Hold my cape
I spoke with Mitch Crouser by phone during the recent World Athletics Championships. His son Ryan had just taken gold with what Mitch described as, “the best throw of his career considering the circumstances.”
After winning his sixth US title in early July, Ryan embarked on a European tour consisting of three meets in eight days, all victories. His throws in those comps were, according to Mitch, “not great technically, but showed a lot of horsepower.” At the final stop, on July 23rd in London, Ryan was fighting a cold. “I talked to him on the phone,” Mitch recalled, “and he sounded terrible.”
Ryan assured his father that he “felt better than he sounded,” then went out and threw 23.07m.
“He was,” says Mitch, “starting to dial it in.”
After London, Ryan returned to his training base in Arkansas and produced one of his best practice sessions of the year, a pleasant surprise since normally, according to Mitch, Ryan’s practice distances would fall off a bit after returning from an overseas trip. “Everything,” he recalls, “was looking good for Budapest.”
But, the next morning Ryan called with unexpected news. His left calf was so sore he could barely walk.
At first, they assumed he’d suffered a muscle strain or tear, but an ultrasound detected no tissue damage. And it was strange, Mitch says, that Ryan had felt no pain during the workout. “Also,” he explained, “with a muscle tear, it should hurt worse when you try to walk, but in this case walking made it feel a little better.”
With the Worlds just three weeks away, Ryan began physical therapy including deep tissue massage, but he could not lift or throw. “It was really frustrating,” Mitch recalled. “Three weeks before Worlds is not the time to unload.”
Still thinking the problem was in a muscle or tendon, Ryan and Mitch got ready to fly to Serbia for a pre-Worlds training camp. But the night before they were meant to leave, Ryan’s physio and fishing buddy Andy Glidewell suggested getting a Doppler ultrasound to rule out the possibility of a blood clot which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, “can be a serious risk for some long-distance travelers.”
The scan revealed two clots in Ryan’s lower left leg.
Ryan called his father immediately. “Hey,” he said. “We’re not going to Budapest.”
Doctors provided by USATF and the USOC immediately put Ryan on a high dose of blood thinners, to which he responded well. The pain in his calf diminished, and within a day or two he could walk more comfortably.
But it was still hard to imagine him competing at Worlds. Getting to Budapest would require a long flight, which raised the possibility of one of the clots breaking up and causing a pulmonary embolism. And even if he made the trip, what were the odds that, after three weeks of enforced idleness, Ryan would be able to hold his own against Joe Kovacs, Tom Walsh, and Darlan Romani?
The doctors let the blood thinners work for a few days, then laid out the risks Ryan would face on an overseas flight. “It was,” Mitch says, “a “very sobering conversation.”
The effectiveness of the blood thinners, the size of the clots (small) and their location (at the end of a limb) all worked in Ryan’s favor, but the possibility remained that something could go wrong.
(I’d like to note that during a recent episode of the Throw Big Throw Far podcast, I incorrectly described the clots as “big.” As I was writing this article, Mitch notified me that one of the medical staffers they worked with heard the podcast and wanted to make it clear that the blood clots were actually small, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) clots. Had they been “big,” traveling to Budapest would have been out of the question for Ryan.)
After conferring with the doctors, Mitch and Ryan engaged in some heart-to-heart talks. With his calf starting to feel better, Ryan was confident that the nine months of preparation he’d put in before contracting the blood clots would allow him to be competitive at Worlds–if he could get there. “I can walk again,” he told his father. “I think I can still do something.”
They considered the odds, and decided to put their trust in the effectiveness of the blood thinners. Six days before the competition, they boarded a plane for Europe. On the advice of the doctors, Mitch and Ryan flew into Vienna so they could have access to the top-notch hospitals there in case Ryan needed care upon landing. He did not, and after the plane touched down, they traveled on to Budapest by car.
Upon arrival, Ryan did a brief “shakeout” session at a facility near the hotel. According to Mitch, “he looked pretty good technically. The pain in his calf was still there, but not nearly at the level it had been.”
A big moment came during their next training session, where Ryan took his first hard throws in three weeks.
“We needed to know what we were dealing with before competing,” Mitch explained. “So we cranked it up, and one thing we found out right away was that his throws from a static start were not what they had been.”
Shot put fans have gotten used to Ryan beginning competitions with at least one attempt from a static start before switching to his full windup and–as of the 2023 season–his now famous “Crouser slide.” It’s his way of setting his timing and posting a solid mark with very little risk of fouling. It can also be intimidating to the rest of the field when Ryan opens with a big throw from the static, as he did earlier this season at the LA Grand Prix, dropping a 23.23m first-round bomb on the way to setting his 23.56m World Record.
But after Ryan was unable to approach 22 meters with the static at the practice session in Budapest, he and Mitch decided to go exclusively with the slide in the competition.
The automatic qualifying mark was 21.40m, and if there was ever a day when Ryan needed to go one-and-done, this was it. With his lack of fitness and the final scheduled to take place that night, he needed to conserve energy. Of course, after the putters warmed up, a thunderstorm hit and delayed the competition for an hour.
When matters resumed, Ryan put his first attempt out to 21.48m.
He was first up that night in the final, and all eyes were on him as he stepped in the ring hoping, says Mitch, to “put some pressure on the field.”
Ryan’s 22.63m opener did just that, and with his competitors looking sluggish (The heat? The stress of having the qualification and final on the same day? The shock of seeing Ryan throw so far after being laid up for three weeks?) it seemed possible that the competition was over before it had begun in earnest.
But great athletes are not inclined to coast, and Ryan extended his lead with a 22.98m haymaker to begin round two.
Italy’s Leonardo Fabbri did his best to liven things up with a 22.34m PB in round three, but nobody else got within a meter of Crouser until Walsh (22.05m) and Kovacs (22.12m) found a little rhythm in the fifth stanza.
Then Fabbri, throwing directly before Crouser, dropped his fifth-rounder just at the front edge of the 23-meter line. (By the way, does anyone else remember the days when the idea of needing a 23-meter line at a World Championships would have been laughable?)
He fouled it, and fouled his sixth attempt as well. Then Ryan put an end to any “what if Fabbri had saved that throw?” speculation by going 23.51m on the final put of the night.
“After all he’d been through,” Mitch said, “and with his static throw down a meter, he caught that one as close to perfect as he could.”
Since returning home, Ryan has remained on blood thinners. He’ll have regular Doppler scans to make sure the clots are dissolving, and will see how he feels over the next couple of weeks before deciding whether to compete at the Diamond League final in mid-September.
As to what caused the clots in the first place, it’s hard to say. According to Mitch, clots do not run in the family, so they might have resulted from an unlucky combination of factors. The flight home from London could have contributed. And after he’d been back for a couple of days, Ryan realized he’d lost his sense of smell. which might mean he’d contracted Covid.
(Let me take a second here to correct another mistake I made on the podcast. When discussing possible causes of Ryan’s blood clots, I stated definitively that he was suffering from Covid after his European trip. Not true. Losing one’s sense of smell suggests but does not prove Covid.)
Anyway, according to the American Heart Association, Covid increases the likelihood of contracting blood clots. So does dehydration, and the day before his calf started hurting, Ryan did two hard training sessions in 100-degree heat.
He may never know the exact cause, but either way, few who witnessed the men’s shot comp at this World Championships will ever forget it.
Not long ago, I realized that it had been ages since I’d caught up with Cory Martin. so I gave him a shout. He took my call while driving from Louisville, Kentucky, back home to Bloomington, Indiana, after putting in a day’s work at his new job as throwing coach for the University of Louisville Cardinals.
In his younger years, Cory was part of a remarkable group of Auburn University throwers coached by Jerry Clayton. Among them were Jake Dunkelberger, the 2007 NCAA hammer champ, and Edis Elkasević, the NCAA indoor and outdoor shot winner in 2005 (and later the coach of discus great Sandra Perković).
“It was an extremely competitive environment,” Cory recalled. “Edis and I used to have ab workout contests after our lifts to see who would quit first. Having him around helped me a lot. I was meant to be a hammer guy when I went to Auburn, but because I got to throw against Edis every day and found myself pushing to be as good as him, I ended up becoming a pretty good shot putter.”
“Pretty good” indeed. At the 2008 NCAA Outdoor Championships, Cory blasted a 20.35m PB on his last attempt to snatch the title from Arizona State’s Ryan Whiting. Two days earlier, he’d thrown a final-round PB in the hammer to take the win over Dunkelberger.
That summer, Cory embarked on a professional career, joining a powerful group of American putters, guys like Adam Nelson, Christian Cantwell, Reese Hoffa, and Whiting, as they plied their trade across the globe.
It was not an easy transition.
“The biggest thing facing anyone coming out of college,” he says, “is the institutional support goes away. After four years of being a priority and having a set routine, suddenly you’re on your own. You have to figure out your own schedule, arrange your own travel. A lot of times when you go to meets, your coach isn’t with you. My first year on the circuit, my agent called one day and said, ‘Hey, I got you into a hammer meet in Brazil, but you’ve got to fly to Miami tomorrow to get a visa.’ The next day, I was sitting by myself in a La Quinta Inn in Miami thinking ‘What am I doing here?’ I called my wife and said, ‘I’m coming home,’ but she kicked me in the butt and the next day I went to Brazil and threw a PB. I was really lucky to have her in my corner.”
When newbies on the pro circuit ask his advice, Cory tells them the first two years might be tough, but things will get better if they keep grinding.
Cory had his own breakthrough during his second year on the tour when he made the US squad for the 2010 Indoor Worlds and threw 22.10m outdoors at the Tucson Elite meet.
His best finish at an international championships came at the 2013 Outdoor Worlds in Moscow, where he came in ninth. But by then, Cory was just about ready to move on from the “me first” world of elite athletics.
“Not long ago,” he recalled, “I talked to a thrower who was at Auburn when I was training there as a pro and he said, ‘Don’t take this wrong, but you were kind of mean in those days.’ Looking back, I can understand why he thought that, because as a pro you have to be selfish and you can’t apologize for it. You feel the pressure of trying to make a living, and if you don’t do well, you’re out of the sport. So you have to be self-centered, you have to build up an ego for protection. In 2010, when I had my best year, I was really selfish. That’s just the reality of the sport.”
But he and Taryn wanted to start a family, and Cory was ready to follow his father into coaching. Cory’s dad had made his mark as a high school football coach, but Cory had his sights set on the NCAA,
In 2014, he was hired by the legendary Ron Helmer to take over the throwing program at Indiana University, a dream job that allowed Cory and Taryn to settle in the town of Bloomington, Indiana, where they’d both grown up.
Years went by, and Cory employed the knowledge he’d gained from coaches like Clayton and John Smith to produce numerous All-Americans, Big Ten champions, and school record-holders. Meanwhile, he and Taryn welcomed a son and a daughter into the world.
The winds of change started blowing in the spring of 2022, though, when Helmer announced that the 2023 season would be his last. Whoever took over the program would want to bring in their own staff, and the prospect of moving on led to many late-night conversations in the Martin household.
“I was confident with the coaching part,” Cory explained. ”I knew wherever I ended up, I could get things going in the right direction. The hard question was, ‘How would this affect our family?’”
Cory and Taryn tried to keep everything normal around their house as they weighed different options. Earlier this summer, Cory decided to accept an offer from the University of Louisville. Impressed by the city, the facilities, and the support for athletics on the part of both the university and the community, they were excited about this new chapter in Cory’s career.
When it came time to tell the kids, they weren’t too worried about how their daughter Harper would react. She was four and hadn’t started school yet, so relocating would probably have less of an impact on her. But their son Knox was seven, and moving to Louisville would require him to leave behind his school, his friends and his little league teammates.
Fortunately, Louisville is home to the Louisville Slugger Museum and bat factory, a baseball shrine along the lines of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and a visit there was enough to convince Knox that moving to Kentucky might not be a bad idea. “I want to say we visited the museum on a Wednesday,” Cory recalled. “And after our tour, Knox asked if we could move by Friday.”
Buying and selling a home is no simple matter though, which explains the long daily commute. Four or five days a week throughout the summer, Cory hit the road at 6am to make the two-hour drive to Louisville. In the evenings, he’d do his best to get back to Bloomington in time to help Knox hone his hitting stroke. There were days when Cory found himself wondering if he should just get an apartment in Louisville while he and Taryn navigated the logistics of moving, but he couldn’t stand the idea of not seeing Taryn and the kids every night.
Another tricky aspect of making the jump to Louisville was that it meant leaving behind the throwing family Cory had established at IU.
After Heller’s announcement, Cory’s group knew that he would likely be moving on as well. That created some anxiety, which Cory did his best to manage as the 2023 campaign approached.
It was only natural for Cory’s IU kids to want to follow him to his new destination. Getting to throw for him was, after all, a big reason why most had come to Indiana in the first place. But, even in the era of the transfer portal, switching schools is no easy matter. For one thing, as the 2023 season progressed, Cory still had no idea where he would end up. And, once he did secure a new position, there was no guarantee that his new school would have scholarships available to offer any of his throwers who wanted to transfer.
One IU thrower who felt especially anxious about her future was Jayden Ulrich, who developed into a 59-meter discus thrower under Cory’s tutelage. They had built a close bond, and even after drawing a lot of interest from other schools through the portal, Jayden told Cory, “Wherever you’re going, I’m going.”
Cory says he encouraged Jayden to explore all options, but in the end was thrilled when she was in fact able to follow him to Louisville. She’ll have two years of eligibility remaining, and Cory says the “sky’s the limit” for Jayden in the disc.
The third piece of the puzzle Cory faced was how to create a new throwing family at Louisville. A priority this summer was sitting down with each returning Louisville thrower for a one-on-one meeting during which he reminded them that he was experiencing change just as they were, and promised to come into his new position with an open mind and treat each of them as individuals.
“It was fun,” he says, “to talk to the kids and find some commonalities to help them get comfortable with me. Coaching is all about communication, and going forward I’ve got to figure out the best way to reach each athlete.”
Having Jayden on board should speed the process. “My new throwers,” he explained, “can look at Jayden and say, ‘Oh, that’s what he means,’ which will be a big help.”
“Wherever you’re coaching and whoever you’re coaching,” he continued. “It’s all about being an educator and understanding what motivates a kid.”
“And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from practicing baseball with my son in our backyard,” he says, “it’s patience.”
On that note, we said our goodbyes so Cory could turn his attention back to the road. The one that led to his family.
They’re back. Almost.
Something besides the world’s best beer is brewing in Germany these days.
After a tough 2022 European Senior Championships at which German throwers took just two medals (jav gold by Julian Webber, disc silver by Kristin Pudenz), and consecutive World Championships with no German men in the shot final and no German women on the shot podium, it appears that a batch of fresh talent is fermenting.
At the recent European U20 Championships held in Jerusalem, German teens tossed their way to nine medals including two in both the men’s and women’s shot, and a sweep in the women’s disc.
Among the most promising of those youngsters is Nina Chioma Ndubuisi, who took shot put gold with a throw of 17.97m.
According to Christian Sperling, the German national shot and disc coach for juniors, Nina was a heptathlete until 2021. She decided to focus exclusively on throwing after finishing third in the shot at the European U20s in Tallinn with a mark of 15.71m, and has improved quite a bit since even though she currently lacks the bulk and weight room strength associated with 18-meter shot putters.
“Nina,” according to Coach Sperling, “is very good in jumping and sprinting. This is why she is able to throw the shot so far with a body weight under 80 kilograms.”
She and other young German throwers have also benefited from a series of training camps hosted by the federation where Coach Sperling says, “the best athletes in every developmental stage are together with the best experts in Germany.”
Those training camps were begun in 2022, as was an annual series of five developmental competitions called the “Deutscher Wurf-Cup.”
Will such efforts eventually pay off with senior European, World and Olympic medals?
According to American throws meister John Smith, who coached his wife Connie Price-Smith against the likes of Olympic and 3x World champion Astrid Kumbernuss during the glory days of German putting, the answer is yes.
Smith remembers when “nobody thought the day would come that American women would beat the Germans. A top German thrower would have been ashamed to lose to an American.”
Early adoption of the rotational shot technique eventually gave US throwers a leg up and put Germany in its current catch-up mode, he says, but they are now making a strong move to close the gap.
“They’ve gone missing for a few years in the shot,” he says, “but they’ve got a good young crop and it won’t be long before they reappear at the World level.”
It’s interesting to note that Nina has accepted a scholarship to the University of Texas, where she will be coached by Zeb Sion and presumably train in proximity to Val Allman, who along with newly-minted champ Lagi Tausaga, has helped keep German women off the discus podium at the last two Worlds.
Will Nina flourish in the American collegiate system, learn the secrets behind American rotational dominance and use them to accelerate the revival of German shot putting?
And if so, will the Germans reciprocate by teaching us how to mass produce outstanding beer and delectable chocolate?
Personally, I would consider that a fair exchange.