In the call room before the European championships qualifying round last week an official was trying to find out if he needed to change the cage setup for anyone and asked “Are any of you left handed or is everyone normal?” Szymon Ziolkowski responded “I’m not left handed, but I don’t know if I’m normal either. This season I decided to continue to train after 26 years of throwing the hammer.”
Earlier this month I had the privilege of being interviewed by the Sports Coach Radio podcast. The podcast posts weekly in-depth interviews with leading sports coaches, sports scientists, exercise physiologists and team performance directors. When Glenn Whitney, the host, asked me if I would be interested in doing an interview I was a bit dumbfounded as to why. I’m always looking to help HMMR Media gain a bigger audience, but when I said he interviews leading people, I truly meant leading. He’s had some outstanding interviews Harry Marra, Vern Gambetta, and Clyde Hart in track and field and coaches of the same level in other sports too.
In the end we actually spoke little about coaching despite the name of the podcast. Instead we dove into topics like how to balance a career, technology in sports, and the hammer throw. All topics I fell like I can hold my own on. To have a listen, click here. But in preparation for the interview I spent some time thinking about coaching and since I didn’t get to speak about it as much during the interview, I thought I would share a few brief thoughts on the topic here.
In part one and part two of my training talk with throwing great Ed Burke, we discussed his long journey to 1984 in which he retired after making two Olympic teams and then came back to throw a personal best at age 44 and qualify for his third Olympic team in 1984.
The last part of our training talk centers around that pivotal time. We start by talking about what the youth program he set up immediately after his second retirement that ended up producing hundreds of throwers and multiple Olympians. It started off as a simple idea and can serve as a template for helping growing the sport. Then we also talk about 1984 itself and what it was like to be selected and actual carry the American flag at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies.
Martin: You had been away from the sport nearly 30 years before you came back as a masters athlete. Did you not throw the hammer at all during that time?
Ed: Oh no. Well, I shouldn’t say that. In 1985 I started the Explorer’s Post club with Mac Wilkins. I would demonstrate to the athletes and probably hold the world record for throwing the hammer in Rockport walking shoes.
If you create a list of the best and most influential hammer throwers in American history, Ed Burke is at the top along with Harold Connolly, John Flanagan, and other greats. As a thrower, coach, and visionary he has had a lasting and continuing impact on all of track and field.
Our three-part training talk will look all these parts of Burke’s career, including the moment he is most well know for: carrying the American flag for the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984.
I wrote last month about how the career of legedary hammer thrower Harold Connolly coincided with the modernization of the sport. While progress slowed after he retired from throwing, he worked for another four decades to keep the momentum moving forward. Even now, three years after his death, his legacy is continuing that push via the successful USATF Foundation Harold Connolly Youth Hammer Throw Grants program he started back in 2005.
Since its inception, these grants have distributed over $32,000 to help cover specified training and competition expenses for 65 of the most promising youth hammer throwers in America. Looking back, these athletes have had some great success, especially over the past year. The success is first and foremost due to the hard work and dedication of each athlete over the past year, the goal of these grants is also to motivate and support these athletes and I think the amount of success by this group shows that this is working in that regard too.
At the beginning of 1964 young singer-songwriter Bob Dylan released what would be one of his most popular hits, “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” The song came out during a tumultuous time around the world and these changes were not limited to politics or culture, they extended even to the hammer throw which was undergoing a rapid transformation. At the front of the sport throughout this period was one man: Harold Connolly.
Connolly passed away three years ago today and I have made it an annual ritual to dedicate this day to writing about him, his unique character, and his contributions to our sport (see here, here, and here). Connolly first picked up the hammer in 1952. Four years later he was the Olympic Champion and set his first of seven world records. Those records held until 1965, although he continued to compete at a high level through the 1968 Olympics and nearly made the 1972 team. When he started out in the event it was not far removed from the days of throwing without a cage. The 1956 Olympics was the first to use a concrete circle, rather than the dirt or grass circles used before which sometimes required spiked footwear. The sector was 90º wide. Cages were considered an optional safety feature, and even when they came into regular use they were so flimsy and small that they did little to protect anyone but the officials. Technique was atrocious and even the best throwers were hesitant to try out new training methods like weight lifting. Most importantly, the event had stagnated: the world record had increased just two meters in the 40 years prior to 1952.
Last week I posted the first part in an interview with Kevin McMahon, a two-time Olympian in the hammer throw and one of the top throwers in the history of American hammer throwing. In Part 1, he discussed how he started out in the sport and the coaches that helped him along the way. In part 2, he discusses his approach to training and technique.
Martin: When you started out, you were able to progress quite quickly and reached nearly 70 meters before you turned 20. That is a level that many throwers already plateau at. What do you think helped you to continue to improve to almost 80 meters, while others never get beyond that mark?
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 one 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 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 check back for the next installment of the interview where Kevin discusses his training and approach to technique.
Through his hard work, Harold Connolly left a lasting legacy on hammer throwing in America and throughout the world. More than two years after his death, his legacy continues to be felt directly by the top youth throwers in the form of the USATF Foundation Harold Connolly Youth Hammer Throw Grants program he started.
Since 2005, these grants have handed out over $24,000 to help cover specified training and competition expenses for some of the most promising youth hammer throwers in America. Last year featured a record 22 recipients from 11 different states. Among them were established champions like US junior champion and world junior championship finalist Rudy Winker (Sand Lake, NY) and Nike Outdoor Nationals champion Avana Story (College Park, GA). There were also some up-and-comers like freshman Jacob Beene (Gilbert, AZ) and Sabrina Gaitan (Kennesaw, GA). A complete list of recipients is found here. On average, they improved their personal bests by 30 feet among the boys and 12 feet among the girls. While we cannot take credit for the hard work and dedication that led to each athlete’s success this past year, we would like to think that the grants helped motivate and support each athlete and made their efforts even better.
A topic that has interested me a lot this year is how to identify and develop talent. Recently Vern Gambetta shared a good article on his blog about a counterintuitive article recently published in journal Sports Medicine. The abstract describes the article best:
[T]he vast majority of [talent development] systems expend a great deal of effort maximizing support to the young athletes and trying to counter the impact of naturally occurring life stressors. In this article, we suggest that much of this effort is misdirected; that, in fact, talented potential can often benefit from, or even need, a variety of challenges to facilitate eventual adult performance.