Coming to America

2010 New York Diamond League

Since 1886, the Statue of Liberty has beckoned the world to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and the world has complied. Unfortunately for those of us who love the throws, the world has been much stingier about sending its best tossers to compete on our shores. This summer though, the IAAF has taken pity on us huddled masses of throws fans yearning to see Olympic medalists, and through the creation of the Diamond League has found a way to entice the world’s best throwers to compete on U.S. soil.

Brand spanking new this summer, the Diamond league represents an expansion of the old Golden League format. Fourteen Diamond League competitions are scheduled for this year, in venues as far afield as Eugene and Shanghai. Each meeting offers $450,000 in prize money and the chance for competitors in thirty-two different events (fifteen of which are featured in a given meeting) to accumulate points toward winning a “diamond trophy” and $40,000.

The Adidas NYC Grand Prix Meet, held June 12th on Randall’s Island a few miles up the East River from Lady Liberty, was the first U.S. meet to receive Diamond League status. The meet organizers chose to host the women’s discus and shotput, along with the men’s javelin,  and based on the number of Olympic and World Championship medalists who showed up to compete, diamonds should now be considered a throwing fan’s best friend.


Women’s Discus

The first throwing event contested on this partly sunny and fully humid afternoon was the women’s discus. The field consisted of six top Americans, most prominently defending Olympic champion Stephanie Brown-Trafton, who set the meet record last year with a toss of 63.97m. Two prominent foreign throwers came to join the diamond hunt: Helsinki bronze-medalist Vera Pospisilova-Checklova, representing the Czech Republic, and nineteen-year-old Croatian sensation Sandra Perkovic, the 2009 European Junior champion who blasted a 66.85m PR early this spring.

A young thrower of great promise, Perkovic helped enliven a competition that otherwise appeared to suffer from the heavy air and lack of a helping wind. Her aggressive style brings to mind some past Eastern European discus greats such as Vladimir Dubrovshchik and Vasily Kaptyukh who eschewed the standard slow-to-fast rhythm in favor of a “start fast then really haul ass” approach. The focus of Perkovic’s technique seems to be generating a lot of speed out of the back with an aggressive swing kick, catching the disc waaaay high in the power position and then knocking the crap out of it with a fixed-feet finish and a ferocious yell. After whanging one of her warmup throws loudly off the right side of the cage, she adjusted her stance at the back of the ring, placing her right foot a bit to the left of the center line and let rip a first-round 61.96m which gave her the early lead over Aretha Thurmond’s 60.99m and Chechlova’s 60.71m. Brown-Trafton, who looked very uncomfortable during warm-ups, opened with 55.67m.

An uneventful second round saw only Chechlova reach the 60-meter line (60.12m), and an even less eventful third round (no 60-meter efforts) was spiced up only by a 59.70m toss from former University of Illinois thrower Gia Lewis (who earlier this season posted a 62.75M PR) and a long, loud Perkovic foul in the 66-meter range.

The throwers were re-ordered after round three with the top six advancing. That left the young Anna Jelmini (in spite of a very respectable third round 58.67m) and the veteran Brown-Trafton (who did not improve on her first round effort) out of the mix. I had a nice chat with Stephanie after the competition, and was struck by her humility and thoughtfulness. She was in a difficult place mentally, and it may be that she has not yet adjusted to the increased expectations created by her Olympic victory. She said that she was throwing great last season but then felt like “a light bulb switched off at the World Championships.”  She finished 12th in Berlin, and took the setback hard. “I felt like I let my family down,” she told me. “Like I let my country down.” This season, she was admitted to the Project 30 program set up by USATF to funnel financial support to potential 2012 medalists, but the burden of trying to justify that support has weighed heavily on her. “It’s almost like I need to forget about being Olympic Champion,” she commented. “I know the only reason I’m getting into the Diamond League meets is because of my title, not my marks…but I want to get back to that place where I wasn’t thinking about that or about  the money. I have to find a way to succeed in this new chapter. I have to find a way to get back to my comfort zone, or to find a new comfort zone.”

That sense of uneasiness has intruded on her efforts to find a technical groove. When asked which aspect of her technique she was focusing on improving, she replied, “There are so many things!  That’s why I’m a mess right now.” After reflecting for a moment she said that what she most needed to do was to hit a wider power position with more upper body wrap, and that she’d been taking a lot of non-reverse throws as a way of finding that position. Unfortunately, she doesn’t feel like she accelerates the discus well from a non-reverse finish, so it is not likely to provide the long-term answer. “If I can find a way to hit that power position, block, and use my reverse to accelerate the discus, it’s going to go far.”

It will be an interesting summer for Brown-Trafton as she attempts to recapture her Beijing form. In spite of her struggles, though, she remained optimistic. “All these challenges…it’s like yoga. It’s flexing me in ways I never wanted to go, but in the end it’s going to be really good for me.”

The final three rounds of the discus competition brought no fireworks, although Thurmond solidified her hold on second place with a 61.19m effort and Perkovic reached 61.59m in round six. Her 61.96m held up for the win and put her first among women discus throwers in the race for the diamond trophy.


Women’s Shot

Do you have trouble making choices? Me, too. Team Edward or Team Jacob? I still can’t decide! Same with the glide and rotational shot. I love them both, so I was one happy dude watching this competition.  Heading the glide contingent were Natalya Khoroneko-Mikhnevich, the Beijing silver-medalist from Belarus, and New Zealander Valerie Vili, the current Olympic Champion.  Also on the start list was 2009 European Indoor champion, Petra Lammert of Germany who is probably best known for using a glide variation in which she reaches with her right leg out of the back then steps into a wide, short-long style power position. It would have been fun to see that, too, but during warm-ups it became evident that she had switched back to a standard short-long glide. I asked her about the switch after the competition, and she told me that she had suffered a serious elbow injury falling over the toeboard in practice. As she rather charmingly put it, “the radius kaput was outside.” She is still recovering from the resulting surgery, and said that a standard glide puts less stress on her elbow.

Rounding out the field were four Americans: the fine rotational throwers Sarah Stevens and Jill Camarena, and gliders Kristen Heaston and Michelle Carter whose meet record of 18.43m was about to go kaput as well with Mikhnevich, Lammert, and Vili all carrying PRs of over 20 meters. The final thrower in the mix was Cleopatra Borel-Brown from Trinidad.

It was Camarena who first dispatched the record with a round one 18.99m, her spin technique looking very sharp. Her reign as record-holder lasted approximately two minutes though, as Mikhnevich managed a 19.51m opener. Mikhnevich held the lead and the record until the end of round two when Vili took custody of both by hitting 19.93m.

The Belarussian took a run at Vili with a third round season best toss of 19.80m, but that is as close as anyone would get. Vili, if not exactly in top form, showed great consistency with her final three throws of 19.81m, 19.88m, and 19.82m. Camarena’s 18.99m held up for third.

After my previous conversation with Brown-Trafton, I was interested to get a sense of how Vili was holding up under the pressure of the high expectations created by her recent run of dominance.  She is not only the defending Olympic and World champion, but recently put together a 28-meet undefeated streak, a remarkable achievement considering the high level of competition offered by the likes of Mikhnevich and her Belarussian counterpart Nadezhda Ostapchuk. During the pre-meet press conference, and also when interviewed after the competition, Vili exuded confidence and went out of her way to say that she welcomed competition. “I’m always quite happy and proud to be in a situation where I get challenged and give the crowd a good competition to watch. It is not that exciting when you go out and win automatically, whereas if you’ve got someone chasing you like today with Natalya, it’s good.”  She acknowledged feeling some pressure as the defending Olympic champion but added, “the Olympic Games were two years ago. This year we look upon 2010 and there’s new people coming through. And you’ve just got to face the competition that’s here now. Get on and do what you have to do.”

There are, however, indications that, like Brown-Trafton,  Vili  has found life at the top to be a bit complicated. Shortly after Ostapchuk ended Vili’s streak by defeating her at the Indoor World Championships in March, Vili fired her coach of eleven years and began training with former French national coach Didier Poppe. An article I read mentioned that Vili was making some technical changes under her new coach, and I asked her if a desire to modify her technique was the motivation behind the coaching switch. “I really don’t want to talk about that, “she replied. “I’ve already moved past that.”  Clearly this was an emotional issue, and I did not want to pry but I was left wondering if the pressure of staying on top really was getting to her. If not, why would her first loss in two-and-a-half years lead her to fire her coach? She said that she was excited about refining her technique under the guidance of Poppe, and that she felt like she had a lot of room for improvement, but did not go into specifics, saying only that “Change is always good, you know?”

In any case, it was really fun to see her throw. She is extremely athletic for her size, and does a fantastic job with the short-long glide, staying down and wrapped during her glide and then driving right-to-left through a very wide base. She sometimes appeared to hesitate slightly upon landing in her power position, but that may be the result of her focusing on some technical matter that she’s working on with her new coach.  She’s only twenty-five years old, and if any current thrower has a prayer of getting near Natalia Lisovskaya’s 22.63m world record it would seem to be Vili. She laughed when I told her I thought she could make a run at the record some day, and reminded me that “no one has thrown twenty-two meters in a long time.”  She’s a formidable athlete though, and after watching her pound out throw after throw of nearly 20 meters, I think she’ll be the next to cross that 22-meter barrier.


Men’s Javelin

One glance at the start list for the men’s javelin made it pretty clear that another meet record was in grave danger. All five foreign entrants came in with PRs anywhere from eight to twelve meters beyond the 79.16m thrown by Brian Chaput in 2005, including three (Andreas Thorkildson, Tero Pitkamaki, and Vadims Vasilevskis) who have thrown over 90 meters. Petr Frydrych, a twenty-two-year-old from the Czech Republic was the first to break it, with a round one toss of 84.45m. Andreas Thorkildson, the 2004 and 2008 Olympic champion, took it from Frydrych with a throw of 87.02 in round two. Frydrych responded with an 85.04m toss in round three, and that duo remained in first and second the entire way. Pitkamaki of Finland, Thorkildson’s friend and rival, finished third at 82.57m.

In talking to Thorkildson after the competition, it became clear that when God was handing out brains, looks, and talent twenty-eight years ago, Andreas somehow managed to get to the front of each of those lines. Like most guys, I would normally kind of hate him for that, but he was so polite and laid-back that I could not help but like him.

When asked about his rivalry with Pitkamaki (they have dueled 54 times during their careers with Thorkildson holding a 28-26 edge) he replied, “We get along well. When Tero won his world title (in Helsinki) I was happy for him. When I win I hope he’s happy for me.” He attributes his ability to avoid shoulder and elbow problems to gymnastics exercises that he includes in his training regimen and to keeping his practice throws to a minimum. “I believe in being fresh for every time I go out. I know that a lot of people throw a lot more than me, but so much of the technique is split-second technique …if I start throwing bad after fifteen or twenty throws and I don’t feel like it’s getting better, I shut it down.”

His favorite lift is the bench press (195k PR) although he’s pretty good at power cleans as well (155k PR from the hang)  and his attitude towards handling pressure is something that I’ll bet every coach wishes they could bottle and distribute to their athletes.  “People at home expect me to win and I do what I can to win,” he explained. “But, you’ve got to know that you’ve got good days on the track and you’ve got bad days on the track. I don’t think anyone is going to hate me if I don’t throw well for one day. At the end of the day, it’s still entertainment.”

I can’t think of a better word to describe the experience of watching these remarkable throwers on a warm summer’s day on Randall’s Island. Here’s to the IAAF, and to diamonds, my new BFFs!

by Dan McQuaid

this article originally appeared in the Long & Strong Throwers Journal in August 2010

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