2005 Zurich Weltklasse
An international airport is not a place normally associated with solitude, but there I was sitting in the darkened expanse of the waiting room in Zurich terminal number one at 5:30 on a Saturday morning feeling like I was the only person on the planet. Which I didn’t mind. Just a few hours earlier, my brother Mike, our friend Anna Swisher, Anna’s mother, and I were wedged into the standing room section along the north curve at Zurich’s Stadion Letzigrund joining the raucous crowd in urging the world’s best track and field athletes to run fast, jump high, and throw far in spite of a drenching rain occasionally punctuated by the flash of lightning. A soggy journey back to our hotel, followed by a late night of packing and a 4:00AM wake-up call (necessitated by a 7:00 AM flight to Manchester), left me feeling somewhat less than chipper as I slouched into a plastic seat in the waiting area and buried my nose in a Napoleon biography. Reading about the Grand Army of the Republic slogging west from Moscow with swarms of Cossacks nipping at their heels helped me to forget about my own fatigue and rendered me oblivious to the fact that the terminal was slowly coming to life. By the time I looked up from my book, there were dozens of passengers milling about and the shops lining the terminal were beginning to open their doors. A few feet in front of me, a very tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt braced himself against a railing while casually stretching his legs. I couldn’t see his face, but his unusual size (my throwers would call someone with his build “gi-normous”) made me wonder whether he was a thrower from last night’s meet.
Speaking of last night’s meet, it appeared beforehand to possess all the necessary ingredients for a classic discus competition. The field was loaded with top throwers still in peak form after competing two weeks earlier at the World Championships in Helsinki. Foremost among them was the victor in Helsinki (and two-time Olympic champion) Virgilius Alekna, who entered the competition with a chiseled six-foot-eight inch frame and a habit of launching 70 meter throws. The big Lithuanian had pretty much owned his event since the summer of 2000 when I had the pleasure of watching him deposit four of six throws past the 70 meter line in that year’s edition of the Zurich Weltklasse. In the intervening years, the only man to defeat him in a major competition and not run afoul of the folks in the white lab coats was Lars Reidel at Edmonton in 2001. Fit, confident, and very comfortable with the ring at Letzigrund, Alekna seemed primed on this night to extend his seasonal best beyond the 70.67m he’d posted a month earlier in Madrid.
This is not to imply that the rest of the competitors were content to duke it out for second place. Indeed, Gerd Kanter, the fine Estonian thrower who broke the 70-meter barrier once himself earlier this year, had Alekna on the ropes until the final round at Helsinki. Would this be the night he’d finish the job? Also in the field was Franz Kruger, a crowd favorite in Zurich who’d handed Alekna his only defeat of the year at a meet in Talinnjust after the World Championships. Aside from these two, the field was loaded with former World and Olympic medalists including the aforementioned Lars Reidel, Athens second-placer Zoltan Kovago, Athens third-placer Alex Tammert, and the shaggy-haired Michael Mollenbeck, third in Helsinki and a man who seemingly never met a hair style that he would not try. These, then, were the challengers who hoped to make Alekna sweat in his attempt to snag a third Weltklasse Zurich title.
Coincidentally, a sweaty Alekna just happened to occupy the top spot on Anna Swisher’s wish list for the upcoming holiday season. A recent graduate of Williams College and herself a thrower, Anna arrived in Zurich harboring a mad hot crush on the Lithuanian studmuffin. Her goal for the 2005 Weltklasse was simple: find Alekna and get his autograph. If a marriage proposal followed, so much the better.
This aspiration (at least the autograph part of it) was not-so-far-fetched. The athletes’ hotel is just a few blocks from Letzigrund, and it is not uncommon to see them walking to or from the stadium. In fact, as Mike, Anna, and I entered Letzigrund, we ran into Franz Kruger making his way towards the athletes’ check-in area. We did not trouble him for an autograph, but Anna was encouraged by the thought that a certain Lithuanian dreamboat might be in the vicinity as well. Unfortunately, we could not afford to spend any time staking out the entrance if we wanted to secure a spot in the north stands with a clear view of the discus ring. The Zurich Weltklasse pretty much sells out every year, and the general admission area overlooking the discus cage fills up quickly. Owing to necessity then, we temporarily suspended the “hunt for Alekna” portion of our mission and managed to grab a nice spot not too far from the cage and just across the track from an open area where the throwers tend to congregate between attempts. Not a bad perch, as it turned out, for a passionate woman armed with a telephoto lens. From there, Anna and I anxiously awaited the beginning of the discus warm-ups while Mike (himself armed with a telephoto lens and a positively Japanese-like passion for using it) contentedly snapped photos of the steeplechase water hazard.
Unfortunately, the steeplechasers would not be the only ones dealing with water and its hazards on this night. A few minutes prior to the discus warm-up, a steady drizzle began to fall and continued as Alekna and the other throwers were escorted to the cage. As the group began their warm-up tosses, it quickly became clear that the wet ring was forcing everyone to move cautiously. Further complicating matters was a fairly steady breeze blowing in along the right foul line. Normally a boon to right-handed throwers, the wind seemed to make it harder to get a proper flight on the disc, resulting in many weak-looking “pop-up” type throws-not the sort of thing one might expect from the world’s best.
After a few rounds, the warm-ups were halted for the “Introduction of Champions,” during which any recently crowned World Champion competing in the Weltklasse was paraded on the infield to the accompaniment of some sort of regal sounding techno music. After the introductions, the champions scattered to toss t-shirts into different sections of the stands. Alekna trotted right over to us and tossed several t-shirts into our section but just out of our reach. It is testament to Anna’s genteel upbringing that she refrained from a.) hopping the railing and tackling Alekna, or b.) drawing blood in an effort to snag a shirt, especially when she realized that the world’s most hunkalicious Lithuanian had autographed them!
All eleven throwers were given a couple more warm-up tosses, and then with the rain still falling, Mario Pestana opened the competition with a very decent (considering the conditions) 64.90m. This seemed to set the tone for the night. Yes, the ring was wet. Yes, it was hard to get a good grip on the disc. Yes, Anna was giving everyone but Alekna the evil eye. But these guys were professionals, and regardless of those distractions they were going to fight to get off some good throws. This point was made abundantly clear when Franz Kruger fired a season best 67.30m on his first attempt. This got me jacked up, as Franz is a class act and a lot of fun to watch. The 2000 Weltklasse, the first that I attended, was something of a coming out party for the big South African who launched a couple of PR’s that night and endeared himself to everyone in the north stands by playing to the crowd before and after each throw. Two weeks later, he collected the bronze in Sydney and seemed to be on the brink of a fantastic career. After a stellar 2001 campaign, however, he slipped a bit and became just another member of the pack of throwers who struggled to stay within five meters of Alekna week in and week out. I often wondered if he was struggling with injuries during that span. Or if getting married had crushed his spirit the way it has with so many other men over the eons (just kidding, dear). What a pleasant surprise then, to see him suddenly conjure the mojo of Bachelor Franz and throw down the gauntlet on a night where 67.30m looked to have a real chance of holding up for the win.
Things continued to look good for Franz for the rest of the first and most of the second round. Even though the rain stopped for a few minutes, nobody, not even Alekna, could seem to get comfortable. Of the first twenty-one throws, six were fouls and nine others were less than 64 meters. Unfortunately for Franz, on the twenty-second throw Alekna demonstrated that he did not need to be comfortable to throw far, launching one 68.00m while nearly falling down during his reverse. This pleased Anna quite a bit, but not nearly so much as when the large Lithuanian stripped off his wet shirt prior to round three. Aside from Alekna showing off his pecs (an event that Anna was able to capture via her telephoto lens) the highlights of that round were Franz backing up his 67.30m with a solid-looking 66.68m, and Zoltan Kovago (he of the crazy mad right-leg action) launching a season best 66.00m.
A poignant but largely unnoticed moment occurred during the re-shuffling of the order, as Lars Reidel, certainly one of the all-time greats and a six-time winner of the Weltklasse during the 1990’s, packed up and left the field after failing to qualify for the final three throws. How odd to see this former ubermensch almost sneak away from a stadium where he had been the object of much adoration over the years. Too bad he didn’t announce his retirement during the “Parade of Champions” to give the crowd a chance to go nuts over him one last time. I guess when you’ve reached the heights that Lars, has it must be hard to know when and how to bow out gracefully, but going three and out in Athens, Helsinki, and now Zurich is probably a sign that it’s time to go. Perhaps Mother Nature was as sad as I was to see Lars go, because the rain really began pelting down prior to round four. Predictably, this led to lots more fouls eleven over the final three rounds. Unpredictably, Kanter nailed 67.92m on his fourth throw to bump Franz to third, and Mario Pestano pitched a season best 66.57m on his final attempt. Neither Alekna nor Franz was able to improve, so the final ranking went Alekna (68.00m), Kanter (67.92m), Kruger (67.30m). A fun competition, but probably disappointing to these athletes who clearly were in shape to throw far had the conditions been better.
One final note regarding the disc. Both Ian Waltz (seventh with 63.08m) and Jarred Rome (eighth with 62.68m) demonstrated once again that they belong among the world’s elite. They both look big, strong and technically sound, and I predict they’ll be major players throughout the current Olympic cycle.
The completion of the discus put Anna in a slight bind. True throws fan that she is, she wanted to remain in the stands to watch the javelin competition (eventually won in a downpour by the young Finnish thrower Tero Pitkamaki with a fine throw of 88.71m) but longed to stake out the exit to catch Alekna on his way out. Anna’s mom (a charming woman born and raised in Austria who enjoys escorting Anna on jaunts over the Pond) settled the dilemma by noticing that the program promised a meet and greet with the night’s champions after the final event. Anna decided to pin her hopes on the chance that Alekna would stick around. Mike and I both had early flights to catch the next morning, so we left the stadium just before the meet ended, and were busy packing when Anna arrived with the sad news that Alekna did not stay for the autograph session. She faced this unfortunate development with her usual pluck and optimistic demeanor, wishing Mike and I a pleasant journey as we finally hit the hay around 1:00 AM. And thus our adventure came to an end.
The next morning, fairly numb from lack of sleep and distracted by a sort of generalized ache to see my wife and daughter again after ten days away from home, it took me several moments to realize that the man standing before me in the waiting lounge of Zurich Terminal One was none other than Virgilius Alekna.
So Anna was to get her autograph after all, though not in the way she’d expected. He was extremely gracious as he signed, nodding politely as I pantomimed “rain” and told him how great I thought he was. My best guess is that he did not get any English in school as Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Bloc in those days, and he certainly did not try to speak any to me. But I didn’t care. I took the autograph, thanked him profusely and went back to my Napoleon book, wishing I knew how to use a pay phone in Europe so that I could call Anna and wake her up with the good news.
But a few minutes later, the news got even better.
Nose buried in my book, I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to find Alekna standing over me. Without a word, he handed me a postcard-sized autographed photo of himself on the awards stand at Athens, nodded politely, smiled and walked away. Now I was really stoked. How cool to find out that someone you admire is a genuinely nice guy. I only hoped that Anna’s seizure upon receiving the photo would be a small one.
At that point, it was time to head to the gate to catch a bus to the tarmac where I’d board the flight to Manchester. Within ten minutes I was standing on the bus, still shaking a bit from the excitement of having met the Olympic champion. All of a sudden, I looked around and guess who was standing on the same bus just a few feet away from me? Yep. Now I started to feel a bit self-conscious, in no small part because of the fruity bag I was using as a carry-on. Earlier in the week, Mike and I had spent a couple of days touring Salzburg, and I felt like I needed about five hands to carry all the stuff I was trying to schlep around. My solution was to buy a big canvas sack decorated with brightly colored images of fruit that would a.) hold all my stuff and b.) make a great beach bag for my daughter when I got it home. I knew it looked silly for a grown man to be carrying a bag like that. I even joked with the shop owner when I bought it that people would think I was “less than manly.” And indeed, a group of teenagers kept snickering at Mike and I when we sat down for lunch that afternoon. But I didn’t care. Until, of course, I suddenly found myself holding it in the presence of the Olympic discus champion.
Luckily, it was a short bus ride, and in a few minutes I was standing in the aisle of the plane trying to find my seat. The aisle was blocked by a lot of people still stowing their carry-ons, so I craned my neck to see around them and began counting rows. My seat was 12A. Take a wild guess who was already sitting in 12B.
Now I started to feel a bit panicky. As I mentioned earlier, Alekna is an enormous man who as far as I can tell does not speak English. Were I to squeeze into that seat next to him, we’d be smashed up against each other for two hours with absolutely no way to communicate. And who could blame him for suspecting that I was some sort of fruity-bag-carrying stalker? I mean, what are the odds that the only guy in the whole airport who recognized him would just happen to end up sitting next to him on the plane? And what could I say to assuage his fears? “Me no stalk you. This coincidence. Anna stalk you. She have picture of you no shirt. She want marry you.”
Nice guy that Alekna is, he started to get up to let me have the seat when he saw me staring at it, but no way was I going to sit there. “Thanks again for the autographs,” I said and scrambled down the aisle clutching my fruity bag until I found an empty seat.
by Dan McQuaid
this article originally appeared in the Long & Strong Throwers Journal in October 2005