A Look Back at Indoor Worlds with Josh Awotunde

This past weekend, shot putter Josh Awotunde opened his outdoor season with a solid 21.63m toss to take second place behind Darrell Hill at the Mt. SAC relays. Seeing Josh back in action reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about a conversation I had with him following his stellar performance at the Indoor World Championships in March, so here goes.

Even for throwers who have thrived at high stakes comps like the NCAA Championships or Olympic Trials, a World Championships or Olympic Games presents a special set of challenges. This is especially true for an athlete competing at an international championships for the first time. That was the case with Josh at Indoor Worlds, but he somehow managed to finish fifth in a loaded field where it took 22.31m to get on the awards stand. A few days afterwards, he was kind enough to explain how he did it.

The first thing that Josh had to figure out after qualifying for the Indoor Worlds squad with a toss of 21.74m at the USATF Championships in Spokane in February, was how to manage the travel from his home in South Carolina to Belgrade,Serbia–site of the Indoor Worlds–with as little disruption to his normal training schedule as possible.

Josh trains at his alma mater, the University of South Carolina, with Mike Sergent, his college  coach, and he normally throws three sessions per week, two a little easier and one with high intensity. Mondays he focuses on technique, Wednesdays on rhythm, and Fridays on distance. 

As it turned out, that schedule matched up well with the demands of traveling to Belgrade for a Saturday competition. Josh was able to do his normal technique day at home that Monday, travel on Tuesday, do his rhythm session while recovering from the flight on Wednesday, then delay his Friday distance session to Saturday, where instead of throwing full out in a practice, he’d be doing so in the actual competition.

Josh’s ability to maintain a fairly normal routine made it a lot easier to feel comfortable that week in spite of the rigors of travel and the inevitable jet lag. 

The next challenge Josh had to navigate involved implements.

At the Indoor Worlds (and at all indoor meets in Europe), the putters actually use the outdoor shot. That would not generally pose a problem for someone who trains in South Carolina where the weather is conducive to throwing outdoors during the winter months. It’s not like Josh had to scramble to find somewhere to throw the outdoor implement during the three weeks between the US and World Championships. But at competitions like the Indoor Worlds there is a catch–the meet organizers provide the implements. 

A putter is allowed to throw his or her own shot only if it is of a brand that the organizers do not provide, and I’m told that this is rarely the case. 

No big deal, right? Shots are shots. But the implements provided to the athletes are typically brand new with their nice, slick coat of paint unblemished by wear. And having, in the middle of the biggest competition of your life, to figure out how to get comfortable gripping an implement with an odd feel to it is no easy task. Can you imagine someone handing Tiger Woods a brand new driver as he walked to the first tee at the Masters and telling him he was required to use that club? Me either. Luckily, Josh kept his cool and was able to manage with the shot they provided.

Another tricky aspect of competing at meets like Indoor Worlds is the pre-competition procedure, which tends to be quite different from that followed at other meets. At the USATF Indoor Championships, for example, the putters were taken to the competition ring about thirty minutes before the action started. I was there in the arena watching, and I made note of the number of  throws guys like Josh, Ryan Crouser, Payton Otterdahl, and Darrell Hill took prior to the comp. Most got in eight. Then, after a pause of maybe ten minutes for introductions, round one commenced. 

The situation at Indoor Worlds was very different. According to Josh, on the night of the men’s shot comp, the putters were given an hour to take throws at a ring away from the main venue. They were then deposited in a call room where they sat for thirty or forty minutes. After that,  they were taken into the oval where each thrower was allowed no more than three warmup throws in the competition ring. Then, there was a ten-minute delay for introductions. All this stopping and starting can make it difficult to find your rhythm. If you need eight throws to feel ready, you obviously have to take several during the early warmup period. But then you’d be sitting around for at least half an hour before completing your throws. And if you start burning energy two hours prior to the comp, you might run out of gas when the throws actually count. 

Luckily for Josh, Ryan Crouser was also throwing in Belgrade and he’d been through this drill many times. After talking to Ryan, Josh decided not to take any throws in the early warmup period, and to make due with the three he’d get in the competition ring.

“It was the fewest warmup throws I’ve ever had for a meet,” he says, “so I went straight to fulls.”

This is something I saw Val Allman experiment with at the US Outdoor Championships in Des Moines in 2019. Her flight of the women’s discus was given an extremely long warmup period, something like forty minutes, but Val just sat back and relaxed for most of it. Then, a few minutes before the competition began, she stepped in and took two full throws. Afterwards, she explained that this was a routine she’d developed to prepare for championship meets where you can’t count on more than a couple warmup attempts. 

The Indoor Worlds was Josh’s first experience with that approach to warming up, but he went in knowing what to expect and didn’t let the relative strangeness of it bother him.

Which was a good thing, since the odd rhythm of competing at Indoor Worlds did not end once the comp began. There were eighteen men’s putters in Belgrade, and they were all lumped into one flight. For Josh, who was twelfth in the order, that meant a thirty-minute delay between his final warmup throw and first competition throw, and an unusually long wait between attempts during the first three rounds due to the size of the field. Luckily, Josh was prepared for this as well.

He explained that, “During the competition I’d relax until there were six throws left before I was up, then I’d do some drills. When I was three throws away, I’d take off my warmups and tell myself, ‘Allright, it is time to go!’”

The plan allowed Josh to keep his chill, avoid the dreaded opening-round foul (he opened with 20.74m and followed that with 21.41m), and nearly equal his indoor PB with that 21.70m in round three.

That put him in fourth, well behind Darlan Romani (22.53m), Crouser (22.44m) and Tom Walsh (22.29m) but safely in the final. At that point, most observers–myself included–probably thought, “Okay, Josh, good job. Now you can relax, because there is no way you are breaking into that top three.”

But, that’s not what Josh was thinking, and his attitude may explain why–in addition to his considerable talent and the friendly advice from Crouser that helped him prepare–he was able to throw so well in his first Worlds. As the final three rounds began and the rest of the shot putting community was getting ready to enjoy a fight to the finish between Romani, Crouser, and Walsh, Josh was sitting there thinking, “I could win this.”

“I haven’t seen any throws over 22.50m in practice,” he recounted later, “but I watched Auriol Dongmo win on her last throw in the women’s comp, and my motto in practice has always been ‘last throw/best throw’, so I tried to get as pumped up as I could and just see what would happen.”

He fouled his fourth and fifth attempts, then entered the ring for his final throw “pissed off” and determined to unleash a big one.

“I tried to speed up out of the back a little bit. Of course, I have to be patient with my upper body at the start and the initial movement out to ninety degrees has to be easy, but once I move out wide around my left and get into position, it is time to go.”

The result was a throw that landed past the twenty-two meter line, but…was called a foul by an official who determined that Josh had just barely stepped on the ring to the right of the toeboard on his reverse.

Josh immediately protested, and the ever-helpful Crouser stepped up and reminded him to walk out the back of the ring, so they couldn’t nick him on that. 

Unfortunately, there was no video available from an angle that would have provided a clear view of the spot where Josh might have fouled, so his protest was disallowed.

Most would agree that fifth place at your first World Championships is a successful outing for an up-and-coming thrower, but Josh’s takeaway was that he should have thrown farther.

Of the big foul, he says that “the finish was too short and quick. I did a lot of non-reverse throws in practice getting ready for the Worlds, and that usually helps me, but now I think I should have focused more on my reverse a couple of days before the comp. My reverse in the meet ended up being super quick and short, so I didn’t get everything out of the finish. When I’m at my best, I’m out over the toeboard, but in Belgrade it looked like I was doing a discus reverse. If I had really extended over the toeboard, that last throw would have been crazy.”

With guys like Romani, Walsh, Crouser, Hill, Joe Kovacs, and Zane Weir (who had a huge foul of his own in Belgrade–reportedly in the 22.70m range) lining up to do battle at this summer’s Outdoor Worlds, shot put fans can expect a lot of crazy in the near future.

And with the experience he gained in Serbia combined with his phenomenal physical talent, it will be no surprise to see Josh battling for a spot on the podium again in July.

Reflections on the Men’s Shot Put Comp at the 2022 USATF Indoor Championships

The Slow Squeeze

I’ve never wrestled an anaconda, but I imagine it’s similar to competing against Ryan Crouser–you go in with very little chance of winning and come out feeling thoroughly pulverized.

And like an anaconda, Crouser takes his time pulping you. With Ryan, it is a very deliberate process that begins during warmups. At the recent USATF Indoor Championships in Spokane, he started with an easy, walking stand throw, followed by a regular non-reverse stand and a half-speed, non-reverse full that plopped down on the twenty-meter line.

He began his next full with a static start, and dropped that one around twenty-one meters. Another full from a static start went 21.50m. He used a longer windup only on his final two warmups. One reached 21.75m, the other 22.00m.

Notice a pattern there? We’ve all seen throwers blast away during warmups, desperate to build confidence by launching bombs. As Olympic champion (twice) and current world record holder, Crouser is long past the confidence-building stage, so he uses warmups to…warm up. In Spokane, he slowly and precisely increased the amount of effort he put into each attempt, staying under control and refusing to be rushed. He seemed assured that the big throws would come if he just maintained his rhythm, and he was right.

Throwing last in the order, Crouser began applying the death squeeze with a toss of 22.03m from a static start. He missfired on his second attempt and walked out the front. Then, sticking with the static start in round three, he went 22.34m, to essentially put the top spot out of reach.

Those, by the way, were the164th and 165th throws over twenty-two meters in Ryan’s career. To put that in perspective, John Godina, a four-time World Champion and the best putter in the business from 1995 to 2005, threw twenty-two meters exactly three times. Ever.

Oh, and Crouser is not yet thirty years old.

One might think that the folks running the meet there in Spokane would have made it a priority to keep the momentum rolling considering they had the world record holder putting on a show center stage, but alas, other, inexplicable considerations took precedence and the shot comp was paused for fifteen minutes.

When festivities resumed, Crouser set about asphyxiating any remaining hopes of an upset.

He later said that after his first three attempts he decided to stop “dancing around” and so began using his full windup. The result was a 22.51m toss, the fifth time in his career that he surpassed seventy-three feet.

He followed that up with 23.39m and a foul.

When it was over, one question remained. Even in this current Golden Age of shot putting, with its proliferation of twenty-two-meter throwers, can Crouser, barring injury, be beaten?

What if, for example, a competitor dropped a monster throw early, and instead of leading by half-a-meter or more from the get go, Crouser had to play catch up? Would that knock him off his game?

Well, at the 2019 Worlds, you may recall that Tom Walsh opened with a meeting record 22.90m, which Joe Kovacs surpassed by a centimeter in round six. Minutes later, Crouser stepped in for his final attempt. The result? A 22.90m PB.

He didn’t win that night, but he showed that he can take a punch and not get rattled.

And he is a significantly better and more consistent shot putter now than he was three years ago in Doha.

Walsh and Kovacs will no doubt be in Eugene this summer for a Worlds rematch. Walsh has reportedly separated from his longtime coach, Dale Stevenson, and it remains to be seen how that will affect his season. Joe, has been holed up in Nashville (his wife and coach, Ashley, works at Vanderbilt), apparently plotting his title defense…

Maggie Ewen, certainly an astute judge of throwing potential, told me back in 2019 that Darrell Hill (more about him below) has as much talent as Crouser or Kovacs. After a difficult, injury-plagued 2021 season, can he get it together and challenge Crouser? Can any of these guys?

Time will tell, but one thing is for sure. There has never been a better moment to be a shot put fan.

Confidence Men

If you are looking for a doable challenge, I’d recommend trying something easy like becoming an astronaut or breaking the world hotdog eating record (seventy-six in ten minutes) before taking a whack at making a US Olympic or Worlds team in the men’s shot.

Right now, nine of the top twenty male putters in the World Athletics rankings throw for the United States, and that does not include defending World Champion and Olympic silver medalist Joe Kovacs, who has yet to compete this season.

Even with the United States likely to be granted four spots in the men’s shot at the 2022 Worlds, at least six of the planet’s best putters who happen to be American will be stuck watching from home when the new World shot put champion is crowned on July 17th.

A quick word on the number of entries for Worlds. In individual events, a nation is allowed to send three athletes who have met the World Athletics entry standards–four if an athlete from that country has received a bye. The defending World champion gets one. That’s Joe. The current Diamond League champion gets one. That’s Crouser. However, even with both of those guys receiving byes, no country can send more than four competitors in an individual event, so the US Championships will basically come down to a battle for the remaining two spots. If somehow Joe or Crouser were to finish out of the top four at those Championships, then…I don’t know what the hell happens because the USATF places a premium on order of finish at the National Championships in selecting the team. Stay tuned.

However you slice it, making the Worlds team for the US will be at least seventy-seven hotdogs hard, which is why few would blame Josh Awotunde for taking advantage of his dual citizenship (US/Nigeria) to avoid the process altogether–especially after a PB toss of 21.84m at last summer’s Olympic Trials left him in fifth place and off the squad for Tokyo.

But, speaking a few days prior to the US indoor Championships last month, Josh said he was determined to represent the US on the world stage.

He called the idea of making the team for Indoor Worlds a “dream come true” and added that he wanted nothing more than to compete in an Olympics or Worlds wearing the “red white and blue.”

He made that dream a reality in Spokane by dropping an indoor PB of 21.74m in round two. That throw held up for second place, and a similar toss in Belgrade might put him in line for his first World Championship medal.

Roger Steen finished four places behind Josh at the Trials, despite producing a PB of 20.41m. Considering that he was twenty-nine years old and finished the season ranked number fifty-two by World Athletics (with sixteen Americans rated ahead of him) the sensible move after last summer would probably have been to take a bow, call it a career, and walk away satisfied with the fact that it was a huge accomplishment for a former DIII athlete to place in the top ten at one of the greatest shot put competitions ever.

But Roger chose to soldier on, and for five rounds in Spokane (19.55m, two fouls around 20.00m, 20.04m, 20.33m) it seemed not to have been such a good decision. He resembled a stubby Don Quixote tilting at windmill-sized competitors like Crouser, Payton Otterdahl, and Darrell Hill.

Then, on his final attempt, Roger Steen, former University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire “Blugold” (don’t ask), joined the world of bigtime shot putters with his first ever twenty-one meter toss.

That throw–21.07m to be exact–didn’t get him on the squad for Indoor Worlds (he finished third in Spokane, and only the top two make the team), and he’ll have to add nearly a meter to it at the Outdoor Championships to give himself a chance to make the podium there, but…Roger Steen believes. When asked after the comp how he plans to get in the mix outdoors, he replied that he just needs to “keep doing what we’re doing.”

Windmills, beware.

Fair is Foul

The rotational technique has revolutionized shot putting, and also made life more complicated for officials. When a glider reverses at the end of a throw, they generally land with their right foot flat on the ground against the toeboard. If they foul, it is usually because they lose their balance and have to step over the toeboard and out of the ring to regain it. Easy to see and easy to call. Rotational putters, on the other hand, typically land high on the ball of the right foot after reversing, then hop around a bit as they struggle to manage the rotational forces they’ve created. As they do, it is not uncommon for the bottom the their right foot to make contact with the toeboard. As long as their foot touches only the side and not the top of the toeboard, a foul should not be called.

Easy to explain, but difficult to discern in real time with the naked eye. And every once in a while, an official–perhaps struggling with the pressure to make an accurate call–will start assessing fouls that appear to exist only in their imagination.

Tom Walsh’s experience during the qualification round in Tokyo comes to mind. The official watching the toeboard flagged him on two of his three attempts, though he clearly had not fouled. Fortunately, throwers are allowed to protest questionable calls, and Tom’s third throw was declared legal after video review. That toss got him into the final, where he finished with the bronze medal.

Darrell Hill had a similar experience in Spokane, minus the happy ending. After finishing fourth at the Trials last summer, he came into Spokane on Sunday looking to re-establish himself as a top contender for Eugene 2022 as Maggie Ewen and Chase Ealey had done in the women’s shot the previous day.

And he looked strong during the first three rounds, approaching twenty-two meters on his second attempt.

Unfortunately, all three of Darrell’s efforts were deemed fouls, with the official apparently dinging him for touching the top of the toeboard with his heel.

Darrell protested after his third throw, but the officials had trouble getting the replay to function.

In the meantime, they granted him an additional attempt, which was measured as 20.93m. Had it counted, that throw would have allowed Darrell to continue in rounds four, five, and six, but a moment later an official informed him that they were finally able to examine the replay of his third attempt and that the foul call would stand.

That had to be extremely disappointing for Darrell, but one thing he can take away from the experience is that he is in twenty-two meter form with several months of training still ahead before the Outdoor Nationals.

I remember covering the Prefontaine Classic in June of 2019, and watching Joe Kovacs launch twenty-two meter throws in warmups (Joe takes a very different approach to warming up than does Crouser).His best toss in the competition was 21.39m, but he told me afterwards that he was encouraged by the capacity he showed in being able to move the ball far with the Doha Worlds still months away.

Things turned out pretty well for Joe that year, and they just might for Darrell this time around.

Back on the horse: A 2022 USATF Indoor Championships Women’s Shot Recap

I showed up grouchy for day one of the 2022 USATF Indoor Championships last Saturday, and who could blame me? Even in this newfangled age of jet airliners and such, my trip from Chicago to Spokane on Friday was a solid ten-hour journey door-to-door, half of which saw me wedged into seats designed to punish a guy for being tall and old.

Then, on Saturday morning I got confused about the route I should take walking from my hotel to the Podium–the newly constructed site of these championships.

I could actually see the Podium sitting on a hill off in the distance as I exited the hotel, but the Google lady in my phone had me go in a different direction at the end of every block, Pac-Man style, instead of following a straight line from point A to point B.

I finally made my way across the Spokane River…

…and through a park to the Podium…

…which I have to admit, is a nice looking facility.

At that point, however, I was in no mood to swoon over aesthetics. What a grouchy man wants on a Saturday morning in late February is to see some top notch shot putting, and lucky for me, there was plenty on hand at this US Championships.

Maggie Ewen, who arrived in Spokane with a season’s best of 19.03m, made the money I spent on those twelve-dollar airport beers seem entirely worthwhile when she opened with a 19.50m toss and then followed it in round two with a 19.79m PB.

As you may recall, Maggie’s 2021 season began and ended quite well. She tossed an indoor PB of 19.54m that February, and won the Diamond League final with an outdoor season’s best of 19.41m in September.

The middle part, though, was rough. After just missing the podium at the 2019 Worlds, Maggie was considered a legit medal contender for the Tokyo Olympic Games, but a subpar day at the Trials cost her a spot on the team.

That’s a devastating experience for a track and field athlete. Members of a Super Bowl contender that gets upset in the playoffs can look forward to taking another crack at it the following year, but as we know, the Olympics doesn’t happen every year. For Maggie and anyone else who came up short at the Trials, the fact that the 2024 Games was “only” three years away must have been of little solace.

But Maggie and her coach, Kyle Long, vowed to make good use of the final weeks of the 2021 season. They set about adjusting her entry to achieve maximum smoothness, and those adjustments paid off with her Diamond League final win, which provides her with an automatic entry into the 2022 Worlds.

This winter, Maggie and Kyle picked up where they’d left off in terms of technical focus, and she felt good coming into this comp, although not necessarily 19.79m good. When I spoke to her a few days before Spokane, she said she felt like she was still in an “early” phase of her training and was pleased to see “sporadic” throws around nineteen meters in practice.

If her 19.50m opener was a pleasant surprise, the 19.79m follow-up was something more–maybe a dose of redemption. “Being frank,” she said before the competition, “with not making the Olympic team, it would be really, really good mentally to get back on that horse of feeling like I can make teams, feeling you are that caliber.”

Hopefully, there is room on that horse for Chase Ealey, who earned her own bit of vindication on Saturday with a 19.10m third round toss that put her on the team for Indoor Worlds.

Like Maggie, Chase fell short at the 2021 Trials, then spent the rest of the season trying to resuscitate her flagging confidence. They even travelled together while competing in Europe late last the summer.

Chase and Maggie ended up taking very different paths over the last few months (you can read about Chase’s journey here and Maggie’s here and here) but making the team for Indoor Worlds–which Chase did with a 19.10m toss in round three–must have felt something like this for both of them:

After all the chills and winter blues, 

The staying warm and staying in, 

Meetings indoors for outside is cold, 

Then comes the spring sunshine, 

The sun breaks in like a door open wide

With the burst of sunlight, 

That lasting and warm, 

Bringing smiles back on peoples faces

It is the time for new growth, 

It is the time for new beginnings, 

It is the time for buds to bloom, 

It is the time for nature to sound its sounds of nature again,

Okay, neither of them said that. Those lines are from a poem by Ellen Ni Bheachain called “Spring Sunshine.” You can listen to Chase’s actual comments here, and Maggie’s here. But suffice it to say, both were pretty darn happy.

Another competitor with reason to feel poetic about her performance in Spokane was Jessica Woodard, who smashed an indoor PB of 18.70m to firmly establish herself as a contender for the outdoor World’s team this summer.

That throw came after a break in the action to introduce the athletes after round three, even though they had already been introduced prior to round one. It seemed as if USATF was doing some kind of dementia check. “If the names of these athletes do not sound familiar, please make an appointment with your family physician.”

Whatever the case, Jess shook off the fifteen-minute pause to hit that PB shortly after the comp resumed.

“Thankfully,” she said afterwards, “I was able to stay pretty warm during the delay. I just had a good time talking to the other competitors and doing my best to stay focused.”

Her focus now will turn to fighting for a spot on the team for this summer’s Worlds, to be held in Eugene. That task got a little easier when Maggie received her World Championships bye, which will allow the US to send four women putters to Worlds.

“For the next couple of months,” she told me, “I’ll go back to the lab and get more strength work in. We tapered a little bit for this meet, but not much. I have some timing things I have to work out in terms of technique, and I’ll use the beginning of the outdoor season to get consistent reps. I know I’m close to some nineteen-meter throws.”

The “lab” that Jess referred to is the Desert High Performance group coached by Ryan Whiting in Mesa, Arizona, where she has been training since the summer of 2020,

Jess has a stable job working remotely for a company called Aspen Media, which is owned by a former track athlete. Her job with Aspen gives her enough money to get by and the flexibility she needs to balance work, travel, and training. She says that even though, “saving money is tough when you are working while also having to travel for competitions,” she makes “enough to pay my bills.”

Maggie and Chase will both attest to the importance of settling into a comfortable training environment, and with Jess making steady progress in Mesa, watch out for her this summer.

And keep an eye on Jessica Ramsey as well. Ramsey, who turned in a sensational performance at last summer’s Trials, finished fourth with a best of 18.66m on this day when she simply could not locate her timing. She told me a few days before the meet that her training was going well, but that her focus was on “putting it all together” during the outdoor campaign.

Odds are that she will, and with the addition of Tokyo silver medalist Raven Saunders and fellow 2020 Olympian Adelaide Aquilla–neither of whom competed in Spokane–to the field at the outdoor Championships, the women’s shot there should be a marquis event.

It was easy to look forward to pleasant days ahead as I left the Podium that afternoon feeling exhilarated. Outside the facility, a warm, late winter sun beamed down and the playground in the park below was alive with laughing children.

Spirits restored, I gave the Google lady a break and found my own way back to the hotel.

2022 USATF Indoor Champs Preview: jessica Ramsey

Take my advice and do not look away when Jessica Ramsey steps into the shot put ring. I speak from from personal experience regarding this matter.

I showed up to cover the 2018 USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines four years ago, certain that the women’s shot competition would come down to a battle between Maggie Ewen, Raven Saunders, and Michelle Carter, so when Ramsey stepped in to take her first toss, I was paying absolutely no attention. I can’t recall now if I was playing on my phone or looking around and trying to determine my odds of making it to the bratwurst stand and back before the comp really got rolling, but next thing I knew, “19.23m” appeared on the scoreboard and I had absolutely no idea who had thrown it.

Turns out it was Ramsey.

She ended up finishing second to Ewen that day, which was pretty remarkable considering Ramsey’s season’s best in 2017 had been all of 17.76m.

After the meet, I found out what the deal was. Following a very successful career at Western Kentucky during which she won Sun Belt Conference titles in the shot, disc, and hammer, Ramsey had found her way to John Smith’s throwing group, which is based at the University of Mississippi. She continued to throw the hammer and shot under Smith’s guidance–in fact, the day before her 19.23m toss in Des Moines she finished fifth in the hammer with a mark of 70.41m–but Smith could see that her future lay in the shot…provided she would agree to switch from the glide to rotational technique.

It took a while for Jessica to get completely on board with that plan, and for a couple of years she switched back and forth between the two styles of throwing. Sometime in 2018, she decided to fully embrace her rotational potential, and the result was that lightning strike in Des Moines.

She regressed slightly in 2019, producing a season’s best of 19.01m, and then came Covid.

Prevented from training at the university due to the lockdown, Smith improvised by setting up a facility outside of town that he named “the Barn.” He and Ramsey and the hammer thrower Janeah Stewart spent the next few months training at the Barn, determined to be ready when the season resumed.

It turned out there were not a lot of opportunities to compete that summer, but a 19.50m toss indoors in February of 2021 showed that the time at the Barn had been well spent.

Still, was anybody–aside from Smith–expecting the 20.12m Olympic Trials record she unleashed in Eugene last summer?

Anyhow, I’d recommend paying attention when the women’s shot gets going at 2:35 Pacific time this Saturday.

Jessica’s best toss so far this year came two weeks ago in Nashville where she hit 18.83m, but Smith says she’s close to making bigger throws. When I spoke to him last week, he reported that Jessica had recently achieved four or five training PR’s, and estimated that she’d have the “ability” to throw well over nineteen meters in Spokane.

And though it is early in the season, and her best throws will certainly come this summer, Smith says, “We take every opportunity for a national title seriously.”

Ramsey says that it would “mean a lot” to make her first Indoor Worlds team. She has been maintaining her normal hectic schedule since last summer, training, working at Insomnia Cookies, volunteering at Court Appointed Special Advocates–an organization devoted to helping abused or neglected children–and even doing a bit of coaching at a local high school where she sometimes trains.

She says she’d like to compete for another ten years, and then maybe go into social work full time.

This weekend, she’s likely in for a tough battle with Ewen and Chase Ealey for a spot in the top two and a trip to the Indoor Worlds. But she feels ready.

“I don’t try to put pressure on myself,” she explained. “I try to have fun and always give one thousand percent.”

That approach has led to some pretty amazing performances in the past, and if she produces another one this weekend, I for one, will be paying attention.

 

2022 USATF indoor Champs Preview: Janeah Stewart

If you happen to walk through the fieldhouse at the University of Mississippi one day and come across this scene…

…do not be alarmed. The Ole Miss football team has not begun recruiting infants. As far as I know. Although, one more loss to Alabama and…never mind.

Anyway, that child is unlikely to ever to set foot on the gridiron, so all you football recruiters…stand down. If you coach at a major track program, however, you might want to grab a letter of intent and a couple of crayons and head to Oxford, Mississippi, immediately because if genetics mean anything, that young lady has serious potential.

Her name is Ja’Myri, and her mother is 2018 NCAA hammer champion Janeah Stewart.

This weekend in Spokane, Janeah will be looking for her third USATF Indoor title in the weight, her first since giving birth to Ja’Myri last April.

It has been a long and difficult path from that NCAA hammer title, which she won with a throw of 72.92m, to these 2022 USATF Indoor Championships, where she is seeded third in the weight with a season’s best throw of 23.98m.

After graduating from Ole Miss, Janeah stuck around Oxford to train with her college throws coach John Smith, and in 2019 raised her hammer PB to 75.43m. That December, she launched the weight 25.08m, and was preparing to defend her national title when Covid put a halt to the season.

Smith’s entire throws crew, the college kids along with Janeah and shot putter Jessica Ramsey, were suddenly left with no place to train. But if you know Coach Smith, you will not be surprised to hear that he did not go home to sit on the couch and wait for better times.

“I spent three days driving all over the place, trying to find a place to train,” he recalled recently. “Then I found out that the people who sold us our house also owned a piece of land about ten miles outside of town.”

Smith describes the place as a “semi-abandoned” sportsplex, which the owners were happy to let him use. Exploring it, he found a large pavillion with a concrete floor that was “perfect for throwing.”

Covid regulations forbid him from working with the college athletes, but he installed throwing rings for Stewart and Ramsey and got to work.

They spent the next several months banging away at this ersatz facility that Smith refers to as “the Barn,” and he credits Ramsey’s 20.12m bomb at the 2021 Olympic Trials to the work they accomplished there in 2020.

Janeah appeared to be on her way to a similar breakthrough with the hammer. According to Smith, she hit thirty-two training PB’s at the Barn, including a seventy-seven meter toss with the competition implement.

Stewart remembers the excitement of throwing “really well” there, and it would be the memory of those throws and the feeling of being on the brink of a potentially great career that would carry her through when life got even more complicated.

First, she contracted the virus late in July of 2020. That cost her a month of training. Not long after, she realized she was pregnant. She did not lift or throw again for a year.

Smith says that in his experience very few throwers are able to return to the sport after giving birth. “I’d estimate the odds were about eighty-percent against Janeah coming back,” he says now.

It is not hard to understand why. Making a living as a hammer thrower is a dicey proposition even if you are only trying to support yourself. You have to be among the absolute best in the world to earn any prize money, and making it to that level requires an almost narcissistic level of focus on your training, recovery, and diet.

Anyone who has raised a child can tell you that selfish habits, things like sleeping eight consecutive hours or eating with both hands, go out the window as soon as you bring your baby home.

But Janeah was determined to make a go of it. She returned to lifting last summer and remembers being “in pain and out of breath.” Her first day back throwing, she told Smith she’d hit 200 feet, but could barely break 160.

But, according to Smith, Janeah can be stubborn, and whenever anyone suggested that she bag it, she’d get “pissed off” and train even harder.

It helped that Smith, his wife Connie (the head track coach at Ole Miss) and the rest of their throwing group rallied around Janeah and Ja’Myri.

Janeah says that Ja’Myri attends nearly every throwing and lifting session. She generally watches contentedly from her walker, but recently has gotten so active that Stewart has had to surround her with football dummies as shown in the photo, or she’d be “all over the place.”

Though encouraged by her 23.98m toss from earlier this month, Janeah says she is struggling to find her timing in the throw. She is also still fighting to regain her strength in the weight room. Her power clean PB in the Barn days was around 280 pounds, and she estimates that right now she could do 230.

She and Smith have been working on the hammer as well, and he is optimistic that she will be ready to get in the mix at what promises to be an epic Outdoor Championships with three spots on the Worlds team up for grabs.

“If we can get her over eight feet (24.38m) in the weight,” he says, that will set her up well for the outdoor season. Right now, she’s about ninety percent of where she needs to be in the hammer.”

A big throw this weekend would be a big step in the right direction.

The women’s weight competition is scheduled for 2:05pm Pacific time on Sunday.

2022 USATF Indoor Champs Preview: Israel Oloyede

Israel Oloyede grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, dreaming of playing football for Arizona State University. He dabbled with the shot and disc while in high school, but football was his main sport. After his senior year, the ASU coaches thought he needed a little seasoning before he was ready play major college football and told him that if he enrolled at Scottsdale Community College they’d give him another look in a year or two.

Israel followed their advice, but it wasn’t long before he decided that Scottsdale CC was not the place for him. He wanted to transfer to another community college where he could continue his football career, but first he had to receive a release from the Scottsdale program. Perhaps intoxicated by the power he wielded as the coach of the SCC Artichokes football team, the head man at Scottsdale refused. Who could have predicted then that his decision would contribute to the current renaissance in the hammer and weight throws in the United States?

Israel ended up transferring to Paradise Valley Community College, located in Phoenix. Their mascot is a Puma. Since he was unable to play football, he decided to resume his career as a thrower.

Jim Lothrop, the Paradise Valley throws coach, recommended Israel try the javelin, and so he did.

Israel says that at first, the javelin seemed “pretty easy,” but before too long, he “got humbled” and could not manage to break fifty-five meters.

He had never really enjoyed throwing the shot and disc in high school, so he agreed to try the weight and hammer, even though he thought at the time that “the weight did not look fun, and the hammer did not look easy.”

Unfortunately, Coach Lothrop was more of a javelin guy, having twice finished in the top eight at the USATF Nationals. Luckily, a former weight/hammer thrower from Louisiana State University, Jeremy Tuttle, was in Phoenix coaching at Ottawa University Arizona and also at a club called the Phoenix Bobcats.

Under the guidance of Coach Tuttle, Israel went from throwing the weight 12.47m and the hammer 54.00m his freshman year to 20.89m in the weight and 63.13m in the hammer as a sophomore. The 20.89m was a national junior college record and got the attention of Coach TJ Crater, who recruited Israel to the University of Arizona.

Over the course of two years, Coach Crater helped Israel set school records of 23.79m in the weight and 73.22m in the hammer. Last summer, Israel made the final at the Olympic Trials, and started to think that maybe he had a future in this business.

With one year of eligibility remaining, Israel then decided to move back home to Phoenix and enroll at Grand Canyon University, which had just hired Nathan Ott as its throws coach.

Ott is best known as the coach of Olympian Brooke Anderson, and training alongside Brooke has been a nice side benefit of transfering to Grand Canyon.

“Being around someone like Brooke has really helped me,” Israel says. “It was the same thing having Jordan Geist to train with at Arizona. Being around great athletes pushes you to do better.”

Israel’s 24.45m throw from this January has him seeded second behind Daniel Haugh going into Sunday’s competition in Spokane.

He is excited to throw against the guys like Haugh and Rudy Winkler that he used to watch compete and would think “I want to be like them.”

Not that Israel will be cowed by the competition. “I threw against those guys in the hammer at Tucson Elite last year,” he recalled, “and I PR’d. Competing against them brought out the best in me, so I won’t be intimidated this this time, either.”

The men’s weight throw competition is scheduled for Sunday at 11:00am Pacific time.

2022 USATF Indoor Championships Preview: Joshua Awotunde

Joshua Awotunde competing at the Millrose Games earlier this season.

Fresh off of his first indoor PB since 2018–a 21.53m toss at an American Track League meet on February 12th–Joshua Awotunde feels ready to contend for a spot at the 2022 World Indoor Championships to be held in Belgrade from March 18th to 20th.

In order to make the Worlds squad, he will have to finish in the top two at the upcoming USATF Indoor Championships against a loaded field that includes world record holder Ryan Crouser, two-time World Championship finalist Darrell Hill, 2021 Olympian Payton Otterdahl, and University of Arizona stalwart Jordan Geist, who finished seventh in last year’s epic Olympic Trials final.

As far as Joshua is concerned, he is ready. A proponent of throwing the eighteen-pound ball in training, Joshua last week produced a practice PB of 20.04m with that implement–a good sign when you consider that last summer he threw the eighteen-pounder 19.95m not long before blasting a 21.84m bomb to take fifth at the Olympic Trials.

He followed that up by reaching twenty-two meters–the distance that separates medal contenders from pretenders in this golden era of putting–in Italy later in the summer. That breakthrough came at a meet in Padua that matched Joshua against a solid field including Tokyo finalist Zane Weir, former Italian champion Leonardo Fabbri, and 2015 World Championships bronze medalist O’Dayne Richards.

Before that meet, Richards gave Joshua a little pep talk. “Man,” he said, “I’ve seen you throw all year, and I know you’re a twenty-two meter guy. Just stay loose, be smooth and go fast!”

Joshua remembered those words after Weir took over the lead that night with a late-round toss of 21.63m. He says that he “does not like to lose,” and with one final attempt to answer, reminded himself to “put a little extra speed on it.”

The result was an even 22.00m for a meeting record and PB.

The next step will be making throws like that routine, a necessity for any American putter who wants to qualify for Olympic and World teams.

Joshua currently lives and trains in South Carolina with his college coach, Mike Sergent, who guided him through an outstanding collegiate career. After graduating in 2018, Joshua initially spent a year-and-a-half at the training center in Chula Vista, where he got to see how athletes like Ryan Crouser and Darrell Hill conduct themselves. Looking back, he says it was a great learning experience.

“I saw how steady Ryan was every day in practice, the way he hit the same positions every time. That’s why he’s the most consistent thrower ever. From Darrell, I learned tenacity in the ring. The way he develops speed while still maintaining positions is amazing.”

But Joshua had flourished under Sergent’s system while throwing for the Gamecocks, and in mid-2020 he decided to return to Columbia and reunite with his college mentor.

That decision has paid off, as he surpassed twenty-one meters in ten of twelve competitions in 2021.

He says that finishing in the top two in Spokane would allow him to realize a dream he’s had since high school. His parents immigrated from Nigeria in 1980, and Joshua holds dual citizenship, but his goal is to “represent this country and earn a world medal while wearing the red, white, and blue. Being a shot putter in the USA is not easy, but all these guys push me to reach new levels.”

There will be plenty of pushing going on this weekend, as a magnificent field of throwers vies for a spot in the top two.

The men’s shot is set to take place on Sunday at 2:00pm Pacific time.

2022 USATF Indoor Champs Preview: Maggie Ewen

Maggie Ewen of the U.S. reacts after winning the Shot Put Women events during the Weltklasse Zurich, Diamond League meeting at the Sechselaeuten Platz on Wednesday, September 8, 2021 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Weltklasse Zurich/Urs Jaudas)

This year, Maggie Ewen will be one of the few American athletes for whom making the Indoor World team  will be significantly more challenging than qualifying for the Outdoor Worlds this summer.

That’s because Maggie, after a rough Olympic Trials where she finished in the dreaded number four spot, concluded the 2021 season by winning the Diamond League final in Zurich. Her reward–aside from a sweet-looking trophy and a bit of prize money–was an automatic bye into the 2022 Outdoor Worlds.

So, Maggie will be one of the few athletes chillin’ like a villain at the USATF Outdoor Championships this June. She will compete without pressure while what promises to be a ferociously strong field of putters does battle over the right to join her on the US squad at Worlds.

But that exemption does not apply to Indoor Worlds (to be held March 18th thru 20th in Belgrade) so Maggie will have to finish in the top two this coming weekend at the USATF Indoor Championships in Spokane if she wants to make the team.

Which she does. “Being frank,” she said recently, “with not making the Olympic team, it would be really good mentally to get back on that horse of feeling like I can make teams again, that I am that caliber of thrower.” 

Maggie (whose indoor PB is 19.54m) hit 19.03m at a meet in Fargo on February 5th, and feels like she is rounding into shape. 

The automatic bid to Worlds gave her the luxury of starting her training a bit later this fall as she won’t have to worry about peaking for the US Outdoor Championships, but she has begun seeing nineteen-meter throws “sporadically” in practice, which she says is a good sign.

Maggie believes her strong finish to the 2021 season carried over to 2022. 

“We figured things out technically at the end of last season, and now those things have shown up right away in training. I’m very happy that we don’t need to make any major technical changes.”

The main thing that Maggie and her coach, Kyle Long, figured out late last season, was a way to smooth out her entry coming from the back of the ring. The progress they made allowed her to produce an outdoor season’s best toss of 19.41m in winning that DL title last September.

Much of Maggie’s training this winter has centered around rehearsing the modifications they made last summer so that the movements become automatic. 

“I’m pretty good,” she says, “on the middle and on the finish. It all comes down to whether or not I can have a clean entry.”

Maggie feels like she is in a good place right now in her life and in her career. In 2019, she navigated a coaching change, transitioning from her college mentor Brian Blutreich to Kyle. Then, she and Kyle moved from Arizona to North Dakota. There was also the small matter of dealing with a pandemic. But now, Maggie says, all is calm. 

“Halfway through last year, we found the rhythm of what life and training up here looks like. Things are settling down and lining up, so there is not much to worry about other than training well and throwing far. The more comfortable you are in your own life, in what is going on in your home and with your family, the easier it is to focus on what happens in the ring.”

Maggie will put that focus to use this Saturday at 2:35pm Pacific time. Her main competitors for the top two spots should be Olympic Trials champion Jessica Ramsey, and three time US champion Chase Ealey.

It promises to be a rollicking start to a potentially epic year for the women’s shot put in this country.

Keep Calm and Rock On! Chase Ealey finds her chill in the UK

That does not look like Arizona.

If I told you that three-time United States shot put champion Chase Ealey has ditched the sunny skies of Arizona and chosen instead to train in the dripping cold of jolly old England, you’d think I’d gone barmy, wouldn’t you?

You might even tell me to “Sod off!” and refer to me hereafter as a “cheeky wanker.”

Couldn’t blame you if you did, but facts are facts and not only has Chase decamped to the UK, but she’s feeling and throwing better than she has in years, which is brilliant news for throws fans even if it might be a load of tosh for her competitors.

Here’s how this all came about.

Chase, you may recall, was one of the great stories of the 2019 season. Working with two-time World Indoor champion Ryan Whiting, she transformed herself from a decent glider with an 18.46m PB into a rotational arse-beater. By year’s end, she was US indoor and outdoor champion and had raised her PB to 19.68m. She also made competing overseas against top competition seem easy peasy lemon squeezy by winning her first ever Diamond League meeting with a 19.58m bomb in Shanghai, and notching that 19.68m PB at the DL Final in Zurich.

Chase in 2019 winning her first ever Diamond League meet.

That’s a gobsmacker of a season, and no one could blame Chase for thinking her momentum might continue through the World Championships in Doha.

“I don’t even want to set my goal at simply making it onto the podium,” she told a reporter that summer when asked about her outlook regarding the Worlds. “I want to win.”

It’s rare for a thrower to approach his or her best marks at their first World Championships or Olympics. Similar to getting married or having an MRI, one’s initial experience at a meet of that magnitude can be disorienting. Subsequent attempts usually go better.

It didn’t help that the environment in Doha was so strange. The intense heat made venturing out during daylight hours a dodgy proposition. Most athletes trained in the evening, but even then the humidity was such that putters had a hard time just keeping the shot against their neck while spinning. Then, the competition took place in an air-conditioned open-air stadium. Try saying that three times fast. Perhaps most disorienting was the fact that the Worlds were held in October, making the 2019 season a good five or six weeks longer than normal. When Chase stepped into the ring for the qualification round, eight months had passed since she’d won Indoor Nationals.

That’s a long road to travel, and under the circumstances making the final and finishing seventh was an accomplishment. But Chase felt disappointed at “only” throwing 18.82m after routinely surpassing nineteen meters all season, and she was still brooding about it when Covid showed up and turned the world inside out.

She still managed to throw 19.41m during the weird, truncated 2020 season, but a case of long Covid in the winter of 2020/2021 caused her bodyweight to drop by twenty-five kilograms in two months and robbed her of the vitality and explosiveness that had carried her through that magnificent 2019 campaign.

She entered the 2021 Olympic Trials as the defending US champion, a title she’d captured in 2019 by throwing 19.56m in the pouring rain in Des Moines, but she no longer had, in her words, “the same oomph” that had enabled her to easily blast throws over nineteen meters.

Much of her confidence was gone as well after all those months of feeling wretched, and Chase finished fifth at the Trials with a best of 18.39m. It was a pretty good throw considering her physical and mental state, but she felt gutted. Keep in mind that had Covid not intervened and she’d gone into a 2020 Olympic Games healthy, Chase might well have contended for a gold medal. Now, with the delayed Games finally happening a year later, she would not even be on the team.

The next month, she threw a 19.45m season’s best and also competed a few times in Europe, but nothing could assuage her disappointment. To make matters worse, her best friend and training partner Nick Ponzio left Whiting’s Desert High Performance group.

Long story short, she rolled into the winter of 2021/2022 feeling lousy.

One bright spot of the past two years was a growing friendship with the British putter Sophie McKinna. The two met at the 2019 Worlds and crossed paths regularly when Chase competed overseas.

This past January, Chase decided to join Sophie in England for a three week training camp. Initially, she had no intentions of staying there long term, but says that “after a week we were like ‘Holy shit, we train together really well!'”

One day, Chase and Sophie were throwing at the Loughborough High Performance Center when the British men’s shot put champion Scott Lincoln showed up accompanied by his long time coach, Paul Wilson.

Coach Wilson saw that Chase was struggling with her technique and “throwing it all over the place,” so he asked if she’d mind a suggestion or two.

She did not mind, and they quickly developed a nice rapport. Chase describes Paul as “very chill,” and says that she works well with “chillaxed people.”

Before long, Chase visited Paul at his home base in York, and they drew up plans. Paul would take over her coaching in the ring and in the weight room. They’d train together in person whenever possible, and virtually in between the live sessions.

“The video sessions actually work well,” she says. “We have Paul on a tripod, and we move him around whenever he needs a different view.”

One aspect of Paul’s coaching that Chase especially appreciates is that he expects collaboration on the part of the athlete.

Paul describes the coach/athlete relationship as a “partnership” and says that “you have to talk and communicate. You can’t dictate what they need to do and how to do it. They are adults. I say to Scott and Chase all the time, ‘You tell me what you think we should work on.'” 

Paul is also careful to explain the rationale behind any suggestions he makes.

According to Chase, “He will tell me why I am doing stuff, which makes me feel more comfortable. It makes it easier to trust the process. He really cares about my input in the ring and in the weight room, which is nice.”

He also does his best to maintain a stress free environment. “We’re just here to train and encourage each other,” he says. “That’s the main mentality in my group, and I think that’s helping Chase. She’s also getting pushed every day by Sophie, which has been good for her, too.”

Scott Lincoln with coach Paul Wilson.

It didn’t take Chase long to realize that the situation she’d found in England was just what she needed.

When we spoke recently, she made it clear that she wasn’t looking to get away from Ryan Whiting and Desert High Performance. There was just something about training with Sophie and Paul in an entirely new environment that made her feel refreshed. And Whiting was supportive of the move.

According to Chase, Ryan told her that “as an athlete, you know when you need to make a change.” He recommended that she make the move now rather than wasting valuable time dithering over the decision. “Your career is short,” he advised her. “If something needs to happen, it has to happen now. Don’t wait.”

With Whiting’s blessing, she and Paul got to work on shoring up her technique, mainly by establishing a more balanced entry position.

According to Paul, the goal is for Chase to “rotate around the spine” as she moves left at the back of the ring. “I stand behind her and hold up my hand, and she has to go out and around me. She used to pull her left shoulder down on her entry, which threw her off balance. That’s the main thing, getting more consistent out of the back.”

Chase agreed that this was a weakness in her technique. “Remember,” she says, “I was a sprinter before I was a thrower, so my instinct out of the back was to sort of drop down and charge like a sprinter.”

She and Whiting made a conscious decision to leave her entry as it was when she started throwing far in 2019. They planned to set about fixing it after that season, but with the disappointment of her seventh-place finish at the World Championships and the difficulties brought on by the pandemic, her head was never in the right place to endure a painstaking technique renovation.

This January though, the time seemed right. “I’m much more open to working on things now,” she says. “And when you are open mentally to making changes, they actually work.”

Proof came when Chase hit marks of 19.21m and 19.20m on consecutive weekends earlier this month.

Chase with a nice toss in Sweden on February 12th.

The plan now is to qualify for the Indoor Worlds by finishing in the top two at the USATF Indoor Nationals this coming weekend. After that, she’ll focus on getting ready for the Outdoor Nationals and hopefully another crack at a World Championships medal.

Paul, for one, thinks she can do it. He says that “During the last two or three weeks, her technique has been more consistent, and she’s been smiling. When she smiles during training, it shows she has confidence in what we are doing, which gives me the confidence to say she is going to throw far.”

If nothing else, Chase has endured some rough times physically and mentally and made it through. Now she’s ready to show that 2019 was just the first act of what promises to be a cracking good career.

That’s kind of a fun story, init mate?

Chase and Sophie McKinna have seven national titles between them.

  

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Diamond Bits

Photo by Alessandro Garofalo

Surface Matters

Thirty thousand dollars–the prize for winning the Diamond League final–is a nice chunk of change, but is it enough to make up for a disastrous Olympic experience? Not for Johannes Vetter. 

“I’m still sad,” he told reporters after the comp in Zurich, “that the producers of that f—ing surface in Tokyo…” 

He did not finish that sentence, but he didn’t need to. Track fans know the story of Vetter’s Tokyo nightmare. He came into the Games the prohibitive gold medal favorite after surpassing ninety meters on seven occasions this season.

But Vetter ended up finishing a dismal ninth at the Games, a direct and disastrous result of that “f—ing surface.”

The surface in question was the same Mondo concoction that produced a spate of remarkable performances in the running events. Unfortunately, it turned out to be entirely unsuitable for javelin throwing. 

When I contacted Tom Pukstys after the Games to get his thoughts on what had happened, he told me that the top layer of the Mondo surface softens up under extreme heat, causing it to come apart when a javelin thrower plants his left foot on release. “When you throw on Mondo,” he explained, “it just doesn’t hold. When the weather is hot like it was in Tokyo, you rip right through the top of it–especially if you have a dramatic block angle like Vetter.”

“And when your left foot slips on your block, even just an inch, it feels terrible.”

Pukstys says that it would help if javelin throwers were allowed to wear longer spikes on  Mondo. Current regulations allow for spikes no more than twelve millimeters, but that leaves only about eight millimeters sticking out of the bottom of the shoe, not enough to handle the forces created when a thrower like Vetter slams his left foot down as he releases the implement. Vetter estimates that his left leg has to absorb one ton of pressure at that moment–an impossibility when the surface under his foot gives away.

The Mondo surface in Tokyo was more manageable for throwers who do not demand so much force absorption from their block leg, but bottom line, the jav runway should not have been covered with it. According to Vetter, he and his coach–Boris Obergföll–”have already had some good conversations with the company who made the surface in Eugene (host of the 2022 World Championships) and for Paris. We are trying to find a standard for every javelin thrower. If I have a good stand on the runup in the last eight meters, then anyone has a good situation to throw far. We are trying to make our sport equal for anybody.”

Photo by Urs Jaudas

All’s Well

Shot putter Maggie Ewen endured her own disaster earlier this summer when she finished fourth at the Olympic Trials, three centimeters behind Adelaide Aquilla, and failed to make the team for Tokyo.

In Maggie’s case, the throwing surface was not a factor. The ring used at Eugene’s Hayward Stadium for the men’s and women’s shot finals was reportedly quite slick, but the results (five men over twenty-one meters, a world record for Ryan Crouser and an Olympic Trials record for Jessica Ramsey) indicated that the folks were comfortable throwing from it.

Maggie agreed. “With no rain, that ring is fine,” she said recently. “It was just one of those days where things didn’t quite come together for me.”

Her schedule left her no time to grieve. “I couldn’t take a week off after the Trials to sit down and be like ‘Oh, darn!’ because I had to be in Stockholm just a few days later.” 

A throw of 19.04m at that July 4th Diamond League meeting lifted her spirits and helped restore some confidence. 

Maggie’s coach, Kyle Long, says that her performance in Stockholm was “reassuring,” and after a week off, they revised Maggie’s training plan to focus on a new goal–winning the Diamond League final. 

The Diamond League schedule would require Maggie to spend nearly a month in Europe training on her own without Kyle, and in preparation for that they tried to narrow her technical cues down to “two or three major thoughts.” 

“If you are going to do something wrong,” Maggie explained, “it will probably be one of maybe three things, so we decided to focus on a few simple, basic cues to make the mental side of training easier without Kyle there to see me throw every day.” 

The main focus of those cues was to create a seamless throw featuring a smooth buildup of momentum from start to finish. 

One way to promote smoothness, according to Coach Long, was to “make sure when she turned out of the back that her shoulders and hips turned together.” Another was to adjust her right leg sweep.

“She had the habit of letting her right leg drift too wide,” Coach Long explained. “With some throwers, Ryan Crouser for example, there is a moment of pause as they sort of gather themselves coming out of the back to let the right leg get out wide, but that doesn’t work for Maggie.”

Cues in hand, Maggie set off for Europe where she set up shop at a training base in Belgium. She shook off the jet lag with an 18.68m performance in Bern on August 21st, then went 19.22m three days later in Budapest. 

A 19.31m mark in Poland on September 5th showed that she was ready to contend in Zurich, where the men’s and women’s shot finals were combined into one flight and held in the center of the city. 

It was, according to Maggie, “a cool setup, and  the crowd seemed super invested. And it was  fun to throw alongside the boys, although the competition had a little bit of a weird flow to it, especially after Tom (Walsh) broke the toeboard.”

That was near the end of round three. Maggie was leading at the time with a 19.41m opener, which, after a fifteen-minute delay to replace the broken board, an additional warmup period, and three more rounds of throwing, held up for the win.

Aside from the prize money and the positive energy that comes from finishing the year with a season’s best, Maggie will now enjoy the advantage of having an automatic berth in next summer’s World Championship. 

“I wasn’t even thinking about that,” she says. “Joe and Ashley Kovacs were the first to mention it to me. ‘Hey, congrats on making it into the Worlds.’ I was like, ‘Excuse me?’”

“I already feel a little lighter looking ahead and not having to worry about qualifying at the US Championships.”

Speaking of those Championships, I inquired about the possibility of Maggie trying to make the team in the hammer as well. She did, after all, throw 75.04m as recently as 2019.

“That’s a tricky situation,” Kyle explained, “with the way the women’s hammer has taken off. When Maggie threw 75.04m, it was a tribute to her athleticism that she could do that only throwing the hammer twice a week. But, the women have pushed the event so far now that it might be disrespectful to think that we could compete with them when only training the hammer part time. It would take a lot of experimental training, and mental exhaustion might be a problem. Instead of chasing eighty meters in the hammer, our time might be better spent chasing twenty meters in the shot.”

Either way, Maggie’s win in Zurich has her feeling refreshed and looking forward to the 2022 Worlds. 

“Who knows, maybe having the Worlds at home will be the magic I need. I‘ve had a lot of Hayward magic in my career. Hopefully, it will happen again.”

Photo by Urs Jaudas

I’ll Take That As A Maybe

Like Maggie, Ryan Crouser has been world class in more than one event. When he threw 237’5’ in high school, it seemed like he was poised to become the long awaited Next Great American Discus Thrower. But he decided to focus on the shot instead, leaving it to Val Allman to show that Americans can throw seventy meters when it counts. Now, after definitively proving himself the best shot putter in history, could Crouser be ready for a new challenge?

“I get asked about the discus all the time,” he said after notching the win in Zurich with a third round toss of 22.67m (which, by the way, he threw from a static start while trying to regain his bearings after the exploding toeboard delay). 

“And I’m always looking forward to the next step in my career, which is both a gift and a curse. My grandfather used to tell me to stop and smell the roses, but I’m always looking ahead and I still think I can throw farther in the shot. I’m excited to get back in the weight room, throw into the net, do drills.”

“For now, I have unfinished business in the shot. I owe the shot some farther throws. The event has done so much for me, and I want to get some farther throws out before transitioning to the discus.”

Deaf Ears

Raise your hand if you think that the “Final 3” format instituted by the Diamond League for the throws and horizontal jumps this year was a great idea. I’ll wait.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at how that experiment played out.

Under the Final 3 system, each thrower/jumper received five attempts, after which the top three competitors (after an often lengthy delay) would receive a sixth try. That sixth attempt would determine the order of finish no matter what had happened earlier in the comp. And those final three throws/jumps would often be the only ones included in the televised coverage of the meet.

Aside from regularly preventing  the person with the best overall performance from winning the meet (You could, in theory, break the world record record in an early round and still not win the comp) the Top 3 format generally assured that the television audience would be treated to three crappy throws.  

In Stockholm, for example, Valarie Adams, Auriol Dongmo and Maggie Ewen each broke nineteen meters during the first five rounds then failed to throw anywhere near that on their “winner take all” sixth attempt.

Afterwards, Val told Maggie that all she could think about on her sixth throw was “Oh god, what if I foul?” 

Maggie says that she’d felt the same way in Gateshead where the Final 3 format debuted. “I was more ready for it in Stockholm, but to hear Val Adams say that after all she’s been through in her career, it just shows how stressful that format is.”

According to Maggie, there is a movement afoot to get the Diamond League to ditch the Final 3 format. “At the Diamond League final, all the throwers and jumpers had a big meeting. The athletes committee wants to propose an alternative idea. The Final 3 setup just confuses the average person. They’re like, ‘Wait, why did the girl who threw sixty-six meters not win?’”

“But, the Diamond League has basically already said no matter what we are not going back to the normal six throws. They are looking for a way to create “magic moments” for the TV audience, and they don’t understand that you can’t really force a “magic moment” to happen.”

One wonders if the Diamond League folks have ever watched a golf tournament. Viewers of the Ryder Cup event this past weekend, for example, saw plenty of “magic moments” as they played out naturally in various spots all over the course. These were captured using the ingenious strategy of having cameras set up at numerous holes. Viewers could be shown one player smashing a tee shot on sixteen, then another sinking a huge putt on eighteen and still another ripping a par-saving shot out of the rough on fifteen–all in the space of two or three minutes.

Golf has broadcast tournaments this way for, I don’t know, fifty years? And people love it because they get to see all the good stuff as it plays out naturally during the competition. Call me crazy, but couldn’t Diamond League meets be broadcast the same way? I remember sitting in Zurich’s Letzigrund Stadium one night during the 2014 European Championships as Anita Włodarczyk took shots at the hammer world record while Bohdan Bondarenko dueled with fellow Ukranian Andriy Protsenko in a high jump battle that came down to two centimeters while the crowd went nuts over the 1500-meter final. “Magic moments” seemed to be popping up all over the place. The same thing happens routinely at Diamond League meets, so why not share that with the viewers rather than trying and failing to engineer drama?

But, back to that show of hands. Those who loved the Final 3 format? Ah, yes, Lord Coe. Anyone else?

Hello?

by Dan McQuaid & friends