I hate starting a day off with bad news, but that’s exactly how my Thursday started this week. I normally check my e-mail right when I get up to see what I missed during daytime in America. My first e-mail was from my father and simply entitled “Harold Connolly.” I immediately got a strange feeling about it and, as I opened it, my worst fears were confirmed. My friend and mentor, 1956 gold medalist Harold Connolly had passed away.
An Amazing Life
If there were one word to describe Harold, it would be inspirational. Harold’s resume just emits inspiration. After growing up in a working class Irish-Catholic home in Boston, Harold fought through physical setbacks during his youth after a nerve was damaged in his left arm during a difficult birth. Subsequent fractures only made it worse, leaving his left arm about 2/3 the size of his right arm. Nevertheless, he excelled at sports and walked on to Boston College as a shot putter, which is where he was introduced to the hammer throw.
Harold’s coach at Boston College was kind enough to drive Harold home from practice if only he were willing to wait until after the hammer throwerspracticed. After watching practice for a while, Harold eventually started to help retrieve the hammers to help speed things up. Before long, he was throwing the hammers back to the athletes further than they were throwing the hammers into the field. Needless to say, he had found his event, and a few years later he surprised the world by breaking world records and winning Olympic Gold in Melbourne in 1956. His success in a two handed sport is inspirational, although at the time he didn’t see it that way. In his mind, the euphoria of winning was deflated somewhat when he was unable to raise both arms over his head on the podium.
Such a story would be inspirational enough, but this all took place more than fifty years ago and Harold’s work ethic never waned in those years. He went on to make three more Olympic teams and hold the world record for nearly a decade. During his athletic career, he was instrumental in fighting the oppressive amateur restrictions on athletes and even played a behind the scenes role in the famous black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. After his long athletic career, he worked as an educator, then as the executive director of Special Olympics, and continued to coach Olympians throughout this time. More than anything, he was also a great husband and father to a loving family.
Changing Lives, One Hammer Thrower at a Time
Having an inspirational story is one thing, but actually changing lives is another thing all together. The movie Rudy is very inspirational and may inspire a team to work harder, but I doubt it has really changed lives. Harold on the other hand, not only had an inspirational story, but directly bettered the lives of thousands throughout the country. Indirectly he inspired thousands more. Since “retiring,” Harold focused on advancing youth hammer throw in America, an aspect which has been neglected with only one state having the event in high schools. We met in this stage of his life.
Let me set the scene. It is September 2001 and I am a fat kid on the verge of failing out of school for skipping too many classes. I’m tipping the scales at 300 pounds and delusionally think I have a future as an offensive lineman or shot putter. I also threw the hammer and even started a website for the event, but I wouldn’t have called myself a hammer throw since I only practiced a few times a month and was still stuck doing one turn throws after several years of trying more. Harold was coming to Washington state to conduct a hammer clinic and lobby our state athletic federation and needed a place to stay. Hearing this news, I volunteered my family’s house.
I was in awe when we first met. As a high schooler, who could dream of anything cooler than getting to host an Olympic Gold Medalist for a weekend. The first night he arrived he asked to look at film of my throws. He politely refrained from saying my technique was terrible (it was), and then he began to talk openly. He told me I didn’t have a future as a shot putter. With a personal best of 49′ and without any superhuman physical talent, he was right on the money with that assessment. But with the hammer throw, he noted, technique could put me on an even playing field with everyone especially since I was starting before college. I think I decided right there to dedicate myself to the sport. Between clinics and meetings, he found time to do several one-on-one training sessions with me over the weekend and gave me enough advice to get me going on my journey. Before he left, he also advised me on what he felt was even more important than throwing: I needed to get my grades up and lose some weight. Since he first told me what trans fats were, I have been an avid anti-trans fat advocate before anyone even knew what hydrogenation was. I lost nearly 70 pounds in the first year. I also reapplied myself at school and have never received a grade less than an A-/B+ since then.
We stayed in touch often after that. He would continue to review my film and coach me until I went off to college. After that, he still advised me as a mentor and friend. I was honored a year later when he asked me to help coach and demonstrate hammer training for him at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. I was even more honored when he asked me to help with his site (although I had already secretly put together a new design but didn’t have the nerve to ask him about it yet).
If we had not met, I know I would not have been an All-American. I would not have finished law school and become an attorney. Heck, I don’t even know if I would have finished high school or even been healthy at this point in my life. Harold inspired me, and I am just one of many.
A Passionate Man
I last talked to Harold in May before heading to Europe and he was excited about the USATF Foundation grant he had received and we were discussing plans to redesign his webpage and add new fresh content. He was 78 years old, but his level of passion was that of a 20 year old. He did not stop thinking about the hammer throw and luckily his wife Pat not only accepted this, but was proud of it. Harold was a man who squatted 400 pounds on his 70th birthday (more than I’ve ever done), but the greatest muscles he ever needed were to push against the bureaucratic structure to help youth hammer throw. Only someone with his passion could have succeeded like he did.
Harold always said his goal was to see another American win an Olympic medal before he died. While he never got the chance to do that, his work will lead to a medal in the future. His work has been the main reason why the hammer throw has spread from Rhode Island across the country. On the boys’ side America had just 5 high school throwers over 200 feet and 19. In 2009, those numbers were increased to 13 boys (and a record of 19 back in 2007). In addition, America has now won the last two World Junior titles after not having won a global title at any level since Harold’s 1956 gold medal. The winners, Conor McCullough and Walter Henning, were both mentored by Harold (Walter has also shared some comments on Harold on his blog).
Continuing His Work
After hearing the news, Thursday got off to a slow start, but I eventually made it out to my morning practice as planned. In fact, I actually threw well, better than I had in over a month. I couldn’t get my mind off of him the whole practice and despite not being able to think about technique, I was able to bring a different level of intensity to training. That’s the way he would have liked it. That’s the way he would have wanted it. Even after his death, he is helping hammer throwers and I plan to continue to use his website and other initiatives to help even more so that the hard work he started will only produce more results in the future.