Take my advice and do not look away when Jessica Ramsey steps into the shot put ring. I speak from from personal experience regarding this matter.
I showed up to cover the 2018 USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines four years ago, certain that the women’s shot competition would come down to a battle between Maggie Ewen, Raven Saunders, and Michelle Carter, so when Ramsey stepped in to take her first toss, I was paying absolutely no attention. I can’t recall now if I was playing on my phone or looking around and trying to determine my odds of making it to the bratwurst stand and back before the comp really got rolling, but next thing I knew, “19.23m” appeared on the scoreboard and I had absolutely no idea who had thrown it.
Turns out it was Ramsey.
She ended up finishing second to Ewen that day, which was pretty remarkable considering Ramsey’s season’s best in 2017 had been all of 17.76m.
After the meet, I found out what the deal was. Following a very successful career at Western Kentucky during which she won Sun Belt Conference titles in the shot, disc, and hammer, Ramsey had found her way to John Smith’s throwing group, which is based at the University of Mississippi. She continued to throw the hammer and shot under Smith’s guidance–in fact, the day before her 19.23m toss in Des Moines she finished fifth in the hammer with a mark of 70.41m–but Smith could see that her future lay in the shot…provided she would agree to switch from the glide to rotational technique.
It took a while for Jessica to get completely on board with that plan, and for a couple of years she switched back and forth between the two styles of throwing. Sometime in 2018, she decided to fully embrace her rotational potential, and the result was that lightning strike in Des Moines.
She regressed slightly in 2019, producing a season’s best of 19.01m, and then came Covid.
Prevented from training at the university due to the lockdown, Smith improvised by setting up a facility outside of town that he named “the Barn.” He and Ramsey and the hammer thrower Janeah Stewart spent the next few months training at the Barn, determined to be ready when the season resumed.
It turned out there were not a lot of opportunities to compete that summer, but a 19.50m toss indoors in February of 2021 showed that the time at the Barn had been well spent.
Still, was anybody–aside from Smith–expecting the 20.12m Olympic Trials record she unleashed in Eugene last summer?
Anyhow, I’d recommend paying attention when the women’s shot gets going at 2:35 Pacific time this Saturday.
Jessica’s best toss so far this year came two weeks ago in Nashville where she hit 18.83m, but Smith says she’s close to making bigger throws. When I spoke to him last week, he reported that Jessica had recently achieved four or five training PR’s, and estimated that she’d have the “ability” to throw well over nineteen meters in Spokane.
And though it is early in the season, and her best throws will certainly come this summer, Smith says, “We take every opportunity for a national title seriously.”
Ramsey says that it would “mean a lot” to make her first Indoor Worlds team. She has been maintaining her normal hectic schedule since last summer, training, working at Insomnia Cookies, volunteering at Court Appointed Special Advocates–an organization devoted to helping abused or neglected children–and even doing a bit of coaching at a local high school where she sometimes trains.
She says she’d like to compete for another ten years, and then maybe go into social work full time.
This weekend, she’s likely in for a tough battle with Ewen and Chase Ealey for a spot in the top two and a trip to the Indoor Worlds. But she feels ready.
“I don’t try to put pressure on myself,” she explained. “I try to have fun and always give one thousand percent.”
That approach has led to some pretty amazing performances in the past, and if she produces another one this weekend, I for one, will be paying attention.
If you happen to walk through the fieldhouse at the University of Mississippi one day and come across this scene…
…do not be alarmed. The Ole Miss football team has not begun recruiting infants. As far as I know. Although, one more loss to Alabama and…never mind.
Anyway, that child is unlikely to ever to set foot on the gridiron, so all you football recruiters…stand down. If you coach at a major track program, however, you might want to grab a letter of intent and a couple of crayons and head to Oxford, Mississippi, immediately because if genetics mean anything, that young lady has serious potential.
Her name is Ja’Myri, and her mother is 2018 NCAA hammer champion Janeah Stewart.
This weekend in Spokane, Janeah will be looking for her third USATF Indoor title in the weight, her first since giving birth to Ja’Myri last April.
It has been a long and difficult path from that NCAA hammer title, which she won with a throw of 72.92m, to these 2022 USATF Indoor Championships, where she is seeded third in the weight with a season’s best throw of 23.98m.
After graduating from Ole Miss, Janeah stuck around Oxford to train with her college throws coach John Smith, and in 2019 raised her hammer PB to 75.43m. That December, she launched the weight 25.08m, and was preparing to defend her national title when Covid put a halt to the season.
Smith’s entire throws crew, the college kids along with Janeah and shot putter Jessica Ramsey, were suddenly left with no place to train. But if you know Coach Smith, you will not be surprised to hear that he did not go home to sit on the couch and wait for better times.
“I spent three days driving all over the place, trying to find a place to train,” he recalled recently. “Then I found out that the people who sold us our house also owned a piece of land about ten miles outside of town.”
Smith describes the place as a “semi-abandoned” sportsplex, which the owners were happy to let him use. Exploring it, he found a large pavillion with a concrete floor that was “perfect for throwing.”
Covid regulations forbid him from working with the college athletes, but he installed throwing rings for Stewart and Ramsey and got to work.
They spent the next several months banging away at this ersatz facility that Smith refers to as “the Barn,” and he credits Ramsey’s 20.12m bomb at the 2021 Olympic Trials to the work they accomplished there in 2020.
Janeah appeared to be on her way to a similar breakthrough with the hammer. According to Smith, she hit thirty-two training PB’s at the Barn, including a seventy-seven meter toss with the competition implement.
Stewart remembers the excitement of throwing “really well” there, and it would be the memory of those throws and the feeling of being on the brink of a potentially great career that would carry her through when life got even more complicated.
First, she contracted the virus late in July of 2020. That cost her a month of training. Not long after, she realized she was pregnant. She did not lift or throw again for a year.
Smith says that in his experience very few throwers are able to return to the sport after giving birth. “I’d estimate the odds were about eighty-percent against Janeah coming back,” he says now.
It is not hard to understand why. Making a living as a hammer thrower is a dicey proposition even if you are only trying to support yourself. You have to be among the absolute best in the world to earn any prize money, and making it to that level requires an almost narcissistic level of focus on your training, recovery, and diet.
Anyone who has raised a child can tell you that selfish habits, things like sleeping eight consecutive hours or eating with both hands, go out the window as soon as you bring your baby home.
But Janeah was determined to make a go of it. She returned to lifting last summer and remembers being “in pain and out of breath.” Her first day back throwing, she told Smith she’d hit 200 feet, but could barely break 160.
But, according to Smith, Janeah can be stubborn, and whenever anyone suggested that she bag it, she’d get “pissed off” and train even harder.
It helped that Smith, his wife Connie (the head track coach at Ole Miss) and the rest of their throwing group rallied around Janeah and Ja’Myri.
Janeah says that Ja’Myri attends nearly every throwing and lifting session. She generally watches contentedly from her walker, but recently has gotten so active that Stewart has had to surround her with football dummies as shown in the photo, or she’d be “all over the place.”
Though encouraged by her 23.98m toss from earlier this month, Janeah says she is struggling to find her timing in the throw. She is also still fighting to regain her strength in the weight room. Her power clean PB in the Barn days was around 280 pounds, and she estimates that right now she could do 230.
She and Smith have been working on the hammer as well, and he is optimistic that she will be ready to get in the mix at what promises to be an epic Outdoor Championships with three spots on the Worlds team up for grabs.
“If we can get her over eight feet (24.38m) in the weight,” he says, that will set her up well for the outdoor season. Right now, she’s about ninety percent of where she needs to be in the hammer.”
A big throw this weekend would be a big step in the right direction.
The women’s weight competition is scheduled for 2:05pm Pacific time on Sunday.
Israel Oloyede grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, dreaming of playing football for Arizona State University. He dabbled with the shot and disc while in high school, but football was his main sport. After his senior year, the ASU coaches thought he needed a little seasoning before he was ready play major college football and told him that if he enrolled at Scottsdale Community College they’d give him another look in a year or two.
Israel followed their advice, but it wasn’t long before he decided that Scottsdale CC was not the place for him. He wanted to transfer to another community college where he could continue his football career, but first he had to receive a release from the Scottsdale program. Perhaps intoxicated by the power he wielded as the coach of the SCC Artichokes football team, the head man at Scottsdale refused. Who could have predicted then that his decision would contribute to the current renaissance in the hammer and weight throws in the United States?
Israel ended up transferring to Paradise Valley Community College, located in Phoenix. Their mascot is a Puma. Since he was unable to play football, he decided to resume his career as a thrower.
Jim Lothrop, the Paradise Valley throws coach, recommended Israel try the javelin, and so he did.
Israel says that at first, the javelin seemed “pretty easy,” but before too long, he “got humbled” and could not manage to break fifty-five meters.
He had never really enjoyed throwing the shot and disc in high school, so he agreed to try the weight and hammer, even though he thought at the time that “the weight did not look fun, and the hammer did not look easy.”
Unfortunately, Coach Lothrop was more of a javelin guy, having twice finished in the top eight at the USATF Nationals. Luckily, a former weight/hammer thrower from Louisiana State University, Jeremy Tuttle, was in Phoenix coaching at Ottawa University Arizona and also at a club called the Phoenix Bobcats.
Under the guidance of Coach Tuttle, Israel went from throwing the weight 12.47m and the hammer 54.00m his freshman year to 20.89m in the weight and 63.13m in the hammer as a sophomore. The 20.89m was a national junior college record and got the attention of Coach TJ Crater, who recruited Israel to the University of Arizona.
Over the course of two years, Coach Crater helped Israel set school records of 23.79m in the weight and 73.22m in the hammer. Last summer, Israel made the final at the Olympic Trials, and started to think that maybe he had a future in this business.
With one year of eligibility remaining, Israel then decided to move back home to Phoenix and enroll at Grand Canyon University, which had just hired Nathan Ott as its throws coach.
Ott is best known as the coach of Olympian Brooke Anderson, and training alongside Brooke has been a nice side benefit of transfering to Grand Canyon.
“Being around someone like Brooke has really helped me,” Israel says. “It was the same thing having Jordan Geist to train with at Arizona. Being around great athletes pushes you to do better.”
Israel’s 24.45m throw from this January has him seeded second behind Daniel Haugh going into Sunday’s competition in Spokane.
He is excited to throw against the guys like Haugh and Rudy Winkler that he used to watch compete and would think “I want to be like them.”
Not that Israel will be cowed by the competition. “I threw against those guys in the hammer at Tucson Elite last year,” he recalled, “and I PR’d. Competing against them brought out the best in me, so I won’t be intimidated this this time, either.”
The men’s weight throw competition is scheduled for Sunday at 11:00am Pacific time.
Fresh off of his first indoor PB since 2018–a 21.53m toss at an American Track League meet on February 12th–Joshua Awotunde feels ready to contend for a spot at the 2022 World Indoor Championships to be held in Belgrade from March 18th to 20th.
In order to make the Worlds squad, he will have to finish in the top two at the upcoming USATF Indoor Championships against a loaded field that includes world record holder Ryan Crouser, two-time World Championship finalist Darrell Hill, 2021 Olympian Payton Otterdahl, and University of Arizona stalwart Jordan Geist, who finished seventh in last year’s epic Olympic Trials final.
As far as Joshua is concerned, he is ready. A proponent of throwing the eighteen-pound ball in training, Joshua last week produced a practice PB of 20.04m with that implement–a good sign when you consider that last summer he threw the eighteen-pounder 19.95m not long before blasting a 21.84m bomb to take fifth at the Olympic Trials.
He followed that up by reaching twenty-two meters–the distance that separates medal contenders from pretenders in this golden era of putting–in Italy later in the summer. That breakthrough came at a meet in Padua that matched Joshua against a solid field including Tokyo finalist Zane Weir, former Italian champion Leonardo Fabbri, and 2015 World Championships bronze medalist O’Dayne Richards.
Before that meet, Richards gave Joshua a little pep talk. “Man,” he said, “I’ve seen you throw all year, and I know you’re a twenty-two meter guy. Just stay loose, be smooth and go fast!”
Joshua remembered those words after Weir took over the lead that night with a late-round toss of 21.63m. He says that he “does not like to lose,” and with one final attempt to answer, reminded himself to “put a little extra speed on it.”
The result was an even 22.00m for a meeting record and PB.
The next step will be making throws like that routine, a necessity for any American putter who wants to qualify for Olympic and World teams.
Joshua currently lives and trains in South Carolina with his college coach, Mike Sergent, who guided him through an outstanding collegiate career. After graduating in 2018, Joshua initially spent a year-and-a-half at the training center in Chula Vista, where he got to see how athletes like Ryan Crouser and Darrell Hill conduct themselves. Looking back, he says it was a great learning experience.
“I saw how steady Ryan was every day in practice, the way he hit the same positions every time. That’s why he’s the most consistent thrower ever. From Darrell, I learned tenacity in the ring. The way he develops speed while still maintaining positions is amazing.”
But Joshua had flourished under Sergent’s system while throwing for the Gamecocks, and in mid-2020 he decided to return to Columbia and reunite with his college mentor.
That decision has paid off, as he surpassed twenty-one meters in ten of twelve competitions in 2021.
He says that finishing in the top two in Spokane would allow him to realize a dream he’s had since high school. His parents immigrated from Nigeria in 1980, and Joshua holds dual citizenship, but his goal is to “represent this country and earn a world medal while wearing the red, white, and blue. Being a shot putter in the USA is not easy, but all these guys push me to reach new levels.”
There will be plenty of pushing going on this weekend, as a magnificent field of throwers vies for a spot in the top two.
The men’s shot is set to take place on Sunday at 2:00pm Pacific time.
This year, Maggie Ewen will be one of the few American athletes for whom making the Indoor World team will be significantly more challenging than qualifying for the Outdoor Worlds this summer.
That’s because Maggie, after a rough Olympic Trials where she finished in the dreaded number four spot, concluded the 2021 season by winning the Diamond League final in Zurich. Her reward–aside from a sweet-looking trophy and a bit of prize money–was an automatic bye into the 2022 Outdoor Worlds.
So, Maggie will be one of the few athletes chillin’ like a villain at the USATF Outdoor Championships this June. She will compete without pressure while what promises to be a ferociously strong field of putters does battle over the right to join her on the US squad at Worlds.
But that exemption does not apply to Indoor Worlds (to be held March 18th thru 20th in Belgrade) so Maggie will have to finish in the top two this coming weekend at the USATF Indoor Championships in Spokane if she wants to make the team.
Which she does. “Being frank,” she said recently, “with not making the Olympic team, it would be really good mentally to get back on that horse of feeling like I can make teams again, that I am that caliber of thrower.”
Maggie (whose indoor PB is 19.54m) hit 19.03m at a meet in Fargo on February 5th, and feels like she is rounding into shape.
The automatic bid to Worlds gave her the luxury of starting her training a bit later this fall as she won’t have to worry about peaking for the US Outdoor Championships, but she has begun seeing nineteen-meter throws “sporadically” in practice, which she says is a good sign.
Maggie believes her strong finish to the 2021 season carried over to 2022.
“We figured things out technically at the end of last season, and now those things have shown up right away in training. I’m very happy that we don’t need to make any major technical changes.”
The main thing that Maggie and her coach, Kyle Long, figured out late last season, was a way to smooth out her entry coming from the back of the ring. The progress they made allowed her to produce an outdoor season’s best toss of 19.41m in winning that DL title last September.
Much of Maggie’s training this winter has centered around rehearsing the modifications they made last summer so that the movements become automatic.
“I’m pretty good,” she says, “on the middle and on the finish. It all comes down to whether or not I can have a clean entry.”
Maggie feels like she is in a good place right now in her life and in her career. In 2019, she navigated a coaching change, transitioning from her college mentor Brian Blutreich to Kyle. Then, she and Kyle moved from Arizona to North Dakota. There was also the small matter of dealing with a pandemic. But now, Maggie says, all is calm.
“Halfway through last year, we found the rhythm of what life and training up here looks like. Things are settling down and lining up, so there is not much to worry about other than training well and throwing far. The more comfortable you are in your own life, in what is going on in your home and with your family, the easier it is to focus on what happens in the ring.”
Maggie will put that focus to use this Saturday at 2:35pm Pacific time. Her main competitors for the top two spots should be Olympic Trials champion Jessica Ramsey, and three time US champion Chase Ealey.
It promises to be a rollicking start to a potentially epic year for the women’s shot put in this country.
If I told you that three-time United States shot put champion Chase Ealey has ditched the sunny skies of Arizona and chosen instead to train in the dripping cold of jolly old England, you’d think I’d gone barmy, wouldn’t you?
You might even tell me to “Sod off!” and refer to me hereafter as a “cheeky wanker.”
Couldn’t blame you if you did, but facts are facts and not only has Chase decamped to the UK, but she’s feeling and throwing better than she has in years, which is brilliant news for throws fans even if it might be a load of tosh for her competitors.
Here’s how this all came about.
Chase, you may recall, was one of the great stories of the 2019 season. Working with two-time World Indoor champion Ryan Whiting, she transformed herself from a decent glider with an 18.46m PB into a rotational arse-beater. By year’s end, she was US indoor and outdoor champion and had raised her PB to 19.68m. She also made competing overseas against top competition seem easy peasy lemon squeezy by winning her first ever Diamond League meeting with a 19.58m bomb in Shanghai, and notching that 19.68m PB at the DL Final in Zurich.
That’s a gobsmacker of a season, and no one could blame Chase for thinking her momentum might continue through the World Championships in Doha.
“I don’t even want to set my goal at simply making it onto the podium,” she told a reporter that summer when asked about her outlook regarding the Worlds. “I want to win.”
It’s rare for a thrower to approach his or her best marks at their first World Championships or Olympics. Similar to getting married or having an MRI, one’s initial experience at a meet of that magnitude can be disorienting. Subsequent attempts usually go better.
It didn’t help that the environment in Doha was so strange. The intense heat made venturing out during daylight hours a dodgy proposition. Most athletes trained in the evening, but even then the humidity was such that putters had a hard time just keeping the shot against their neck while spinning. Then, the competition took place in an air-conditioned open-air stadium. Try saying that three times fast. Perhaps most disorienting was the fact that the Worlds were held in October, making the 2019 season a good five or six weeks longer than normal. When Chase stepped into the ring for the qualification round, eight months had passed since she’d won Indoor Nationals.
That’s a long road to travel, and under the circumstances making the final and finishing seventh was an accomplishment. But Chase felt disappointed at “only” throwing 18.82m after routinely surpassing nineteen meters all season, and she was still brooding about it when Covid showed up and turned the world inside out.
She still managed to throw 19.41m during the weird, truncated 2020 season, but a case of long Covid in the winter of 2020/2021 caused her bodyweight to drop by twenty-five kilograms in two months and robbed her of the vitality and explosiveness that had carried her through that magnificent 2019 campaign.
She entered the 2021 Olympic Trials as the defending US champion, a title she’d captured in 2019 by throwing 19.56m in the pouring rain in Des Moines, but she no longer had, in her words, “the same oomph” that had enabled her to easily blast throws over nineteen meters.
Much of her confidence was gone as well after all those months of feeling wretched, and Chase finished fifth at the Trials with a best of 18.39m. It was a pretty good throw considering her physical and mental state, but she felt gutted. Keep in mind that had Covid not intervened and she’d gone into a 2020 Olympic Games healthy, Chase might well have contended for a gold medal. Now, with the delayed Games finally happening a year later, she would not even be on the team.
The next month, she threw a 19.45m season’s best and also competed a few times in Europe, but nothing could assuage her disappointment. To make matters worse, her best friend and training partner Nick Ponzio left Whiting’s Desert High Performance group.
Long story short, she rolled into the winter of 2021/2022 feeling lousy.
One bright spot of the past two years was a growing friendship with the British putter Sophie McKinna. The two met at the 2019 Worlds and crossed paths regularly when Chase competed overseas.
This past January, Chase decided to join Sophie in England for a three week training camp. Initially, she had no intentions of staying there long term, but says that “after a week we were like ‘Holy shit, we train together really well!'”
One day, Chase and Sophie were throwing at the Loughborough High Performance Center when the British men’s shot put champion Scott Lincoln showed up accompanied by his long time coach, Paul Wilson.
Coach Wilson saw that Chase was struggling with her technique and “throwing it all over the place,” so he asked if she’d mind a suggestion or two.
She did not mind, and they quickly developed a nice rapport. Chase describes Paul as “very chill,” and says that she works well with “chillaxed people.”
Before long, Chase visited Paul at his home base in York, and they drew up plans. Paul would take over her coaching in the ring and in the weight room. They’d train together in person whenever possible, and virtually in between the live sessions.
“The video sessions actually work well,” she says. “We have Paul on a tripod, and we move him around whenever he needs a different view.”
One aspect of Paul’s coaching that Chase especially appreciates is that he expects collaboration on the part of the athlete.
Paul describes the coach/athlete relationship as a “partnership” and says that “you have to talk and communicate. You can’t dictate what they need to do and how to do it. They are adults. I say to Scott and Chase all the time, ‘You tell me what you think we should work on.'”
Paul is also careful to explain the rationale behind any suggestions he makes.
According to Chase, “He will tell me why I am doing stuff, which makes me feel more comfortable. It makes it easier to trust the process. He really cares about my input in the ring and in the weight room, which is nice.”
He also does his best to maintain a stress free environment. “We’re just here to train and encourage each other,” he says. “That’s the main mentality in my group, and I think that’s helping Chase. She’s also getting pushed every day by Sophie, which has been good for her, too.”
It didn’t take Chase long to realize that the situation she’d found in England was just what she needed.
When we spoke recently, she made it clear that she wasn’t looking to get away from Ryan Whiting and Desert High Performance. There was just something about training with Sophie and Paul in an entirely new environment that made her feel refreshed. And Whiting was supportive of the move.
According to Chase, Ryan told her that “as an athlete, you know when you need to make a change.” He recommended that she make the move now rather than wasting valuable time dithering over the decision. “Your career is short,” he advised her. “If something needs to happen, it has to happen now. Don’t wait.”
With Whiting’s blessing, she and Paul got to work on shoring up her technique, mainly by establishing a more balanced entry position.
According to Paul, the goal is for Chase to “rotate around the spine” as she moves left at the back of the ring. “I stand behind her and hold up my hand, and she has to go out and around me. She used to pull her left shoulder down on her entry, which threw her off balance. That’s the main thing, getting more consistent out of the back.”
Chase agreed that this was a weakness in her technique. “Remember,” she says, “I was a sprinter before I was a thrower, so my instinct out of the back was to sort of drop down and charge like a sprinter.”
She and Whiting made a conscious decision to leave her entry as it was when she started throwing far in 2019. They planned to set about fixing it after that season, but with the disappointment of her seventh-place finish at the World Championships and the difficulties brought on by the pandemic, her head was never in the right place to endure a painstaking technique renovation.
This January though, the time seemed right. “I’m much more open to working on things now,” she says. “And when you are open mentally to making changes, they actually work.”
Proof came when Chase hit marks of 19.21m and 19.20m on consecutive weekends earlier this month.
The plan now is to qualify for the Indoor Worlds by finishing in the top two at the USATF Indoor Nationals this coming weekend. After that, she’ll focus on getting ready for the Outdoor Nationals and hopefully another crack at a World Championships medal.
Paul, for one, thinks she can do it. He says that “During the last two or three weeks, her technique has been more consistent, and she’s been smiling. When she smiles during training, it shows she has confidence in what we are doing, which gives me the confidence to say she is going to throw far.”
If nothing else, Chase has endured some rough times physically and mentally and made it through. Now she’s ready to show that 2019 was just the first act of what promises to be a cracking good career.