Growing up in Chicago, I learned to revere athletes who could stare daggers and talk smack, guys like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Michael Jordan whose inner ferocity was on full outward display.
What am I to make, then, of DeAnna Price, who is as passionately committed to winning as any of those gents, but generally prefers to crush her opponents with kindness? She actually looked embarrassed each time she approached the cage during the women’s hammer final on Saturday, a little sheepish over the fuss she was causing by rewriting the history of the event. After every epic throw, she’d confer with her husband and coach JC Lambert, and I imagine their conversations going something like this:
JC: You’re in world record shape, so stay focused!
DeAnna: Got it. That official over there looks like he’s having a hard day. I’ll give him a hug!
JC: I said, stay focused!
DeAnna: Right. It’s really hot out. I knew I should have brought lemonade for everyone!
Her closest rival on this day was Brooke Andersen whose second-round bomb of 77.72m pulled her to within ten centimeters of DeAnna’s opener. DeAnna’s response? Throws of 78.51m, 79.98m, and 80.31m, each of which she celebrated by engaging in a long, heartfelt hug with…Brooke Andersen.
And how does DeAnna feel about her next biggest American rival, former US champion and record-holder Gwen Berry?
“Gwen is great! We’re both Southern Illinois University alums, so she’s my sister and I’m proud of her!”
When asked about Anita Wlodarczyk, the woman she has been striving to unseat as the best hammer thrower in the world, and the only other woman to have surpassed the eighty-meter mark, DeAnna told an anecdote about competing against the Polish powerhouse at the 2015 Worlds and being totally honored when she sat next to her once between throws.
“Anita is a genuinely nice person,” she assured us, which loosely translated means, “I plan to kick her butt in Tokyo and then give her an amazing hug.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing about DeAnna’s performance on Saturday was that she was able to compete at all. After breaking her own American record with a 78.60m toss in early April, she was felled by an illness–possibly celiac disease–that threatened her season.
Feeling awful during her next competition, she managed to throw 76.15m but afterwards endured emergency room visits and endless tests including an MRI, none of which gave her a conclusive diagnosis.
After losing ten pounds in the space of a week, she and JC decided to cut bread and dairy products from her diet and to consume only home-cooked meals. Those changes did the trick, and she found her stride in training just in time for the Trials.
Hearing DeAnna describe her ordeal this spring brought to mind similar troubles she endured in 2019 on her way to winning the Worlds. That year, she’d overcome career-threatening back troubles, which makes me wonder if, like Michael Jordan, she is at her most ferocious when responding to adversity.
Speaking of adversity, Brook Andersen faced her own variety this year when a combination of circumstances left her with no facilities at which to train. The hammer final was, she said, “about the tenth time I’ve been in an actual ring this whole season.” Her main practice facility was a park where she drew a circle on a sidewalk with a sharpie.
Then, at the April meet where DeAnna fell ill, Brooke fell literally and suffered a concussion and shoulder injury.
Despite surpassing seventy-five meters in three of her five competitions before the Trials, including the season’s and personal best of 78.18m she launched in Wichita on April 10th, she struggled with nerves in the qualification round and ended up caging two of three attempts.
Fortunately, her one valid throw of 72.16m got her to the final where an opener of 74.38m paved the way for that second-round 77.72m, which turned the competition into a battle for third place.
That contest was a mano a mano affair between Berry and Janee Kassanavoid, who joined the seventy-five-meter club at the USATF Throws Fest this May.
Gwen opened with 73.50m, and Janee responded with throws of 72.73m and 73.45m. Gwen, who said afterwards that her body “was not working today,” was unable to better her opening mark, but the pressure of trying to vault her got to Janee. She caged her third attempt and then wiped out on her fourth. She shook that off and finished with throws of 72.41m and 72.32m, but could not quite reel in Gwen.
A kerfuffle ensued when the newly-minted Tokyo hammer squad was ushered to the podium and greeted there by a recording of the Star Spangled Banner. Gwen has been a controversial figure since her 2019 podium demonstration at the Pan American Games, which foreshadowed the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and has caused much wringing of hands on the part of USATF and the International Olympic Committee over whether or not to permit such actions in Tokyo.
Gwen responded to the playing of the anthem by turning her back to the flag and pulling her shirt over her head. She said afterwards that she felt like she’d been “set up,” as the anthem is generally not played during medal ceremonies at the Trials. USATF released a statement saying that the anthem had been scheduled to be played at 5:20, but offered no reason as to why it was delayed until 5:25 when the hammer medalists had already mounted the podium.
It certainly was not in USATF’s interests to take the focus off the magnificent performances popping up everywhere you looked on Saturday. In addition to DeAnna’s hammer bomb, American athletes produced world leads in the women’s pole vault, men’s 400-meter hurdles, and women’s 200-meter dash.
Well, what network doesn’t love a good controversy?
But, if NBC was genuinely concerned about maximizing the number of viewers for these Trials, I would think the person in charge of those blocks that keep registering phantom false starts would have been found strangled in his hotel room after Friday’s fiasco in the hurdle races.
If it was a setup, it certainly did nothing to take the starch out of Gwen. who remains determined to be heard.
“I want to impact the world,” she explained. “There are things going on in the world that are bigger than sport. As athletes, we should use our voices to bring awareness to these issues.”
I asked her after the prelims on Thursday if her activism put more pressure on her in meets like the Trials.
“No,” she responded. “I feel like being black in America is enough pressure.The neighborhood I grew up in is enough pressure. The things I have to deal with and that I have to protect my son from is enough pressure.”
I checked the website of the International Olympic Committee to see if I could get some insight into how they might respond to Gwen in Tokyo. There, I found this statement:
The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
I read this, and I wonder if maybe the IOC has finally found someone willing to stand up for its highest ideals.