Throw Like Nobody’s Watching

Throw Like Nobody’s Watching

DeAnna Price is changing what is possible for American hammer throwers.

Throw Like Nobody’s Watching
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 012, September 2019

By Liam Boylan-Pett
Illustration by Diane Doering

If a spectator wanted to watch the hammer throw at the 2019 U.S. Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, they would first need to get down to track level at Drake Stadium. The easiest way to do this would be to walk around the promenade on street level towards the northwest corner of the stadium. There, a staircase leads down to the track, right near the start of the 100 meters on that famous blue surface. To get to the hammer throw, however, the start line of the 100 meters is the wrong place to be. There is a lonely cement path that extends due north, away from the track. Walk about eighty yards that way and there is a set of bleachers. But that is not the best place to stop—no, the bleachers are perfect for watching the javelin. For the best view of the hammer throw, a spectator would need to keep walking, up a small hill and around the enclave that houses the javelin runway. Then, finally, at the top of the hill, a fan would have a bird’s eye view of the hammer cage.

On July 27, it would have been worth it to make the long haul up to the outskirts of Drake Stadium for the women’s hammer throw. Especially if they stayed for the final heave of the competition. 

That is when DeAnna Price stepped into the cage with her hammer, an eight-point-eight-pound metal ball attached to a grip by an approximately four-foot steel wire. After standing for a moment outside the seven-foot circle and taking a few deep breaths, Price began her throw. It all happened quickly. First, she switched the grip from her right hand to her left, then gently guided and placed the ball into the top of the circle. She walked past the ball on her left to the other end of the throwing circle in three steps and in one motion brought the ball forward. Like a golden snitch she was in complete control of, the ball flew past her and into the air before she snagged it back into her orbit, bringing it across the right side of her body. It traveled behind her before Price pulled it back again, finally grabbing the grip with her right hand, as well. Then, with her feet planted, she started swinging the ball, twirling it around her head three times. On the fourth go-round, she centered her feet for an instant, and then began to spin. Now, the ball seemed in control, carrying Price around and around as she inched closer to the front of the circle. Once, twice, three times, four times she twisted through the throwing zone, approaching its border. After her fifth spin and halfway into a sixth, Price finally let go, vaulting the ball out into the atmosphere while unleashing a primal roar. She roared longer than usual, screaming as the ball hurtled through the air, it’s steel rope flailing around it. Had it not been such a momentous toss, Price’s scream might have lasted as long as the throw traveled. When she stopped, however, the ball had only just begun its descent. It hugged the left side of the throwing field—a thirty-five-degree sector shaped like a piece of pie that extends from the circle—and dropped just within the legal zone. 

The ball left a divot in the grass 256 feet, 8 inches from the edge of the throwing circle, where Price was standing, admiring her throw. She fell to her knees when the mark was announced, and she began crying shortly after. The throw was a personal best and a new American Record, breaking the mark she already held at 254 feet, 9 inches. She would later tell the NBC broadcast that she had struggled with injuries throughout the year, so it was a particularly emotional win and record. 

For the hundreds of fans perched on the hill watching, it was well worth being away from the action at the track that day in Des Moines. 

They witnessed an American Record by the athlete who may be the U.S.’s greatest hammer thrower of all time. 

The event is relatively new for women—it was not in the world championships until 1999 and made its first appearance at the Olympics in 2000—but still, success for American women is even newer. Price, 26, has the farthest throw in the world in 2019. Those who saw her break the American Record were also watching the U.S.’s best chance at a medal at a global championship in the event for the first time ever. Of the forty-five medals awarded at the World Championships and Olympics since 1999, no American woman has stood on the medal stand. 

Price, along with her fellow Team U.S.A. competitors Gwen Berry and Brooke Andersen, is hoping to change that at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar, this year. 

The question is: Will anyone be watching?

The Battle of Marathon—where Pheidippides ran the world’s first marathon—took place in 490 B.C. According to the International Association of Athletics, track and field’s governing body, legend traces the concept of the hammer throw all the back to 2000 B.C. That legend, however, is a little shaky. In it, at the Tailteann Games in Tara, Ireland, the Celtic warrior Culchulainn grips a chariot wheel by its axles, whirls it around his head and tosses it a far distance. The thing is this: Culchulainn is a mythological character. He did not exist, and, aside from in stories, never competed at the Tailteann Games. 

The Tailteann Games did exist before the Ancient Olympics, though. Dating back to around 2000 B.C., although some historians place the date closer to 600 B.C., the Tailteann Games took place in Ireland and honored the dead, proclaimed laws, and held sporting events to entertain. It is likely that a version of “throwing the hammer” did exist at the original Tailteann Games. While Culchulainn was not the one throwing the apparatus, it is said that a chariot wheel with an axle was hurled through the air. The Tailteann Games lasted until 1178 A.D. 

Other countries picked up the sport along the way, too. According to Hammer Throw, a statistic survey of British throwing, by John Goulstone, Vikings were throwing the hammer around 800 A.D. in order to claim land—the best thrower received more land. The sport also played off Thor, the Thunder God and his magic throwing hammer. 

This is around the time the “hammer” became a sledgehammer. Throughout the Middle Ages, there are drawings and engravings showing the evolution of the event—from a sledgehammer to a metal ball attached to a stick. There is even an etching of King Henry VIII throwing a sledgehammer at the Cotswold Games sometime in the Sixteenth Century. In 1875, the English standardized the event, picking a sixteen-pound ball with a three-and-a-half-foot wire (they eventually extended the length of the wire to four feet). The event was introduced at the 1900 Olympics and has been in the Games since. Women, however, had to wait until 1999 to be able to throw at the sport’s highest level. (The hammer is not the only event where women were treated as a second fiddle in the Olympics and at the world championships—women weren’t allowed to run the marathon until 1984 or the 3,000-meter steeplechase until 2008). The first global championship in the women’s hammer throw was at the Seville World Championships, where Romania’s Mihaela Melinte threw 246 feet, 8½ inches to win the first global gold medal.

Melinte was the favorite to win gold in the first Olympics to include the hammer, too. During her warmup on the Sydney infield before the qualifying round of the hammer, however, everything fell apart. Two days earlier, Melinte and the Romanian Olympic Team had been told she had failed a drug test, but, according to reports, Melinte did not know that meant she could not compete. So, Melinte, who had tested positive for nandrolone (an anabolic steroid), walked out to the stadium to throw. That was as far as she would get. Two officials approached Melinte and asked her to leave the track. Melinte’s coach argued with them while Melinte buried her face in her hands. The argument did not work—Melinte was escorted from the competition. Poland’s Kamila Skolimowska won gold in her absence. 

Polish athletes have dominated the event since, winning seven of the fifteen global championship competitions. Anita Włodarczyk is the best in the history of the event with her two Olympic golds, four world titles, and a world record toss of 272 feet, 3 inches. 

American women, on the other hand, have not fared so well. The top finish of any American at a global championship is sixth (Dawn Ellerbe in 2000 and Amber Campbell in 2016). Of the fifteen championships, there have been four in which no American even qualified for the final.

(The American men have not been much better. After winning gold in the first six Olympic Games, Lance Deal’s silver medal in 1996 is the only hammer medal the U.S. has won since 1956.)

U.S. women may not be the best in the event, but they are a big reason it became a part of the global sporting world. Back in 1990 at the first U.S. championship in the event, Bonnie Edmondson won the title, and then took to lobbying for the event. She wrote to anyone in power who might have been able to help and spoke with as many of the big wigs in track and field as she could. Finally, by 2000, she had her wish, as the women’s pole vault also made its first appearance in the Olympics—even if one event was much more popular than the other. 

Edmondson took up the hammer throw in 1985. As a junior at Eastern Connecticut University, she loved the technicality of the event. She did not, however, love the sometimes five-mile bus out to a throwing venue, away from the action of the spectators. She fought and fought for the event, but even today, the event is still far from mainstream. While the shot put and pole vault are sometimes put into town squares or shopping malls in an attempt to gain fans, the hammer is lucky to take place in a track stadium—the 2016 Olympic Trials in Eugene held the hammer competition on the infield of Hayward field, but only on days when there were no track events. And while fans of distance running are bemoaning the Diamond League for ditching events longer than 3,000 meters beginning next year, the hammer throw has never been a Diamond League event. 

All that has not stopped Edmondson from fighting for the event she loves. In fact, she is the head coach of the women’s U.S. track and field at this year’s world championships in Doha from September 27 to October 6. And there is a chance she could see the first American win a medal in the hammer throw at the world championships.

Włodarczyk, the winner of the last three world championships, is sitting out this year’s event with an injury, and the 2019 descending order list is dominated by Americans. Price’s American Record throw is the best in the world, and Andersen and Barry sit second and third with throws of 251 feet, 9¾ inches and 250 feet, 10¼ inches, respectively. 

But hopes of a U.S. team sweeping the medal stand should be tempered. China’s Wang Zheng is the reigning silver medalist from London in 2017 and has won eleven of her past twelve throwing competitions. 

There are no guarantees, especially given the track record of U.S. athletes. Price has never placed higher than eighth at an Olympic Games or world championship. 

Price told me that while the U.S. women appear to be on the verge of world-class, it will not mean much if they can’t show up in Doha. “It’s going to be about who comes that day and is ready to go,” she said. 

The first time Price picked up a hammer, she whirled it around and hit herself across the forehead with the handle. She was a first-year in high school at Troy Buchanan High School in Missouri then. “I’m never doing this again,” she thought as she dropped the hammer. She didn’t pick one up for another three years. 

Price was a star athlete at Troy Buchanan, she was all-state in softball and was second in the discus and fifth in the shot put at the Missouri state meet. She also played basketball and volleyball. She had scholarship offers to play softball or throw in college, and ultimately was drawn to track and field. “I’ve been playing softball since I was 5 years old,” she told her mom. “I’m going to give track a try. I’m going to be a Saluki.” 

That meant she was going to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. And, having picked up the hammer again three months before she graduated, she was ready to give the hammer throw a try in school. Working with coach Gary Cooper at the Throw for the Road complex in Missouri, gave her a head start heading into college. She would go to the Cooper house and work on her technique. Back then, the “complex” was a slab of concrete in Cooper’s front yard. Price would spend hours spinning around the slab. 

The hammer throw, while simple in idea—how far can you hurl a metal ball?—is anything but. As Erin Gilreath, a 2004 Olympian for the U.S. in the hammer throw, wrote in WIRED, “The hammer throw combines strength, balance, timing, and the absolute necessity of near-perfect technique in one of the most exciting and artistic of field events, as well as one of the most technical.” 

Price’s softball background—along with her ability to throw discus and shot put—proved instrumental in her first year throwing hammer. She was one of her high school team’s best hitters, and the hip action during a baseball swing was similar to the movements she needed to make as a hammer thrower.

As of 2017, only Rhode Island and Ohio contested the hammer throw at a high school level (New York allowed it at invitationals). So, like many of her competitors in college, Price’s being new to the sport was nothing new. She still excelled, finishing tenth at the 2012 N.C.A.A. championships before qualifying for the world junior championships in Barcelona. She told the Daily Egyptian, Southern Illinois’ school paper, that the trip to Barcelona would be her first time flying. She finished eighteenth in the world, then came back hungry for more success. 

Price quickly turned into one of the best throwers not only in college ranks, but on a national and world scale, too. By 2015, she was the N.C.A.A. champion, and finished second at the U.S. Championships to qualify for the world championships in Beijing, where she finished eighteenth. She repeated as N.C.A.A. champ in 2016 and set the collegiate record. Then, she qualified for the Rio Olympics with a third-place finish at the Olympic Trials.

Price throws the hammer at the 2019 U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Photo courtesy of USATF by Photo Run.

She could not make the jump on a world stage, however. Price finished eighth in Rio and then ninth at the London World Championships in 2017. Heading into the 2018 season she increased intensity in training and decided to focus on her diet. 

Price felt she wasn’t getting around the throwing circle fast enough, so she zeroed in on cardio and her eating habits. She lost 45 pounds and had the best season of her life.

(Price is quick to point out that losing weight might not be the best method for everyone. In TV interviews and in written pieces, she has said, “If you’re 265 pounds and you’re throwing the best you’ve ever thrown, you stay right there. If you throw the best at 175, you stay there. You just have to figure out how your body works. That’s what I had to feel out, and I throw my best at 225-230.”)

Losing weight was not the only thing she did. Price constantly worked on her technique. “Your technique changes all the time because you might get stronger or faster,” she told me from Doha. “You have to adapt to those new strength levels.” 

She broke the American Record for the first time in early June 2018, throwing 254 feet, 9 inches, then won the U.S. Championship in Sacramento less than three weeks later with a toss of 256 feet, 3 inches. Thirteen months later in Des Moines, she extended that record by five inches with a world leading throw. Now, Price is heading into Doha not only as a medal favorite, but as a popular pick to win the whole thing.

Price, while currently the top thrower in the U.S., is not the only one who could medal, or win, in Doha. Berry and Andersen are right on her heels—Berry held the American Record that Price broke for the first time. Plus, Berry is bringing media coverage to the rarely covered event.

After winning the Pan American Games title in the hammer throw in August 2019, Berry stood on the medal stand as the Star-Spangled Banner played throughout the stadium. Berry, who threw for Southern Illinois before Price, raised a fist as the national anthem concluded. The gesture evoked the image of John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand in 1968, and immediately drew comparisons. For Berry, a 30-year-old St. Louis native, the act was a culmination of so many things. She had moved from Mississippi to Houston and changed coaches. Raising her fist was “Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she told NBC Sports. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Following the event, she was sent a letter from the C.E.O. of United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, Sarah Hirshland, informing Berry that she was being put on a twelve-month probation for her protest on the medal stand. While Berry was not asked to sit out any competitions, the letter served as a warning for those who may follow her lead (fencer Race Imboden also took a knee during the anthem in Lima and was sent a probationary letter, as well). 

Berry, meanwhile, has been quiet in the lead-up to the world championships in Doha. She did not respond to multiple emails for this article but does seem focused ahead of the world championships. The best she has finished in a global championship is fourteenth, which she did in both Rio in 2016 and London in 2017. If she throws to her potential on September 27 and 28, she may put herself on the medal stand again. 

On the day Hirshland’s letter reached her, Berry posted on social media, “If nothing is said, nothing will be done, & nothing will be fixed, & nothing will change.” Should Berry finish in the top three in Doha, her actions on the medal stand will be watched closely.

Less than one week before the world championships, the Guardian reported that ticket sales for the Doha championships were much more sluggish than expected. So sluggish, that, “Sources have told the Guardian that 50,000 tickets have been sold across the 10 days of action—and that migrant workers and children will be bused in to stop the stadium appearing more than half-empty on TV.”

The world championships are usually held in late July or early August. The heat in Doha, however, meant holding the championships later in the year (not that it’s much cooler, with the marathon being held at midnight and the stadium using air conditioning), and, it appears, getting spectators into the seats is proving challenging. 

Not that spectators matter much for those throwing the hammer—they’re used to it. 

U.S. women’s hammer throwers are, however, making it harder took look away. When NBC cut to Price’s American Record throw at the U.S. championships in July, her roar made it impossible not to pay attention. As did her joyous interview after—a beaming smile filling the screen. 

She is hoping for a similar performance—both in the throwing circle and out of it—in Doha.

“Honestly, I’m treating it like U.S.A.s,” Price told me over the phone from Doha the week of the competition. “First day, pop a throw out there, get qualified, and get mentally prepared for the finals. I want to get out there and do my job.” 

The job, as far as Price is concerned, is to throw up to her potential. That could mean a medal, which would be a validation of U.S. throwers on a global scale. “I want to be able to represent the U.S. the best I can,” she said, “and be able to show that we can compete at an international level.” 

What that would mean for the sport and for Price remains to be seen. Michelle Carter won gold in the women’s shot put in Rio in dramatic fashion on the final throw of the competition, but she is not a household name (which track star is, nowadays?). Sure, Price would win $60,000 in prize money if she won gold (or $30,000 for silver and $20,000 for bronze), but the popularity of an event is not guaranteed solely because of a medal. It won’t hurt, though.

For Price, Berry, and Andersen, a medal might bring more sponsorship dollars or more media coverage. Or it will simply mean a blurb in newspapers throughout the country. No matter what, they will keep throwing. 

“It was really fun just being able to toss something,” Price told me of her first time really clicking with the hammer throw. Whether she’s roaring on the infield of the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo in 2020 or on some far-off throwing slab in the middle of a field, Price is always going to throw. The more wins and records she piles up, the more everyone will be forced to pay attention.

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