Finding victory amongst failure

Every year l write a memorial to Harold Connolly on the anniversary of his death. When l started to think about this year’s topic last month the theme was going to be “mission accomplished.” America was sending its strongest team to the Olympics in a century. Harold Connolly’s work to resurrect American hammer throwing has been showing progress for a long time. Now, 11 years after his death, we were on the verge of seeing the ultimate fruits of his labor.

The hardest team to make

It’s not just hyperbole to say it’s been a century since America sent a team this strong to the Olympics. This year, we had the defending women’s champion and three of the top throwers in the world. On the men’s side, Rudy Winkler had been the most consistent thrower in the world in 2021, and the rest of the squad ranked amongst the world’s top ten and all had medal potential. America was the only country in the world to send a full team of 6 hammer throwers, and still left potential medalists at home.

The worst case scenario, I thought, was one medal. That would still be a major accomplishment, something that has happened only once since 1956, when Lance Deal grabbed silver in Atlanta.

Best case scenario: 3 or 4 medals, including some gold. Two decades after the Harold Connolly hammer project was started, there couldn’t be a clearer sign of success. Harold’s dream was to have another American win gold in the hammer throw, and I had started writing the article about how his dream had some true after 65 years. Like George Bush in 2003, l was ready to roll out the “mission accomplished” banner. The Poles warned us about celebrating too early, but instead we prematurely started to break down what led to this new era of American throws dominance.

Fast forward a few weeks and the American hammer throwers returned from Tokyo empty handed. Seemingly everything that could go wrong did. Deanna Price, the biggest medal hope, hobbled into Tokyo hampered by multiple injuries. The rest either had an off day, lacked experience, or simply choked. 

Victory amongst failure

It’s easy to look at Tokyo as a failure for American hammer throwers, but as the dust has settled, l can’t help but think Harold would have had a smile on his face. What we lacked in medals, we made up for in other smaller victories. To start with, the US had 5 finalists, tied with Poland for the most of any country and the most America has even seen since team sizes were not restricted at the early Olympics.

An even bigger victory you could see ever before the competition started: the American throwers didn’t go to Tokyo just to participate, make the finals, or fight for the podium. They went there to win. This change in mindset is bigger than any medal in my opinion.

For years, making the team was enough. Our top hammer throwers were defined by how many teams they made, with their placement just an afterthought. If you look at history’s great athletes, no one cares how many Olympics they made, what matters most is who won. Bob Beamon and Jesse Owens only made one team, but who cares? We remember them on top of the podium.

The first success of Harold’s work was felt in 2008 and 2010, when the US won gold at the World Junior Championships. Already then Americans realized they could compete with the world. If you were the best high schooler in America, you’re now one of the best anywhere. Several women and Kibwé Johnson then showed finals are achievable at the senior level too. With the sights set higher, more young talents also stuck with the sport to chase. To me, this has a longer impact on the long-term success of American hammer throwing than any medal could have.

Mission accomplished?

So is the mission accomplished? If the mission was to win gold, then the answer is no. America still has work to do. But the bigger question is, does it matter? The real mission was not one-off success, but a sustainable cultural change. That mission will never be accomplished, but it starts with a change in mindset and we’ve done that. Harold was never focused on being the best American, he was trying to be the best in the world. And America’s top hammer throwers have that mindset once again.