Raven Redux

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Looks like we are going to have to start getting used to this.

Another weekend, another American Junior record in the indoor shot for SIU’s Raven Saunders.

SIU throws coach John Smith sensed earlier in the week that this might be coming.

He said that during practice Raven put the 16-pound  shot 39’4″, the 12-pound shot 47’7″, the 8-pound shot 59′, and the 3k shot 63’10”.

So she was clearly in fighting trim.

Raven’s new Junior record of 17.99m should have a longer shelf life than her last, as she will not compete this coming weekend.

But with her conference meet on the horizon (Feb 28-March1) followed two weeks later by the NCAA Championships, will the record remain at 17.99m past mid-march?

Allow me to quote 97% of the girls I asked out in college as a way of answering that question:

“Not a chance, buddy.”

 

 

Raven Saunders grabs the US Junior indoor shot record

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It took all of five collegiate competitions for high school national record-holder Raven Saunders to take over the American Junior indoor record in the shot.

Former UCLA great Seilala Sua set the previous mark (17.46m) in  1997. Raven took over the top spot with a 17.64m heave on her sixth throw at the SIU Invitational this past Saturday.

Here is a vid of that throw:

Raven brought some serious weight room numbers when she arrived on campus last fall (245 bench, 400 squat, 200 power clean) and SIU throws coach John Smith was determined to boost those numbers even higher.

He put Saunders on a high rep routine  of 10’s in bench and squats and 8’s in cleans during her first month in Carbondale and by mid-October she had benched 250 for a set of 6, squatted 375 for a set of 8, and hang cleaned 100k for a set of 8.

Coach Smith estimates that she is now 20-30% stronger than when she arrived on campus.

In terms of technique, John estimates that they have spent 95% of their throwing time teaching Raven how to use her legs. “Lots of non-reverse stands, half turns, giant steps, walking throws…also working on controlling her head. She likes to throw it harder than the shot. Heavy balls have been fixing a lot of this.”

Raven is now the fifth-ranked women’s putter in the US for the 2015 indoor season, and she seems poised to join SIU grad Jeneva McCall and recent Illinois State grad Brittany Smith in what should be a ferocious competition to represent the US in Beijing and Rio over the next two years.

 

 

Perkovic at the Euro Championships

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In an earlier post, I started to write about what makes Sandra Perkovic such a great thrower. Then I got sidetracked by my affection for Betty Heidler.

Time to get back to the Croatian Sensation.

The picture above is one I took at the European Championships in Zurich last August.  That’s Sandra conferring with her boyfriend and coach Edis Elkasevic just before her one and only prelim throw.

That throw of 63.93m easily surpassed the automatic qualifying mark ( 60m, I think) and was a great example of what an elite thrower needs to do in the preliminary rounds: Get it done early without expending much energy.

The weather on the day of the finals was fantastic, and as this was the biggest competition of the year for Sandra (there being no Olympics or World Championships) I anticipated a big throw from her.

My ticket for that session was behind the cage probably 30 rows up, but after my experience with the men’s discus final (the television cameras blocked my view from that angle) I staked out a standing room spot to the right of the cage where I could actually see the throwers throw.

While waiting for the women’s disc to begin, I happened to notice a rather large gentleman with a familiar profile standing nearby. He is the father of two world class men’s discus throwers. Can you tell who?

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Hint: One of his sons dates a competitor in the women’s discus final.

During the discus warmups, a woman walked up to me and held out her ticket, saying something about the view. I thought she was commiserating with me about being stuck in the standing room section, so I just nodded and smiled.

Turns out, she was leaving and wanted to give me her ticket, which was for a seat about 20 rows up on the right side of the cage–a great spot!

Here is the video I took from that seat:

Not a bad angle, eh?

Anyway, Perkovic did not disappoint.

She opened at 64.58m, sealed the win with her next throw of 67.37m, and then crushed any hope anyone might have entertained of an upset with a round three 68.78m.

During the pause prior to the final three throws, I was faced with a decision.

This was my final day in Europe, and I was meant to share one last dinner with my brother-in-law Larry and his wife Susi at their home in southern Germany.

The women’s disc final had started late, and I had to catch a tram soon if I was going to make it to Larry and Susi’s on time.

If I left before the end of the competition, I risked missing a great throw by Perkovic.

If I stayed, I risked missing a great dinner (Susi is an amazing cook).

I decided to hang in there for one more round and then decide.

Sandra fouled her fourth round throw. I told myself that she had probably lost her focus during the break, knowing that the 68.78m would surely hold up for the win.

Based on that calculation, I headed for the tram.

A few minutes later, as I waited for my connection in the main Zurich train station, I decided to kill some time by checking out the final results on my ipad mini.

Imagine my chagrin when I found out that had I stayed in my seat for another ten minutes I’d have seen the farthest women’s discus throw since 1992, Sandra’s fifth round 71.08m.

I should have known.

After her 68.78m, Sandra came over to the stands to talk to Edis and you could tell by her gestures that she was agitated that she had not thrown farther.  She clearly believed that she had a big throw in her that day, and…well, she was right.

And that’s why Perkovic means so much to our sport.

Every sport needs someone who keeps you in your seat.  J.J.Watt. Lionel Messi. Lebron James. You can’t leave a game when those guys are playing because you want to be able to tell your friends that you were there when they did something amazing.

And it is the same with Perkovic.

I can’t wait until this summer. The American Gia Lewis-Smallwood has shown that she too can make huge throws in stadiums, and with her putting the pressure on Perkovic, the World Championships should be a fantastic competition.

A quick comment on Perkovic’s technique.

It can be very difficult for a coach of young, non-elite athletes to figure out which aspects of an elite thrower’s technique are worth emulating.

The United States has recently produced three of the best shot putters ever in Adam Nelson, Reese Hoffa, and Christian Cantwell, but their technique is so idiosyncratic that it would be counterproductive for a young thrower to try to emulate them.

Perkovic’s technique is a bit idiosyncratic as well.  Not many throwers could hit a position in the middle with their head facing down like this…

perkovic middle

…without losing their balance.

I would, however, recommend emulating Sandra in the way she leads with her hip as she gets out of the back of the ring.

She does an amazing job of  getting from here…

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…to here…

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…on balance.

Another view:

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See how her left armpit and hip are aligned?

Coming out of the back, she is perfectly on balance and so can run the ring aggressively without spinning out of control.

Here is a shot of her juxtaposed with Franz Kruger, who also did a great job of getting his shoulders and hips aligned out of the back:

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That is an aspect of Sandra’s technique that throwers of all levels should emulate.

Here is a short vid by Mac Wilkins highlighting several aspects of Sandra’s form:

Whatever you think of her technique, take my advice. If you are at a meet where Sandra Perkovic is competing,..do not leave early.

 

 

 

More on Betty…then back to Perkovic

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I began my last post meaning to talk about the women’s discus competition at the 2014 European Championships but ended up switching over to the women’s hammer and my conversation with Betty Heidler.

There she is above with her coach, Michael Deyhle.

My conversation with Betty consisted mostly of me telling her how impressed I was with her ability to stay calm when the knuckleheads running the hammer at the 2012 Olympics somehow neglected to measure one of her throws. Watching the webcast, you could tell right away that something was wrong because until that point the previous thrower’s new mark and place always appeared on the screen prior to the next competitor’s attempt.

But the distance of what was clearly Betty’s best throw so far never showed up on the screen. Nor did her place change. Nor was she charged with a foul.

The competition simply continued as if Betty’s throw had never happened.

My earliest Olympic memory is sitting in front of my family’s one and only television (Oh yeah, we had it rough back then) watching the men’s marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The American, Frank Shorter (sporting a very suave ’70’s stache) had built a substantial lead heading into the stadium and had only to complete one lap around the track to claim the gold.

But, just as Frank was about to appear, some idiot dressed in running clothes ran out onto the track pretending that he and not Shorter was leading the race.

When Frank appeared he had no idea what in the hell was going on. He looked very confused and worried and was I’m sure wondering how this guy who was–as a British announcer put it–“as fresh as a buttercup”had somehow passed him along the route.

Anyway, one of the American broadcasters started going nuts. “Frank! He’s a fake! Don’t worry, Frank! You’re the winner! Fraaaaaank!”

And that is exactly how I reacted as the women’s hammer competition ended with Betty in fourth place.

I had just come in from football practice and was watching the webcast in my classroom. Luckily, there were very few people in the building because I’m sure I sounded like a nut job.

“Betty! They didn’t measure your throw! Tell them they have to measure your throw!”

Meanwhile, the three alleged “medalists” began their victory lap.

But the camera stayed on Betty as she filed a protest with one of the officials and then sat down to await the result. Remarkably, she stayed calm and even smiled and waved at the camera.

I was so taken by her poise that when I got home that day I told my wife that if Betty ever decided to propose to me I would have no choice but to accept.

Luckily, Betty saved me from a terribly awkward situation when she did not propose during our conversation in Zurich. We had a very nice chat, and off she went.

Afterwards, I spent a few minutes talking with Michael Deyhle.

Deyhle is part of a generation of German coaches who I strongly suspect of being hard asses.I would put David Storl’s coach (his name escapes me) and Harting’s former coach Werner Goldmann in that same category.

During the press conference after his victory in Zurich, Storl made mention of his coach chewing him out between throws. This during a competition which, despite a damaged knee, he was never in danger of losing.

I don’t know for a fact that Goldmann is a hard ass, but I suspect that Harting switched coaches last year largely because he was tired of butting heads with the man. It is no accident that his current coach, Torsten Schmidt, possesses a very low-key, encouraging manner.

Deyhle is definitely a hard ass. His assessment of the performances by Betty and his other pupil, Kathrin Klass, in the Zurich hammer final?

“Shit. Complete shit.”

He is also very outgoing, and took the time to talk with me about his interactions with Betty during the final.

In spite of the steady rain, Betty had launched her final warmup throw 75 meters. When they conferred prior to the first round of the competition, Deyhle told her that her technique and rhythm looked good and that she should approach her first competition throw with the same level of intensity.

Apparently, though, Betty decided, as many throwers do, to open with a relaxed, easy toss in order to make sure she got a mark and made it to the final three rounds.

Unfortunately, her resulting throw of 67.65m guaranteed her nothing but a good chewing out from Deyhle. She never regained the rhythm she had found during warmups, and finished fifth with a best throw of 72.39m.

Had she equaled that 75-meter warmup toss in competition she’d have placed second.

That’s the kind of performance that causes throws coaches at all levels to rethink their choice of profession, We’ve all been there.

So I asked Deyhle what is to be done in a situation like that, when a thrower loses their “touch” in the middle of a competition.

He said that a coach has to find a way to help the athlete to “reset.” You have to get their mind off of how badly things are going and get them to fall back into throwing with rhythm. He said this can often be done by taking imitation throws off to the side.

Unfortunately, the steady downpour that night made it impossible to perform hammer imitations on the rubberized surface outside of the cage. So Betty was not able to relocate her lost “touch,”

Back to Perkovic in the next post. Scout’s honor.

 

 

 

 

 

More Perkovic

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The next time I got to see Perkovic throw in person was last August at the European Championships in Zurich. The weather was all over the place that week, and there was a bit of rain on and off the day of the women’s disc prelims.

I asked Torsten Schmidt how an elite thrower should approach their prelim throws. Do you get in there and try to knock the hell out of one to be sure you reach the automatic qualifying distance on your first throw? Do you take a low key approach so you have plenty of adrenaline left for the final?

He told me that the elite athlete has to find a balance. They must enter the ring on their first throw focused enough to get the job done, but they also must try to conserve energy.

Robert Harting played it perfectly in round one of the men’s discus in Zurich. He looked almost casual as he dropped one out to 67m. You can see that throw here at the 1:24 mark:

 

Anita Wlodarczyk did the same thing in the women’s hammer prelim. Even though it was raining like a bastard, she calmly launched a first round 75.73m and was probably warm and dry back in her hotel room by the time the rest of the field had been sorted out.

Interesting story. Betty Heidler also surpassed the automatic qualifying mark on her first prelim throw in Zurich, after which there was a long and unexplained delay which ended when she returned to the ring and launched another throw of about the same distance, then packed it in for the day.

I had no clue why Betty had to take two throws (here she is walking over to talk to her coach during the delay)

 

 

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until I got to talk with her the morning after the women’s hammer final when I attended a press conference at the hotel where the German athletes were staying.

In an earlier post I described my experience at the German press conference the morning after the men’s shot final when I finally got to ask David Storl why he had been throwing without a reverse for most of the summer. Everybody in the room spoke German except me, so I felt a little teeny bit like an intruder when I raised my hand and asked, “May I speak to David in English?”

The guy running those press conferences is, I’m sure, a good dude, but I wouldn’t go so far as to describe him as “friendly” or “welcoming.”  So, I got to ask my question but he didn’t exactly go out of his way to make me feel welcome.

Anyway, the morning after the women’s hammer final (which Wlodarczyk dominated–you can see a video of it here:

although I don’t have Anita’s 79m bomb because the men’s high jump was going on at the same time and I got distracted when Bogdan Bondarenko was attempting some ungodly height) I showed up at the German press conference again but this time I was late because I had run into Torsten in the lobby and had a nice chat with him.

Now, there are certain stereotypes in this world that are ridiculous (English teachers are nerds, Irish men have small…bladders) but there are some stereotypes which contain a nugget or two of truth, and one of those is that Germans have very little tolerance for…shall we say, “inefficiency.”

And walking into a press conference late definitely qualifies as an inefficiency. As does neglecting to shut the door behind you when there is lots of noise and activity in the hallway.

So the guy in charge of the press conference looks at me, frowns, sighs, walks off the podium, goes to the back of the room and shuts the door.

Not exactly a suave entrance on my part, but at that point I did not care. I was  about to meet Betty Heidler. IMG_0628[1]

 

Now, Betty was not very happy at that particular moment because she did not throw well the night before. She finished fifth, and as you can see in this photo, she was more than a little disappointed.

But the thing is, I love Betty.

It’s cool. My wife knows.

I have a great marriage, in large part because my wife has endless patience for my eccentricities, one of which is my love for Betty Heidler.

And who among you could blame me?

If you are reading this blog, and are a male, I know that “pretty, great personality, world record holder in the hammer” basically describes your dream girl.

So stop judging.

Anyway, when the press conference broke up Betty just about sprinted towards the exit, but I intercepted her and found myself talking to the world record holder in the hammer the same way I would talk to one of my high school throwers after a disappointing performance.

“Betty, you are a great thrower. You’re going to come back from this.”

She brightened up a bit, and I asked her what happened in the prelims that she had to take an extra throw.

“It was the same as the Olympics!” she said. “They did not measure the throw!”

Gotta go. More on Betty, and back to Perkovic next time.

 

 

What’s so great about Perkovic?

A lot, actually.

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First of all, she is immensely competitive, which makes her fun to watch.

The first time I saw her throw in person was  in 2010 at the Adidas Grand Prix Diamond League meet in New York. She was only nineteen then, and had not won any big meets but you could tell she was going to be something special. It was a humid day, and the other discus throwers seemed to sag in the damp air.

Not Perkovic.

She blasted every warmup throw like she was in the Olympic final. One whanged off the cage so hard that I’m surprised it didn’t knock down the support pole.

She only threw 61m that day, with a 65m foul, but she exhibited definite  beast-like tendencies.

The next time I saw her compete in person was back in New York in 2013. This time she came in as reigning Olympic Champion but faced a major challenge from some bizarre Memorial Day weekend weather. The air was damp again, not with humidity but with freezing rain. I don’t know what the temperature was, but between the wind and the rain it felt like eleventy below.

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That’s me in the blue trying not to die of hypothermia while eavesdropping on Perkovic as she confers with her boyfriend and coach Edis Elkasevic (the former NCAA shot champion for Auburn). Unfortunately, they were speaking Croatian so I understood what they were saying about as well as my daughter understands me when I try to explain to her that we can’t live at Disney World.

But language barrier aside, it was very clear that Perkovic had come to New York to win and not by a little bit.  She opened with 64m, and even though it was a Diamond League meet featuring a pretty strong group of throwers, I’d have bet my house, my car, and my entire collection of 1990’s throwing videos that  in those conditions 64m would hold up for the win.

So when the automated measuring system went on the fritz after the first round resulting in a thirty-minute delay in the competition I figured she’d withdraw or at least start throwing  like crap as any normal, immensely frustrated, half frozen human being would.

Not Perkovic.

When she is competing, Perkovic reminds me of another great athlete of Eastern European heritage–the hall of fame Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus.

If you’ve never seen video of Butkus in his prime, check this one out:

When Butkus tackled someone, he didn’t just want to hit them hard. He wanted to kill them.

And I think Perkovic approaches discus competitions the same way.

So she did not withdraw after that ridiculous delay.  Nor did she throw like crap. Instead, she took a couple of rounds to get her bearings, then launched one 68.48m . Bam!

Here is a vid of that competition:

And here is Sandra in the interview tent afterwards. Sorry the camera keeps shaking, but my core body temperature was -2 at that point.

Anyway, more on Perkovic next time, including some thoughts on her technique.

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on Supporting our Athletes

I read a really interesting article in the New York Times the other day. It described the efforts of US skiers to raise money for training and travel expenses through crowdfunding sites.

Here is the link to that article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/24/sports/facing-uphill-struggle-for-sponsors-us-skiers-lead-a-crowdfunding-trend.html?ref=sports&_r=0

I know nothing about the sport of skiing other than the fact that Lindsey Vonn is dating Tiger Woods (thank you People Magazine), but the article made me wonder if American throwers were also using crowdfunding to help with expenses.

Turns out that at least one is, and I know her.

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She is Brittany Smith, the recent Illinois State University graduate and NCAA All-American in the shot put and hammer throw.

I met Brittany a few years ago when one of my former throwers was her teammate at Illinois State. She is a really nice person and a very talented young thrower.

Funny story. A couple of weeks ago I received an email from my brother-in-law Larry who lives in Germany and has made possible most of my sojourns across the pond to see world class track meets. Larry owns some rental property in Tuscon, Arizona, and he had received an inquiry from a young lady named Brittany Smith who wanted to rent one of his places next winter. Apparently, she was a thrower and wanted to train in Arizona as part of her effort to make the 2016 Olympic team.

I was happy to vouch for the fact that Brittany was indeed a thrower and that, aside from her rather odd taste in men (more on that in a moment) seemed like a completely trustworthy person.  Larry was happy to play a role in helping an aspiring Olympian, and so the deal was done.

Funny story. Larry ran distance for DIII powerhouse North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.  My friend Sean Denard was, from 2012 until a couple of months ago, the throws coach at North Central. Sean recently took over the throws position at Grand Valley State. He is also the boyfriend of…Brittany Smith.

Anyway, Larry had mentioned that Brittany was using a crowdfunding site to raise some cash, a fact that I was reminded of while reading the New York Times story. Here is the link to  her page on the gofundme site:

http://www.gofundme.com/ckgykk

Thinking about Brittany and her efforts to stay in the sport long enough to reach her prime (she is currently 23 years old) made me think about my conversation with the German coach Torsten Schmidt last month.

I am by no means an expert in the German system, but from what I can tell it works like this:

Typical schools in Germany do not field sports teams. Most communities, however, have sports clubs. These clubs are coached by volunteer and part-time trainers. If a young athlete shows significant potential, they might be invited to attend a special “sports school” starting (I think) at the age of 16.

There, they will receive expert coaching.

If an athlete continues to flourish in his or her sport, they may be offered the opportunity to remain in the government-sponsored sports system, often by joining a special arm of the police.  Christoph Harting, one of the discus throwers who trains with Torsten, talks about that in the following interview:

 

Christoph’s position with the police allows him, at the age of 24, to train full time from January through September at an excellent facility in Berlin (it has 8 discus rings) under the care of one of the best coaches in the world. He shares that coach with only two other athletes: his brother Robert, and Julia Fischer.  He does not have to worry about training or travel expenses.

Compare that with Brittany’s situation. At the age of 23, she currently works part time at Illinois State and is on her own in arranging and paying for coaching, travel, and other training expenses. If that situation becomes unmanageable, she will be forced to consider retiring from her sport.

Which of them do you think has the better chance of reaching their potential as a thrower?

You have to wonder if the German system of supporting their athletes is the key to their consistent excellence in the throws.

Interestingly, Robert Harting recently made some disparaging comments about athlete support in Germany in an interview with Throwholics:

http://throwholics.com/2014/12/2015-off-season-training-with-robert-harting/

As far as I can tell, Robert seems to be suggesting that getting a degree while training in the German system is a bigger challenge than it should be.

That’s one thing Brittany has going for her. She has her degree from ISU. Now, for her and for many other post-collegiate throwers, the challenge is to stay in the sport long enough to reach its highest level.

 

More on Franka

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Here is a nice look at the technique common among female German throwers.

Notice how Franka sets up to kick her way out of the back (photo 3), how she how she turns her right foot like crazy even before it lands in the middle (photos 4 and 5) and how far she gets her right knee ahead of  the disc as she drives into the throw (photo 8).

Here is Lars displaying those same technical points:

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Lars and Franka: the finish

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So there it is.

Both have cranked their right heel/knee/hip hard into the throw, which is great, but both have pulled away with their head, which is not so great.

I suspect that the pulling away of the head can be traced back to the beginning of the throw, when both seemed to lead into the middle of the ring with their upper body and then sort of chase their head through the rest of the throw.

As previously mentioned, Lars and Franka share eight World Championship golds between them, so I don’t mean to suggest that they have lousy form.

But, if Torsten Schmidt is correct, they both use a style of throwing that is most suitable to very strong women throwing a very light disc.

The fact that Lars was able to effectively use such a technique with the 2k shows what an amazing athlete he is.

Lars and Franka

In my last post, I suggested that Franz Kruger’s technique was an excellent example of the “German style” of discus throwing for men,

I also suggested that Lars Riedel did not adhere to the German template for men but instead used a style common among German women.

Allow me to elaborate.

Here are Lars and Franka Dietszch set up to run the ring:

photo 1 (4)

I put those blue marks on there to emphasize the position of their feet. Pretty similar, eh?

Torsten Schmidt told me that it is advisable for women throwers to use a kicking action out of the back, and you can see that Franka is set up to do just that. As is Lars.

A quick note of caution to those of you who coach athletes slightly less gifted than these two (between them they won 8 World Championship gold medals). The placement of the left shoulder out past the left hip can cause balance problems that the average athlete will not be able to overcome.  Franz provides a better model for getting out of the back on balance. (See my last post).

Here are Lars and Franka beginning to run the ring:

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Do you ever read People Magazine?  They have a feature in there every week where they print two versions of the same photograph, one of which has been slightly altered and you are supposed to find the alterations. I can never do it. Both photos always look the same to me.

As is the case above.

Both have turned their left foot really far. So far that by the time they

get off it…

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…it is just about perpendicular to the direction of the throw and the right foot has almost touched down in the middle of the ring.

 

They both clearly emphasize an aggressive turning of the right foot and knee, although Lars has maintained a taller posture.

Here they are at right foot touch down:

photo 4

Again, Lars stays taller, but check out the angle of the right foot. It is turning like crazy as it lands. According to Torsten, This extreme turning of the right foot and hip does not work for most men as it is too hard to keep the 2k discus back while doing so. Clearly, then, Lars is not like “most men.”

 

Now for the final phase of the throw:

photo 1 (5)

It seems to me that the emphasis here is getting as much distance as possible between the disc and the right heel/knee/hip.  It is as if the disc is an arrow and their bodies are bows and they are trying to create massive tension in the bow before launching the arrow. I know how important this phase of the throw was to Lars, as I had the pleasure of seeing him  compete in person a couple of times and  during warmups he practiced this right knee/hip action over and over.

Okay, due to technical difficulties, I can’t get the final photo that I wanted to use to load.

Stay tuned, for the final proof that Lars Riedel, uber mensch, did in fact throw like a girl.

 

 

by Dan McQuaid & friends