Last year a storm blew in on the final day of the USATF Championships, and the winds that preceded it helped produce some fantastic results in the men’s discus.
Yesterday, throws fans seated on the hill overlooking the discus cage at Drake Stadium were hoping for a repeat performance, this time by the women.
Foul weather loomed on the horizon as flight one of the women’s discus warmed up, and the flags dangling from the safety ropes strung along the right foul line indicated a right-to-left cross wind was developing. Though for sure not a world record wind or a Hawaii wind or even a 2018 men’s discus wind, we spectators hoped that it might prove useful to Val Allman, Kelsey Card, Gia Lewis Smallwood, Laulauga Tausaga, Whitney Ashley and others fighting to make the team for Doha if they could fly the disc just right, or that it mind change direction a bit and morph into more of a headwind.
It was interesting to watch the flight-one competitors wrangle with the wind during warmups. A couple of throws released prematurely and seemingly headed out of bounds to the right were blown back into the sector. Several of the athletes had trouble keeping the disc flat, which can be challenging in a cross wind.
All in all, it seemed to be of no help to the gals in the first flight, as once the competition began only one of them notched a season’s best. That was Jere Summers, whose round-two toss of 59.66m was also a PB.
It might be that most of the flight-one competitors simply lacked the horse power to take advantage of this wind, as some of the flight-two throwers (most notably Allman, Card and Tausaga) hit long throws when their turn came to warm up.
As with the previous throwing events, each flight was given thirty minutes to prepare, which for a group of nine discus throwers is quite a lot of time.
I wrote previously about how some of the men’s shot putters, especially Joe Kovacs, used the long warmup period to take a lot of throws, and it was interesting to see the different approach taken by Val.
She went right to full throws, no stands, wheels, or fixed feet fulls, and she only took a handful of them.
When I asked her about this after the competition, she said it was a habit she developed while competing overseas. “You’re only ever guaranteed two warmup throws,” she explained, “so you have to learn to make do with that.”
She looked sharp on the warmups she did take yesterday, and seemed to be in great shape to defend her national title.
Once the competition began, things quickly got interesting.
Card, third up in the flight, took an early lead with a throw of 62.37m.
Kelsey is really fun to watch. She lacks the long levers possessed by a lot of world class discus throwers, but her entry and sprint through the ring are smooth and efficient and her fixed-feet finish allows her to thoroughly work the ground. Two years ago her coach, Dave Astrauskas, was nice enough to break down Kelsey’s technique for me, and you can read his analysis here.
Val was next up, and she snapped off a 64.34m just to let everyone know there would be no let down on her part.
Tausaga and Ashley both fouled their openers, and the round ended with Gia Lewis Smallwood moving into medal contention with a toss of 61.49m.
What can be said about Gia, aside from the fact that she is amazing? Like Kara Winger, she has spent a remarkably long time at or near the top of the US rankings in her event. Gia is the only thrower I’ve ever researched whose “Progression” page on her IAAF bio does not fit on one screen. You have to scroll down to find out that she threw 55.52m in 2000, and has thrown over sixty meters in nine of the last ten years, the exception being 2016 when she injured her back so badly that just bending down to pick up a discus off the ground was difficult.
Also like Kara, Gia is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
So it was cool to see her banging away at what was, in the words of Kara who was serving as PA announcer for the long throws, “at least her fifteenth US Championships.” According to Kara, the records “only go back to 2002,” so I guess we will have to wait for archeologists to fill in the gaps some day.
Tausaga knocked Gia out of third with a round two throw of 61.51m, while both Card and Val fouled. Ashley got on the board with 54.70m, but that left her in thirteenth place.
She punctuated her round three effort with a long and barbaric yell, which resulted in a mark of 61.52m. Thus was Tausaga knocked into fourth.
I have, by the way, a soft spot in my heart for Whitney. Not only is she an excellent thrower and super articulate person (check out this post-competition interview), but I have a great memory of watching her blast her first-ever sixty-meter throw right here in Des Moines in round six of the NCAA final her senior year at San Diego State. That throw lifted her from middle of the pack into the lead and showed for the first time that she had world class potential.
As Whitney mentions in that interview, a funny thing happened during the short break between prelims and finals yesterday: the wind stopped.
So, those on the outside looking in (Val, Kelsey and Whitney occupied the top spots going into round four) would get no help from Mother Nature.
It turns out that Tausaga didn’t need any, as she smashed a 62.08m toss that jumped her back into third.
That put Whitney into a bad spot (fourth place when the top three go to Doha) and she bombed away at the 60-meter line on each of her final three attempts, determined to claw her way onto the podium.
Each time she came up short (60.29m, 60.57m, 60.19m) as did Gia, whose sixth-round 61.51m left her in fifth place.
Afterwards, I spoke with Tausaga and Card about navigating the difficulties inherent to collegiate (Laulauga) and post-collegiate (Card) chucking. That interview is here.
I also spoke with Val, who is making the transition from collegiate to post-collegiate athlete look pretty easy. That interview is here.
Full results may be found here.