As the 2019 World Championships begin, I thought it might be interesting to reflect upon the very different roads traveled over the course of this long season by two outstanding young Americans: shot putter Maggie Ewen and discus thrower Laulauga Tausaga.
Maggie, after an astonishingly productive NCAA career, endured some very difficult moments while navigating her first year as a professional.
Laulauga, known to her friends as “Lagi,” experienced almost unrelenting success over the course of a season that began last December and will not end, she hopes, until October 8th–the day of the women’s discus final in Doha.
Let’s focus on Maggie first.
Her plan, after graduating from Arizona State University in 2018, was to remain in Tempe and continue throwing the shot put under the tutelage of the man she worked with for most of her college career: ASU throws coach Brian Blutreich. As Blutreich coached Maggie to NCAA and USATF titles in the shot in 2018, this seemed like a wise approach.
She also intended to continue competing in the hammer as a professional, and though she had flourished in that event under Blutreich as well, winning the 2017 NCAA title and finishing second at that year’s USATF meet, Maggie decided that fellow ASU alum Kyle Long, who serves as a volunteer assistant to Blutreich, would be her primary hammer coach.
The plan seemed to be working well when she opened in January with a put of 19.28m at the New Balance Indoor Invitational.
But it would take her nearly eight months to produce another throw past the nineteen-meter mark.
Early in the outdoor season, she struggled to get within a meter of her 19.46m PB, opening with an 18.58m toss at the Oxy Invitational, followed by bests of 18.48m and 18.57m in Shanghai and Nanjing.
From there, things got worse as she failed to dent the eighteen-meter mark twice in early June, throwing 17.83m at the Paavo Nurmi Games in Finland and 17.30m at the Bislett Games in Norway.
That was a shocking regression for a thrower who, when she hit that 19.46m PB at the 2018 US Championships (a competition where she also had a foul just short of the twenty-meter line) seemed ready to succeed Michelle Carter as the preeminent American female putter.
Meanwhile, she wasn’t exactly killing it in the hammer either.
After setting a PB of 74.56m in 2017 and following that up with a best of 74.53m last year, she opened the 2019 campaign with a solid 72.50m only to tail off with a best of 68.62m at the Desert Heat Classic in Tuscon in late April.
When I traveled to California to cover the Prefontaine Classic in June, I was very interested to get some insight from Maggie as to what was going on with her career.
Quite a bit, as it turns out.
In this short interview recorded the day before the Pre, Maggie announced that she’d recently made a coaching change. She would no longer train the shot with Blutreich. Kyle Long would be her primary coach in both her events.
In that interview, Maggie mentioned a difficulty faced by post-collegiate throwers lucky enough to keep training with their college coach: How do you get the attention you need when you are no longer part of your college program? Coaches at places like ASU get paid to produce NCAA point-scorers–a very time-consuming job. How much of their time can they afford to give you when you are no longer one of those NCAA point-scorers? For an athlete like Maggie, it can’t be easy to go from being your college coach’s number one priority to being someone they struggle to fit into their schedule.
Compounding this problem was the fact that Maggie now had to travel on her own to compete. Her three indoor meets, for example, were in Boston, Albuquerque and New York. Then, during the first two months of the outdoor season as mentioned above, she traveled to Los Angeles, Shanghai, Nanjing, Turku and Oslo.
I spoke with Kyle Long recently, and he told me that all of the changes Maggie had to endure as she made the transition from collegiate to professional made it very difficult for her to find a comfort zone.
“Maggie and Blu were gearing up for a great year,” he said. “It was an issue of circumstance and being the first year that she traveled. We also had a new strength coach, so there was some variety in the lifting that she wasn’t used to. So, with a new strength coach, Blu as shot coach and me as hammer coach she was getting feedback from three different voices. That’s a lot going on in someone’s head.”
Shortly before the Prefontaine, with her season and a chance to compete at the World Championships possibly slipping away, Maggie, in consultation with Long and Blutreich, decided to revise her training plan.
According to Kyle, they realized that, “in the shot, we needed one voice. We also got a new lifting program with someone she trusts as well [shot put great Ryan Whiting, another ASU alum who trains his Desert High Performance athletes in Tempe and who Maggie has known for several years], and that helped.”
The transition to Long as shot put coach was made easier by the fact that Kyle was coached by and now coaches alongside Blutreich, so him taking over Maggie’s shot training did not involve any major adjustments in her technique.
“Everything we do is Blutreich based,” he explained. “I’ve been volunteering for him for two years, and my coaching alongside Blu has helped me help her. Basically, we stuck to his plan.”
According to Kyle, Maggie never lost hope that she could salvage her season.
“When we were at our low towards the Oslo DL meet,” he explained, “she understood that like training in the fall it’s going to suck, but if you keep chipping away it will turn around. So not throwing well didn’t make her not want to throw or to train hard. Her attitude was ‘I’m not going to let myself get buried in this.'”
“We both knew she was talented enough to make the World Championships team. Making the changes when we did gave us a month to figure some things out before USA’s. She did a great job of keeping her eye on that and having faith in me and having faith in herself.”
An 18.04m toss at Pre, though nowhere near her PB, may have been just far enough to reinforce that faith and save her season.
Kyle told me that “had she gone under eighteen meters again at Pre, it’s a different year.”
But something about the way she competed there, the way her throws felt, gave her confidence that her new plan was working and that she had a fighting chance to make the US team for the Doha Worlds.
Which she did, by going 18.44m in the pouring rain at the USATF Championships in Des Moines in late July (here is a quick interview with a rain-soaked Maggie after that competition).
In addition to putting Maggie on the team for Doha, her third-place finish in Des Moines got her an invite to the USA v. Europe match on September 10th in Minsk.
And it was in Minsk that Maggie finally found her groove, though it came about in an odd way.
After fouling out of the hammer competition that morning, then producing a less-than-prodigious opener of 17.06m on her first attempt in the shot, Maggie stepped into the ring in round three and blasted out a 19.47m PB.
You can view that competition and the look of utter relief on Maggie’s face after they announced the 19.47m here.
I asked Kyle whether he had any insight into why Maggie struggled so much with the hammer that day, and he suggested that things were going so well with the shot in practice and she was so focussed on throwing the shot in Minsk, the hammer was “pushed to the back of her mind.”
Understandable, but the obvious follow-up question is this: After all her struggles this season, should throwing the hammer be “pushed to the back” of Maggie’s mind permanently?
Kyle says no.
He acknowledges that “doing both hammer and shot takes a serious physical gift,” but thinks it is possible if an athlete also has “a serious amount of discipline in taking care of themselves.”
In training, he says that “we always have to be aware of how she feels, especially with her history of back trouble.”
But, he believes that Maggie’s “natural rip in the hammer” gives her a chance to compete at a world class level without training it every day and points to her late-season results as proof a balance can be struck.
“We got 75.04m at USA’s and then 19.47m in Minsk while we were training for both, so it can be done.”
He acknowledges that “some people will be skeptical of our decision,” but believes that Maggie is “clearly capable” of excelling in both events.
And the main reason they intend to continue with both?
“She enjoys it so much. It was hard enough for her to give up the discus–her favorite event. If you’re going to break new ground, you’d better be passionate and she is passionate about throwing both the hammer and the shot.”
Speaking of breaking new ground, how about an American discus thrower who travels to her first senior-level international competition, one held in a stadium in Europe, and bombs a PB?
Unfairly or not, American discus throwers have been maligned over the years for launching wind-aided PB’s from wide open cages located outside of stadiums then folding in big international competitions in settings like the one illustrated above.
But it seems that Laulauga Tausauga, the 2019 NCAA discus champion from the University of Iowa is out to change that narrative.
Lagi’s 2019 season could not have been more different from Maggie Ewen’s. She was shockingly consistent, going undefeated in the discus in the months of April, May, and June. a streak that included a 63.26m blast for the win at the NCAA meet in Austin.
A month later, she made the US team for Doha by tossing 62.08m to take third at the US Championships in ideal conditions outside the stadium in Des Moines.
She then threw even farther, a 63.71m PB, inside the stadium in Minsk.
I asked Lagi’s coach at Iowa, Eric Werskey, how she pulled it off.
It turns out that many factors combined to make her performance possible.
First, according to Eric, Lagi possesses “true, raw power.” She can, for example, trap bar deadlift 515 pounds. With that type of strength, Lagi does not need a helping wind in order to throw far.
Second, Lagi is, as Eric puts it “an incredible competitor. When she gets into a stadium her adrenalin gets going and she channels it really well.”
Third, it turns out that Lagi is used to throwing from an international style cage like the one used in Minsk. Eric told me that when Iowa was ready to install a new cage a year ago, he requested one in the IAAF style with doors that are ten meters tall. He says that “if the wind blows slightly, it pushes the net right up to the sector line,” so Lagi has no problem launching throws through a narrow opening.
Also, Eric spent time during his own career as a shot putter training at Chula Vista alongside Joe Kovacs and Whitney Ashley. Their coach, Art Venegas, was very careful to prepare his throwers for the odd quirks of international competitions where throwers might, for example, be given a few warmup tosses at a facility outside the stadium then experience an extended wait before getting a brief warmup period inside the stadium just prior to the competition.
Eric says that while training for the World Championships in 2015, Venegas sometimes had Kovacs and Ashley take a few warmup tosses, sit for half an hour, take two more warmup throws, and then do a practice competition.
Eric took a similar approach in preparing Lagi to compete in Minsk, and it turned out to be a good thing because once the discus competitors were brought into the stadium, they received exactly two warmup throws.
One last factor contributed to Lagi’s big night in Minsk.
Eric says that Lagi did not have great practices in the days leading up to the USA v. Europe meet.
“Usually in training, if she’s on she’ll throw sixty-two meters pretty consistently, but we weren’t at that level. She was hitting sixty or sixty-one maybe one out of every eight throws.”
Eric was not able to make the trip to MInsk, so he asked Justin St. Clair, who has built a fantastic throws program at North Dakota State University (and who was present at the USA v. Europe meet to coach Payton Otterdahl) to keep an eye on Lagi when she practiced the day before the competition.
It turns out that St. Clair noticed Lagi was letting the discus sneak ahead of her as she began her right leg sweep out of the back. That made it difficult to high point the disc as she hit her power position and was really messing her up as she practiced on the day before the meet. St. Clair suggested that Lagi focus on locking the disc back at the end of her windup, and that did the trick. She hit some nice practice throws and showed up the next day confident and ready to rumble.
After a pedestrian 54.43m opener, she hit 63.03m in round two and that 63.71m PB and under twenty-three world lead in round five. You can see those throws here.
Doha is next, and in spite of the Lagi’s youth and the fact that her college season began nine months ago, Eric believes she can perform quite well there.
He anticipates the automatic qualifying mark for the finals to be in the 62.00m-62.50m range, and sees that as comfortably within reach.
“Based on how well she competed in Belarus, my goal for her is to make the finals. She’s the person to do it. It’s been an incredibly long year, but she trains well, she accepts the challenge and always rises to the occasion. I don’t want to leave empty handed.”
Neither does Maggie Ewen. At the end of this impossibly long season, a strong showing in Doha might provide just the momentum both these fine young throwers will need to carry them through a short off season and onto the next challenge–contending for a medal in Tokyo.