American Renaissance

Over the past two decades, American hammer throwers have struggled in the Olympics.

Since the 2000 Games, the only American hammer finalist among the men has been Kibwe Johnson, who finished ninth in 2012. The women have done better, producing four finalists in that time, including Amber Campbell and DeAnna Price in Rio, but no American woman has won an Olympic hammer medal. 

But, all that may be about to change. The three men who made the team on Sunday, Rudy Winkler, Daniel Haugh, and Alex Young are all potential finalists in Tokyo. Rudy, who set an American record of 82.71m, has a legit chance to be the first American Olympic hammer gold medalist since Hal Connelly in 1956.

Thursday’s women’s hammer prelims will feature the three top-ranked women in the world–defending World champion DeAnna Price, Brooke Andersen, and Gwen Berry–along with 8th-ranked Janee Kassanavoid. 

DeAnna, Brooke, and Gwen all have a ton of experience competing internationally, and each would be a threat to medal in Tokyo, with DeAnna–assuming she makes the squad–the favorite to win.

What is behind this surge of hammer excellence in the United States? Let’s examine some possibilities.

Iron Sharpens Iron

The United States has sent strong groups of men’s shot putters to the Games since forever. The men have won seven shot put medals since 2000, including two golds, and it could be that our depth in that event is self-perpetuating. Guys like John Godina raised the standard of performance for Adam Nelson and Andy Bloom, who raised the bar for Reese Hoffa and Christian Cantwell, who showed the way for Ryan Whiting and Joe Kovacs, who inspired Darrell Hill and Ryan Crouser to feats of greatness, and so on…

This theory says that if Payton Otterdahl only needed to throw 21.00m to make the squad last Friday, that’s probably what he’d have thrown rather than the 21.92m bomb that got him on the podium. 

“Competition brings out the best in people,” Lance Deal observed after Sunday’s men’s hammer final, and the US hammer scene is now fiercely competitive. 

Rudy won decisively on Sunday, but if he falters even a little going forward, Alex and Daniel are right there to overtake him, as is Sean Donnelly, who did not make the team but is currently ranked seventh in the world. DeAnna is arguably the best in the world right now, but Brooke and Gwen, as mentioned, are ranked right behind her with Janee also in the top ten. 

Amin Nikfar, who coaches Alex Young, told me that with all the great throwers in the United States today, everyone knows they can’t afford to have a letdown, which forces everyone to constantly raise their game. “After all,” he opined, “iron sharpens iron.”

We Are Family

After Sunday’s hammer final, I asked Alex Young how he felt each time Conor McCullough entered the ring and tried to break his heart by knocking him out of third place. His reply?  

“I love my man Conor!”

When asked how it felt to watch Rudy break the American record, he became even more effusive.

“Rudy? He’s my best friend!”

Faced with the same question, Daniel Haugh described Rudy as “a beast” and “an absolute stud!” 

For his part, Rudy said he “couldn’t be happier” to have Alex and Daniel joining him in Tokyo. “Alex is one of my best friends,” he effused. “And Daniel was my roommate in Doha. We’re going to feed off each other and do something incredible in Tokyo.”

According to Lance Deal, this type of camaraderie among combatants is a positive development. “When I started throwing,” he recalls, “most of us were ‘civil competitors,’ but we didn’t really like each other. Or, maybe everyone just hated me. But, the way these guys are now, this is a much healthier way to compete. It feels like everyone–the men and the women–are part of the same family, and that’s a good thing.”

Tom Pukstys, formerly a six-time US javelin champion and currently the head of the USA Javelin Project, agrees with Lance that things were not so friendly among competitors back in the day, and points out that the current supportive atmosphere lends itself to the sharing of information. “Nobody helped each other out in the ‘80’s,” he told me. “But, the current athletes and their coaches trade ideas, which helps them all improve.”

The King is Dead

When Hal Connelly won his gold in Melbourne, he was joined on the podium by two Russians, This turned out to be foreshadowing, as the Soviet Union basically took over the event for several decades. Soviet throwers swept the men’s hammer at the 1976 Olympic Games. They did it again in 1980, 1988, and (technically representing the “Unified Team”) 1992. Between 1960 and 1992, Soviet hammer throwers took the gold in every Olympics they competed in with the exception of 1968 when they were beaten by a Hungarian who was, no doubt, trained in the “Soviet system.” 

That’s a long era of dominance, and it gave Russian and other Eastern European throwers an aura of invincibility. Kibwé Johnson believes that before the sport could thrive in the US, the Soviet myth had to be punctured. 

A first step toward demythologizing the Soviets came when Russin hammer guru and 1972 gold medalist Anatoliy Bondarchuk relocated to Canada around 2005 and American athletes including Kibwé went to train with him. 

“Up to that point,” he remembers, “we in America had only ever heard stories of the Soviets. I remembered those stories and I’d ask Dr. B., ‘Is this true?’ and he always said ‘No.’ I’d heard, for example, that Yuriy Sedykh could wind-and-release sixty meters. I asked Dr. B and he was like, ‘Nope. No way.’”

Bondarchuk disabused American hammer throwers and coaches of the notion that the Soviets had found the way to develop hammer throwers, and that the key to success was to learn and copy their system. Kibwé believes that this attitude had made athletes trained in the Russian system appear unbeatable and inhibited hammer development in this country.

A more recent step towards removing the veil of invincibility from the Eastern European throwers is the USATF Hammer Initiative, that Tom Pukstys remembers being conceived at a 2014 meeting he attended. Some folks at USATF had a small amount of money they could invest in hammer development, and on the advice of people like Tom, Lance, and Kibwé, they began using that money to give up-and-coming hammer throwers the chance to compete in Europe.

“It is tough,” Kibwé explained, “when you  show up at a major international competition and the only thing you know about these guys is that they have PRs that are a lot better than yours. It really helps when you train over there alongside someone you think is really good and you see them make a bad throw or miss a lift. It shows you that they are just like you and takes away your fear of them.”

“And,” he continued, “that is one thing about our current group of hammer throwers. There is no fear there.”

Ladies First

The women throwers were actually the first to puncture the myth of Soviet/Eastern European invincibility, and Jeneva Stevens struck the first blow a year before the Hammer Initiative was conceived. 

Her breakthrough came when she won the gold medal at the 2013 World University Games, held, appropriately enough, in Russia. 

Later that summer, she and Amanda Bingson made the final at the World Championships in Moscow, and though the Chinese had now joined the Eastern Europeans at the top of the hammer rankings, the US had the proverbial foot in the door.

Finally, in 2019, DeAnna kicked in that door when she took the gold in Doha.

According to Rudy Winkler, DeAnna’s success has had a big impact on the men as well. 

“DeAnna,” he reflected, “and the other American women showed that it doesn’t really take anything special to throw far other than staying true to yourself and working as hard as you can. DeAnna has been a huge source of inspiration to all of us, and I don’t think we would be doing so well without her doing well.”

Syncretism. (I’ll Explain)

If we are going to call this moment a “renaissance” in American hammer throwing, a revival of a time before the Soviets took over the sport, then maybe we should use a Renaissance term to explain it. One way to look at the real Renaissance is as an intellectual unsticking. Roman Catholic orthodoxy had dominated the life of the mind in Europe during the Middle Ages, and for progress to be made, for forward thinking to occur, the Catholic monopoly on intellectual endeavors had to be broken.

Enter syncretism, which was (according to the Google machine) “the amalgamation of different religions, cultures, and schools of thought.”

Current American coaches do not worry about mimicking a mythical Soviet system. Instead, as with the shot put, a variety of them have developed their own highly successful approaches to hammer throwing. 

According to Kibwé  “All these hammer throwers that are having success today, they and their coaches are following their own thing, making their own way. If you were to sit down and ask Dr. B about it, he would say that this is the way it should be.”

If the actual Renaissance was fostered by forward-thinking scholars like Petrarch, Erasmus, Montaigne, and Thomas More, it may be that the American hammer renaissance has come about because of forward-thinking coaches like John Smith, Greg Watson, and Paddy McGrath.  

While coaching at Ohio State and Southern Illinois, Smith created a system of hammer training that produced Jeneva Stevens, Gwen Berry, and De Anna Price, who stayed on at Southern when Smith took the job at Mississippi and has continued to train under Smith disciple JC Lambert. Smith has continued to refine his approach while coaching at Ole Miss, and believes that one of his current throwers–Shey Taiwo–might someday be an international medal contender as well. While Smith was developing his methods, Greg Watson was turning Amanda Bingson into a world class thrower and is now using his own concepts to train Janee Kassanavoid. Meanwhile, Paddy McGrath set up a hammer club in New York state, and has used his own Irish-influenced methods to train Rudy Winkler. 

Bottom line, the United States now has a plethora of high level hammer coaches who compete, collaborate, and influence each other for the ultimate betterment of the event.

All these factors have converged to foster a culture of hammer excellence in the US, and today at the Trials, we’ll get to see a bunch of that excellence on display in the women’s hammer qualification round. Fasten your seatbelt. 

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