Perhaps my favorite podcast episodes to record are those where we get to comment on the throwing events: who is hot, who is not, technical trends, training trends, and more. Last week we posted our World Championship preview episode with Don Babbitt. Since then I have been immersed in the sport as I watch the action unfold every day in Budapest.
As of today half of the throwing events have finished at the World Championships: men’s shot put, men’s hammer, as well as both discus events. I figure that is a good time to take a moment to pause and reflect on some of the historic action that has taken place in Budapest. Two underdogs and two legends of the sport have won gold, and all in their own unique way that tell us a bit about where the sport is heading.
Men’s hammer throw
Heading into the men’s hammer final the big question seemed to be whether Pawel Fajdek could win his sixth straight title, or his teammate Wojciech Nowicki would claim the thrown. The biggest outside challenger was seen as American Rudy Winkler who has turned in his most consistent season yet.
But after the first qualifying throw it was clear everyone had missed someone: Ethan Katzburg. The 21 year old blasted out of the gates with a two meter personal best in qualifying, following it up with an even bigger throw in the final to make him the youngest world hammer throw champion ever (and youngest global champion since current world record holder Yuri Sedykh won the 1976 Olympics). Where did this come from?
Such a big breakthrough at a major championship isn’t unheard of. Eivind Henriksen also set national records in qualifying and finals in Tokyo to add more than 3 meters to his best and take Olympic silver two years ago. But Eivind had been on the world scene for 10+ years by that point, made several finals, and was on the rise after overcome some lingering injuries. Few expected him to medal, but most people at least knew who he was.
Ethan Katzberg, on the other hand, truly came from the unknown. Until last year few insiders even knew his name. If you are a throwing nerd you probably first heard his name when he did the same thing at last summer’s Commonwealth Games. After missing qualification for the World Championships, he headed to Germany for an extended training camp, threw a two meter personal best, and took a surprise silver. This year he was even stronger and been on the podium in every meet, but but without a throw over 80 meters he wasn’t on anyone’s list of favorites. Track and Field News predicted optimistically that he’d be sixth. He was so under the radar that even when he won the Paris Diamond League he celebrated in his Kamloops Track Club t-shirt as he doesn’t have a major sponsor.
Lessons in talent development
Katzberg’s story for me is also a lesson in talent development. He might be the youngest world champion ever in the event, but few had him targeted as a big talent while he was a teenager. He’s the type of thrower that many federations and scouts might actually overlook. I point this out on Instagram by comparing him to the second youngest finalist: 22 year old Mykhaylo Kokhan of Ukraine. Four years ago in 2019 Kokhan placed fifth in the world and had already thrown over 77 meters. Katzberg, on the other hand, was throwing 60 meters with the lighter junior implement. At that time, or even last year, no one would have predicted Katzberg over Kokhan. But that demonstrates the complexity of talent identification programs. You need to give athletes time to develop to see who has the true “talent.” There are different paths to the podium, but most federations assume it will be a linear one and support only the best athletes at each level.
So what is a federation to do? Not support the best? Clearly that isn’t the answer. But there is something to be gained in casting a wider net to spread resources out amongst more young athletes. I’ve argued for years that federations need to rethink their approach to be more inclusive. As a side note, this is one advantage of the NCAA system in America. The NCAA system has many flaws as well, but one thing it does well is provide a support system for a broad spectrum of athletes, allowing us to see what talent emerges by age 23.
The big question now is where do we go from here? With such amazing performance at such a young age there is already a lot of talk about the world record. That’s surely a possibility. But there are just as many young talents that reach an early plateau. Last year’s big name was Mykolas Alekna in the discus, born the same year as Katzberg. After not qualifying for the Olympics he improved six meters to win World silver and European gold in 2022. Alekna improved his best again this year and did win bronze this week, but has struggled at times with consistency this year. The way forward is not always as easy as the way to get there.
As we talked about on the podcast this week, sometimes it is more difficult to repeat a breakthough as it is to have one. Only time will tell if Katzberg and Alekna are capable of finally reaching world records from 1986. But one thing we know for sure is that these are some awesome young stars we are lucky to have in our sport.
A new world order
Katzberg aside, this was a damn good hammer competition and fun to watch as well. Four throwers broke 80 meters. There were countless lead changes, season’s bests from six of the top seven, a disputed foul, and a medal for host country Hungary. But the big story line for me was the continued rise of American throwers. Not just those from USA, but those from across North and South America.
As mentioned, Rudy Winkler was the big hype before the meet as his season indicated he was ready for a medal. But he tensed up after some early foul trouble and never found his groove. But the fact that an 8th place finish for an American is a disappointment is still a big step forward. As recently as 2005 every finalist was European. And this year Americas also Katzberg winning and Daniel Haugh had his best international performance ever for sixth place. In total 6 of the 12 finalists were from the America (plus Rowan Hamilton of Canada just missed the finals in 13th). The epicenter of hammer throwing is at long last shifting away from Europe.
If you listen to our podcast you’ll know that is a topic we’ve discussed with many guests. We talked about this with Babbitt last week, and I continued the discussion with him after the recording stopped. We both agree a big factor is support. Like I said above, the NCAA system provides unparalleled support for a huge number of athletes. As money in college sports gets bigger, that isn’t changing any time soon. In parallel, the level of hammer coaching has increased. America always struggled with supporting throwers post-collegiately, but as they’ve shown medals are possible that has become easier as well. This isn-t just a blip on the radar. This is a trend that is here to stay. Just look at the statistics. Poland is the world capital of hammer throwing and they currently have only two throwers over 70 meters in the under 23 age group. America has more than that. Even Canada has two over 76 meters.
And more of this to come later this week in the women’s hammer throw as well. America has already won the past two World titles in the event, as 9 of the top 15 in the World Athletics Rankings are from the Americas. Canada also has great odds to capture the women’s hammer as well, which would be unprecedented.
Women’s discus throw
What is better than a two meter personal best at a major championship? Four meters. On Tuesday night Laulauga Tausaga of America launched a personal best of four meters to make sure Katzberg wasn’t the only surprise victory in Budapest. On the one hand Lagi is not a complete outsider. She has previously won the NCAA championship, NACAC championship, and was twice a finalist at the World Championship. But on the other hand she hadn’t won any of her international meets this year and Track and Field News only projected her to finish 10th. As Kyle Merber noted in his newsletter: “Look to the oddsmakers to determine just how big of a deal Laulauga Tausaga’s upset was — had you placed $100 down on her ahead of time then you’d have made out $13K in profit.” It was such a surprise the Lagi was even in tears after the throw.
Perhaps more surprising than her victory was how she did it. She showed some signs of something big in qualifying with a huge foul. But in the final round it couldn’t have started off any worse. Her first throw was a foul, then in the second round she reached a forgettable mark of 52 meters. Entering the third round she sat in 12th place and on her way out of the competition. As one of the last throwers in round three she somehow managed a small personal best of 65.56m (previous best 64.46m). After a big foul in round 4, favorite Valerie Allman extended her lead in round 4 and then Lagi went all out and smashed a throw of 69.49m in round 5.
Allman looked to be as smooth as ever but she and the others couldn’t respond. What do you do when you’re the best thrower in the world, in form, and still get beat? Allman held on for silver to give American the 1-2 finish. To cap off the competition Lagi delivered one more 68 meter throw at the end to show her winning toss wasn’t some fluke. Not only was this this first world championship for the US in the women’s discus, but they join Germany and Cuba as the only countries to gold and silver in the event.
The event’s depth was also on display. Four of the top five finishers had a season’s best. Sandra Perkovic missed the podium for the first time since 2011, placing 5th which is her lowest finish ever in a global championship. It’s not that she choked–she had a season’s best after all–just that the level was that high.
And before we close up discussion on the women’s discus, Mélina Robert-Michon deserves a shout out. The Frenchwoman placed 9th at age 44. It’s hard to imagine she also made her international debut in Budapest 25 years ago at the 1998 European Championships!
Men’s discus throw
The man of Stahl
Ok, you’ve probably had enough underdog stories for now. In turning to the other events, the favorites fared quite well in Budapest as well, taking down records and turning in some historic performances, including championship records for Daniel Stahl in the discus and Ryan Crouser in the shot put.
Behind Stahl in the discus there were also the best marks ever for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place. For the first time ever a 70m throw wasn’t good enough to win, and 68 meters missed the podium. Just like the women’s discus, the depth in the discus is crazy at the moment. But the steely performance of Daniel Stahl was the highlight for me. Like the hammer and women’s discus, the men’s discus featured position changes nearly every round. Stahl entered his last throw in silver position. A younger Stahl might have wilted under the pressure, but this season we have seen a new Stahl emerge. He’s over 30 with a new coach and training setup. His young rivals keep getting better. It’d be easy for the Olympic champ to fade away, but instead we see a more mature, experienced, and fierce competitor. As his competitors have raised their game, so has he. And on his last throw he unleashed a monster to capture gold. It was a goosebump moment reminiscent of Robert Harting in 2009.
Men’s shot put
The man of steel
And I can’t believe it’s taken this long to talk about throwing’s biggest star: Ryan Crouser. The shot put was more one sided, but just as historic. The day before the meet Crouser revealed that he had been struggling with blood clots in his calf for the past 3 weeks. A mediocre qualification throw (by his standards) led to speculation that the king could be beaten. But he put those thoughts to bed in the first round as he dominated the final from start to finish. His final throw was not only the best in World Championships history, but the second best ever in the event just barely behind his world record. He won the meet by 1.17 meters, the largest ever margin of victory (Günthör won by 92cm back in 1991). To put that winning margin in perspective, that was almost the same as the gap between first and fourth in the hammer this year! If he delivers that performance when he’s had what he described as “the most stressful 20 days I’ve ever had” then it is hard to see what it’ll take to beat him in the coming years.
How much can you learn from the qualification round?
I wanted to end this on one completely different point: how important is the qualification round? How much should we read into it? On the one hand you can definitely learn a lot from how an athlete performs in qualification. Katzberg’s national record and Lagi’s big foul in qualification put everyone on notice that they were contenders that should be taken seriously. But it is hardly guaranteed that they good qualification results translate to good final performances. There is such a thing as trying too hard: I remember Breaux Greer leading javelin qualifying at the Athens Olympics before hurting himself and placing last in the final. The shot put, where qualification and finals often take place on the same day, big results can also be hard to back up. The name of the game there is often conserving energy for the finals. Just look at Darlan Romani, who led qualifying with a big season’s best but then finished just 8th in the finals.
On the other end of the spectrum are bad qualification performances. In the discus this year Australia’s Matt Denny had a poor qualification round, throwing 61 meters, then a foul, then improved to 9th on his last effort. On his social media afterwards Denny posted that he had a bit of a brain fart during the competition. Bad days happen. He moved owned up to the performance and moved on mentally, which showed as a completely different Denny showed up to the final and broke the Australian national record.
One thing I like to look for when watching the qualification is that mental side. Do athlete’s seem relaxed? How do they handle a bad throw? How easy does a good throw look? It’s not as much about how far they throw, but how they do it. I watch the athletes more than I watch the results.
So as we head into the last four throwing event finals in Budapest, that’s the note to end on: you can definitely learn a lot from qualification, but don’t read too much into it. Defending javelin champion Kelsey-Lee Barber snuck into the final with the last spot this morning. So what? The competition starts over in the final. I’m looking forward to watching.