An inauspicious beginning
Marcus Gustaveson left his mark on Wheaton North High School in the suburbs of Chicago. Lots of marks, actually. The dents in the support post on the right side of the discus cage there bear silent testament to his ferocious and–in those days–uncontrolled power.
I coach the throws at Wheaton North, and was very excited when Marcus decided to try the shot and disc in the winter of his junior year. He was a super nice kid and, more importantly, had long levers and great pop.
But like a lot of young dudes still in the process of sprouting upwards, he struggled with footwork and timing, and in our two years together we were never able to harness his potential. His best discus throw in high school was 144 feet, although had there been no cage or foul lines he might have gone 200.
Our first winter together I started him off as a glide shot putter, so of course one day he decided to improvise a spin. I’ve never seen a giraffe caught in a tornado, but after witnessing Marcus’s first attempt at rotational putting, I never want to.
“Dear god!” I told him. “Promise me you’ll never try that again!”
After high school, Marcus enrolled at Concordia University, St. Paul, where he competed in both football and track. Participating in spring football practices limited his throwing to one session a week that first season, but he still managed to break the Concordia freshman record in the shot with a throw of 15.98m (Fun Fact: His coach that year was hammer thrower Sean Donnelly).
He spent very little time working on the discus. “I’d take maybe two throws each practice,” he recalls. “Then Sean would laugh at me because it was so ugly, and we’d stop.” His best toss that season was 43.32m.
The next year, Donnelly left to become a resident athlete at Chula Vista, and was replaced by former University of Minnesota javelin thrower Rachel Melum. Though still mainly focused on football, under Melum’s guidance Marcus was able to improve his discus PB to 50.78m.
Melum departed after one season, and was replaced by Lina Baker, a former DIII All-American in the hammer. Baker recognized Marcus’s potential as a discus thrower, and encouraged him to shift his focus from football to track. Marcus took her advice and did not participate in spring football during his junior year.
With the clock ticking on his throwing career, Baker also convinced him to ditch his glide and try spinning in the shot in hopes that doing so would accelerate his progress in the disc. It was not the smoothest of transitions, and Marcus competed mostly from a half turn, but he threw 15.99m and the effort he put into learning rotational shot did seem to transfer to the disc.
He only improved his discus PB by a meter during that 2019 season, but he and Coach Baker could tell that he was on the brink of much bigger throws. The following February, he put the shot 16.98m and felt ready to do serious damage in the disc when…the world shut down.
A career lost then found
Marcus’s parents had moved to Colorado after he graduated from high school, and he joined them there while trying to sort out his future. When it became clear that the pandemic would wipe out the rest of the track season, he told Baker that he was calling it a career.
Later that spring, though, he came across a discus in his garage and decided to toss it around a bit. He ended up taking some full throws in tennis shoes on a sidewalk, launching the disc into an open field. It felt good.
He bought a pair of throwing shoes and a few more discs. Before long, he was throwing at a local high school track and sending videos to Lina.
In the fall of 2020, he returned to St. Paul and began working forty hours a week at Enterprise while also training and taking classes toward an MBA. He lifted with Lina at 4:00am, and threw with her at 7:00pm.
Their work paid off in the spring when he threw 61.53m at the Tucson Elite meet. That got him into the Olympic Trials, and while in Eugene he was invited to become a resident athlete at Chula Vista.
It turns out that the resident athlete program for throwers was about to be phased out, so he ended up renting an apartment with hammer thrower Autavia Fluker and javeliner Mike Shuey.
Marcus spent the fall and winter working, volunteer coaching at a local high school, and training at the center under the guidance of John Dagata. It was a grind similar to his final year at Concordia, but the payoff came this spring when he opened with a 64.46m bomb at a meet in Long Beach.
The Next Step
Now a certifiably world class thrower, Marcus enters this week’s USATF Championships as a longshot to make the team for Worlds. He will need to climb into the top 32 to qualify by ranking, and that is not likely as he currently sits at 63. That means hitting the performance standard of 66.00m.
If he can do that, the impact on his career would be significant. “Everything would change,” he surmises. “If you make an Olympic or World team, you get noticed, get more funding, maybe get invited to international meets. It just makes everything more achievable.”
Easy, Big Fella
Those are exciting possibilities, but possibilities are not something you want to be mulling over as you enter the ring. Marcus has surpassed 60 meters only twice since tossing that PB in Long Beach, and he attributes his struggles to being too focused on nailing the 66.00m qualifier.
His plan for Thursday is to start easy, with maybe eighty percent effort, knowing that when the adrenaline kicks in at a big meet, staying under control and feeling positions is more important than trying to generate speed.
His goal is to “build a good series, with every throw over 60 meters. Throw a little bit better each round and ignore what other guys are doing. If I get the standard, great, but I’d really like to finish in the top three. I’ve done a lot of learning this year, and a top three finish would be a big step for me.”
A bit more on Thursday’s discus comp
The only American in the top 32 right now is Sam Mattis. Sam also has the standard, having nailed a PB of 68.69m in May.
Andrew Evans, who did not post a mark in 2020 or 2021, reappeared this season and reached 66.74m last month. He has been over 63.00m in five of his six comps this year.
Brian Williams has had an up-and-down season with three meets under 60.00m and five over. His season’s best of 66.14m came in early May, but he’s a veteran of these championship meets and made the team for Doha by throwing a then PB of 65.76m at the 2019 US Championships. His experience will make him a contender to make this year’s squad as well.
My head says those three will make the podium, but in my heart I’ll be pulling for Marcus.
The men’s discus comp will take place on Thursday at 5:45pm Pacific.