We have already examined quite a few things in this series and today I will talk about what I call the Mid-range Domestic Pro. If you are just tuning in it may be helpful for you to go back and read my first two installments of the USA Discus Debacle.
In the USA we have an unbelievable system of development for athletes up until their collegiate eligibility runs out. The NCAA and other Collegiate Associations are doing a pretty good job identifying and developing junior and university age talents. Where we fail is the lack of a national bridge program for our athletes. Many people, who I believe are mistaken in their concept, feel that the lack of medal contenders in the discus is related to our lack of high quality athletes competing. I for one consider my self a quite good athlete and feel this to be utter bullshit.
If you look at USA discus, we have a strong capacity to develop athletes at the university age that are quite good. There have been many 60m+ university aged American discus throwers. With that fact in mind let us examine the developmental curves of various events in the USA. First of all in discus, our past shows us that many of our top athletes have had their best world stage performances over the age of 30. There are many like John Powell and Anthony Washington who had many of their top accomplishments within a couple years of their retirement. For some reason in the USA we have a longer duration of development and rarely do we see folks ready to medal prior to 30 years. The collegiate feeder system is finished with most athletes (with exception of individual coach dedication) by the age of 22. So as a discus thrower who might already be a 63-65m collegian and the best american of your age, your immediate post collegiate experience puts you in no mans land. Even a windy 63-65m throw is great for a 21-22 year old athlete but as a post grad you would be lucky to ranked in the top 40 in the world with this performance.
You see, I was one of these people who improved yearly, from 61m with 1.6k in high school in 3 years, to 58m as a frosh with the 2k up to 63m as a senior. I performed at a higher level yearly in the NCAA championships and was the top finishing american (2nd place)as a senior. I made the final at USA nationals and was essentially the best graduating American discus thrower from the NCAA. I had basically done my job with the exception to losing to NCAA record holder Hannes Hopley a couple of times. I thought, that the sky was the limit, I figured that I could easily find a way to continue. I thought that someone would care but I was wrong. I found quickly that now I was in need of many more meters just to get funding, many more meters just to make a team and many many more meters to be in the top 20 in the world. You see, I had gone from being an NCAA stud to a MID-RANGE DOMESTIC PRO. I was now in the nowhere zone. Too good and old to be a collegian but to bad and immature to be a professional.
I needed to throw farther to get funds and even farther to have a chance to compete in big meets. As a Mid-range Domestic Pro, I immediately found that the USA domestic season is short and based around collegiate competition. The most competitive of those competitions I was no longer allowed to be in. I found that the best place to get a comp was where our real pro’s trained, in California, but wait? My university no longer funded the trip. I found quickly that my meager 62.91m throw was not over the Olympic A standard and that meant no funds. I needed to pay my way, infrequently of course, at almost a thousand bucks a pop to get there, eat, sleep, and get back home. That generally meant that I was making a single excursion per season and the rest of the time competing locally in meets where on many occasions the next best distance was more than 10m less than my own. I had gone from the glory of indoor and outdoor championships, Texas and Drake Relays, competitive NCAA conference, regional and national meets to my own “League” that was less competitive than my high school district.
Considering myself as a mildly intelligent homo sapien, I new that it would probably take me a while to get near the levels that I could really achieve. Looking at discus PB’s of the top athletes of all time, I saw that the average age of a career personal record was achieved near 29 years old, and the experts said to reach high levels one would need about 10 years of serious training. I was only in about my 4th year. How the hell was I supposed to figure out a way to train, work, and get better over the next 6+ years to have a chance to throw near my best?
The honest truth is that each year I have gone to the USA nationals, I seem to always get into the retirement discussion with one of my countrymen who is around my age or even younger. For some events like the 400m, athletes are reaching their peak career levels usually in their mid 20’s. in the 100m sprint it can be very similar and sometimes much younger. Even in the throws we can examine a huge difference between the discus and shot put. My old competitor Hannes Hopley is a legitimate NCAA record holder and 2 time champion. Arguably the best NCAA discus thrower ever. At the 2004 Olympic games (also his final NCAA season) he was in the top 12 at the Olympic games, throwing over 64m but not being able to crack the top 8. He threw quite well but still was nowhere near a medal. In the shot, it seems that our peak performances can come earlier and the duration of that can be long. For example, Randy Barnes, Mike Carter, John Brenner, John Godina, Ryan Whiting to name a few. These guys all had the potential in their early 20’s to be major champs medalist immediately post college. Everyone doesn’t have this obviously but for guys who are close it seems to be a potential 3-4 year turnaround from college grad up to world level. As I said before, we also see a tendency for these levels to stay higher for many years throughout a career. Much like the 110m hurdles, where you see many very young and very old athletes competing at a high level.
What am I getting at here? The USA has had more throwers over 60m than any other country by far. We have had more over 65m and even 70m all-time. Few of our original 60m throwers ever make it to the next level. Most of them hit the post collegiate ranks and quite within a few years which in most cases is not nearly enough time to develop. Last May while having dinner with Mac Wilkins I found out something really interesting. He was able to spend a whole summer in his early days training, throwing and competing in Europe against the best. He was able to see, challenge and experience world class discus immediately. Also funny and hard to believe that there were world level meets in America. Many foreign top dogs came here to test their skills. Exposure was at a premium and experience was gained. It took me nearly 4 years post graduation to make the trip to Salinas and actually get my butt kicked by Gerd Kanter for the 1st time. It was eye opening, I wasn’t even competing at that point. I was in awe, a mere fan that was amazed by the fact that I had never experienced such a thing and bewildered to the point that I couldn’t even focus.
I had been training my butt off. Doing all the things that I was “supposed” to do for improvement and I had been blinded to one thing. I couldn’t get better at competing and actualizing my skill if I didn’t actually compete and experience the real world of elite discus. The Mid-range Domestic Pro is lured into the idea that somehow they will train from September to April, compete for about 6 weeks at university open meets, have little or no competition leading into our national championship and then somehow “PEAK”. This sudden increase in performance will be timed up by careful strategical training and prep. Then magically they shall go from being a Mid-range Domestic Pro to a USA team member, championship finalist and a medalist during the whole process. Highly unlikely and very very hard to do.
My first chance to compete internationally came when I was 29 years old. Leading into this, I was primed to quit track the season beforehand after only doing 3 meets and throwing 61.7m, the worst I had done since being a college sophomore. I called Mac Wilkins for help, laid down some cash and took a visit to Portland for a week. Trained 3 times a day the whole trip and was totally confused and frustrated when I left. Mac did give me some great confidence in what he thought that I could do, so after returning home I decided to say screw everything I new about preparation and I just tried to do the things that he wanted. I attempted to throw as far as possible ASAP. 6 weeks later I was the best I had ever been and it was only December 2009! Many people have criticized me for having this great training and even early season big throws like my pb of 69.90m. I know that this jump has changed my perspective about throwing, my confidence and what I can potentially accomplish.This rapid jump changed my life. After all this madness I had the 1st opportunity to get a sponsor, a contract, and actually go and compete versus the top throwers in the world! That experience has me primed to understand how to take the next step and move near the top in the world. Even though I 1st threw over 67m once as a 24 year old, I have only been a World Class thrower for 2 years. I never understood the wealth of experience that I was missing and the road that I was going down as a Mid-range Domestic Pro. You see, I believe this to be a major key. I have been blessed to have many sources of support through that journey. My wife Megan has been the only person in the world who has believed in me throughout. If I had not this set of circumstances and dramatic improvement, I wouldn’t be writing this post in 2012. If my wife hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have endured the circumstance.
As I eluded to before, many people feel that we are just not putting good enough athletes in our system. They would say that some NFL guy should be doing what I am. That’s fine but I could also be doing what they do and so could many others like Jarred Rome. NOT AN EXCUSE. During the greatest era of american discus throwers, other sports still existed and somehow we got the job done. …NOT AN EXCUSE. We were undersized when L.J, and Oerter threw, when Powell and Wilkins threw, and our last world champ was Tony Washington… NOT AN EXCUSE. And on top of that, how do we stay so damn good in shot put if all our “best” potential big power athletes are playing football? I wouldn’t bet against Christian Cantwell on anyone’s defensive line! Then some would say that the other countries have their best guys overall in the discus. Last I checked, Gerd was no prized possession in Estonia as a youth! Obviously Estonia is a Great discus country as of recent. A country that has not had a ton of 60m throwers but they have two 70m throwers in the last 6 years, and many medals. By the way, their country’s population is about 1 million less than my home city of Dallas, Texas (2.5million)… Get my drift! Once we install a system to develop athletes that have later event peaks, we will always be in the hunt for medals.
When I was at the Olympic training center a few weeks ago, I had a great conversation with Tora Harris, one of the top American HJ’s, and we talked abut the density of talented people walking around everywhere. Many countries worship and fully fund the type of athletes that we cut from programs and throw away in the USA. I can remember as a high school senior there where at least 5-6 throwers over 60m. Germany doesn’t have these type of numbers for most 18’s but they lose few throwers who can crack 55m as juniors.. but long term development allows them to see consistent development towards medals with very few athletes. Of the top five discus throwers in the USA my HS senior year, I am the only one who continued past the age of 24. One played in the NFL, the others including me threw well in college(60m+) A great thrower Lucas McKay was also a part of that group and still continues to train for the hammer throw. How’s it going Lucas? I hope everything is well out there. Good Luck on your journey.