Experience Not Required…But It Sure Helps. Part 2 of our Look Back at Doha

Based on post-Doha conversations with various athletes and coaches, it seems that previous big meet experience–sometimes painfully acquired–was a major factor in allowing throwers to flourish at these World Championships.

Rudy Winkler is a prime example.

The 77.06m PB he nailed in round three of the Doha prelims was the result, he said afterwards “of just following the plan set forth by my coaches. Every practice we would work on the same cues, so I knew if I just worked on those cues in the meet, I would throw far.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? But when a thrower is new to international competition, sticking to a plan can be quite difficult.

Rudy discovered this while struggling mightily at the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2017 London World Championships. He arrived in Rio after setting a new PB of 76.76m at the Olympic Trials, but managed a top throw of only 71.89m in the qualification round there. His performance in London was equally disappointing as he failed to dent the 70-meter line.

Those were not pleasant experiences, but they laid the groundwork for Rudy’s success at the 2019 Worlds.

“At past international competitions,” he explained, “ I tended to change what I did because I saw other people doing things that I liked. This time around, I stuck to what I knew and did on a daily basis. Plus, you get used to these meets the more you go to them. The first ones you attend are exciting because you see all these athletes you’ve admired for years, and it’s like being at Disneyland. Now they are acquaintances and friends of mine, which makes it easier to focus.”

Rudy’s performance in Doha confirmed that he has gotten much better at competing at championship-caliber meets. It also revealed the next hurdle he has to overcome if he wants to contend for a World or Olympic medal. 

Unable to match his prelim distance in the finals, he finished eleventh with a best of 75.20m.  Rudy attributed his drop-off to one, being tired after having given his all in the previous day’s prelims and two, letting himself get a bit too excited. 

“I was going after throws a little too hard,” he said in retrospect, “instead of just doing what I did the day before.”

It is likely that no thrower in the world gained more experience in 2019 than Laulauga Tausaga. Her IAAF profile lists her first competition of the year as having taken place on January 11. That was an indoor meet at the University of Iowa where she was just beginning her junior season, which would not end until ten months later with the women’s discus final in Doha.

Like Rudy Winkler, Lagi launched a PB in the prelims at Doha, reaching 63.94m in the second round. Unlike Rudy, Lagi had never before competed in an Olympics or World Championships. 

Luckily, she is a quick learner and competing in the USA v. Europe match in Belarus in September provided her with some valuable experience that she put to use at Worlds.

I recently wrote about the challenges presented by the heat and humidity in Doha. On the days they competed, athletes were forced to choose between exposing themselves to 120-degree heat by taking warm-up throws in an outdoor facility next to Khalifa Stadium, or accepting the possibility of having to make due with only two warm-up throws inside the stadium just prior to their flight. 

That’s a lot of pressure to put on an athlete as young as Lagi (she turned twenty-one in May), but according to her coach, Eric Werskey, she had taken only a few warm-up tosses in Belarus prior to drilling a 63.71m PB, and that experience gave her the confidence to lay low and avoid wearing herself out in the hours before competing in Doha. 

Another aspect of the USA v. Europe meeting that helped prepare Lagi for Worlds was competing against two-time Olympic and two-time World Champion Sandra Perkovic. Though she faced tough competition at the NCAA and US Championships, Lagi had never before gone head-to-head with a thrower of Perkovic’s stature, and as Rudy pointed out, the first time you are around people like that in person it can be hard to maintain one’s focus.

But tossing that PB and finishing second to Sandra in Belarus prepared Lagi well for the Doha “Disneyland.” 

According to Werskey, Lagi showed up at Worlds feeling confident. Her 61.33m opener in the prelims was “maybe her best opener all year,” and her 63.94m gave her the automatic qualifier and turned out to be the best throw among the American women at the Championships.

Lagi’s experience in the final was similar to Rudy’s in that she couldn’t recapture the rhythm she’d found in the qualifying round. She entered the finals determined to contend for a medal, and ended up with three fouls. Werksey said that she might have been a little “overzealous” on those throws, but all in all “the biggest thing for her was that despite three fouls she walked away with her head high, knowing that she was one of the youngest in the field and she can hang with the best in the world.”

No one in Doha demonstrated the value of accrued big meet experience as clearly as DeAnna Price. 

DeAnna has been throwing world class distances in the hammer since the 2015 season when she earned a spot in the Beijing World Championships with a toss of 72.30m at the US Championships.

Her best throw in Beijing, though, was 68.69m which put her in 18th place.

In 2016, DeAnna hit 73.09m to take third at the Olympic Trials and qualify for the Rio Games. This time, she advanced to the final with a throw of 70.79m. She then slightly improved on that mark in the finals and finished eighth with a toss of 70.95m. 

The following year she raised her PB to 74.91m, finished third in the US Championships with a throw of 74.06m and advanced to the World Championships in London where she produced the fifth best throw in the prelims–72.78m. 

She was unable to match that distance in the finals, and finished ninth with a toss of 70.04m.

According to J.C. Lambert, DeAnna’s coach and husband, a breakthrough came during the 2018 campaign when DeAnna finished first at the Continental Cup in Ostrava. Though her winning throw of 75.46m did not match the PB 78.12m she tossed earlier in the summer to win her first national title, J.C. says that finishing first in Ostrava was a “confidence booster. It showed her she could win overseas.”

Armed with a wealth of championship meet experience, DeAnna and J.C. were ready for anything in Doha. Job one was to shake off the rigors of travel and establish a comfortable sleeping pattern. J.C. says that he’s “learned as a coach how to deal with travel and jet lag.” He and DeAnna rely on an app called Timeshifter. “You plug in your schedule, info about your normal sleep habits, plug in all the info about your trip, and it tells you when you need to go to sleep, to wake up, when you need to have some coffee to help adjust, when you need to go outside or open your blinds up to get the most light possible, when you should avoid caffeine, when you should take melatonin.”

Timeshifter helped DeAnna fall into a healthy daily rhythm. According to J.C. she had trouble sleeping only once, after a heavy lifting workout.

J.C. says that the ups and downs of competing at two previous Worlds and one Olympics taught DeAnna that “those who learn to roll with the punches will be successful.”

That lesson came in handy the night of their first throwing session in Doha when they arrived at the practice facility to find that the hammer ring was unavailable. “They were redoing the rings,” J.C. recalled, “because apparently someone said they were too fast, that they were dangerous.”

Not wanting to completely lose a day of training, DeAnna took one full throw from the javelin runway. It traveled seventy-two meters. (Fun fact: it ended up taking 71.35m to make the final in Doha.)

The qualification round went smoothly as DeAnna surpassed the automatic qualifying distance on her first throw with a toss of 73.77m.

As noted above, DeAnna had made the final in both Rio and London but then turned in disappointing performances and did not challenge for a medal. 

Now, in Doha, she and J.C. put to use a lesson they’d learned from those experiences. 

According to J.C., “DeAnna did a quick lift that night after qualifying. She throws her best when she does a quick lift the night before competing. In London in 2017, I’d set her up to do her quick lift the night before qualifying so she could make it to the finals. She qualified no problem, but for the final she was completely dead and finished ninth She just did not look like herself. She was flat and said she was tired and sore after the qualifying round. This time around we treated qualifying like a practice.”

It worked.

DeAnna came out smokin’ in the final, drilling a 76.87m opener and extending that to 77.54m (the eventual winning distance) in round three. Joanna Fiodorow of Poland took silver PB of 76.35m.

Next year in Tokyo, Rudy and Lagi will hope to follow DeAnna’s example and translate hard-won experience into a spot on the medal stand. As for DeAnna, defending her title (especially with the expected return to health of world record holder Anita Wlodarczyk) will present an entirely new challenge. 

For throws fans, watching this battle-tested trio go against the best in the world should be a highlight of 2020.