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Our tradition: Feats of strength, Part I

Four-time U.S. Olympian Jay Silvester earned the silver medal in the discus at the 1972 Munich Games. 

We throwers share a grand sporting tradition with a rich, colorful history worth knowing and appreciating. I hope that every high school thrower in America has a chance to tap into that history in order to learn from it and be inspired by it. Start by asking your coach if he has any stories.

In order to throw far, we need proper technique. But let’s be honest. This game is also about power and levers and brute force. Our sport draws large, strong people and so it goes without saying that tales of feats of strength are part of our heritage. Some of them are urban legends, some began with kernels of fact and then snowballed with each re-telling. Embrace the stories. Celebrate them.

Sometimes the exploits of throwers go beyond the comprehension of mere morals. These moments arise from the “all or nothing” attitude that many throwers bring to their work. “Mind over matter” is another phrase used to describe an emotionally charged athlete who produces extraordinary results. In my many years around the throws I can tell you "mind over matter" is not just a theory: it's more like a requirement for success.

One of the first experiences I had with this was at a high school indoor state meet that the University of North Carolina hosted back when I coached there. I was officiating the boys shot put. The top guy in the state at the time was a large, talented kid with a best near 62 feet. Two or three other guys were in the 53-56 range. One guy, (current Florida State coach) Harlis Meaders, caught my eye. He came to the meet with a best of 52 feet but was dropping 54s and 55s in warm-ups.

I accidentally mispronounced his name each time he was up. He’d enter the ring and quietly say, almost under his breath, “It’s pronounced ‘Med-ers.’” And then, he’d throw a PR. I was amazed. The big kid would throw 54, then Harlis would throw 54-8. The big guy would come up and throw 56. Harlis would bump up to 56-5. It kept going that way all six rounds, and Harlis eventually won it with 58-something. He was going to throw as far as needed to win that day. Period.

And, as Bill Cosby once said, “I told you that story so I could tell you this one …”

Fast forward a couple of years and Harlis is one of the athletes I’m coaching at UNC. We’re in the weight room testing two-rep max one day – squat, clean and bench. Harlis’ usual training partner, Lam ont “Spoon” Witherspoon, has a lab and shows up to the gym late. By the time he arrives, Harlis is done and feeling good about the workout, topped with a lifetime best 495-pound squat.

Spoon is a walk-on with little throwing experience but lots of what I like to call “farm boy” strength. He begins his squat at 450 pounds and works his way up to 565 for two, a nice PR.

As Spoon moved on to the clean, Harlis began to stalking around and shouted “This is my house!” He got into position under the squat bar, loaded with Spoon’s 565 pounds, and he picked it up and cranked out a very easy set of six. Then he calmly walked out of the gym.

More farm boy power … I knew a discus thrower from Virginia who came to UNC. He was 6-foot-5 and weighed about 265, but you couldn’t find any muscle definition on the guy. I spent an afternoon trying to teach him to do cleans one day – and the result was a straight-legged deadlift, followed by a strict reverse curl. He had 275 pounds on the bar. And he did a set of 10. Another discus thrower on the team went to the "Greek Games" for our fraternity and competed in the keg toss. He won by 10 feet, throwing a full keg while everyone else threw empty ones!

In my first year coaching at the college I saw another extreme example of farm boy power. It was early in the fall and we were building base. We finished up a workout we’d done with light/moderate squats – a weight the athlete could do 16-20 reps with. I looked over and saw a walk-on named Dave under a bar with 200 kg (444 pounds) and asked, “What are you doing?” He looked at me like it was nothing and continued his reps – butt-to-heel squats – and stopped when he hit 30. I was blown away.

Some other feats that demonstrate unusual power, commitment, concentration … are stories that I’ve heard. They may (or may not) fall into the category of urban legend.

* The Scandanavian javelin champion who hit his block so hard he “soiled” himself.

* Former U.S. record holder Mark Murro began throwing the javelin after his high school coach picked him up from the police station. It seems he enjoyed throwing bricks through fourth or fifth story windows.

* Discus great Jay Silvester, driving from his home in Utah to a meet in California, got caught in a windstorm. He saw a 55-gallon steel barrel fly through the air, four feet off the desert floor, pushed by the wind. Silvester never made it to the meet. He pulled his car over, put on his throwing shoes and got his discs out. He began throwing off he highway into the wind – and supposedly hit several throws that flew 15 feet past the world record at the time.

* Check out this video to see Adam Nelson at the 2000 Olympic Trials. Not only does he hit a huge PR over 72 feet to win, he celebrates with a vertical jump where he almost goes over the head of one of his fellow competitors. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WdwMjKXuE8&feature=related

* The great Bud Held held six American records in the javelin back in the 1950s and once held the world record as well. Back then, throwers used wooden javelins and the world record was barely 270 feet. Held reportedly had a throw that landed two feet out of bounds that his bleachers measured at 290 feet away.

* Four days after he won the gold medal in the javelin at the 1996 Olympics, the Atlanta Braves tried out Czech superstar Jan Zelezny and evaluated him as a pitcher. American Tom Pukstys also got a tryout, with the Chicago White Sox. He didn't make the team, but the club asked him to give the minor leagues a try. (He consistently threw baseballs from home plate over the center field wall at the Sox’s spring training stadium in Florida).

* German javelin throwers Raymond Hecht (302-foot PR) and Peter Blank (290 feet) in their three-hour throwing workouts: 16 different types of one-and two-hand throws, slings and kicks for max distance. It's one of the real marvels of human performance I've ever seen. (I'm so glad I got it all on video!)

There are many, many examples of throwers performing amazing feats. … Shot-putter Brian Oldfield and javelin thrower Tom Petranoff used to blow away the competition on the World’s Strongest Man competition on ABC show “Wide World of Sports.” … Jeff Stover, a shot putter from the University of Oregon with no experience in football, became a starting defensive tackle in the NFL, teaming with shot put legend Michael Carter.

I’ve saved one man for last. His name is Seppo Raty and he’s a Finnish javelin thrower who embodies the fighting spirit of “sisu.”

Raty and his numerous feats of strength deserve more space. I’ll discuss him in Part 2, along with some other "special" throwers.