This past May at the USATF Throws Fest in Tucson, javelinist Kara Winger produced the following series:
57.96m, 59.22m, 57.34m, 60.52m, 58.66m, 60.97m.
It would not be an overstatement to call those results astonishing, as Kara had, nine months earlier, torn the ACL in her left knee for the second time.
Her coach, Dana Pounds Lyon showed off her psychic powers by predicting a 60-meter toss from Kara in Tucson, but I’m not sure Kara herself would have put money on it. Her farthest training throw since the surgery had been 53 meters.
Inspired, however, by the presence of many old friends/competitors (in Kara’s world, all competitors eventually become friends–they have no choice) she somehow mustered the courage to once again use her left knee as a crash test dummy.
Even on those 60-meter throws though, she held back a bit.
“The speed was 70-percent at best,” she recalled. “I basically used a glorified seven-step. But, because I was going slower I was able to be patient with my throwing arm. Also, I’m six-foot-two and…well, I’ve been doing this a long time.”
I suggested that, were she male, the technical term for what made the jav fly that day would be “old man’s strength.”
“Definitely,” she replied. “I’ve been in touch with my old woman strength for years.”
At the risk of sounding sexist, the term “old woman strength” doesn’t seem suitable for someone as young and ebullient as Kara. Luckily, a chat with former discus great Doug Reynolds, provided an alternative.
Doug is the coach of Rachel Dincoff, who made her first Olympic team last Saturday, a joyous occasion but one that might have killed a lesser man as he was forced to sit idly by while Whitney Ashley, Kelsey Card, and Gia Lewis-Smallwood took turns trying to bump Rachel from a top-three spot.
“Rachel has been more consistent than anyone but Val Allman this year,” he pointed out. “But, the throwers trying to catch her were seasoned veterans, and they had the ability to jump her if they hit one clean.”
“There is something about having experience in competitions like this that gives you an advantage,” he continued. “When I made a comeback in 2008, I really had no business competing at the Trials. I was hurt and not throwing very well, but I came within a centimeter of making the Olympic team because I was seasoned.”
In the end, Rachel withstood the charge of the veterans, and Doug provided me with a new adjective to add to my arsenal when describing Kara. Indomitable. Fierce. Courageous. And now, “seasoned.”
As mentioned previously, the discus ring–and at least one of the shot rings–at Hayward Field is very slick. Luckily, the venue has been available for practice sessions, so throwers have had a chance to get comfortable with what might be the fastest rings they’ve ever encountered.
One way these athletes deal with the variety of surfaces they are required to throw from is by carrying a variety of shoes, everything from a fresh pair of Zoom Rotationals for a fairly grippy surface to an old pair of trainers in case of rain. I once saw John Godina wear a running shoe on one foot and a throwing shoe on the other at a meet where it was drizzling.
Vésteinn Hafsteinsson, former coach of Gerd Kanter and current coach of World discus champion Daniel Stahl, recently told me that during his career as a discus thrower he would show up for meets with no fewer than four different pairs of shoes–some that he doctored himself, mad-scientist style.
“You heat them in an oven,” he explained, “and then you can remove the sole and replace it with another. A running shoe, maybe, so that you can throw easily in the rain.”
The kind of heat that is expected to prevail in Eugene over the next couple of days can also affect the way a thrower’s shoes interact with the surface, but that shouldn’t bother Turner Washington as he competes in the men’s discus prelims and finals in predicted ninety-degree temps on Thursday and Friday. Turner’s father, former discus World champion Anthony Washington, is no doubt a great source of advice as to how to manage in any kind of conditions.
And I’ve heard that Brian Blutreich, Turner’s coach at Arizona State, is himself a talented shoe-baker, so we can expect Turner to be properly geared up as he fights to make his first Olympic team.
Payton Otterdahl turned in an epic performance in the men’s shot final on Friday. Not only did he launch a PB of 21.92m in the biggest meet of his life, but he competed like a champ. Holding on to third place by six centimeters over Darrell Hill, Payton fouled a throw that looked to be just short of twenty-two meters in round four, only to have Darrell jump ahead of him by half-a-meter in round five. This being Payton’s first experience in the Trials pressure-cooker, he could understandably have folded right there, but instead he came back with that 21.92m PB which ended up putting him on the team.
Payton’s coach, Justin St. Clair, told me afterwards that in an effort to prepare for “any and all possibilities,” they’d rehearsed just such a scenario in practice.
Most throwing coaches I’ve spoken to devote practice time to trying to inure their athletes to the vagaries of chance they will inevitably face in big comps. Slick rings. Bad weather. Delays. A competitor jumping past you in a late round when you have only one or two throws to answer back.
It still drives coaches crazy, though, when their athletes face unexpected challenges that seem to be inflicted for no logical reason.
Last Friday, for example, flight one of the women’s discus prelims was told they would have thirty minutes to take warm up throws. They were required to take those throws in the order they were listed on the flight sheet. There were twelve competitors, so if you were near the end of the order you might have waited ten minutes before taking your first throws. That’s fine if everyone is guaranteed the same number of warm ups, but they weren’t. Then, the warm up period was interrupted, first by the playing of the National Anthem and then by the introduction of the athletes. No time was added to make up for those disruptions, so when the thirty-minute warm up window ended, some of the competitors had taken only four throws. Contrast that with the NCAA meet, held at Hayward a week earlier, where the throwers had time to take up to eight warm up tosses. Some of the athletes in flight one at the Trials had competed in that meet and might understandably have been unsettled by having to adjust on the fly to fewer warm ups.
Every coach will tell you that it is up to the athlete to respond to adversity, that you can’t let yourself be brought down by factors you can’t control.
Val Allman told me a couple of years ago the she developed the habit of taking only two warm up throws because sometimes at big meets like the Worlds, that’s all you get.
Her experience overseas taking on the best throwers in the world in all kinds of scenarios has hardened her to the point where she could probably uber from the airport, drop her luggage by the cage, step in the ring and bang out a sixty-five-meter throw in Crocs.
And that’s the way you have to be if you want to compete at the top level.
Meanwhile, wouldn’t it be nice to think that some consideration would be given to the athletes at the Trials who want nothing more than to put forward their best effort in the biggest competition of their lives?