to go. We need to get it out to more alumni, fans and parents. We will have to purchase the cameras later, but when we do the facility will be ready for it.”

Whatever they end up calling this new athletic complex, kudos to Jerry for envisioning a cutting-edge venue that will provide a great track and field experience for coaches, athletes, and spectators.

And kudos to the Michigan administration for hiring a coach with vast experience in his sport and then trusting his advice.

Maybe they should call it the Palace of Miracles.