When people think of American hammer throwing in the late 1990s, silver medalist Lance Deal is often the first name that comes to mind. But right behind him was a thrower with arguably the best technique in American history: Kevin McMahon. When I started out in the hammer throw, Kevin was one of the throwers I looked up to the most. Not only was he still active and at the top of his game, but he was a pleasure to watch. The rhythm of his throw was the antithesis to the grip and rip style of some of his competitors like John McEwan. But Kevin’s throws weren’t just pretty, they also went far. His personal best 79.26 meters (260-feet) stills ranks fifth all-time in America. He was two-time Olympian (1996 and 2000), two-time US Champion (1997 and 2001), and a silver medalist at the 1999 Pan American Games. Since then his career has finished, but he has continued to stay connected to the sport through coaching at both the high school and collegiate level.
Kevin obviously understands technique, and listening to him talk about training always brings me a new insight into my throw. There is no doubt his eloquence comes in part from having some amazing mentors and coaches throughout his career, but it also is a testament to his approach to the event. In this first part of our interview, Kevin discusses how he got started in the event and what he learned from the likes of his former coaches Mac Wilkins, Ed Burke, Harold Connolly, and Dan Lange. Be sure to continue reading the next installment of the interview where Kevin discusses his training and approach to technique.
Martin: To start out with, how did you start throwing the hammer? At what age did you begin throwing and how did you come to the sport?
Kevin: When I was in junior high my oldest brother, Patrick, was in high school throwing under the legendary Ed Burke and Mac Wilkins as a part of a Boys Scout program called Explorer Post 813 (the scouts just covered the insurance costs – there wasn’t any knot tying, badges, etc).
So following in my brother’s footsteps, I started throwing when I was 15 or so – and for the first few months I thought I was a discus thrower. But being left-handed and well, small, Ed Burke came up to me one day and said “Look, you are not a discus thrower. You’re never going to be 6-foot-6 and 260-pounds. But you can be your size and be an Olympian in the hammer throw.” So in my teenage brain, here was a throwing superstar, the man who carried the US flag in the 1984 Olympic opening ceremonies at age 44, telling me I could be an Olympian. It might have been the biggest confidence boost I ever had. Looking back, that single conversation changed my entire life.
As for actually throwing the hammer, the first time I tried it, I fell down. I literally couldn’t have started off any worse. But being stubborn, I was pretty determined to figure it out.
Martin: How many kids were training at the Explorer’s Post?
Kevin: There were a lot more discus throwers than hammer throwers, but on any given day there were between 10 and 20 kids out there.
Looking back, it was an unbelievably successful grass roots program. Ed got everything donated. The city of San Jose donated the poles that made up the cages; they were light poles that had been hit by cars and could not be repurposed. He had a friend who donated the cement. The land couldn’t be developed since a freeway was planned through it. It was just a case of who did you know and how could we get it done. Ed just knew a lot of goodhearted people who were willing to do something great for kids. Any for his part, Ed never asked for any money and he never got paid. It was a remarkable example to me of what one person can do for others.
Martin: And the program was successful too. There were more than 30 throwers that went on to throw at the NCAA Division I level, and both you and David Popejoy became Olympians. What led to the decline of the program after so much success?
Kevin: We actually lost the facility once the freeway was built. That had a huge impact since, as you know, the struggle to find a hammer facility is brutal – especially in the Bay Area where land is so expensive. After that we moved around to different junior colleges. By this time Mac had moved away and Ed had been doing it for maybe eight years. He tried to pass it on and it fizzled out.
Nevertheless, it was a pretty remarkable window of time. You could go out there on a Sunday and Wolfgang Schmidt might be out there, Mac would be training, Ken Flax would come out, and the German hammer throwers were there. You would have some of the best throwers in the world at this really Spartan, raw facility. It was an amazing time and place to grow up.
Martin: You had a chance to work with some great coaches throughout your career, including Ed Burke and Hal Connolly. What did you take away most from each coach?
Kevin: Wow. There just is not enough time to cover everything each of them gave me. Let’s start with Mac since he actually coached me before Ed.
Mac Wilkins – Mac made training fun. There was always a contest, a goofy way of doing something, or great visual cue to think about (“imagine there is a low ceiling with broken glass, knives, poison . . . just over your head . . . stay down!”). There was never the drudgery of just going out to train. You got a peek into his mind and saw how clever and enjoyable training can actually be. That is a pretty special thing since many coaches focus so much on getting better and competing – it is easy to take the fun out.
Ed Burke – Ed is my athletic role model. He is successful in every facet of his being: a great family man, great businessman, unbelievable athlete and coach. There are all of these intangibles that you just pick up from talking to him and being around him.
The thing that Ed did as a coach that I thought was great was his imagination. In the middle of practice, you would suddenly announce “Your next throw is your last throw and you are in second place in the Olympic final. What are you going to do? This one is for the sake of the free world.” He would use these simulated high pressure moments that made you dig deep and realize that it is easy to zone out when you have to take 25 throws, but when you are forced to make it a dress rehearsal a few hundred times, your focus becomes autopilot at a meet. Most of the time people are out training, they just throw. They aren’t thinking about how it is going to pay off on the big stage.
Harold Connolly – Harold was just a force of nature. You could not be around him for five minutes without wanting to do something with excellence. He just loved throwing and was a lifelong student of the sport. He would dig through old journals, call people up, always trying to find a way to get better. This went on into his 70s. With Harold, you felt a sense of urgency – if you weren’t doing everything you could to get better, you were not really training.
Also, it was the way he saw the event that changed me. I once asked him what it was like to be the world record holder. He said “It becomes a part of you. It becomes such a part of your self identity that if someone takes it from you, you need to get it back.” That insight into his mind and heart had a deep effect on me. This isn’t a sport that will bring recognition or money, but you can be passionate about something you can do with beauty and excellence. (This reminds me of something Mac said too. He was near 40 and still throwing discus at US nationals and someone asked why. He responded “Because I can, and because it is beautiful.”) For Harold there was a lot of that. He felt he could always make the throw more beautiful or figure out how to do it a little better. That challenge of continual self-improvement drove him and his athletes.
Martin: And then who did you work with after college?
Kevin: I worked with Dan Lange for the 1998 season and that was a great experience. He had just coached Balázs Kiss to the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. Dan was a really, really good communicator. He said that at the beginning of your training it is a one-way street: you listen to your coach and you learn to get better. Eventually there will be a little bit more dialogue along the lines of “Here’s what I see, what do you see? Let’s figure this thing out together so I can speak your language.” But then later, as you reach the elite level, the focus shifts to the athlete telling the coach what they are trying to do and the coaching saying whether they are doing that or if that idea even works. (As Koji’s father once said “after a while, words are just bothersome.”) Additionally, Dan recognized how to adjust his coaching to different athletes. He would coach his freshman completely differently than Balázs. There is a certain genius to that: knowing when to talk and when to listen.
Martin: After that were you training on your own?
Kevin: I did work on my own a good amount toward the end. But Ed Burke was always there as a sounding board when I needed him. So if the wheels came off, there was always someone throughout my career that I could turn to.