2023 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships Preview: Brooke Andersen

Brooke Andersen at the 2022 World Championships in Eugene. Photo courtesy of TrackTown USA

If you want to be the best hammer thrower in the world, you’ve got to start with some innate talent, and Brooke Andersen had plenty of that. 

Nathan Ott, her longtime coach, says that when he first began training Brooke at Northern Arizona University in 2014, he knew she was special. 

“I thought she could be the American record holder someday,” he recalled recently. “She was like the perfect block of granite or lump of clay to an artist. She was quick and dynamic and very coachable.”

Brooke threw 59.37m during that first season with Ott, and by 2018 had improved to 74.20m. At the same time, her event was becoming more and more competitive in the United States. In early June of that year,  Gwen Berry pushed the American record to 77.78m. Three weeks later, at the 2018 USATF Championships in Des Moines, DeAnna Price raised it to 78.12m.

As talented as Brooke was, she and Coach Ott quickly realized that in order to compete with the best in the US, she had to develop the mental strength necessary to throw well under pressure, something that, according to Ott, is harder than people think.

He says that many people mistake determination–the willingness to run through a brick wall–for mental toughness. But the kind of mental strength Brooke needed was more subtle.

“You can’t win in a high-pressure competition,” he explained, “by trying to crush your throws. You have to be able to stay within yourself and throw with some finesse. That’s not easy to do when there’s a lot on the line, and I was in many competitions with Brooke where she tightened up and underperformed.”

A big breakthrough came at the 2019 USATF Championships, also in Des Moines. Early on in that comp, Maggie Ewen, a rival of Brooke’s from their college days, hit a PB of 75.04m. With Price and Berry also in the field, it seemed likely that Brooke would have to find a way to beat Maggie if she wanted to finish in the top three and make the squad for the 2019 Worlds.

Earlier that season, Brooke had thrown 76.75m at the Ironwood Classic, but that was a comparatively low key comp. Could she answer Ewen’s PB with a spot at the World Championships on the line?

It turned out she could. Brooke reached 75.30m in round three, and that was enough to get her on the podium behind Price–who extended her American record to 78.24m–and Berry.

Looking back, Ott says the 2019 USAs represented an important moment in Brooke’s career. 

“She was always in Maggie’s shadow during college,” he explained. “Then when Brooke finally beat her, she was like, ‘I can beat Maggie now. I can do this!’ It was a turning point.”

The next pivotal moment would come at the 2022 Worlds in Eugene, but first Brooke had to endure some painful lessons about competing on the sport’s biggest stages. A tricky thing about professional athletics is that as you climb the ladder of success, the pressure to succeed can seem to grow and mutate like Ursula, the evil octopus lady in The Little Mermaid. In college, an athlete’s first NCAA Championships can feel nerve-wracking. Later, it’s their first USATF Championships, or at least the first one where they have a chance to make an international team. Then, when they get past that hurdle, as Brooke did in 2019, they show up for their first Worlds or Olympics and there’s Ursula sitting by the cage looking bigger and badder than ever. So it went for Brooke at the 2019 Worlds in Doha, where she finished twentieth with a best throw of 68.46m.

Two years later, at the 2021 US Olympic Trials, Brooke finished second to Price with an impressive 77.72m toss, a distance that would surely get her a medal in Tokyo if she could replicate it there. But she couldn’t. 

She made it through the qualification round with a throw of 74.00m–a big improvement over her Doha performance–but could do no better than 72.16m for a tenth-place finish in the final.

When the 2022 season began, Brooke quickly demonstrated that she’d become the best hammer thrower in the world by raising her PB to 79.02m and routinely surpassing the 77-meter line. 

In June she won her first US title with a 77.96m bomb, and in July she and Ott traveled to Eugene for the 2022 World Championships, which she had a great chance to win–if she could throw to her potential.

Brooke made it through the qualification round easily, but got a little jumpy during warmups for the final and blasted her only two practice attempts into the cage. 

“Hey,” Ott told her as the competition began in earnest, “you’re in great shape. Be patient, put one into the field, and you’ll be fine.”

Her first-round throw of 74.81m gave them both a chance to breathe, but she fouled in round two and reached only 72.74m in round three. Meanwhile, Canada’s Camryn Rogers took the lead with a toss of 75.52m. She was followed by Janee’ Kassanavoid, who put herself into the medal hunt with a second-round throw of 74.86m.

There is always a short break after three rounds in a major final, as the lineup is reordered to reflect the current standings. When the comp resumed, it could have gone either way for Brooke. If she gave into her anxiety and tried to smash her final three attempts, her odds of winning were not good. If she regained her composure and threw like she had all season, she’d be tough to beat.

In Des Moines in 2019, after she’d qualified for her first Worlds team, Brooke told me that when she needed to find her rhythm she would tell herself to just make the hammer go 62 meters. That helped her to relax and throw easy which, paradoxically, often resulted in bigger distances.

I’m not sure if she used that cue on her fourth attempt at the 2022 Worlds, but when the hammer landed, it looked to have gone somewhere between 75 and 80 meters.

Unfortunately, the ring official raised a red flag signaling a foul.

Brooke begged to differ, and calmly walked over to the scorer’s table to file a protest. They were already examining the video, and assured her that the call would be overturned. A few minutes later, she was credited with a distance of 77.42m.

Take that, Ursula.

“Ok, that looks far!” Brooke at the 2022 Worlds. Photo courtesy of TrackTown USA.

Now securely in relaxo mode, Brooke improved to 77.56m in round five and finished with an emphatic 78.96m to take the title over Rodgers and Kassanavoid, who did not improve upon their earlier marks.

Ott, understandably, was proud. “To have her be in that state of mind where she was pressing, but then break out of it…It would have been so easy to stay on that path, but she found a way to relax. And once she found that comfort zone, she wasn’t going to lose. You could see it in her eyes. If Camryn or Janee’ had made a big throw, Brooke was ready to respond.”

Brooke and Coach Ott at the 2022 Worlds. Photo courtesy of me!

Brooke has continued to improve this season, and after opening with marks of 79.80m and 78.69m at her first two meets in April, in May she became the third woman ever, after DeAnna Price and Poland’s Anita Włodarczyk, to throw 80 meters. 

Is the World Record–82.98m held by Wlodarczyk–a possibility? 

Brooke is, according to Coach Ott, still developing. “We don’t know her ceiling,” he says. “She keeps getting better, and has not plateaued. I know what she responds to in training, and her technique is getting sharper. She still moves quickly and is dynamic, and she’s got more there. The World Record has always been a crazy dream, so we’ll see.”

The women’s hammer at the 2023 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships will be contested on Sunday at 4:00pm Pacific time. 

Tune in. You never know when something crazy might happen.

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