Three for three
North Carolina throws coach Amin Nikfar had a heck of a weekend at the 2023 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships.
The fun began on Day 1 when former Tar Heel All-American Madison Wiltrout finished third in the women’s javelin, in a nice ending to what had been an up-and-down season.
Plagued all year by foot and back issues–nothing major, just “typical javelin stuff” according to Coach Nikfar–Madison captured her third ACC Conference title in May with a promising 58.51m toss, but ended up eighth at the 2023 NCAA Championships after placing third in 2022.
In all her comps leading up to USAs, Madison used a short approach as a way of reducing the stress on her body, but Coach Nikfar says she insisted on going with a full runup in Eugene.
“She was adamant about it,” he says. “Madison is strong, and could throw far enough from a short approach to make any domestic final, but she was not going to play it safe at USAs.”
Her temerity paid off in round one when she produced the 55.51m toss that eventually got her on the podium next to Maggie Malone (58.79m) and Maddie Harris (60.73m).
Madison has not hit the 63.80m automatic qualifying mark for Worlds, nor is she close to the top thirty-six in ranking. She would have until the end of the month to chase one or the other, but agreed with Coach Nikfar that the wiser move right now is to shut it down for 2023, get healthy, and come out firing in 2024, when she hopes to put the experience she gained in Eugene to good use.
Her coach says that competing in a “high octane meet” like the USAs provides an athlete with a “clear view of what they have to do to make their technique tolerant to high pressure situations.”
He described Madison’s performance in Eugene as, “good, not great. She did a good job, and I think any time a highly-driven athlete finishes anywhere but on top of the podium, if I call it ‘great’ they won’t believe me. But, she learned a lot and got more experience, and she’s ready to get some rest.”
Another of Coach Nikfar’s athletes, hammer thrower Alex Young, showed how valuable championship experience can be when he earned a podium spot in Eugene despite coming in with a season’s best of 73.38m–well below his 78.52m PB.
Rudy Winkler and Daniel Haugh were prohibitive favorites to make the team for Budapest, so it looked like Alex would be left to battle fellow veteran Sean Donnelly and a group of up-and-comers including Brock Eager and Jordan Geist for the last open spot.
Alex opened with a season’s best 73.52m, which put him third behind Winkler (78.23m) and Haugh (74.95m) until Eager jumped him with a 74.28m toss in round two.
But Eager, who PB’d earlier this year with a 76.58m chuck at Ironwood, was unable to improve on that second throw, and Geist, who reached 75.97m and 75.25m in the two comps leading up to USAs, topped out with a 73.48m fourth-rounder.
From his spot near the cage, Coach Nikfar could hear the sound of opportunity knocking.
“If you leave you leave the door open,” he observed afterwards, “a guy who is talented and has experience will get through.”
Alex’s six USATF Championships appearances, including four podium finishes and one win (in 2017), made him one of the most battle-tested athletes in any event at USAs, and allowed him to stay calm as the competition wore on with, in Coach Nikfar’s words, “no freakouts and no intent to try to break records.”
Alex’s 75.87m toss in round four demonstrated his veteran moxie. It was more than two meters under his PB, but more than two over his season’s best prior to USAs. Most importantly, it moved him into third place and earned him his third World Championships appearance.
Next up for Coach Nikfar was the women’s hammer, which featured a ridonkulous eight competitors ranked in the top fifteen by World Athletics. With defending champion Brooke Andersen receiving a Budapest bye, there were three spots up for grabs, but anyone wanting to score a ticket to Worlds would have to deal with the likes of 2022 bronze medalist Janee’ Kassanavoid, 2019 World Champion DeAnna Price, 2022 Worlds finalist Annette Echikunwoke, 2017 NCAA champ Maggie Ewen, 2018 NCAA champ Janeah Stewart, and a crew of up-and-comers including Rachel Tanczos, Erin Reese, and Maddie Malone.
It was hard to imagine a first-year pro having any chance against that Murderers’ Row, especially a first-year pro who had finished no better than thirteenth in her two previous USATF Championships, but Coach Nikfar says that Jillian Shippee, whom he began coaching when he came to UNC in the fall of 2019, had two things going for her: consistency in training and boldness in competition.
They set a “manageable” goal of making the top eight, and decided that anything beyond that would be a bonus, but in a phone call a few days before USAs, Coach Nikfar expressed optimism about Jillian’s chances. “If you can be bold in a competition like this,” he told me, “a lot will come your way.”
Jillian got right after it when the festivities began, going 72.40m in round one, a distance which would almost certainly garner her a top-eight finish. Her “manageable” goal fulfilled, she found herself in fourth place behind Brooke, DeAnna, and Annette going into round two, with Kassanavoid sitting fifth.
That’s rarified air for someone who finished ninth at NCAAs her senior year, and it would have understandable if Jillian lost her equilibrium in the bigness of the moment. Instead, she stepped in for her second throw and smashed a PB of almost two meters. That toss–74.93m–surpassed the automatic qualifying mark for Worlds and elevated her into third place, where she stayed until Kassanavoid jumped her in round six.
“It was amazing,” Coach Nikfar said afterwards, “to have an athlete be able to endure that pressure and also thrive in it and just take big swings every throw.”
Jillian will now join Anderson, Price, and Kassanavoid on the squad for Budapest, and whatever happens there, Coach Nikfar says that making the team showed her that she belongs among the best in the event.
“The sense of belonging is a thing that matters,” he says. “She got the best version of that ever at USAs. These are people she watched for a long time, and now she’s on a USA roster with them.”
The Big D!
This is getting redundant, but how about ol’ Daniel Ståhl laying the wood to the best discus dudes in the world once again at the London Diamond League meeting? His winning distance of 67.03m was not epic, but on the broadcast it looked like it rained the morning of the comp, so the air might have been a little heavy or the ring a little slick. Either way, a win is a win when you’re going against the top guys, and the Big Man is looking mighty dangerous as the World Championships loom.
The book about Daniel’s career that my friend Roger Einbecker and I have been putting together with Daniel’s former coach Vésteinn Hafsteinsson has been sent to a graphic designer and should be ready soon. We are going to self-publish this one, and as this is our first rodeo I’m sure there will be a few more obstacles to overcome, but in the meantime, Daniel, keep up the good work!
At this rate, we may have to start working on a sequel.