“Everyone you meet here is someone.”
That’s what my friend Sean Denard, the throws coach at UCLA, told me one morning recently as we sipped iced tea in a hotel lobby in Austin, Texas.
We were in town for the 2023 NCAA meet, Sean to coach, me to spectate, and we’d found a pleasant place to relax during the heat of the day.
I’d been telling Sean about my walk home from the track the night before. Mike Myers stadium was a straight shot from our hotel, maybe a twenty-minute stroll along one of the avenues that connect the University of Texas campus with downtown Austin.
But I have a terrible sense of direction, and after getting up at 4:30am for my flight, then scrambling around in the sweltering heat all evening covering the men’s hammer, javelin and shot comps, I found myself at 10:30pm wobbling along a nearly deserted street unsure of whether or not it would lead me back to the Westin.
Luckily, I was not completely alone. There was one man walking in the same direction about twenty meters ahead, and a traffic light delayed him long enough for me to catch up.
“Hello!” I said “Is this the way to the downtown area?”
“Yes,” he replied, “I think so.”
That was invitation enough for me, and I fell into step alongside him.
I assumed he too had come from the meet, and he had. It turns out he coached at Maryland, so we spoke about their shot putter Jeff Kline who had finished 19th in that night’s comp. We spoke about the ways that joining the Big 10 Conference had changed Maryland athletics, and how the addition of USC and UCLA might cause further changes. We spoke of the difficulty universities face in balancing athletic opportunities for men and women. We spoke of the problem of homelessness that plagues Austin and so many other American cities. Before long, I’d forgotten about feeling tired and lost.
Then a car passed us and stopped at a light.
“Hey,” my new acquaintance exclaimed. “That car has no driver!”
My first thought was, “Well, I’m not the only one delirious from the heat.” But I looked and saw he was right. It was a medium-sized car, white with cameras attached to the roof and nobody behind the wheel. The light changed and off it went, as did my new friend when he spotted his hotel one avenue over.
“He was a really nice guy,” I told Denard the next day.
“That was Andrew Valmon,” he informed me. “You were walking with an Olympian.”
Denard was right. Andrew Valmon was not only an Olympian but, according to my Google machine, a two time gold-medalist in the 4×400 relay. He also helped set a World Record in that event at the 1993 World Championships.
Which got me thinking. Coach Valmon is a World Record holder, and I was able to catch up to him on our walk from the stadium. And not many people know this, but a couple of years ago I defeated 2016 Olympic discus champ Chris Harting in a spirited game of air hockey. Was this a trend? Could it be that I am just now entering my athletic prime? Something to contemplate.
The second walk took place two days later. My wife Alice accompanied me on the trip to Austin but stayed back at the hotel on the first two nights of competition as she is averse to watching strangers run, jump and throw in 95-degree heat. The night of the discus final, though, was also the night of the men’s 5,000 meters, whose field included Parker Wolfe, the grandson of my wife’s beloved cousin.
Parker ran a great race, so Alice was in fine spirits on our walk back to the Westin after the meet. The only thing that could make the night even better for her was making new friends and telling them about Parker.
That’s how we ended up talking with Andrew Ferris, a distance coach at Iona. He happened to be walking in the same direction. He happened to pause at the same intersection. He happened to look like a distance guy. He stood no chance of avoiding us.
Before the light changed, Coach Ferris knew all about Parker, and we knew that Coach Ferris was originally from Australia. And you know how Australians are often stereotyped as good, friendly people? Coach Ferris fit that mold. When he found out I was a throws guy, he told me about his home club and how it served as sort of a throwing hub in Australia.
“Lots of throwers stop by to train,” he said. “Koji Murofushi did a camp there once.”
Speaking of Australian stereotypes, I couldn’t resist asking him about another.
“I have to know,” I interjected as we resumed our stroll. “How in the hell do Australians survive when just about every creature there wants to kill you?’
“Ah, we’re used to it,” he replied, with a laugh. “But, you know which animal kills the most tourists?”
My wife never passes up a chance to disparage snakes, so that was her guess. I went with crocodiles.
“Nope. Conch shells.”
We were shocked.
“Yep. Tourists see a conch, they reach down to pick it up, but they don’t realize the creature inside of it is poisonous. Touch one, and you’re dead in fifteen minutes. Can’t get to a hospital in fifteen minutes, can you? Here’s my hotel.”
We wished Coach Ferris good night and good luck for the rest of the meet and on any future visits home as well. He shared one more quick story before we parted.
“When I was a little kid,” he told us, “maybe seven or eight years old, I was riding my bike and saw what I thought was a stick poking up from the ground. I smacked the stick with my hand, but it turned out to be a snake, an eastern brown snake, the most poisonous in Australia. I smacked it right in its head, but for some reason it didn’t bite me. I’d have been a goner if he had, so I’m lucky to even be here. Nice meeting you!”
With that, Coach Ferris disappeared into his hotel. But he wasn’t the only one feeling fortunate. Sometimes it takes a close encounter with a poisonous snake or killer conch to make a guy appreciate his luck, but for me walking hand in hand with my favorite person towards a cold beer on a sweltering night was reminder enough.
All in due time
This was Cal shot putter Jeff Duensing’s meet progression during the 2023 outdoor season:
18 March: 18.75m
1 April: 18.91m
15 April: 18.06m
29 April: 18.81m
13 May: 18.94M
24 May: 19.80m
7 June: 19.98m
The 19.98m was more than a meter farther than his 2022 outdoor PB, and he hit that big throw when it counted the most: at the recent NCAA Championships.
Every thrower dreams of having a huge breakthrough at the most important time of the year, so when I saw Jeff’s coach, Mo Saatara, the next day I asked him how they’d managed it.
“He finally believed me that he could throw far with rhythm,” Mo replied, and we shared a nice laugh but I needed more detail. Inquiring minds and all that. So I called Mo a few days later and he filled me in.
“Every year,” he told me, “I sit down with my throwers and say ‘Okay, what is the next thing we need to improve?’ For sure, everyone can keep getting stronger each year, but it may be that a thrower needs to change their approach in certain ways. We try to target areas where they have the most room to develop and focus on one main thing. This year with Jeff, we decided to work on rhythm and timing.”
The effort Mo and Jeff put in during the fall and winter seemed to pay dividends right away as Jeff opened his indoor campaign with a 19.39m PB. At his next comp, though, he fell back to 18.09m, an indication that more work was required before the changes they’d made would hold up in competition.
At that point, they agreed to “sacrifice the beginning and middle of the outdoor season” and go back to working meticulously on Jeff’s rhythm.
Mo says they “had to keep the training volume higher than normal” as the outdoor season began, “and this kept his performances low. We looked at what parts of his throw were off, and the main factor was the timing of his delivery. Working on that required a high volume of throwing, so we knew Jeff would not be in his best competition shape early in the season. But, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that in a technique event like the shot put, which takes a long time to master, you have to be willing to spend a longer time in certain training phases. A lot of people think you have to change the training stimuli every three-to-four weeks or even every two weeks, but to achieve results that last you have to give the athlete a chance to adapt. Sometimes, that means spending ten or twelve weeks in a phase of training.”
As you can see from the numbers cited above, Jeff’s competition results were not outwardly promising during March and April.
But, Mo says Jeff showed definite signs of improvement at the Pac 12 meet in May, and his training numbers indicated he was rounding into form as regionals approached.
“We keep records of training results,” he explained, “and one thing we look at is performance trends in training because they indicate what you can do in competition. It’s not necessarily a direct correlation because in a competition you have a lot more adrenaline, so you don’t have to throw seventy feet in practice to throw it in a meet. But Jeff’s training results were getting better, and going into regionals I thought he could do somewhere between 19.60m and 20 meters. The 19.80m gave him confidence that he could compete with the best guys, and that really helped him in Austin.”
Going forward, Mo believes that Jeff will continue to improve.
“He gets overlooked sometimes because he’s only six feet tall, and he’s not flexible, so he doesn’t necessarily hit beautiful positions. But he’s explosive and coordinated, and he works really hard on technical mastery. And now, he understands the value of rhythm.”
Victories, large and small
Two years ago, Annette Echikunwoke was napping in her room at a training center in Kisarazu, Japan, when she was awakened by a knock at her door. The visitor turned out to be a coach from the Nigerian national team there to inform her that because the Nigerian Federation had failed to administer the required number of drug tests in the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games, Annette and several of her teammates were no longer eligible to compete in Tokyo. It was her twenty-fifth birthday. She had been scheduled to make her Olympic debut three days later.
One year ago, as the 2022 USATF Championships approached, Annette once again found herself in a precarious situation. After the Olympic debacle, she’d applied with World Athletics to switch her allegiance back to the United States. A week before the USATF Champs, she had still not received a definitive answer.
“I would come out of practice,” she said recently when asked to reflect on those days, “and cry in my car because I felt so overwhelmed by all the uncertainty.”
The Sunday before the hammer comp, Annette sat in church praying with one of her religious mentors. “She reminded me that it is up to God to open some doors and shut other doors, and if competing at USAs was meant to happen, it would happen. That prayer touched me and helped me handle the stress of not knowing.”
That Wednesday, Annette woke up at her place in Cincinnati where she lives and trains and saw a message on her phone informing her that she was cleared to compete. The hammer comp was on Thursday. In Eugene.
Somehow, she arranged a flight, made it through processing, tossed an SB of 73.76m and earned a spot on the US squad for Worlds.
The challenges Annette has faced this summer, so far anyway, have been much less dramatic.
Last weekend’s USATF NYC Grand Prix meeting for example, was scheduled at 9am, and Annette says “it rained all day on Friday, then into the competition on Saturday morning until ten minutes after we were finished. Then it stopped and the sun came out. But it was no problem. I’m used to throwing in the rain in Cincinnati.”
And she’d heard in the days before the meet that the ring at Icahn Stadium was “not the most even surface, so the rain probably balanced it out in our favor.”
Annette ended up being the only hammer thrower among the men and women who made it through six rounds without fouling, and she won with a series (69.70m, 68.36m, 69.15m, 68.72m, 70.69m, 71.11m) that showed remarkable consistency.
But, as in most of her comps this year, Annette was frustrated by her inability to hit a big throw.
Her season’s best remains the 75.00m she tossed at the USATF Throws Festival in May, and in June she knocked out her best throw ever in Europe–73.66m at the Irena Szewinska Memorial meeting in Poland. “But,” says Annette, “I’m stronger this year, so there is more to come out in terms of distance. My goal is still to distinguish myself as one of the world’s best hammer throwers.”
She might have taken an important step in that direction in New York. It was the first time this season that Annette’s longtime coach, Susan Seaton, was able to see her throw in person, and afterwards she told Annette that she knew “exactly what we have to do going forward.”
According to Annette, one key to unlocking some big throws might be to give herself more grace when struggling at practice.
She says a “tiny part of the reason I haven’t thrown as far as I could this season is because I’m so self-critical. In just about every throw, I’m very aware of what’s going on with my technique, and I’m always telling myself I’ve got to do better.”
To encourage Annette to be a little more patient with herself, Coach Seaton shared an interview Ryan Crouser gave after breaking his own World Record at the recent LA Grand Prix. In it, Ryan reflects on a difficult period he went through in 2018, and explains how he climbed out of a technical rut by focusing not on the many things he thought he was doing wrong but on one simple thing each session that he was doing right.
Annette says that since watching the video, she has done her best to “believe in practice and not be so self-critical in practice, and to encourage myself in practice rather than just trying to be positive in meets.”
Bottom line, “we have to remember to applaud ourselves when we do something right.”
Her next competition will be on July 9th at the 2023 USATF Championships when she will take on a stellar field that will include 2022 World champion Brooke Andersen, 2022 World bronze medalist Janee’ Kassanavoid, 2019 World champion DeAnna Price, former NCAA champ Maggie Ewen who set a new PB of 75.10m in May, and first-year pro Alyssa Wilson who has a PB of 74.78m.
As defending champ, Brooke has a bye for Budapest so Annette’s job will be to finish ahead of at least one of the other contenders from the above group, although she reminded me that someone unexpected might make a run for the podium as well.
“Anything can happen,” she cautioned. “There are the marks on paper, and then there is what is actually going to happen in the competition. Look at me last year. I don’t think a lot of people even knew I was trying to switch my allegiance, so when I showed up at USAs, people were probably like, ‘What the heck is happening?’”
However things turn out in Eugene, Annette will stay positive going forward.
“I know my future is bright” she says. “I’m here for a reason, and I’ll keep working hard until God says ‘Do something else!’”