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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?
Rachel Dincoff’s first experience in the sport of track and field was as a 200-meter runner. She recalls being “relatively” fast, not “crazy fast,” and since she was tall for her age someone suggested she try the discus.
That was in the seventh grade.
She liked the discus just fine, and after participating in a few meets, decided to make it her life’s work.
“I will,” she informed her teachers, “be doing this in the Olympics some day.”
For that to happen, though, Rachel had to get really good at the discus. Not relatively good. Crazy good.
But for a long time, that did not appear likely. She did not break one hundred feet in middle school, and her high school PB was 143’7”. Val Allman, by way of comparison, she threw 184’2″ in high school.
After a year at Indiana University Purdue University – Fort Wayne (IPFW), Rachel transferred to Auburn where she put together a relatively good collegiate career scoring a ton of points for the Tigers, and making Second-Team All-American in the shot and disc. She graduated in 2016 with a PB of 55.80m and a burning conviction that she could be a great thrower if she could just hang in there long enough.
Meanwhile, Sandra Perkovic won the Olympics that year with a throw of 69.21m.
Rachel persuaded former world class discus thrower Doug Reynolds to become her coach, and began making the two-and-a-half hour drive to Tuscaloosa (Reynolds coached at the University of Alabama at the time) four days a week.
After a year, Reynolds accepted the head job at the University of New Mexico and offered to help Rachel find another coach. But Rachel knew that Reynolds shared her belief in her potential, and she was not ready to part ways.
“What day would you like me to report to New Mexico?” she asked.
She broke the sixty-meter barrier for the first time in 2018–a major milestone for a discus thrower–but a year later, after tinkering with her technique to “make it look like other throwers,” she lost her feel and fouled out of the US Championships.
For someone trying to hang on in the sport and maybe qualify for a bit of funding to supplement her earnings as a bartender/waitress/retail salesperson, that was a disaster.
But she and Reynolds went back to the desert and used the Covid year to hone a technical approach that felt comfortable for her and would–they hoped–hold up under the stress of a big competition.
Their work paid off when she surpassed the Olympic qualifying distance with a throw of 64.41m in May, but the real test came during the finals at this year’s Trials, by far the most stressful moment of her career.
According to Reynolds, “Not a single one of her warm up throws was any good. She fouled her first competition throw, which was a duck, threw a pop-up fifty-seven meters, then fouled the third one.”
“Those were not,” Rachel said afterwards, “the throws I imagined myself having here.”
That second throw–it was actually 57.74m—bought her three more, but she entered round four in seventh place.
Reynolds says that adrenaline was causing her to rush her entry. “She was a little anxious into and off of the corner, and wasn’t setting up her drive phase really well. She has a tendency to let her left arm pop up when she gets excited, and that makes her technique too rotational. She has to stay down and drive into the ring.”
He reminded Rachel about the left arm, and that simple cue did the trick as she moved up to fourth place with a toss of 59.35m. A throw of 60.21m in round five vaulted her into third, but she fouled her final attempt then had to stand by and wait. Long story short, if Kelsey Card and Whitney Ashley both jumped ahead of her on their final throws, Rachel would be off the squad for Tokyo.
They did not, and now Rachel is one of only thirty-four women in the entire world who will get to throw the discus at the Tokyo Games. Now that’s crazy.
Festival of Javs
Tom Pukstys believes that under the right conditions, people will throw the javelin far.
Those conditions include summer weather, fervent fans, and an enthusiastic announcer. All of those elements were present at the American Jav Fest in beautiful East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, a couple of weeks ago, and the results were outstanding.
Thirty-three percent of the entire field, according to Pukstys, produced PRs.
One of them, Michael Shuey, ended up ripping his shirt off, an appropriate response to breaking the eighty-five-meter barrier in front of a couple of dozen family members.
The atmosphere. The relatives. The fact that Curtis Thompson had just jumped ahead of him into first place with a toss of of 81.04m. All this, according to Pukstys, factored into Shuey’s breakthrough.
“When he stepped up for his last throw, the table was set,” says Pukstys, “and he went to dinner. He ran faster, pushed himself to the limit, and just whaled on that throw.”
“Where did that come from?” he asked Shuey aftwards.
“I don’t know,” replied Shuey. “I just had it inside me.”
Pukstys is optimistic that Shuey’s breakthrough is just that and not a one-off.
‘I think Michael’s got a great chance of throwing that again in Tokyo,’ he opined. “And Curtis is in eighty-five meter shape as well. He’s going to get mad and show us what he’s made of.”
In an ordinary year, shirtless Shuey would have been the highlight of the weekend, but this is no ordinary year. For the first time in forever, an American woman is among the javelin favorites going into an Olympic Games.
That woman is Maggie Malone, and after lofting a few (in the words of Pukstys) “mediocre” warm up throws, she crushed her first attempt in the competition.
When it landed, she looked at Tom and said, “That’s really far.”
“Yes,” he replied. “We are going to have to get you drug tested.”
The throw was 67.40m, a new American record…if Pukstys could arrange a drug test within the required ninety minutes. With the help of a local doctor, the good folks at USADA, and the staff at a nearby hospital, they managed to pull it off.
If Malone can reproduce that throw in Tokyo, the next time she gets drug tested she may well have a gold medal hanging from her neck.
“No one is better than her mentally right now,” says Pukstys. “I think she’s capable of a world record.”
I was under the impression that athletes and coaches would be allowed very little freedom of movement in the Olympic village due to Covid restrictions, but apparently that is not the case.
A coach who is currently there in the village told me that other than the mask-wearing and daily testing requirements, life at this Olympic Games is not much different than others he has attended.
Folks are free to move about and mingle with competitors from other countries, including in a cafeteria large enough to hold hundreds of diners.
How this will affect the issue of contract tracing when an athlete tests positive, as the American pole vaulter Sam Kendricks did yesterday, remains to be seen.
Maggie Ewen is a veteran of the Diamond League circuit, as is Chase Ealey, and both were invited to compete in Gateshead, England, in late May.
It was, in Maggie’s words, “refreshing to be back into the pattern we were used to of traveling to meets,” but there were a couple of aspects of the experience that were downright weird. Maggie says that the athletes were quarantined to the hotel and the dining area. “They had people watching the doors to make sure we didn’t leave, and the English athletes were kept in a separate hotel to try to prevent cross contamination.”
Such precautions are understandable in a pandemic, but there was another aspect to Maggie’s Gateshead adventure that defies explanation.
This year, in an effort to make the throwing events more “exciting” for a television audience, the folks at the Diamond League came up with a new competition format. All throwers in the field receive five attempts, and then the top three up to that point are each given a “bonus” throw that determines their final placing.
In Gateshead, Maggie tossed 18.54m in round three, which turned out to be the second-best throw of the day. But, because she had a lousy throw in the “bonus round” and was beaten by the other two finalists, she was credited with a third-place finish and awarded third-place prize money.
Val Allman had a similar experience at the Doha Diamond League meeting. She produced the day’s best throw (65.57m) in round four, but is listed as finishing second because Yaime Pérez threw 61.35m on her “bonus” throw, while Val could manage only 58.58m.
If the women’s discus final at the Trials had been run the same way, Val, in spite of posting a monster 69.92m toss in round two and five consecutive throws over 66.99m, would have lost to Micaela Hazelwood, who threw 59.72m in round six while Val fouled.
According to Maggie, the athletes in Gateshead were not even informed until just before the competition that only three of them would receive a sixth throw. Then, as the “bonus round” was about to commence, “They were like, ‘by the way, your throws don’t matter up to this point.’”
I assume the idea here is to make it easier for the TV people to decide which throws to include in the broadcast. Rather than having to monitor the flow of the competition–as television networks do quite easily and effectively when broadcasting professional golf tournaments–TV producers only have to worry about capturing those three final attempts.
To someone who has no regard for the sport, it probably sounds like a great idea.
Nostalgic No More
UCLA’s Alyssa Wilson is one of the most versatile and talented throwers in the world, and in 2019 she put together an epic season, launching the shot 18.02m, the hammer 70.63m, and the disc 60.76m.
Then came the pandemic.
With 2020 a washout, Alyssa was gearing up for big things this season when she contracted the virus over the winter and was quarantined in her dorm room for three weeks. “I lost twenty pounds,” she recalled, “and it took me a long time to build up my strength. Then, I still had nauseous feelings, especially on meet days.”
She qualified for the NCAA meet in two events, but had a terrible time in both, finishing nineteenth in the disc and tenth in the hammer.
A week later, though, she found her footing. Her comeback began with a 58.80m season’s best in discus qualifying at the Trials, a full six-meters better than what she’d managed at NCAAs.
She followed that up with a 57.63m toss to take eighth in the final.
Then came the hammer qualification round. Alyssa opened with a 70.97m PB, then crushed a 73.75m bomb. At the NCAA meet, she had thrown 66.52m.
She fell back a bit in the final, finishing sixth with a best of 69.04m, but what a week.
Alyssa said afterwards that a bad day in the hammer at NCAAs carried over into the disc, but in the days before the Trials she “got her mindset back on track.”
“Then, having that great season-best in the disc…I wasn’t expecting to take eighth in the final, and I took more self-confidence from that, and I carried it over to the hammer.”
Throwing a PB in front of someone like DeAnna Price, who Alyssa describes as ‘one of my idols,” made the day even more special.
“And it was my first hammer PR since 2019,” she said afterwards. ”As soon as I saw the mark, I started to tear up. This whole year, I was always thinking, ‘Alyssa, your sophomore self is better than you!”
You may have noticed that women’s shot winner Jessica Ramsey set up for her throws by placing her left foot on the center line and right foot back about twelve inches from the edge of the ring.
A similar starting position has been used to great effect by 2017 men’s shot World Champion Tom Walsh of New Zealand, but according to Jessica’s coach, John Smith, that’s not where he got the idea.
“I set up that way when I threw the disc in high school,” he explained. “We called it the ‘cyclone spin.’” (Just to be clear, Walsh was not yet born when Smith was in high school. You’re welcome, Coach.)
Smith had Ramsey go cyclone as a way of making sure she loaded her left leg on entry.
“Dropping the right foot back forces you to keep your weight on your left,” he explained. “And keeps you from falling back into the ring.”
At times, Ramsey has struggled with the all-important “get left” phase of the entry because of a balky left knee.
She clearly had that figured out in Eugene and will spend the next few weeks with Smith back in Oxford, Mississippi, preparing the cyclone for its Olympic debut.
At the 2018 US Championships in Des Moines, the women’s shot shaped up as a battle between Maggie Ewen and Raven Saunders over who would represent the future of the event in this country. Raven came in as the defending US champion with a PB of 19.76m. Maggie, a phenomenally successful NCAA thrower in the shot, disc, and hammer, had stretched her PB out to 19.46m earlier in the season.
I had barely sat down to enjoy the show when a thrower I did not recognize spun her first attempt out past the nineteen-meter line. “Who was that?” I asked the folks sitting around me. “Jessica Ramsey,” came the reply, which did not help. Some frantic Googling revealed that her season’s best the year before had been a whopping 17.76m. The year before that she’d gone 17.74m. Now, suddenly, she was the early leader and a likely medalist at the US Championships with a toss of 19.23m. How in the world, I sat there wondering, did that happen?
Ramsey, it turns out, was a former glider who threw for Ashley Muffet (now Ashley Kovacs–yes, that Ashley Kovacs) at Western Kentucky, then joined John Smith’s group of post-collegiate throwers first in Carbondale, Illinois, and then Oxford, Mississippi where he still resides as the throws coach at Ole Miss.
A two-year tug of war ensued, with Smith trying to convince the 5’6” Ramsey that her future lay in converting to the rotational technique and Ramsey sometimes acquiescing, sometimes pushing back. (I describe those days in more detail in a piece you can find here.)
The huge toss in Des Moines finally settled matters, but afterwards, Ramsey slipped back into a state of semi-anonymity, posting season’s bests of 19.01m in 2019 and 18.64m last season.
She sometimes had trouble with a balky left knee, she struggled to balance a full time job delivering for Insomnia Cookies with the full time training necessary to reach her potential, and looking back Ramsey admits that during the long months of the pandemic she “sometimes lost focus a little.”
But Smith is not one to lose focus, and he was able to secure access to an abandoned sportsplex outside of Oxford where his post-collegiates could continue throwing. There, Ramsey worked endlessly to improve her technique.
Smith also used what was essentially twelve months of off-season training to experiment with set/rep schemes in the weight room in an effort to discern what type of program might bring out the best in each of his throwers when they would need it the most.
In the days leading up to the Trials, I checked results for possible podium contenders, and it was hard to tell based on Ramsey’s season so far, whether or not she was ready to battle for a spot on the team. She produced a huge 19.50m toss indoors in February, but then slipped back into the mid-to-upper eighteen-meter range in all of her outdoor meets.
Was she injured? Struggling with motivation?
“No,” explained Smith. “All spring we were doing hard training, and she still threw over sixty-one feet in every meet, so I was very happy.”
“Hard training” in Smith’s world means–in addition to lifting–lots of non-reverse throws into a net using a variety of implements.
“She lived in the net,” Smith recalls. “We did non-reverse throws with light and heavy shots practice after practice.”
Those were tough workouts, especially on mornings after Ramsey had worked until 1:00 or 2:00am. But, she persevered.
In March, Smith shared with Ramsey the plan he had drawn up to get her on the podium at the Trials. It reflected his years of experience guiding his wife Connie (now head coach at Ole Miss) and Raven Saunders, whom he mentored to a fifth-place finish in Rio but no longer trains.
“It was a good plan,” Smith said recently. “But, in order for it to work you have to have an athlete that buys in, and she did one hundred percent.”
A vital component of the plan was preparing Ramsey to compete in qualification and final rounds on the same day. Several weeks before the Trials, Smith arranged her workouts so that she threw twice on certain days–once in the morning and again in the evening, as would be the case at the Trials.
At first, Ramsey struggled with that practice pattern. Smith says that for a while, “her numbers were all over the place. Sometimes she’d throw well in the morning, and sometimes at night.”
Eventually, she adapted and was able to consistently produce far throws in both sessions.
She looked great warming up for the qualification round in Eugene, producing a non-reverse throw in the 18.50m range.
“After seeing that,” Smith says, “ I asked ‘Are you sure you don’t want to just non-reverse this and make the final?’ but she said no.”
Instead, Ramsey used her full technique to power her first throw out to 18.82m and then packed it in to prepare for the final.
Smith described her as looking a bit “shaky” warming up that evening, but at some point she launched another 18.50m non-reverse, after which Connie advised her husband to “leave her alone. She knows what she’s doing.”
Ramsey opened with a 19.45m that was very likely to put her on the team, but Smith knew she had more in her. He reminded her that there were several women in the field capable of throwing that far, and admonished her to “keep pushing.”
If Ramsey was feeling any kind of letdown, her friend and former training partner Saunders snapped her out of it by blasting a 19.96m PB in round three.
Once she threw that,” Ramsey recalled afterwards, “I was like ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ Then I had to zone in.”
She responded to Raven’s challenge by blasting a new Trials record of 20.12m.
“I did not know it was that big a throw,” Ramsey recalled afterwards. “But, they always say the best throws are the ones that don’t feel like they are going far.”
Smith remembers telling Ramsey in March that “we are going to stick to our plan no matter what, and at the end you should have the stuff to make the team.”
They did and she did.
Now it’s time for a new plan. Maybe they’ll call this one “Operation Olympic Gold.”