2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships

Tucked into the cornfields of Iowa, there is magic place. A place where courtesy is the rule and not the exception. A place where you can get a reasonably-priced motel room even when the World Pork Expo is in town. A place where you can get one of the comfy seats at Starbucks at 8:00 on a Saturday morning. A place where they will charge you $6 for a milkshake but only $3 for a quality beer. A place where almost every June world class throwers gather to compete.

Yep, I’m talking about Des Moines, Iowa, site of this year’s NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships. With four winners from 2011 returning to defend their titles in the throws and some formidable challengers eager to knock them off, there promised to be plenty of drama at this year’s meet. Determined to witness it first hand, my friend Pat Trofimuk and I piled into my Prius on a hot June morning and hauled butt “Born to be Wild” style across three hundred miles of sun-drenched cornfields. Our motto: If they chuck it, we will come.


Men’s Discus

We arrived in Des Moines and made our way to Drake University just in time to catch the flight one warm-ups for the men’s discus. The layout at Drake is spectator-friendly. The long throws are contested on a large field outside the stadium, but not so far away that you feel like you’ve been banished to a remote island. There are two throwing cages, one right next to the stadium and one about 100 meters distant. The farther cage is right next to the javelin runway, which allows the discus or hammer to be contested concurrently with the jav. This layout would come in handy on a couple of occasions during the week ahead.

There is a grass berm running along one side of the field that wraps around behind the farther cage and the javelin runway providing an excellent vantage point for spectators. That’s where the discus was contested, and as warm-ups began, Pat and I staked out a nice spot on the grass directly behind and above the cage.

With defending champion Julian Wruck taking a redshirt year to prepare for the Olympics and manage a transfer to UCLA, this competition was wide open.  The top returning finishers from last year, Mason Finley of Kansas (3rd), Chad Wright of Nebraska by way of Jamaica (6th), and Tyler Hitchler of Nebraska by way of Nebraska (7th) were all slotted into flight one.  This was a matter of chance because, as was the case in 2011, the twenty-four qualifiers from regionals were divided into two randomly-selected flights.

It was a nice day to throw the disc. Sunny. Eighty-some degrees. It was hard to pin down the direction of the wind (they had divider flags strung all over the place and it seemed like they kept blowing in different directions), but it definitely wasn’t a bad wind and if nothing else it kept the humidity at bay.

As seems to often be the case in high-pressure meets, most of the throwers looked a bit tentative in the early going. Wright got off the best throw of the first flight, 59.29m in round three. He doesn’t have the height of the classic discus thrower (I’d guess he’s around 6’2”) but he looks like he’s got long arms and he moves really well. Same for Hitchler, who put himself into second place with a round-two toss of 59.09m, and Andrew Evans of Kentucky, a sophomore who came in with a regional seed of 55.67m, opened with 51.91m then improved to 58.91m in the second round. Next best after Evans was Geoffrey Tabor, a junior from Stanford, who reached 58.67m in round two. Tabor is another guy who does not look like he’s tall enough to be a top-notch discus thrower, but he uses an extremely aggressive right leg sweep to develop speed out of the back (kind of like the Hungarian thrower Zoltan Kövágó) and attacks every throw with passion. Out of all the throwers we’d see throughout the week he had my favorite yell. It’s hard to describe, but even the Incredible Hulk would be impressed.

Finley’s best in prelims was 57.93m. He doesn’t have the classic discus build either. He’s certainly got the height, but at 420 pounds he is much thicker than any elite discus thrower I’ve ever seen. Current world champion Robert Harting, for example, is 6’7” and weighs around 280.  Finley was not happy with his performance in prelims, as 57.93m did not assure him a spot in the finals. He told us later that his coach kept admonishing him to stop dropping his left shoulder out of the back and pulling his head through the power position, but that he just couldn’t feel what he was doing wrong.

As flight one finished up, the competitors from flight two were marched out to the cage. They had been gathered in a holding tent near the edge of the stadium, and that’s where the flight one throwers would spend the next hour or so waiting to see if they’d made the finals (the top nine overall advanced).

The big gun in flight two was Oklahoma senior Luke Bryant, another smooth, technically excellent thrower who looks a bit undersized for the discus. He came in with the best throw out of regionals (60.24m). Other possible contenders were Jared Thomas, a senior from South Florida with a PR of 61.26m, and Lonnie Pugh, a Michigan State junior who finished eighth last year and came in with a 58.39m regional toss.

The main attraction in flight two, though, was the Texas freshman Ryan Crouser.  He has that classic, lanky discus-thrower build, but is also powerful enough to have put the shot 20.29m indoors. That combination of size and strength is generally limited to Marvel Comics characters, and many American throws fans are hoping that young Ryan eventually mutates into World Class Discus Man and rescues us from the current European domination of that event.

Bryant was Mr. Steady during prelims, going 59.50m, 59.36m, and 59.11m. That put him into the overall lead, and throwing in flight two meant that he could roll right into the finals without having to go bake in the holding tent for an hour.

Thomas secured his spot in the finals with a third-round toss of 59.26m. I thought that Crouser looked a bit cautious. There has been talk of him struggling with injuries during the outdoor season, and he didn’t seem that dynamic in the ring. He clenches his left arm as he turns out of the back the way Suzy Powell-Roos does, and he lacked the fluidity of most of the other throwers. That said, he punched his ticket to the finals with a round-two 58.13m.

The guy from flight two who really impressed me was Texas A&M freshman Dalton Rowan.  He is tall and lanky like Crouser, but what set him apart was his speed. All twenty-four throwers seemed to be using the same basic technique template. Slide the left armpit over the left knee. Get the right foot off the ground quickly. Generate power with an aggressive right leg sweep. Finish with a violent reverse. What stood out about Rowan was that he moved through those positions faster than anybody else. He’s still pretty light in the butt (232 pounds) and not super strong (bench:255lbs for 3 sets of 3, hang clean: 125k for 1 of 3) but he can really haul.

He also is a young man of great enthusiasm and confidence. His secret for handling big meet pressure? “Got to have the memory of a goldfish, dude. No matter what happens I just tell myself, ‘you already know how to do it, so just get out there and do it.’” After opening with 55.55m and 56.72m, he needed a big effort in round three to get in the finals. Summoning his inner gold fish, he banged a 58.85m to move temporarily into sixth place overall.

As the flight two guys took their third throws, the flight one throwers were marched from the holding tent back out to the throwing area. At that point, Finley was hanging on to the number nine spot. Just as he and his fellow flight one competitors neared the discus cage, Pugh unleashed what appeared to be a 60-meter throw. Finley said later that when he saw that throw land his heart “dropped.” Luckily for him, and for the local EMTs, Pugh stepped on the front of the ring for a foul.

Mason did not immediately take advantage of his reprieve. His opening throw of the finals was a disappointing 56.16m. Crouser, sitting in eighth and up next, nailed a 59.77m to move into third place, a remarkable throw for a freshman under any circumstances and truly amazing if he was, as we suspected, not at one hundred percent.

No one else made any noise in round four until Wright (60.98) became the first to break the 60-meter barrier. Bryant responded with 60.94m.

Mason remained stuck in neutral in round five (56.98), while Rowan, Tabor, and Hitchler all hit respectable 58-meter throws without moving up. Evans and Crouser fouled, making for a pretty uneventful round until Wright stepped into the ring then quickly stepped back out in order to let an official sweep a bug out of the way.

Those who follow the sport will remember what he and Hitchler went through last year as their coach, Mark Colligan, shockingly, passed away here in Des Moines the day of the discus final. Carrie Lane, hired in September to succeed Colligan, told me later about the difficulty of replacing a beloved coach who adhered to a rather idiosyncratic technical model. She had to figure out the best way to proceed with each individual thrower: help them improve while sticking with the technique they had gotten used to, or move them toward the more standard throwing style that she favored. In Wright’s case, Lane discovered that her approach to technique meshed quite easily with the way he had learned to throw growing up in Jamaica, so they were able to find common ground without too much trouble. Lane even found herself, late in the season, adjusting Wright’s technique using “Mark Colligan terms.” This Colligan/Lane combo proved to be a powerful mix, as Wright drilled a fifth-round 62.79m to take a commanding lead.

Bryant responded with a foul, and then Mason ambled into the ring having apparently decided to try a novel approach: listening to his coach. “On my last throw,” he said later, “I just figured he must be right so I just trusted him and really over-exaggerated not pulling my head and not dipping my shoulder.” The result was enough to warm the heart of coaches everywhere: a three-meter improvement to 61.02m which launched him from ninth place all the way to second.

That was it in terms of final-round fireworks. Wright finished with a foul and Bryant closed with 60.42m to end up third.


Women’s Javelin

The women’s javelin competition ran concurrently with the men’s discus, but no worries. Because they were using the discus cage that sits right next to the javelin runway, it was possible to follow both events at the same time.

That was nice, because I really wanted to see Oklahoma’s Brittany Borman try to defend her title. Borman, who looks like what the actress Emma Stone would look like if Emma Stone could clean 100k, has had a fantastic throwing career at Oklahoma but one characterized by dramatic unpredictability. She finished second in the NCAA discus in 2010, came into the 2011 meet as one of the favorites and… fouled out of the prelims. She also finished second in the jav in 2010, came into the 2011 meet as the clear favorite and…looked very shaky in the prelims before righting her ship and knocking out a fourth-round 54.32m for the win. In April of this year she launched a 59.42m missile, thus announcing herself as a potentially world class javelin thrower and…hit only 50.89m at the regional and came into Des Moines ranked second behind Stanford freshman Brianna Bain (50.92m). So, it would be interesting to see which version of Borman showed up.

The illogical logic of randomization put Bain in flight one and Borman in flight two, thus giving Bain the chance to maybe get into Borman’s head a little bit by knocking the crap out of one early, but she couldn’t manage it. Her first-round 50.01m was her best throw of the prelims, putting her in second behind Emily Tyrrell of Montana State (50.50m).

Borman took over the lead with her first attempt (52.15m) then pretty much sealed the deal with a round-two toss of 56.27m.

That throw seemed to take the starch out of  the rest of the field, as the first two rounds of the finals produced only two fifty-meter throws, Borman’s fourth-round 53.09m and Bain’s fifth-round 51.11m.

The snoozefest continued into round six until, out of the blue, Bain hammered one. I imagine Borman had an uncomfortable moment or two there while waiting for the measurement. Kind of like me when the doorbell rings and I have reason to suspect that one of my sisters-in-law might be in town. But she needn’t have worried. Bain’s 54.93m gave her a new PR and sent a message to her fellow underclassmen that she’ll be the one to beat in 2013, but it was not enough to pull off the upset.


Women’s Discus

Last year, Arizona State’s Anna Jelmini came to Des Moines as one of the favorites, threw quite well (57.97m), held first place going into round six, and lost the title to an unheralded thrower, Tracey Rew of Northwestern Louisiana who PR’d by three meters.

No way something like that could happen two years in a row, right?

Aside from Jelmini, the top returners from 2011 were Tennessee’s Annie Alexander (3rd), Michigan State’s Beth Rohl (6th), and San Diego State’s Whitney Ashley (7th), none of whom had come within two meters of Jelmini at regionals where she posted 57.49m.

Rohl and Ashley were both slotted in flight one, and as warm-ups began (around 5:00) the sun started to ease up a bit and a light breeze continued wafting in, making the conditions quite pleasant for throwers and spectators.

Rohl and Ashley each punched their ticket to the finals during round one, Rohl hitting 55.69m and Ashley producing a 42-centimeter PR of 56.22m. None of the other flight-one throwers would advance. That included Brittany Borman, who had to skip the javelin awards ceremony in order to report for the discus. She looked really smooth technically, but just didn’t seem to have much pop and could manage only a round-two 52.48m. I asked her afterwards if she was exhausted after throwing the jav in that sun for two hours but she no, she felt fine and was not sure why she couldn’t get off a better throw in the disc. It was kind of a sad way to end what had been an outstanding college discus career, but she was already looking forward to competing in the javelin in the Olympic Trials and beyond. She plans to continue training at OU under her current coach, Brian Blutreich, and with two NCAA jav titles and the Olympic B-standard under her belt, she could not be blamed for losing a bit of focus in the discus.

Jelmini had to be feeling pretty good as flight two was brought out to take their warm-up throws. The weather was getting nicer by the minute, and nobody in flight one had done anything that might cause her undo worry. She snapped off a couple of warm-up throws in the 60-meter range, and looked relaxed and confident even when she mistimed one and yanked it badly down the left foul line. Her coach, Dave Dumble, encouraged her to “face the throw longer” as she appeared to be pulling down a bit with her head and left arm as she sprinted out of the back of the ring.

Speaking of technique, it was interesting to note the variety of approaches found among the women. While almost all the male discus throwers looked alike technically, almost none of the women did. Jelmini has a unique way of holding the discus—she sort of cups it against her forearm, and she chalks her throwing arm from wrist to elbow to keep the disc from sticking. Whitney Ashley lets the disc drop down near her right knee as she leaves the back of the ring. Nebraska junior Morgan Wilken seems to throw her head and right arm towards the center of the ring as a way of creating momentum out of the back and then sprints under the discus and into the power position. Also, unlike the men, there were several fixed-feet throwers among the ladies, including Ashley and Morgan.

Throwing sixth in her flight, Jelmini stepped in and took control right away. Her 58.79m opener put her into the lead by two-and-a-half meters. She followed that up with a round-two foul (another yanker down the left foul line) and a round-three 55.12m. Queuing up behind her and into medal contention were Alexander at 56.69m and Ashley Hearn of UC Davis who smoked a second-round 56.30m, ran over to the spectator berm, flashed her coach a big smile and declared, “That, was a PR!”

The top five heading into the final then were Jelmini, Alexander, Hearn, Rohl, and Ashley.

Jelmini got back on track in round four and fired a 58.34m—again almost two meters better than everyone else, but not quite the coup de grâce she was hoping for.  Otherwise, it was a quiet round, with no changes in the rankings.

Suddenly, in round five, things got interesting. By then, the weather was just about perfect. The harsh sun was gone. The breeze was blowing in. The opportunity was there for someone to nail a big throw.

The first to take advantage was Rohl. Her 56.85m jumped her into third place.

Next up was Whitney Ashley, and she absolutely killed one. Her coach let out a yell as the disc bit near the 60meter line.  A few seconds later the exact distance flashed up on the board: 59.99m, four meters farther than her PR coming into this meet. She was now in first place.

Ashley Hearn was up next and, remarkably, came veeeery close to trumping Whitney Ashley’s bomb as she hit the sixty-meter line…but just barely fouled at the front of the ring.

God only knows what was going through Jelmini’s head as she stepped up for her fifth throw. The conditions were right for her to throw 60 meters and retake the lead, but could she do it after being knocked out of first by a miracle throw two consecutive years? She did an impressive job of keeping her composure, but could only reach 58.19m.

Not much action in round six until Hearn got in and drilled 57.94m. She told us later that she had struggled the entire year until just before regionals when she and her coach decided to change her windup so that she kept more weight on her left leg. That helped her get out of the back efficiently, and basically saved her career. That sixty-meter foul has her determined to continue throwing post-collegiately.

Whitney Ashley finished with a 56.41m toss. Jelmini had one more shot at retaking the lead, but could manage only 56.75m. She stood in the ring for a long time after the throw landed.


Men’s Javelin

Covering the throws in the heat of June makes a man powerful thirsty, so after the first day’s events were over we retired to a West Des Moines pub called Old Chicago where they have an awesome beer selection and where, on Wednesday nights, every third beer is free. Yes, you read that correctly.

We woke up Thursday morning feeling thoroughly refreshed, and headed to the Blank Park Zoo to while away some time before the Day 2 throwing events. My favorite exhibits were the tortoises and the animatronic mastodon. I also came away with a very nice blackmail picture of Pat cuddling a baby seal doll.

Last year, Tim Glover of Illinois State had the javelin title sewn up after his first throw—an 80.33m bomb that left everyone else fighting for second place. A year later he arrived in Des Moines stronger (a 125k bench—up from 105k, and a 130k hang clean—up from 110k), more experienced, and determined not only to defend his title but to reach the Olympic A standard of 82.00m. He had come close earlier this season with a toss of 81.31m at the Sea Rays Relays.

Stepping up to challenge Glover were 2011 runner-up Matthias Treff of Virginia Tech, Texas A&M’s Sam Humphreys (3rd in 2011) and Florida sophomore Stipe Zunic (4th in 2011). Also in the hunt was Oregon freshman Sam Crouser, who posted a fine 76.70m toss in the regionals. Humphreys likely posed the biggest threat, as he came in with the leading throw out of regionals (77.94m) after winning the Big 12 meet with a PR toss of 78.98m. He is also a very large man who looks like he could punch out a steer.

Glover, Treff, and Crouser were all slotted into flight one. Warmups began at 2:00, and it was smoking hot out by then. There are a few small trees scattered on the spectator hill overlooking the jav runway, so Pat and I grabbed a spot underneath one of them, but there was still no escaping the oppressive heat. I know that journalists are meant to be impartial, but Pat is a teammate of Glover’s, so I’m not going lie—we were rooting for him big time and hoping that he’d open up with a monster toss like last year.

Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.

Glover put together an okay series, 73.46m, 75.42m, 71.69m, but could not deliver a knockout blow. He ended up second in the flight, behind Treff’s 75.83m. Crouser, like Humphreys an imposing physical specimen, could manage only 70.09m.

Out marched flight two, and into the tent went Glover with a lot of time to think things over.

Now it was Humphreys’ chance to turn up the heat, and he wasted no time, opening with 76.93m to take the lead. But that was the best he could muster (he followed up with 75.01m and 76.76m) and it was not likely to hold up against Glover.

Heading into the final then, it was Humphreys, Treff, and Glover, followed by two seniors—Ignacio Guerra of Western Kentucky (74.84m) and Ben Chretien of McNeese State (74.78m).

Illinois State throws coach Erik Whitsitt told us later that the lack of a big throw from the second flight gave him a chance to help Glover regroup. “Ever since Tim hit his big one at the Sea Ray Relays, he’s been focused on getting the A standard rather than competing. Before the final, I just had to settle him down…convince him to just go out and get the win and stop thinking about throwing 82 meters.”

Mission accomplished. The newly relaxed Glover hammered an 81.69m to take a commanding lead. Humphreys responded with 79.62m in round five. They were the only two who managed to improve over their preliminary throws.

I asked Pat if he was worried when Glover started slowly in prelims. “No,” he replied. “The thing about Tim is that he’s got a heart and a cannon.” Both came in handy on this day.

The good news for javelin fans? Each of the top three will be back next year.


Women’s Hammer

Going in, this appeared to be a contest between three throwers each of whom had a remarkable month of May.

Alena Krechyk of Kansas by way of Belarus had set a school and conference record of 69.02m at the Big 12 meet and followed that up with a 68.23m toss at regionals.  Jeneva McCall of Southern Illinois had broken the Missouri Valley Conference record with a throw of 68.58m and then nailed 69.13m at regionals. Amanda Bingson of UNLV did not break the Mountain West Conference record when she won her third consecutive title with a throw of 67.94m, but her 71.04m regional toss led all qualifiers.

All three of these ladies were slotted into the second flight.

The women’s hammer ran concurrently with the men’s jav, and my vote for Man Most Likely to Suffer Heat Stroke went to Coach Whitsitt who had to scramble around the spectator hill for two hours trying to coax a jav title out of Tim Glover while also keeping tabs on ISU hammer thrower Brittany Smith. A 2011 finalist, Smith tossed a solid 66.19m at regionals but then, according to Whitsitt, fell into a bit of a funk. “The big thing with us,” he explained, “is that we are expected to compete at the conference level so we have to peak them a little bit…then we have to create another mini-peak for the regional and national championships. Brittany’s last week of practice was probably one of her worst all year just because she was kind of feeling beat to crap, but she started to liven up a bit the last two days.”

She certainly looked lively during warm-ups, dropping a couple in the 65-meter range and flashing Coach Whitsitt a thumbs up. She then took charge of flight one with a fine series: 67.31m, 67.54m, and 68.45m. Behind her were the 6’3” Swede, Ida Storm of UCLA (65.68m), and Jenny Ozorai, a native of Hungary competing for USC (65.20m).

Of the flight two throwers, McCall may have faced the greatest mental challenge as she was competing in three events (discus, hammer, shot put) the first of which had not gone well.  The 2010 discus champion, this year she managed a best of 54.05m in the prelims and did not advance to the final. Bitterly disappointed, she let herself grieve for a couple of hours afterwards and then took in a showing of the film “Battleship.” That apparently did the trick, as her opening salvo of 68.47m in the hammer put her into first place.

Meanwhile, neither Krechyk nor Bingson could get it rolling. Krechyk’s second-round 64.58m assured her a spot on the podium, but did not put her in the hunt for the title. Bingson opened with two fouls. “I was just really confused about what was going on because I’d picked up some habits I’d never had before,” she said later. Facing a really lousy end to a fine college career, Bingson stepped over to the spectator area, coaxed her eight-year-old cousin into giving her a hug, and then stepped into the ring and hit 66.96m which put her into third place behind McCall and Smith.

The final was uneventful. Smith, after an hour break, could not recapture her prelim luster. Her best throw in the finals was a round-four 66.26m. McCall extended her lead a bit with a round-four 68.67m, but Bingson continued to struggle, sandwiching a 63.80m between two fouls. Ozorai’s fifth-round 65.91m jumped her over Storm into fourth. Georgia’s Nicole Lomnicka, the 2010 champion, finished an injury-plagued career with a sixth-round 64.55m that moved her from ninth into seventh-place, just behind Krechyk.

That was the last throwing event of the day, which was lucky since both Pat and I felt dangerously dehydrated at that point. Fortunately, Peggy’s Tavern is just a short walk from the track, and they helped us regain our vigor with some of those aforementioned $3.00 beers.


Men’s Hammer

Friday morning’s Des Moines Register contained a nice article about Tim Glover, although they referred to him by the rather unfortunate nickname of “Tiny Tim.” Regardless, Pat tucked it in his bag as a souvenir for his teammate, and we headed for the track.

Going in, this shaped up as a ferocious battle: 2010 World Junior Champion Connor McCullough of Princeton vs. 2011 NCAA Champion Alex Ziegler of Virginia Tech. Unfortunately, a few days after McCullough won the East Regional with a throw of 72.40m, it was announced that he had been declared academically ineligible.

That left Ziegler to defend his title against the likes of Florida junior Jeremy Postin (70.23m at Drake, 66.50m at regionals) and UCLA sophomore Alec Faldermeyer (69.89m at Mt. SAC, 67.04m at regionals).

No offense to those guys, but everyone knew that with McCullough absent this was Ziegler’s meet to win, and he wasted no time in doing just that. Throwing in flight one on another sun-scorched afternoon, he opened with 70.86m, improved to 72.96m, and then sealed the deal with a third-round toss of 73.35m.

Postin, also in flight one, put together a pretty nice series himself (69.47m, 69.36m, F) but the way Ziegler was dealing, he had no shot.

Faldermeyer was the class of flight two, his third round 68.37m ensconcing him comfortably into third place. But when the finalists were sorted out and the competition resumed, so did the butt-whipping. You could tell by Ziegler’s reaction to his prelim throws that he felt a big one brewing. He did not look especially thrilled with any of them, and he again showed a little frustration after his round-four toss of 72.59m. Finally, in round five he grooved one, encouraging it in flight with a long, loud yell. When a hammer is in the air long enough to travel 75.78m it leaves you plenty of time to vocalize, and Alex took full advantage.

The effort must have tired him out, as he finished the day with a pedestrian 70.29m, which by the way, would still have been good enough for the win.

Afterwards, Alex said that the break between flights probably helped him. His coach, Greg Jack, had exhorted him during prelims to “finish” his throws and the down time gave him a chance to digest that advice.  I got a chuckle out of this, because I know that his coach, Greg Jack is not a fan of randomized prelim flights. He told me quite emphatically last year that the best throwers deserve the chance to throw in flight two so that they can build on their prelim performances without a momentum-killing interruption. I guess it worked out okay this time, though.

Ziegler is German, and planned to return home after NCAA’s to compete in his National Championships. I am a huge fan of German throwers like Robert Harting and Ralph Bartels, and it was fun talking to Alex about them. Harting, apparently, is a man of strong opinions. I won’t tell you what he said about people who wear straps when they lift, but take it from me—if you ever find yourself sharing a platform with him, leave the straps in your locker.

If he is able to snag the qualifying mark of 76.00m, Alex would then move on to the European Championships before returning to Virginia Tech for summer school. He has one more year of eligibility remaining, so hammer fans might finally get to see a Ziegler/McCullough heavyweight bout next year.


Women’s Shot Put

Last year, Arizona’s Julie Labonté steamrolled through a season in which she never lost a collegiate competition. This year, with Lebonté redshirting outdoors, Oklahoma’s Tia Brooks took over as Avenger of the women’s shot.

She also broke my heart.

I love the non-reverse glide, and last year Brooks had a great one. This year, on the advice of her coach, Brian Blutreich, she began using a reverse to “get out over the toe board better” while still being able to save the throw. Whaaaatever.

It’s not like it worked or anything. Okay, she threw 19 meters indoors. She won the indoor NCAA meet by more than a meter over a field that included Labonté. She won the Big 12 title indoors and out. She won the Drake Relays while hitting the Olympic A standard.  She…never mind.

The only collegiate thrower to defeat Brooks this year was Arizona’s Alyssa Hasslen, who blasted an 18.35m toss at Mt. SAC. Unfortunately, Hasslen had since been derailed by injury and would not be competing in Des Moines.

Slotted into flight one, Brooks took the Ziegler approach and let everyone know right away that she wasn’t here to mess. First throw: 18.14m. Second throw: 18.13m. It would take a Whitney Ashley style thunderbolt for someone to challenge Brooks. Redshirt freshman Kearsten Peoples, a spinner who finished second to Brooks in the Big 12 meet and in the regional was probably the only thrower in flight one with a chance to stay close. Peoples qualified in the discus and hammer as well, and certainly has the potential to become an elite shot putter. She’s big, and she can move as evidenced by her sixth-place finish in the disc. Her best toss in prelims though, was a second-round 17.31m, well below her regional mark of 17.74m and not enough to bother Brooks who fouled her third throw and then retired to the holding area with a substantial lead.

Two throwers in the second flight seemed to have at least an outside shot at challenging Brooks. Hammer champion Jeneva McCall had used her highly unusual non-reverse spin technique to reach 17.89m at her conference meet. Hammer runner-up Brittany Smith had thrown 17.92m at Sea Rays. Could one of them find some magic?

It sure didn’t look like it would be Smith, as she struggled mightily to find her rhythm going 16.61m, 16.70m, and 16.52. That put her into eighth place heading into the final.

McCall opened tentatively with 16.06m, but quickly got her bearings and took over second place with a round-two 17.67m.

The top five heading into the finals were Brooks, McCall, senior Annie Alexander of Tennessee (17.36m), Peoples, and Louisville senior Chinwe Okoro (17.21m).

In each of the throwing events, the finalists were given a few minutes to take some warm-up throws, and Smith put that time to good use. After three subpar prelim throws, she was able to find some rhythm during warm-ups and on her first attempt of the finals moved from eighth to second with a toss of 17.80m.

Brooks quickly put an end to any thoughts of an upset with a fourth-round 18.44m. The only other finalist to move up in the standings was Indiana State junior Felisha Johnson whose round-six 17.35m moved her from ninth to fifth.

Afterwards, an ebullient Brooks told us that her favorite lift is the jerk (her max is 130k) and that she had plenty left in the tank for the Olympic Trials,  Coach Blutreich having adjusted her training after she nailed the A-standard indoors.

Pat and I decided to adjust our training as well. Three days of that heat was just too much for us, and knowing that we’d need to leave something in the tank for tomorrow’s men’s shot put competition, we had dinner at Panera and packed it in for the night.


Men’s Shot Put

If anyone has figured out the secret to throwing well under pressure, it is Arizona State junior Jordan Clark. Yes, he is a big, powerful man (485 bench, 175k clean) but according to Coach Dumble, Clark’s greatest asset is that “he’s got it between the ears.”

“He’s level-headed and confident. He thinks he can win every meet, but he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself.”

That mental strength, combined with Clark’s physical gifts and outstanding technique make him a hard man to beat.

This was not, however, likely to be a one-person show like the men’s hammer and women’s shot. The field was loaded with possible contenders. The first prelim flight alone featured Mason Finley, Auburn’s Stephen Saenz, and the Texas trio of Hayden Ballio, Ryan Crouser, and Jacob Thormaehlen.

As in the men’s disc though, the contenders struggled to find some rhythm in the early going.

Finley opened the proceedings on this, you guessed it, hot, sun-bleached morning by way over-rotating and spinning out of the ring to the left of the toe board for a foul. Crouser stopped in the middle of his first attempt, reset, then threw 18.50m. Clark over-rotated badly on his first attempt and tossed it out of bounds to the left. Ballio, employing an unusual start to his throw (he winds, starts to open to his left, then rewinds and carries out the throw) opened with 18.60m. Thormaehlen hit only 18.13m.

Ohio State’s Matt DeChant was the first to find some comfort. A lefty who throws his free arm way ahead out of the back in the manner of Christian Cantwell, he took the early lead with a round-one 19.46m.

The token glider of the group, Bozidar Antunovic, a 6’6” Serbian throwing for the University of Arizona, opened with 19.25m.

Mason, once again running down the left foul line, got on the board in round two with a toss of 19.33m. Clark took over the lead with 19.56m. Ballio moved up with a 19.24m toss. DeChant reclaimed the lead with 19.57m. Thormaehlen got into the mix with 19.43m, as did Saenz with 19.54

With both flights full of top-notch putters, it was difficult to predict what it might take to make the final, so several throwers stepped into the ring for round three anxious to move up. The first was Finley, whose 19.33m had him sitting in fifth. He did not help himself, though, once again over-rotating badly and stepping over the left side of the toe board for a foul. Crouser, sitting ninth, fouled as well and walked out of the ring clutching his right hand. Ballio’s 19.24m had him in seventh, and all he could manage was 18.94m. Thormaehlen, who finished second indoors, seemed to be intent on hammering a big one, but reached only 18.34m with his third effort and unleashed a growl of frustration as he exited the ring.

Meanwhile, Clark, looking very smooth, popped a 19.57m to tie DeChant (who fouled his third throw) for the lead. He was not on top for long, though, as Saenz blasted a 19.71m to take over first.

Flight two featured two veterans from the Big 10 Conference, Penn State’s Joe Kovacs and Nebraska’s Luke Pinkelman, both of whom had to be considered serious contenders here. If they could match their efforts from the Big 10 Conference meet (Kovacs: 20.85m, Pinkelman: 20.02m) they’d be tough to beat.

Like many of the flight one contestants, Kovacs opened tentatively, hitting only 18.77m. Pinkelman, on the other hand, put himself securely in the final with his opening toss of 19.50m. Kovacs took over second place with his round-two 19.58m, but then Pinkelman (channeling his inner Tressa Thompson with his bent-over windup) drilled a 19.72m to seize the overall lead and drop Kovacs into third. Like Thormaehlen, Kovacs seemed to ratchet up his aggressiveness each throw in an effort to launch one. He got the crowd clapping before his third effort, but could reach only 19.30m. As he left the ring he motioned to his coach that the shot had come off of his hand wrong.

Pinkelman and Kovacs turned out to be the only two throwers from their flight to make the final.

Forty-eight centimeters now separated Pinkelman in first from Ballio in ninth. Literally every one of the finalists had to be sitting there thinking, “You know what? I just might be able to win this thing.”

Round four started slowly though, with only Ballio (19.26m) and Finley (19.38m) bettering their prelim efforts until Clark stepped into the ring. Shot putting is fun to watch, even for the casual fan, because of the aggressiveness of the athletes. I remember NBC doing a feature on Adam Nelson during the 2000 Olympics that focused on his pre-throw routine of shouting, chucking his shirt, and stomping around looking like he wanted to bite someone. NBC figured that would capture people’s interest, and they were right. It is fun to watch guys go a little nuts. I think it is largely because of Nelson that we now have those shot put only competitions in places like the Zurich train station.

But Clark is kind of the anti-Nelson during competition. In spite of the heat, in spite of the pressure of defending his title against a stacked field, his expression never changed, the rhythm of his throws never changed. He rarely yelled. He sure didn’t on his fourth throw. He just stepped in and smoothed it out there 20.40m to take the lead. He actually clapped a couple of times after it landed, but he quickly got his wits about him and took a seat.

Kovacs was up next. He is a powerful young man (his back squat PR is 750), but again could not quite line one up and settled for 19.45m. Saenz followed. He had been chucking with a lot of confidence all day. I was filming the competition and almost missed a couple of his throws because he got into the ring so quickly when his name was called. Accordingly, he jumped in during round four and hit 19.78m to take over second place. Pinkelman responded with a foul.

Not much action in round five. Clark stayed locked in and hit 20.20m. Saenz fouled a 20-meter throw. Kovacs and Pinkelman fouled as well.

And so began round six. Ballio ended a disappointing day with 18.95m. A junior, he will likely be a contender next year. Finley notched his fourth foul of the competition. He told us that his goal for next year was to get his weight down to around 350 pounds so that he can get faster. I, for one, hope he succeeds. He’s a very polite, humble dude who seems a bit lost right now in the shot put ring. If he can find a groove, he’ll certainly be in the mix in 2013.

Thormaehlen, a senior, improved slightly to 19.45m. He looked dynamic in the ring the whole competition, but just could not hit one. Antunovic struck a blow for gliders by hitting 19.51m to jump from ninth to sixth. He’ll return next year. DeChant, another senior, fouled his final attempt. Throwing in the first flight may have messed him up, as he could not find his rhythm after the long break.

Clark urged the crowd to get behind him for his last throw, then let out his first yell of the day as he released it. He hit 19.92m. All three of his throws in the finals would have been good enough for the win.

Kovacs finished with 19.14m, and took his disappointment philosophically. “Sometimes you just fall into positions,” he told us, but on this day he couldn’t quite line one up. He plans to go into coaching and will be looking for a graduate assistant job for next year. He was not sure if he would continue throwing after the Olympic Trials.

Saenz, a sophomore, finished with another foul. He has the Olympic B standard and hopes to represent Mexico at the Games.

Pinkelman never got rolling in the finals and finished his collegiate career with 19.24m, which kept him in third place.

Clark will return to defend his title. He suffers from a couple of herniated discs in his lower back, but he and Dumble have figured out ways to train around that (he squats, for example, using a device called a Pit Shark). If Crouser makes it through next year healthy, if Finley loses some weight and gains some confidence, if Saenz keeps improving, then maybe one of them will dethrone Clark. But, I don’t know. Even in this era of Marvel Comics Superheroes, it won’t be easy beating Superman.

Thanks, Des Moines, for putting on another great meet. Thanks to Pat for his invaluable navigational skills, his vast knowledge of the college throwing scene, and his remarkable patience—he never complained once about the air-conditioning in my Prius not working. Thanks, especially, to my wife and daughter for letting me go off on these jaunts every summer and acting like they are glad to see me when I return.

by Dan McQuaid

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