The Olympic Trials Women’s disc: A Coronation and a Controversy

Val Allman came into Eugene as the defending two-time national champ in the discus, so she was already the queen of the event in this country, but her winning distances of 63.55m in 2018 and 64.34m in 2019 were less than regal, nothing like the sixty-nine-meters-plus throws that Croatia’s Sandra Perković and Cuba’s Yaime Pérez had produced in winning World and Olympic gold over the past ten years. 

They are the sovereigns of the sport at the world level, and for Val to ascend to their station she would need to one, start popping some huge throws, and two, demonstrate that she could throw big in a stadium under pressure. 

She took care of that first item last August with a 70.15m bomb that broke the American record, but that toss came at a throwers meet in Idaho which, in terms of pressure and atmosphere, is nothing like an Olympics or Worlds. That 70.15m was like a pro golfer carding a 67 on a Korn Ferry Tour event–impressive, but do it on a Sunday at the Masters and then we’ll talk.

Val showed signs that she might be ready to go big on the big stage when she made the final at the 2019 Worlds and then returned to Doha this May and took out both Pérez and Perković with a solid 65.57m toss–impressive because it was done overseas in a stadium against top competition.  

(Note: Do not be confused if you look up the Diamond League results and see Val listed as having placed second. She threw farther than everyone else at that meet but was denied the win by a new format instituted by the Diamond League seemingly to kill interest in the sport. I’ll touch on this more at a later date.)

Last week in Eugene, Val’s training sessions generated some intriguing gossip. I heard that one practice featured multiple throws over sixty-seven meters. Another began with numerous attempts rifled into the cage..followed by multiple throws over sixty-five meters. 

My spies also tell me that the ring at Heyward is very, very slick. Sometimes, the top throwers like it that way. But, sometimes an unusually fast surface can get in the head of even the best of the best and sow a little doubt. 

There would be pressure at the Trials, even for a clear favorite like Val. How would she respond? On Friday, in the qualification round, the throwing world got a chance to see.

The NBC live feed showed a few warm up throws before Val’s flight, and I noticed that she caged her final attempt. I don’t know how many warm ups she took. In 2019, she told me that she had developed the habit of taking only two, as that is all you get at some of the bigger comps. Assuming she did that on Friday, she had at most one decent throw prior to the competition. Stepping into the ring in a high pressure meet with your ears still ringing from the sound of your final warm up throw whanging into the cage cannot be good for one’s sense of well being, and when Val produced a round-one clunker that was not even worth marking, I started to wonder.

I’ve heard from many throwers that the pressure of a qualification round can be ghastly. The first women’s discus flight in Eugene provided a clear and awful illustration when Laulauga Tausaga, like Val a finalist at the Doha Worlds, went three fouls and out. 

With two throws left to earn her way to Saturday’s final, was Val starting to feel the pressure?

In round two she stepped in and smashed a Trials record of 70.01m, so…apparently not.

She passed her final qualification attempt, then on Saturday picked up where she’d left off. Her series of 69.45m, 69.92m, 66.36m (get that poop out of here!), 68.55m, 68.46m, foul, in a stadium, under pressure, makes her–in my opinion–the favorite to win gold in Tokyo.

True, there was nobody like Perković or Pérez to contend with on Saturday. The second place finisher was Micaela Hazlewood, who came up big with a PB of 62.54m–a fantastic throw, but one that posed no threat to Val. Again, though, I’ve spoken with some fine throwers who say that there is no pressure quite like the pressure at the Trials. Joe Kovacs touched on it after the men’s shot final on Friday night, saying that it will be easier for him to “go crazy” and smash some huge throws in Tokyo now that the burden of getting through the Trials has been lifted.

So, if Val can put together a series like that in Hayward Stadium (site of the 2022 Worlds, by the way) in the pressure cooker of the US Trials…well, all hail the queen.

And now the matter of who will join Val in Tokyo.

Back in the day, the key for an American track and field athlete to make the Olympic team was to achieve the Olympic standard set by World Athletics (formerly the IAAF) and to finish in the top three at the Trials. An athlete who finished in the top three but who had not achieved the Olympic standard during the set qualification window would be replaced by the next lowest Trials finisher who had hit the standard. 

This kind of thing never happened in events like the shot put where many competitors would have already achieved the Olympic standard prior to the Trials, and where you’d have to throw well above that standard anyway to have any chance of a top-three finish at the Trials. So, when the event ended, you knew that those three athletes out there struggling through a victory lap were the ones who would represent the US in the Olympics.

But in events like the javelin and, in some years, the hammer, where there were not a lot of Americans with the Olympic standard, things could get tricky.

Often, the qualification window extended a month or so beyond the Trials, so top-three finishers who had not hit the Olympic mark would go “standard hunting” in sanctioned meets whenever and wherever they could find them. If those standard-hunters failed, it opened the door for a lower Trials finisher to make the team provided they had achieved the Olympic mark. 

That made things a bit complicated for the athletes in those events and for fans of throwing, but one thing we all hung onto was the importance of hitting the Olympic standard.

The situation became a bit more muddied this year because after the 2016 Olympics, World Athletics made some changes in the Olympic qualifying process. They raised the Olympic standards to a borderline ridiculous level–for example, 77.50m in the men’s hammer, a distance that might get someone on the podium in Tokyo–and started compiling a points system that would carry equal weight as the qualifying standards. Athletes receive points for competing in sanctioned meets–with the number of points awarded depending on the quality of the meet. I assume they did this to encourage athletes to compete in a lot of meets rather than hitting the standard early in the qualification window and then laying low until the Games.

Now, any thrower coming into the Trials having either achieved the standard or holding a spot in the top thirty-two in the World Athletics point rankings would be considered as having qualified for the Games. 

If someone finished in the top three in Eugene but had not hit the Olympic mark and was not ranked in the top thirty-two, they could be replaced on the team by the next highest Trials finish who had done one or both of those things.

In the women’s discus, Val, Laulauga, Rachel Dincoff and Whitney Ashley had each achieved the Olympic qualifying mark of 63.50m. Kelsey Card had not, but she was ranked twenty-third on the World Athletics table. And this year, for the first time ever, that ranking carried equal weight with the qualifying standard.

So, when Lagi did not advance to the final, the contenders for Tokyo came down to Val, Rachel, Whitney, and Kelsey, along with anyone who might grab a spot in the top three and throw at least 63.50m in the process.

When the dust cleared on Friday night, Val and Rachel had cemented their spot on the team by finishing in the top three, but with Micaela possessing neither the Olympic standard or a ranking in the top thirty-two, the door was opened for either Kelsey or Ashley to take the third spot on the Tokyo squad.

Kelsey, by finishing ahead of Ashley, appears to have won that spot.

And that has caused some confusion.

Ashley, a veteran of the old standards-based system, assumed that she had made the team and this morning expressed her consternation in a video posted to Twitter.

Meanwhile, Micaela and her coach, Keith McBride, believe that she has until July 1st to either throw 63.50m in a sanctioned meet or to compete in however many meets it takes to move her into the top thirty-two on the points rankings. She currently sits fiftieth.

Stay tuned. More updates to follow!

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