As a thrower, Eric Werskey trained under the auspices of two of America’s greatest coaches–Jerry Clayton and Art Venegas. As a coach, he has followed in their footsteps by mentoring outstanding throwers, first at Cal State Northridge then at the University of Iowa where he guided Laulauga Tausaga to the 2019 NCAA title in the discus.
In this webinar, Coach Werskey will break down Laulauga’s winning throw, and in the process reveal his approach to building championship caliber discus technique.
This presentation is free, and attendees will be able to submit questions throughout. It will take place on Thursday, April 9th at 7:00pm CST.
In this webinar, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh throws coach and world class Olympic lifter Mary Theisen-Lappen details her system for teaching the Olympic lifts to her throwers. She has developed a step-by-step approach that can be applied by coaches of any sport who would like to include these lifts in their athletes’ program.
Mary is a fantastic lifter and coach. If you are interested in improving your approach to coaching the platform lifts, this vid is definitely worth a look.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and nothing says “desperation” quite like a man of my advanced age spinning around on his driveway with a broom or a medicine ball.
I know what you’re thinking. “This guy will stop at nothing to entertain his neighbors.” But no, I actually started posting these drills last week as a way of helping my throwers work on their technique.
I decided to share them with anyone out there who would also like to encourage their throwers to drill fundamentals but would rather not risk gaining a reputation as “that idiot next door” by filming their own.
The first one is here. There are more queued up on my youtube page, and more to come.
Thanks much to Kip Gasper and Cody Foerch of Deerfield (IL) High School for presenting their favorite discus drills in yesterday’s webinar! If you missed it, or if you’d like to review some of those drills, the webinar has now been posted to Youtube and can be found here.
We hope that spending an hour focused on the sport we love was therapeutic to everyone who joined us, and we will do our best to get some more webinars lined up to try to help fill the void.
Follow us on Twitter (@McthrowsDotcom), Instagram (@djmcquaid) and Facebook (Mcthrows.com) for info on upcoming presentations.
If you coach the throws, something tells me you have some time on your hands right now. What better way to fill the void than to log on to a free webinar where you can pick up some tips on teaching discus technique and maybe commiserate a bit with other folks in your shoes?
Kip Gasper and Cody Foerch of Deerfield (IL) High School will be the presenters. You may remember those gents from last year’s “Rotational Shot Putting the Deerfield High School Way.” They’ve built a fantastic throws program at Deerfield and are ready to share some of their favorite discus drills this time around.
Participants will be able to submit questions throughout the presentation, which will begin at 12:00 CST. Register here to join us.
It all started in October of 2018 when she stabbed herself in the hand while carving a Halloween pumpkin for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It was her right hand, of course, her javelin hand, and she suffered nerve damage that had her “extremely worried” that her career might be over.
Which would have been a shame, since she’d thrown great at the Diamond League final in Zurich a few weeks earlier (64.75m to take third), and loved working with her current coaches, Dana Pounds Lyon and Jamie Myers.
So she had no interest in retiring, and immediately vowed “not to let this weird, accidental self-sabotage get in the way of what I had started to build with Jamie and Dana.” Luckily, the pain from the injury subsided after a few weeks, though it occasionally resurfaced at odd times (while closing the trunk of her car, for example) to remind her of how close she’d come to having her long and remarkably productive career (Kara has won eight national titles) come to a premature and embarrassing end.
One upshot of the injury was that it caused Kara to change the way she held the javelin. She dropped the “European grip” that she’d used her entire career, and adopted the “American” grip. “I worried about hand strength,” she explained. “With the European grip, you basically use three fingers. In the American grip you have all four fingers in contact with the chord, so I figured that if I had lost any strength this could help me compensate.”
It turned out that she was good at compensating. In May, Kara traveled to Chula Vista for a three-week training camp to try out the new grip. It worked just fine and, in spite of a “small, weird” calf strain that she sustained in practice, her first European trip of the 2019 season began in promising fashion with wins in Norway and Germany. She then took fourth at the Diamond League meeting in Rome with a toss of 63.11m. But the trip concluded on a sour note when she could manage a best of only 56.25m in Jena.
Kara had about three weeks at home after that, part of which she was able to spend with her husband, Russ, himself a former world class thrower who was in Wyoming for the summer guiding fishing trips. But she missed him badly when she returned to Colorado to train, and Dana, who coaches at the Air Force Academy, was busy with her collegiate throwers, so Kara was often left to practice alone and she found herself brooding over that performance in Jena.
Her confidence took another shot when her second European trip began as badly as the first had ended–a toss of 56.99m for ninth place (and no Diamond League points) in Lausanne.
She then rallied to break sixty meters in three consecutive meets, including a 62.89m toss in Luzern, but fell ill after that, struggled to maintain any rhythm in training, and ended up finishing ninth in the London Diamond League meeting on July 20th. That wrecked her chances of qualifying for the Diamond League Final.
Which was awfully disappointing after her third-place DL finish in 2018.
Kara had faced adversity before, including having to work her way back from a torn ACL suffered during the 2012 Olympic Trials. She threw in the London Olympics on that bad knee, had it surgically repaired, then fought her way back to the elite level of the sport, tossing a near PB of 66.47m in 2015.
So, she’s no wimp.
But there was something about the summer of 2019 that got her down. Maybe the shock of the Halloween injury had taken an emotional toll. Maybe all the travel was getting harder and lonelier after a decade of summers spent on the road. Maybe, with her career nearing its end, she was putting too much pressure on herself not to waste opportunities. Her determination to “carpe” all her remaining “diems” as a javelin thrower may have made it more difficult to shake off the occasional sucky diem–something that professional athletes have to be able to do.
Whatever the cause, she left Europe feeling low and desperate to–in her words–“freaking relax.”
Luckily, her next stop was Des Moines, Iowa, site of the 2019 US Championships. Des Moines has had an endorphin-inducing effect on Kara ever since she set the American record of 66.67m there in 2010. Also, Dana would be there to train with her and Russ would be there for moral support. And, it turns out that they have sensory deprivation tanks in Des Moines to help tense Iowans relax.
Sensory deprivation tanks (also known as “isolation tanks” or “flotation tanks”) come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but are basically containers of salt water large enough for a person to climb into, stretch out, and float. Some have lids that shut out all light. They were featured in a 1980 film called Altered States in which William Hurt starred as a scientist who used a deprivation tank not to relax but to devolve into a more primitive state. At one point, his colleagues open the tank and he pops out as a small caveman.
Kara’s experience was markedly different. A friend recommended that she try floating as a way to relieve stress, so she made an appointment as soon as she arrived in Des Moines. Her first ninety-minute session helped relieve some of the chronic neck pain and tightness that are the inevitable result of throwing a javelin for a living and, more importantly, allowed her to clear her head for the first time in months.
She had lunch with Dana and Jamie the next day, and the three conspired to salvage Kara’s season.
One thing they agreed on was that Kara should return to her old grip. Though the American grip allowed her to “control the angle of the javelin better,” she never quite got comfortable with it, and she and Dana decided that using her old grip might give her a better chance to “rediscover how to move through the finish.”
With only a couple of days before the women’s jav competition in Des Moines, they agreed that Kara would use the American grip one last time. With it, Kara threw 59.73m and finished second to her good friend Ariana Ince.
After that, it was off to Lima, Peru for the Pan American Games. Upon arriving in Lima, Kara had time to practice her old grip only once before blasting a season’s best 64.92m for the win.
She then returned home for a month of quality training and floating before traveling to Minsk for the US v. Europe match, which she won with a sixth-round toss of 64.63m.
Next came the World Championships. Previously, Kara’s best finish at a Worlds was eighth place in 2015. But, newly confident, newly relaxed, newly comfortable with her old grip she snagged fifth in Doha with a toss of 63.23m. No American woman had ever finished higher in the jav at Worlds.
Looking back, Kara views her week in Des Moines as the turning point to her season.
“I had a fantastic time at USA’s,” she recalled recently. “I got to hang out with my family and many of my closest friends. Ari and I hosted our first (hopefully annual) thrower party. And to have been surrounded by people I adore for an entire weekend after being disappointed in Europe for weeks was exactly what I needed.”
“I truly entered the second half of the season just wanting to have a great time with my friends at the three team meets I had left, and see what would happen if I went back to my old grip and just relaxed. I was just very done being worried and too serious all the time. I just wanted to bust out of whatever rut I was in this year, in a healthy and communicative way.”
After some time off to recover from a long and challenging season, Kara began throwing again a couple of weeks ago. She survived Halloween unscathed, and says that she is excited to be back in training. She floats regularly, and has been pleased to discover that “the warmth of the sensory deprivation tank is really nice during a Colorado winter.”
Doing her best to “remember the technical and mental things that made the end of 2019 so fun,” Kara is looking forward to taking her talents to Tokyo.
Which gives me an idea for a movie. It’s just like Altered States, except that when the scientists open the hatch on the tank, out pops a women’s javelin thrower with an Olympic medal around her neck. I know just the person to play that part.
The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem, tells the story of Odysseus, a Greek noble who proves himself the greatest of all warriors during the conquest of Troy, but then for ten years is prevented from returning to his homeland, Ithaca, by the god Poseidon. It is a long, humbling journey, but in the end he finds salvation in the unbreakable fortitude of his wife, Penelope.
The Odyssey of Joe Kovacs began late in the summer of 2017, after a three-year run during which he’d established himself as one of the great shot putters of all time. He was twenty-eight years old, had tossed a PB of 22.57m earlier that season and appeared, outwardly at least, to be at the top of his game.
But there were gravitational forces at work behind the scenes in the sport and in Joe’s life, forces as powerful as the invisible hand of Poseidon. They would make the next two years the most challenging of Joe’s career.
Some of those forces were exerted by Joe’s planet-sized rival, Ryan Crouser, whose record-setting performance in Rio seemed to confirm suspicions that once a really big dude (Crouser is listed as 6’7”) figured out the rotational technique, the shot putting landscape would be irrevocably altered.
John Smith predicted such a moment in an article titled “Working the Earth” published in the old Long and Strong Thrower’s Journal in October of 2003. The article was inspired by Smith’s efforts to make the 6’6”, 330-pound Dan Taylor into a successful rotational putter. In it, he muses on the whole glide versus spin battle, details his training methods with Taylor, then concludes by writing…
Even though the rotational technique in the past has been a great equalizer for the smaller man to compete with the bigger man, I believe the evolution of the event is going to favor bigger men…if they can develop a move with good ground contact and leg action and learn to stay back and contained, I can envision the same throwing that we saw during the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. The long throws will happen, there is no doubt in my mind.
Art Venegas, arguably the best and most influential rotational shot coach the sport has produced, was also attuned at that time to the possibilities of a very large man mastering the spin. In a conversation I had with him this past October, Art recalled his impressions of the young and very large (6’10”) Carl Myerscough who he first came across in the late ‘90’s while coaching at UCLA and still describes as “the best young putter” he’s ever seen. “I never recruited foreigners,” Art remembered, “but I made an exception with Myerscough because I wanted the world to see what was possible.”
Myerscough did become a rotational putter, but he ended up throwing at Nebraska, where he won indoor and outdoor NCAA titles during a career marred by injuries and doping violations. He retired with a PB of 21.92m, but Art believes that Myerscough had possessed the raw potential to throw eighty feet clean.
Art left UCLA in 2009 without having the chance to unleash a giant spinner on the unsuspecting shot put world, but in 2013 he began what would turn out to be a remarkably successful partnership with the more conventionally-sized (6’0″, 295lbs) Joe Kovacs.
Joe took up residence at the Chula Vista training center and quickly flourished under Art’s tutelage. In 2014, he broke twenty-two meters and won his first national title. In 2015, he upped his PB to 22.56m at a Diamond League meet in Monaco and then won the World title in Beijing.
Joe remained the best thrower on the planet for most of the summer of 2016, winning Diamond League meets with twenty-two-meter-plus throws in May (the Prefontaine), June (Oslo) and July (London).
His 21.95m at the Olympic Trials easily put him on the team for Rio, but it was at those Trials that Crouser, who’d had an unremarkable season to that point, hit his stride throwing 22.11m for the win.
Then came Rio, where Crouser’s 22.52m took out the previous Olympic record of 22.47m set by Ulf Timmerman–a product of the East German state doping program–in 1988. Thus did Venegas and Smith’s premonitions about a giant-sized rotational putter finally come to fruition.
Crouser was only twenty-three years old at the time, and it seemed possible that he was about to take shot putting to a whole new level. Joe finished second behind Crouser at the Olympics with a put of 21.78m–a distance that would have won every Games from 1992-2008. In Rio, did not get him to within two feet of the gold.
Venegas, who had seen Crouser up close during practice sessions in Chula Vista, described him as “the most intelligent, coordinated, focused thrower I’ve ever seen.” Not that he was unbeatable. Crouser demonstrated in the 2017 Worlds (where he finished sixth) that he was capable of having a bad day. But watching him ease his way through the ring in Chula Vista and repeatedly drop practice throws on the twenty-two meter line, it was easy for Art to picture a not-so-distant future where it might take twenty-three meters to win a major championship.
That prospect gave Joe and Art a lot to think about in the summer of 2017. For the past two decades, the rotational technique had served as, to use Smith’s words, “the great equalizer,” allowing Joe and other throwers his size to successfully compete against 6’7” gliders. But now, here was a 6’7” dude who seemed to have mastered the spin.
How could Joe counter?
It turns out that the 2017 Worlds provided a clue. Joe defeated Crouser in London, taking silver with a toss of 21.66m. But the winner that night was Tom Walsh of New Zealand—another compactly-built spinner—who, in concert with his coach Dale Stevenson, may have shown a way forward for the stubby folk.
Tom joined the twenty-two meter club in 2016 when he was twenty-four years old. He finished third in Rio behind Crouser and Joe. In London, he threw a season’s best 22.14m in the prelims before taking the gold with a sixth-round 22.03m in the final.
Those fine performances in high pressure situations announced Tom as a force to be reckoned with, and his gregarious personality made him easy to root for. But what was most intriguing about Tom was his technique. He and Dale had modified what might be called “standard” rotational form by having Tom set up for the throw with his left foot at twelve o’clock and his right foot staggered back about half way between the edge and the center point of the circle. Tom began his throws by sweeping his left arm open aggressively then whipping his right leg around from that stepped-back position. The super long path of that right leg allowed Tom to generate tremendous speed as he yanked it back in to the center of circle. When successfully transferred to the shot, that speed created the potential for massive throws.
Tom’s victory in London raised the possibility that he and Dale had figured out a way to restore the rotational advantage to those compact and nimble enough to make a similar adjustment.
The question Joe and Art faced was whether to stay the course with Joe–he had, after all won a world title just two years earlier–or embark on an experimental path that might give him the means to defeat Crouser going forward.
They chose to experiment, and decided to have Joe start his throws from a position that Joe’s wife and current coach, Ashley, describes as “facing a full ninety degrees to the right” of a normal setup.
Art described their approach as “looking at what Walsh did but taking it a step further.”
He was convinced that if Joe could get comfortable with this adjustment and then “catch it just right” one day, he might well throw eighty feet. “It adds more distance to the movement,” Art explained. “Like the regular spin gives you more range than the glide.”
Even under the best of circumstances though, altering Joe’s technique (which had been ingrained by many thousands of throws over many years) was a risky gambit.
When we spoke this fall, I mentioned to Art that David Storl–who glided his way to two World titles and an Olympic silver medal–had in 2018 considered changing to the rotational technique. Art acknowledged the difficulty of a world class thrower making that change in the span of a single off-season. “You can’t just try it,” he cautioned. “A guy like that has to be taught for six to eight months, and he can’t even see a toeboard. He’s got to be given drills and do turns with a barbell and never even pick up a shot for a while.”
The challenge that Joe faced in altering his starting position may not have been as daunting as that faced by a veteran glider switching to the spin, but there was still no way of predicting how long it would take him to get to the point where he could regularly “catch it just right.”
And as a man who makes his living throwing the shot, Joe did not have the option of taking the 2018 season off to concentrate on perfecting his new technique.
But with no Worlds or Olympics in 2018, they felt like they had a window leading up to the 2019 Worlds in which to implement the changes. Joe would still compete in 2018, but his emphasis would be on mastering his new approach.
At that point, however, another gravitational force intervened, this time exerted by the planet Life.
Joe and Ashley (at the time Ashley Muffet) had for some time been involved in a serious relationship, and with Ashley settled in as the immensely successful throws coach at Ohio State University, it became clear that it was time for Joe to relocate to Columbus.
Joe made the move that winter, with the idea that Art would coach him remotely. Ashley says that “at the time when he came here, we never talked about me coaching him. I would watch his practices, but I didn’t have a whole lot to add to it because what they were doing with the new technique was truly an experiment. It was nothing I had ever seen before, so I didn’t feel comfortable weighing in.”
Joe did not compete during the 2018 indoor season. He lived and trained in Columbus with occasional trips to work with Art in person. As the outdoor campaign began, he wasn’t comfortable enough with his new technique to use it in competition, so he continued working on it in practice while occasionally switching back to his “normal” technique for meets.
He tore a groin muscle working on the new setup early in the outdoor season, then switched back to his old technique ten days prior to the 2018 Prefontaine Classic, where he finished eighth with a throw of 20.36m.
Joe and Ashley then traveled to Los Angeles the week before the 2018 US Championships so he and Art could resume work on the new technique. Joe finished fifth at those Championships, using his old technique to produce a best of 20.74m.
The experiment continued that winter until finally, in December of 2018, they all agreed that it would be best for Joe to return full time to his old style of throwing.
Art says that he realized that it was unfair to Ashley and Joe to ask them to continue with the experiment when it became apparent that “it couldn’t work fast enough.”
They all decided that Joe should go back to basics, to hitting the positions that had helped Joe become World champion in the first place. This was an approach in which Ashley felt much more comfortable taking an active roll. “Besides,” she said later, “the way he was throwing at that point, I didn’t think I could make things any worse.”
It turned out, though, that switching back to his old technique was not an easy thing for Joe to do. He struggled to find his rhythm, opening in January with a 20.77m toss at a meet in New York, followed by a 20.86m mark at the Millrose Games and then a humiliating 19.52m at a meet in Columbus on February 15th.
He rebounded to finish second at the Indoor Nationals with a throw of 21.40m, but Crouser’s winning toss of 22.22m was a stark reminder of how far Joe still had to go to get back into the upper echelon of the sport.
According to Ashley, the struggle to regain his form was at times so discouraging that Joe questioned if he should continue competing.
He now had a house, a wife, an “adult life he hadn’t had before.” Maybe it was time to move on.
Had Joe fallen in love with anyone else, his career may well have ended last winter. But, like Penelope, Ashley turned out to be a woman of great strength. It also helped that she was a world class throws coach.
Art had met Ashley when she did a coaching internship at Chula Vista, and what he saw convinced him that she was going to become one of the best in the business and “change the landscape for women coaches.”
With Joe fighting to salvage his career, Ashley proved Art correct.
Her first priority was to get Joe to forget about the past, forget about the future, forget about everything except the things he could do to get a little bit better every day. “It was hard to see Joe miserable,” she recalled later. “But, I tell my Ohio State kids that if they are upset about how they’re doing, they need to fix it. I ask them why they think they deserve to throw far if they hit terrible positions or their rhythm is terrible. Stop complaining and fix it. That’s not an easy thing to say to your husband, by the way.”
“But, I told Joe that he had to forget about what Ryan or Darrell Hill were throwing. He had to pretend like he wasn’t even in the mix. Everyone thought he was washed up, and he hated that because one of the things he likes the most about throwing is the competing aspect. He loves to put on a show and do things people don’t think he can do.”
“I told him, ‘Yes, you’ve thrown 22.50m, but right now you’re throwing twenty meters in practice. You have to accept that and build yourself up from there.’”
In spite of opening outdoors with four consecutive meets under twenty-one meters (including a 19.77m clunker in Stockholm) Joe listened and persevered.
And as the season wore on, there were hopeful signs. Ashley recalls “a lot of meets where there were twenty-two meter fouls or warm-ups, so we knew it was there.” One of those meets was the 2019 Prefontaine Classic where Joe finished fifth with a throw of 21.39m but said afterwards that seeing the ball travel twenty-two meters even in warm-ups gave him hope that a breakthrough was coming.
It came three weeks later at the US Championships in Des Moines where his first three throws traveled 21.99m, 22.00m, and 22.31m.
This, according to Ashley, was the “turning point.”
“We were happy,” she recalls. “But we knew he had at least another fifty centimeters in him.”
Joe finished second to Crouser’s 22.62m at USA’s, but a month later hit 22.11m in Paris.
His last meet before Worlds was the Diamond League Final in Brussels where he suffered a major setback, finishing eighth with a best of 20.60m. Ashley says that “he didn’t like that a bit, but I kept telling him ‘it doesn’t matter. Stay focused.’”
Before Joe left for Doha, Art reminded him that “he has a better history of winning medals in big meets than any of those guys.”
Still, Crouser had extended his PB to 22.74m earlier in the summer. Walsh had broken twenty-two meters on six different occasions. Darlan Romani had set a new Diamond League record of 22.61m at the Pre. And Hill, Joe’s old teammate at Chula Vista, had gone 22.35m in September at the Europe v. USA match in Belarus.
Ashley, who had “learned something about horses” while going to school at Kentucky, had been advising Joe all season to “put blinders on,” but one has to imagine that even a blind horse could sense his competitors thundering past as Joe’s rivals seemed poised to do in Doha.
With Ashley serving as throws coach for Team USA, she and Joe arrived at Worlds ten days before the prelims and were forced to train each night in heat and humidity so oppressive that it was sometimes difficult for Joe to keep the shot from falling out of his hand as he ran the ring. It was one more challenge in a season full of them.
When the men’s shot prelims finally rolled around, he looked solid, surpassing the automatic qualification mark with 20.92m on his first attempt.
He looked solid again while warming up for the final. Ashley says that people with a clear view told her that some of Joe’s warm-up throws were “really far,” but she couldn’t see exactly where they landed.
Crouser was up first in the final, and wasted no time in knocking another ’80’s glider out of the record books. Werner Gunthor’s Championship mark of 22.23m had stood since 1987. Crouser relieved him of it with a toss of 22.36m.
Joe opened with 20.90m and Ashley thought that his tempo was “really slow” and “a little too passive.”
Walsh ended the first round with a monstrous PB and new Championship record of 22.90m.
Venegas says that in any other throwing event, a toss like that in the first round would have effectively ended the competition because everyone would have tightened up and lost their timing. But the shot is an “emotional event” where competitors can feed off of each other’s excitement. Romani illustrated this by crushing a 22.53m with his second toss.
Joe guaranteed himself a full six throws with a second-round 21.63m and followed that up with 21.24m in the third. As the fourth round began, he sat in fifth place behind Walsh, Romani, Crouser, and Hill, who had hit 21.65m in round three.
Joe’s 21.95m in round four moved him into fourth place, but a spot on the medal stand was still a long way off as Crouser hit 22.71m to knock Romani into third.
Ashley was still concerned about Joe’s tempo. “He didn’t have any fouls,” she recalled, “which is unusual.” After the 21.95m, she told him, “It doesn’t matter. Anything less than 22.50-22.60m might as well be a foul. It’s either a PR or a foul. We’ve got nothing to lose, so keep swinging.”
He reached 21.94m in round five, still in fourth behind Romani’s 22.53m.
At the end of Homer’s epic, Odysseus returns to Ithaca only to find his house occupied by murderous rivals bent on dividing his estate and erasing his legacy. He disguises himself as a beggar and approaches his palace just in time to see his favorite dog, who has loyally pined for him for twenty years, expire on a pile of dung. His enemies do not recognize him, but just for grins one of them picks up a foot stool and smacks him with it. It was an immensely frustrating situation for an immensely proud man. This close to redemption, but still likely to lose everything he had strived for.
And so it must have felt for Joe. Over the past two years he had been supplanted in the shot put rankings by Crouser, Walsh, Romani, Hill and–truth be told–many lesser throwers as well. He wasn’t exactly forgotten, but many assumed that his days of contending for gold medals were behind him.
Then, he fights his way back to the twenty-two-meter level only to find that it now took more than 22.50m to contend for a medal.
When Joe stepped into the ring for his final throw, I was at a park playing with my grandson. A few minutes later, I received a text that read, “Three guys over 75 feet!! Unbelievable!!”
I assumed the three had been Crouser, Walsh, and either Romani or Hill. Imagine my surprise when, later that afternoon, I sat down and watched a replay of the webcast.
Joe’s throw of 22.91m was one of the great performances in the history of the sport, made greater still when Crouser answered with his own PB of 22.90m, which knocked Walsh into third on the countback.
All three over seventy-five feet. Unbelievable, indeed.
Ashley says that speed made the difference on Joe’s winning toss. “I think he was more aggressive from the beginning of that throw,” she explained. “Technically, all day he looked pretty good, but because he brought more velocity into that throw I think he caught the ball back a little farther. He stayed connected to it, and the ball stayed on his hand for a long time, all from the speed he brought to it.”
Like Joe, Odysseus conquered his rivals. Only he used a sword, which is how manly men settled things in those days. His odyssey over, he and his wife settled in to enjoy the leisurely life of the landed nobility. Homer did not write a sequel, so we’ll never know if Odysseus ever sallied forth on further adventures.
In Joe’s case, the sequel is about to begin. He will open his Olympic campaign against Crouser at the Millrose Games in February. A summer of rematches with Hill, Romani, Walsh and the rest is not far off.
Based on post-Doha conversations with various athletes and coaches, it seems that previous big meet experience–sometimes painfully acquired–was a major factor in allowing throwers to flourish at these World Championships.
Rudy Winkler is a prime example.
The 77.06m PB he nailed in round three of the Doha prelims was the result, he said afterwards “of just following the plan set forth by my coaches. Every practice we would work on the same cues, so I knew if I just worked on those cues in the meet, I would throw far.”
Makes sense, doesn’t it? But when a thrower is new to international competition, sticking to a plan can be quite difficult.
Rudy discovered this while struggling mightily at the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2017 London World Championships. He arrived in Rio after setting a new PB of 76.76m at the Olympic Trials, but managed a top throw of only 71.89m in the qualification round there. His performance in London was equally disappointing as he failed to dent the 70-meter line.
Those were not pleasant experiences, but they laid the groundwork for Rudy’s success at the 2019 Worlds.
“At past international competitions,” he explained, “ I tended to change what I did because I saw other people doing things that I liked. This time around, I stuck to what I knew and did on a daily basis. Plus, you get used to these meets the more you go to them. The first ones you attend are exciting because you see all these athletes you’ve admired for years, and it’s like being at Disneyland. Now they are acquaintances and friends of mine, which makes it easier to focus.”
Rudy’s performance in Doha confirmed that he has gotten much better at competing at championship-caliber meets. It also revealed the next hurdle he has to overcome if he wants to contend for a World or Olympic medal.
Unable to match his prelim distance in the finals, he finished eleventh with a best of 75.20m. Rudy attributed his drop-off to one, being tired after having given his all in the previous day’s prelims and two, letting himself get a bit too excited.
“I was going after throws a little too hard,” he said in retrospect, “instead of just doing what I did the day before.”
It is likely that no thrower in the world gained more experience in 2019 than Laulauga Tausaga. Her IAAF profile lists her first competition of the year as having taken place on January 11. That was an indoor meet at the University of Iowa where she was just beginning her junior season, which would not end until ten months later with the women’s discus final in Doha.
Like Rudy Winkler, Lagi launched a PB in the prelims at Doha, reaching 63.94m in the second round. Unlike Rudy, Lagi had never before competed in an Olympics or World Championships.
Luckily, she is a quick learner and competing in the USA v. Europe match in Belarus in September provided her with some valuable experience that she put to use at Worlds.
I recently wrote about the challenges presented by the heat and humidity in Doha. On the days they competed, athletes were forced to choose between exposing themselves to 120-degree heat by taking warm-up throws in an outdoor facility next to Khalifa Stadium, or accepting the possibility of having to make due with only two warm-up throws inside the stadium just prior to their flight.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on an athlete as young as Lagi (she turned twenty-one in May), but according to her coach, Eric Werskey, she had taken only a few warm-up tosses in Belarus prior to drilling a 63.71m PB, and that experience gave her the confidence to lay low and avoid wearing herself out in the hours before competing in Doha.
Another aspect of the USA v. Europe meeting that helped prepare Lagi for Worlds was competing against two-time Olympic and two-time World Champion Sandra Perkovic. Though she faced tough competition at the NCAA and US Championships, Lagi had never before gone head-to-head with a thrower of Perkovic’s stature, and as Rudy pointed out, the first time you are around people like that in person it can be hard to maintain one’s focus.
But tossing that PB and finishing second to Sandra in Belarus prepared Lagi well for the Doha “Disneyland.”
According to Werskey, Lagi showed up at Worlds feeling confident. Her 61.33m opener in the prelims was “maybe her best opener all year,” and her 63.94m gave her the automatic qualifier and turned out to be the best throw among the American women at the Championships.
Lagi’s experience in the final was similar to Rudy’s in that she couldn’t recapture the rhythm she’d found in the qualifying round. She entered the finals determined to contend for a medal, and ended up with three fouls. Werksey said that she might have been a little “overzealous” on those throws, but all in all “the biggest thing for her was that despite three fouls she walked away with her head high, knowing that she was one of the youngest in the field and she can hang with the best in the world.”
No one in Doha demonstrated the value of accrued big meet experience as clearly as DeAnna Price.
DeAnna has been throwing world class distances in the hammer since the 2015 season when she earned a spot in the Beijing World Championships with a toss of 72.30m at the US Championships.
Her best throw in Beijing, though, was 68.69m which put her in 18th place.
In 2016, DeAnna hit 73.09m to take third at the Olympic Trials and qualify for the Rio Games. This time, she advanced to the final with a throw of 70.79m. She then slightly improved on that mark in the finals and finished eighth with a toss of 70.95m.
The following year she raised her PB to 74.91m, finished third in the US Championships with a throw of 74.06m and advanced to the World Championships in London where she produced the fifth best throw in the prelims–72.78m.
She was unable to match that distance in the finals, and finished ninth with a toss of 70.04m.
According to J.C. Lambert, DeAnna’s coach and husband, a breakthrough came during the 2018 campaign when DeAnna finished first at the Continental Cup in Ostrava. Though her winning throw of 75.46m did not match the PB 78.12m she tossed earlier in the summer to win her first national title, J.C. says that finishing first in Ostrava was a “confidence booster. It showed her she could win overseas.”
Armed with a wealth of championship meet experience, DeAnna and J.C. were ready for anything in Doha. Job one was to shake off the rigors of travel and establish a comfortable sleeping pattern. J.C. says that he’s “learned as a coach how to deal with travel and jet lag.” He and DeAnna rely on an app called Timeshifter. “You plug in your schedule, info about your normal sleep habits, plug in all the info about your trip, and it tells you when you need to go to sleep, to wake up, when you need to have some coffee to help adjust, when you need to go outside or open your blinds up to get the most light possible, when you should avoid caffeine, when you should take melatonin.”
Timeshifter helped DeAnna fall into a healthy daily rhythm. According to J.C. she had trouble sleeping only once, after a heavy lifting workout.
J.C. says that the ups and downs of competing at two previous Worlds and one Olympics taught DeAnna that “those who learn to roll with the punches will be successful.”
That lesson came in handy the night of their first throwing session in Doha when they arrived at the practice facility to find that the hammer ring was unavailable. “They were redoing the rings,” J.C. recalled, “because apparently someone said they were too fast, that they were dangerous.”
Not wanting to completely lose a day of training, DeAnna took one full throw from the javelin runway. It traveled seventy-two meters. (Fun fact: it ended up taking 71.35m to make the final in Doha.)
The qualification round went smoothly as DeAnna surpassed the automatic qualifying distance on her first throw with a toss of 73.77m.
As noted above, DeAnna had made the final in both Rio and London but then turned in disappointing performances and did not challenge for a medal.
Now, in Doha, she and J.C. put to use a lesson they’d learned from those experiences.
According to J.C., “DeAnna did a quick lift that night after qualifying. She throws her best when she does a quick lift the night before competing. In London in 2017, I’d set her up to do her quick lift the night before qualifying so she could make it to the finals. She qualified no problem, but for the final she was completely dead and finished ninth She just did not look like herself. She was flat and said she was tired and sore after the qualifying round. This time around we treated qualifying like a practice.”
DeAnna came out smokin’ in the final, drilling a 76.87m opener and extending that to 77.54m (the eventual winning distance) in round three. Joanna Fiodorow of Poland took silver PB of 76.35m.
Next year in Tokyo, Rudy and Lagi will hope to follow DeAnna’s example and translate hard-won experience into a spot on the medal stand. As for DeAnna, defending her title (especially with the expected return to health of world record holder Anita Wlodarczyk) will present an entirely new challenge.
For throws fans, watching this battle-tested trio go against the best in the world should be a highlight of 2020.
The International Olympic Committee recently announced that the men’s and women’s marathon and race-walking events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games will take place not in the city of Tokyo, but some five hundred miles north in Sapporo.
Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC, was quoted in the New York Times as attributing the change in venue to concern for “athletes’ health and well-being.”
The last two summers have brought record-setting temperatures to Tokyo, including an all-time high of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in July of 2018. Heat like that, combined with the high level of humidity (often in the 80% range) typical of the region in July and August, make Tokyo a potentially disastrous choice to host a marathon.
Sapporo was chosen as an alternate location because, according to the Times, “temperatures there in late July and early August are expected to be ten to twelve degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler than in Tokyo.”
Before you wear yourself out applauding Bach’s magnanimity for championing the “health and well-being” athletes though, keep in mind that all other events will remain in Tokyo.
Readers of this site might reasonably wonder how throwers will fare if Tokyo does indeed experience another heatwave next summer. As it turns out, we have a pretty good idea about that because the extreme temperatures that occurred the past two summers in Tokyo are similar to those that the athletes had to deal with at the 2019 World Championships in Doha.
In order to gain some insight into how throwers adapted to the heat in Doha, and will likely adapt in Tokyo, I spoke to several athletes and coaches upon their return from the Worlds.
If the IAAF (now known as World Athletics) thought that they could spare athletes from exposure to dangerously hot conditions in Doha by bumping the start of the World Championships to late September, they were wrong.
During the ten days of competition at the Worlds (27 September to 6 October), the temperature surpassed 105 degrees Fahrenheit four times. The lowest high temperature on any of those days was 96 degrees. Making matters worse, the humidity level stayed consistently in the 80% range.
These factors combined to produce a heat index that regularly topped 120 degrees.
Qatar sold the IAAF on their bid for the Worlds at least in part by promising to provide an air-conditioned, open-air competition venue, arguably an obscene notion in a world beset by climate change. Whatever qualms IAAF officials may have had about encouraging the Qataris to move forward with such a plan were apparently assuaged by back room financial shenanigans, the details of which are likely to come out when former IAAF president Lamine Diack and his son Papa Massata Diack stand trial for corruption next year in Paris.
Regardless, the Doha bid was accepted and the Qataris made good on their promise. Khalifa Stadium, with a capacity of 40,000, was ringed at three levels by vents blowing hard enough to keep the humidity at bay and the temperature inside the stadium manageable. I’m told that it may have gotten as warm as 85 degrees Fahrenheit within Khalifa, but most athletes and coaches I spoke to agreed that excessive heat was not an issue during competition.
It was a big issue, though, as athletes sought to stay sharp in the days leading up to their event.
Typically, competitors in a World Championships or Olympics arrive in the host city well before the day of their qualification round in order to give themselves plenty of time to shake off the effects of travel and to get acclimated to their surroundings.
Most of the athletes I contacted showed up in Doha a week to ten days prior to qualification only to find themselves confined–because of the heat–to their hotel during daylight hours. After sundown, they would venture out to one of two practice facilities, the old Doha Diamond League stadium at the Qatar Sports Club or the Aspire Zone sports complex located next to Khalifa Stadium, where they struggled to make their final preparations in grossly humid conditions.
Rudy Winkler, the American hammer thrower, recalls needing “multiple gloves, towels, and a change of clothes” to make it through the evening workouts.
J.C. Lambert, husband and coach of DeAnna Price, had a similar experience, even though he was not the one doing the training: “I did not think there were places much worse than southern Illinois in terms of humidity,” he said, “But I was wrong. I was at practice for an hour and a half one night in Doha, and I was absolutely soaked. My shoes were sloshing with sweat. I’m out at practice at SIU for seven or eight hours a day, and I’ve never been that soaked.”
Ashley Kovacs, official throws coach for Team USA (which included her husband Joe) at the Worlds, described the heat as “unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” She said that at the nightly practice sessions it was common to see the ball slide right off a thrower’s neck mid-spin. It was so humid that, “you’d put the shot down and there would immediately be condensation on it. A lot of people were mad and flustered by the conditions.”
Kara Winger, who probably could have taught Fred Rogers a thing or two about staying positive, made light of the nightly practice conditions when I spoke with her after Worlds, suggesting that they weren’t much worse than what she’d experienced in Austin, Texas, or at a 2015 training camp in Tokyo which she called her “sweatiest practice in memory.”
She also found herself awash in positive vibes while practicing at the Doha Sports Complex. “I competed there at the 2014 Diamond League meet,” she explained. “It was my first Diamond League meet after recovering from knee surgery, which was a big moment for me, so getting to throw there again was an unexpected, encouraging surprise.”
Tom Walsh took a different approach in the days leading up to the men’s shot competition. He and his coach Dale Stevenson set up camp in Cyprus right after the Diamond League final and did not arrive in Doha until four days before the men’s shot qualification.
“We didn’t want to be in Doha too long,” Dale explained. “With the lack of things to do because of the heat and the type of country it is, we knew we’d be hotel bound once we arrived there. Cyprus is in the same time zone and the weather is much nicer, so it seemed like a good idea to cool our jets there.”
Because of their late arrival, Tom ended up having to endure only two throwing sessions in the Doha heat which Dale described later as “shocking, oppressive, and inescapable.”
The question of when and where to warm up prior to competing was also greatly complicated by the heat and humidity.
At competitions like the Worlds, the host has to provide a warm-up facility outside the stadium as athletes are often given a limited number of tosses (sometimes no more than two) in the competition ring prior to their flight.
In Doha, the athletes were given a choice of two different areas at which to prepare prior to entering the stadium: the outdoor throwing facility at the Aspire Zone, or the climate-controlled Aspire Dome. Athletes were not allowed to take any throws inside the dome, so they had a decision to make. Knowing they might only get two warm-up throws once inside Khalifa, should they expose themselves to heatstroke-level conditions by taking some tosses at the outdoor facility, or should they limit their activities to literally chilling out in the dome?
NCAA discus champion Lagi Tausaga, competing in her first World Championships, took no warm-up throws outside of the stadium prior to the women’s disc qualification.
Her coach, Eric Werskey, said afterwards that “Lagi reminded me that she didn’t take throws on the outside track in Belarus for the USA v. Europe meet, and she threw a PR there, so I trusted her.”
“Our plan was to do drills in the call room holding her shoe, then do a dry throw in the ring once they brought her into the stadium, then two full throws. If they had given her another, that would be icing on the cake, but you always have to go in with the mindset that you are getting two throws.”
“When warm-ups began inside the stadium, they set the clock at twenty minutes, but they wouldn’t open the cage for throws until about fifteen. They let people walk in and feel the ring one time through, then I think everyone got two throws before they cut it short to put them in order for the competition.”
Rudy Winkler wanted to avoid overheating at the warm-up ring… so like Lagi, he took no throws there prior to the prelims or finals. He did do some drills at the outdoor facility, but frequently retreated to an air-conditioned tent to stay cool.
Also like Lagi, he was not worried about getting minimal warm up throws inside Khalifa, having “worked on feeling ready in my first few throws at practice.”
On the day of the women’s hammer final, J.C. Lambert estimates that the temperature outside of Khalifa Stadium was “anywhere from 100 to 110 degrees” with the heat index topping the 120-degree mark, so DeAnna stayed indoors prior to competing.
Kara Winger braved the heat and reported to the warm-up track prior to her qualification round even though that meant ducking into a non-air-conditioned bathroom to change clothes before competing.
She was able to find an air-conditioned bathroom after warming up for the final the next day, but it was so small that she “had visions” of dropping her uniform into the toilet while changing. Such is the glamorous life of the professional javelinist.
Tom Walsh took no throws outside the stadium prior to the men’s shot prelims or finals.
One reason Tom might have felt comfortable with a truncated warm up was that he had been throwing very well in the days leading up to Worlds. According to Dale, “Tom was clearly ready. He threw PRs with our tracking shots in training, and traditionally he throws better in competition. Going by some of the marks he threw in Cyprus and the sessions we had in Doha, it was evident that he was in the best shape of his life.”
Joe Kovacs has been known to take a lot of warm-up throws before competitions, many of them at a high level of intensity, but even he was forced to adjust to the conditions in Doha. According to Ashley, Joe took no warm-ups outside the stadium prior to the qualification round.
He did, however, take several throws (Ashley estimates about eight) at the outdoor facility prior to the final before reporting to the call room where he stripped down to his boxers and put on a fresh outfit. Once inside Khalifa, he took three or four more throws.
As you can see, each of these athletes took a somewhat different approach to getting themselves ready to compete in the awful conditions they experienced in Doha.
Each found a method that worked for them.
Both Rudy and Lagi PB’d in prelims and advanced to the final. Kara got off a nice toss of 63.23m in the fifth round of the final and placed fifth. DeAnna dominated the women’s hammer competition.
And Joe Kovacs and Tom Walsh finished first and third in the greatest shot put battle of all time.
In hindsight, it is hard to say that there was any “best” way to handle the heat at Worlds. Arriving a week or more before prelims and pounding away in the ghastly humidity of those evening practices worked just fine for some of the throwers I spoke with for this article, but there were plenty of others who followed a similar schedule and then performed poorly.
Tom Walsh had a fantastic showing after chilling out in Cyprus, but that plan did not work for everyone. The German throwers also trained in Cyprus, but 2016 Olympic discus champion Chris Harting failed to make the final in Doha. His coach, Torsten Lönnfors, told me that Chris had problems with his blood pressure during the qualification round. Like Tom Walsh, Chris chose not to take any warm-up throws outdoors prior to the competition, but the difference in temperature between the Aspire Dome where he sheltered from the heat and Khalifa Stadium was still enough to throw him off.
In the end, any lesson that might be learned from what these athletes overcame in Doha was best summed up by Dale Stevenson. “To compete at this level,” he reminded me, “you have to be able to handle anything.”
That advice should prove useful next year as athletes will face similarly daunting weather conditions while struggling to adapt to a much greater time difference (at least for those living in the Western Hemisphere) in Tokyo.
Also, the 2020 Olympic stadium will not be air conditioned.
Tokyo, for that the planet thanks you. The athletes may not.