Being a thrower who slowly found his way to some decent performances, I feel that I am qualified to elaborate on several issues that may hold USA and other discus throwers back from medalist caliber standards. John Smith touched on a section of these issues in How the USA Adapted……. Coach Smith hits the nail on the head with this one, but there are many other issues that cause problems. One of the primary issues in today’s climate is EXPERIENCE or lack thereof.
It was a warm summer night in Tucson…….. This is no romance novel luckily! I was having dinner with Mac Wilkins, a mentor and one of the greatest throwers in history. Mac talked with me about several topics, and one was the experience that he was able to gain in Europe as a post collegiate, in his early twenties prior to the Montreal Olympics (1976). He explained how he used a pay phone, called meet directors and worked his way into some competitions. I don’t want to misquote Mac, but I’m sure that he told me during this time that his personal best entering Euro comps was 63 or so meters and he was able to throw 64m before he was scheduled to go back home. Ricky Bruch at the time saw a great opportunity and invited Mac to a series of comps versus him for cash while allowing him a place to stay. Essentially Mac told me that he stayed in Europe for the summer competing and training near many of the world’s greatest throwers.
Fast forward to the climate when I finished college, I had a personal best at 22 years of age which was 62.91meters. By the age of 24 I had improved that distance to 67.86m under some nice windy conditions, and the furthest I got from my home here in Lubbock for competition was Salinas, California. Wait! Wait! Here come the folks that think throwing in the wind is cheating. You may find this astonishing but all of the USA’s greatest medalists threw under windy conditions, they also threw pretty well in the stadiums. I will leave this to another article but for now you can see how this ties into experience.
The first run in that I had with a real elite level thrower was in 2000 when Virgilijus Alekna was in Dallas, Texas for a training camp. I nearly shat myself as a 18 year old watching “The Machine” throw nearly 67m in a tailwind along with Alexander Tammert and Jason Tunks pushing elite distances in late March. My next encounter with at medalist caliber competitor was Gerd Kanter in 2008 at Salinas, California. Gerd launched the discus to 71,88m and made by seasonal best of 65m look like child’s play. That day it started to dawn on me that I was now almost 27 years old and had never competed outside the of USA. Looking back on the history of places like Salinas, you see lots of long throws (great conditions of course). The thing that many people don’t pay much attention to is who was throwing there. In the prime of the USA’s greatest discus success many of the world’s top medalists were flocking to the California coast to throw in competitions like Modesto, Salinas, and San Jose etc. It wasn’t just a few lame Americans and Gerd Kanter, there was literally a world class meet/ a competition that could easily decide championship medals if need be.
The experiences of great throwers of yesteryear came in a totally different climate. The world records were still progressing, there was a plethora of A, B and C level comps throughout Europe that were more accessible to the Mid-range Domestic Pro. If you couldn’t get in these meets, you could insure at decent level of experience just by competing in the spring and early summer on the west coast. Gerd Kanter and Alekna training in the USA were blessings to me. I was able to briefly experience a glimpse of greatness. For today’s developing athletes this has virtually gone away. We still have high level throwers coming to the USA but mostly for training camp, usage of our Olympic training center, and a few comps. In the past, it was possible to see Imrich Bugar, Luis Delis, Mac Wilkins, John Powell all square off in a battle. Today you will not see Piotr Malachowski, Robert Harting, and Ehsan Hadadi battling it out in America except for a single Diamond League event which the winnings are $10,000. Watching the 1999 Prefontaine Discus Competition, you see that even this level of experience for the American thrower has drastically changed. In 2013 the only American thrower who was allowed in the competition was Lance Brooks. Lance is also the 2 time USA Champion, and made the qualification to Moscow. What was also disturbing about the USA men’s discus in 2013, is the fact that not one single American thrower got into ANY competitions in Europe, with exception to Lance Brooks’ qualifying round in Moscow.
I lacked international experience until I was 29 years old. I can tell you that this is a huge problem for us and is growing bigger with the way our sport is changing. It is not only a problem for Americans but many other developing athletes who are not from Europe or reside there and cannot throw 67m+ distances. In our best throwing discipline by far, the shot-put, we have developed a high standard in America for rotational throws and is supported by the array of experience which you can get by competing indoor and outdoor. The prodigious post collegiate shot-putter has more than twice the competing experience as discus thrower, and has likely competed at the USA championships indoors and out several times over. Looking at the NCAA Div 1 results, we can see that throwing around 20m in the USA is for “kids” or better yet, students. Our expertise feeds teh cycle, and even if throwers in the shot don’t get to Europe quickly after college, there are 5 good months of competition possible without crossing an ocean. There are few if any 22-23 year old discus throwers who are ready to medal regardless of experience. I feel that this fact makes the transition for the prodigous american collegiate shotputter (21m) to more quickly make a transition to sponsorship, and international competition. the 62-64m prodigious discus thrower is in no mans land.
I have competed 10 times so far outside the USA during my career. This includes the Olympic Games, World Championships, World Cup, and Pan American Games. In 2011 I fouled a 65m+ throw in the World Championships final, and I knew at that moment that the difference between finishing top five wasn’t just technique, specific strength, or coaching but my lack of experience in the fight. How I made it onto the international scene was by throwing really well in big winds, and then backing it up in many other less windy domestic competitions. I have proposed this to younger discus throwers and they think that I’m crazy… They all want to peak at the USA Championships and make a team. I would take 5-7 diamond league comps over 1 world championship qualifier in today’s climate. We need the experience! I am planning to propose to the USATF that we need to invest almost all our funding in development of international/ level appropraite experience. This specifically applies to the long throws. We can see from USA hammer record holder, Amanda Bingson, that she is extremely talented and well coached but also hoping to gain more experience. Post collegiate talent is all over the place in the USA, but mainly staying close to home and competing locally, 5-7 meets per year.
Jason E. Young
Olympain & Author of Discus Dynamics