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America’s Forgotten Event: The Hammer

America’s Forgotten Event: The Hammer
by Lane Dowell

This article was written by USATF track official Lane Dowell for Long and Strong Thrower’s Journal in 2003. Lane, a retired head track and field coach, is an adovate for getting the hammer throw added as an event in Washington state high schools. He was also the head women’s hammer judge at the 2000 Olympic Trials and the head hammer judge for the 2002 senior and junior national championships.

In this article we will attempt to show you why it is so very important to introduce American youth to the most fascinating event in track and FIELD. Perhaps, the offerings of some of our nation’s best and some of our up-and-comers will aid you in gaining perspective of this somewhat forgotten and very unique activity, and why it is vital to become acquainted with the ball and wire while a youngster. To serve as a model, we will present the plan we have used in Washington State to develop teen masters of “spinning the ball” and foster the growth of this unusual and challenging contest. In this article we will discuss a new plan of action for USA Masters to battle for an event they love. Some of our passionate aging throwers will work hand-in-hand across the 50 with clubs as mentors and monitors of the growth of youth hammer throwing.

Upon completion of this article, it is our hope that you are as enamoured with the youth hammer throw as is one of the Evergreen State’s finest high school coaches and a former coach of the USA Junior National Team, Bryan Hoddle. Coach Hoddle, a former skeptic and now ardent hammer supporter, says, “I had just returned from the World Juniors in Montreal where I served as one of the coaches. I had an opportunity to watch the hammer all three nights. What a great event! It was extremely popular with the fans. We have several athletes in our state that could make the junior team in the hammer if given the chance. I hope we as a state include the hammer. After World Juniors, there is no doubt in my mind we should include the hammer.”

Where did Uncle Sam Go?

One must travel back to 1956 and Melbourne, Australia to witness the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” for an Olympic Gold Medallist in the Hammer, Hal Connolly. Due to a lack of youth programs in the United States one of the most unique, difficult to master, and fascinating events in track and field has fallen on hard times. Yet, as the flame is snuffed each week on CBS’ “Survivor” and the numbers dwindle, the ball and wire still persists under some difficult circumstances.

Recently, American track and field has mined a few gems from the fertile throwing grounds of USATF like American Record holders Anna Norgren-Mahon and Lance Deal. However, for most who twirl what appears to be a menacing implement, the meters fall far short to ascend the medal platform at most international contests.

The numbers paint a dismal picture. Garnering 19 medals, 7 of them Gold, the USA was the dominant hammer throwing nation in the Olympics from 1900-1956. However, from 1960-2000 only 5 American male hammer throwers even made the finals and Lance Deal’s 1996 Silver medal was US’ only hint of the glory years of yore.

As we approach Athens 2004, not one American male hammer thrower is within 12 feet of the present World Championship’s qualifying standard of 79.50 meters. Our top male hammer thrower in 2002 ranked 47th in the world. Only two women from the United States have surpassed today’s World Championship’s qualifying standard of 67.50 meters.

It is imperative that we return the hammer throw to our youth.

Why Americans Should Rebuild the Foundation:

In addition to regaining international prominence, there are numerous reasons why we should revive an event that most youth hammer throwers say, “Try it. You’ll like it.”

Having coached T&F for thirty years and now serving it as a USATF official, I feel comfortable saying that no competition in this arena caters to so many body types as the hammer throw. When asked to describe a hammer thrower, most agree that it takes a greater than normal amount of “gray matter,” a huge heart which oozes a determination to master, and a fair amount of athleticism. Hal Connolly says, “It helps to be a bit spacey for one seems to become habitually addicted to the unique feeling of orbiting in synchronization with the other celestial bodies of the universe.” Perhaps, you need to be a hammer thrower to appreciate that statement.

However, to note a difference in physical stature with teens in your area, compare Washington’s best preps from the 2002 season, state record holders, Britney Henry (166′ 10″), and Adam Midles (242′ 1″). Hal Connolly states, “In no other event in track and field or in any other sport will you find such a wide range of short to tall physical types.”

When considering the number who currently participate in the hammer, no other sporting activity holds more opportunity for youngsters to further their education. America’s collegiate coaches are now viewing the Evergreen State as a rich breeding ground for recruiting young throwers. An ever-increasing number of university rosters are dotted with those who spin the hammer from the Pacific Northwest. In just the last two years numerous Washington preps are now receiving advanced education courtesy of their ability to throw this unique implement.

Girls
Britney Henry (SE Louisiana), Brittany Hinchcliffe (Washington State), Ashley Pardun (Stanford), Sammy Jo Missel (Washington State), Cathy Schmidt (Idaho), Jessica Pluth (Stanford)

Boys
Adam Midles (Southern California), Glen Bingisser (Cal. State – Northridge), Dan Haakenson (Pacific Lutheran), Paul Etter (Clackamas CC), A.J. Rehwalt (Washington State), Ian Sellereite (North Idaho), David Cai (Whiman), Landon Merill (Clark CC)

At this time our top two high school girls, Jessica Beach and Theresa Schultz, and top two boys, Nick Owens, currently #2 all-time in the HS Weight Throw, and Kyle Cofield, are being recruited by major colleges for their talent with the ball and wire.

It Helps to Start Young:

“It is the most technical of the events, and it takes the longest to learn. As more and more universities are relying on foreign talent, it is imperative that American throwers start with the hammer at an early age,” says Lance Deal. Deal’s statement pretty well sums it up. Experience is the controlling factor. With the hammer that takes time.

The key to introducing any youngster to an activity is to make it and keep it FUN. Adam Midles, who started throwing at age 15, was fascinated and challenged by the dance-like rhythm it took to gain proficiency with the hammer. Midles, like Connolly and Deal, cautions that it is very important not to try to teach too much too soon. Avoid burnout. Keep it FUN and challenging.

Midles, younger brother, Zack, the heir apparent to the 2004 Washington State High School Boy’s Hammer Championship, thinks that a young athlete should be introduced to the basics of the hammer at 12. Glen Bingisser agrees with the younger Midles who thinks it very important to start an athlete young for that is when they are introduced to the other throws.

The Midles brothers and Bingisser agree with Hal Connolly. “Introduce the boy or girl to the five or six pound shortened hammer. The weight and length of the first implement is dependent on the age and size of the youngster.” Connolly went on to say, “Teach the youngster the technique of the hammer release using an aluminum baseball bat, then quickly transition to the appropriate modified hammer to instruct in multiple turns.”

Most of the throwers seem to feel that to develop any proficiency at the international level, it will take excellent coaching, dedication to all phases of training, and you might get there in 6 to 10 years.

The Development of the Youth Hammer in the Evergreen State:

In Washington there are some outstanding hammer coaches who ply their love of the event to eager youth. Many of these teens have picked up the reins of this unique and fascinating throw to become some of America’s best. Coaches like Dwight Midles, Dean Moore, John Sells and Arnie Tyler are the true pioneers of spinning the “ball and chain” in the Pacific Northwest.

When we came together in the late 1990’s, it was decided that we must reach out to other areas for the purpose of promoting this challenging activity. We sought to provide more opportunity to learn and compete, as well as, break down the barriers of ignorance that surround the hammer throw.

To set this process in motion, we gathered names of athletes, coaches, and fans that had expressed interest in the hammer. This became the base of a mailing list that is still growing. The address book, which now totals well over 300 names, ties us together and provides an outlet for relevant information on clinics, upcoming meets, past results, etc.

An important portion of the list, is the more than 50 addresses of media types (print, audio, and visual). Most of these addresses can be easily gleaned from the Internet. We found it practical to flood the media with “what’s happening to our state’s high school age hammer throwers” stories, results, and other relevant information. We have piqued enough interest with this constant barrage that Seattle’s ABC TV affiliate, KOMO Ch. 4, covered our first Washington Teen Hammer Championship (Memorial Day 2001). Seattle sports radio, KJR 950AM, has chosen our top male thrower from last season, Adam Midles, as an Athlete of the Week. The KING TV, Seattle’s NBC connection, will be doing a feature on this year’s crop of prep hammer throwers this spring on its High School Sports Blitz program. Also, major newspapers from around the state have given us excellent coverage at our season ending championship competitions, as well as, done features throughout the year on some of our athletes and coaches. So, it works. Media-types are snoopy by reputation. Tickle their fancy, and the word will get out.

While in high school, Glen Bingisser, a true aficionado of the hammer, created an excellent web page for the prep hammer www.hshammer.com. This informative page has serves to link teen throwers (estimated at over 200 in 19 states) across America. Coupling Bingisser’s online magazine with the excellent work done by Bob Gourley , who provides weekly national results/updates of the best prep hammer throwers in America, and you have an encyclopedia of good information on the development of hammer throwing amongst teens in the good ‘ol USA.

An ally that has proven very ready, willing and able to lend its support in Washington has been the two USATF associations, Pacific Northwest Officials Association and Inland Northwest Officials Association. The leadership of each, Ken Emerick (PNOA) who is also the USATF National Youth Committee Representative to the National Rules Committee, and Lawson and Ruth Van Kurren (INOA) has been very receptive and supportive in instituting the hammer as a competitive event in their Junior Olympic and youth competitions.

In Washington the state’s secondary school track and field coaches have a very organized and pro-active association. We felt it very important to hitch our wagon to this group. Many of our coaches belong to and are very active in the Washington State Track and Field Coaches Association.

At the annual WSTFCA Convention/Clinic we have been given the opportunity to speak on the benefits of implementing the hammer throw for our high school age athletes and offer clinics for the attending coaches on how to begin the mentoring of the novice thrower.

Last January the convention voted by more than a two-to-one majority to contest the hammer throw in exhibition at both of our state’s championship competitions (4A-3A and 2A-A-B). This was the last step prior to Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (the governing body of activities for all Washington’s preps) approval.

A huge factor in this positive vote for the hammer was the very impassioned oratory of four-time Olympian and the last US Gold Medallist in the hammer throw, Hal Connolly. Obviously, it helps to have an American track and Field icon speak on behalf of your cause, and it’s not that difficult to accomplish. Hal is an extremely willing proponent of initiating the hammer for our country’s youth. Contact himÉ Who knows, if the time is right, you might find Hal willing and able to make an appearance in your state to help promote the cause of the youth hammer.

For excellent FREE tutorials on the hammer for the coach and athlete, download them from the last US Gold Medallist’s website www.hammerthrow.com

With the aid of the president of WSTFCA, Chuck Bowden, the hammer coaches were put on the Summer meeting agenda of the WIAA Executive Board. Coach John Schultz was the lead presenter of a very positive Power Point program that the hammer committee thought would address all the concerns and questions of the board. The board appeared receptive, but Coach Bowden was told in the Fall that all the WSTFCA proposals were turned down. We were told by WIAA that we need to refine our proposal and be persistent. Refine, we have. Back to square one? No way! We are miles ahead.

Perhaps, the most important role of the many hammer advocates in Washington State is education. Not only do coaches need to understand the techniques of hammer throwing, but also, it is vital to imprint the necessity of SAFETY upon them. A set of suggested safety rules penned by our Washington hammer coaches is available upon request.

Informing them on the use of “alternate hammers,” such as the “chain hammer” being marketed by Gill or the soft landing hammer (similar to an indoor shot put) sold by SPRINCO is vital. Many administrators may find these implements much more palatable when considering safety, damage to fields and existing cages. These are excellent implements to use with beginning throwers.

To enlist a clinic speaker who with community aid has built his/her own hammer facility may prove worthwhile in helping coaches hurdle the expense/SAFETY barrier so often thrown in their paths by athletic directors. For more information contact Lloyd Pugh or Arnie Tyler

Other than the yearly WSTFCA clinic sessions on coaching the young hammer thrower many other clinics have surfaced in the Evergreen State. It is important to contact the clinic directors, to gain their confidence and support. Bryan Hoddle who is the T&F director of two of the biggest multi-sport clinics in the Pacific Northwest, November’s Best in the West and January’s PEMCO, has made it a point to give the mentors of our young the opportunity to learn the techniques of spinning the ball.

Many of our state’s college coaches are more than willing to speak at organized training clinics or set up their own. Dynamic throws coach at Pacific Lutheran University, Jerry Russell, sponsors hammer clinics each winter. It has been a tradition for Coach Russell to hold a clinic for young athletes, as well as, a learn-by-doing clinic for coaches. Lex Strom, a competitor in the 1996 Olympic Trials and developer of the “chain hammer,” reaches out to many in SW Washington. Lex has built a wonderful hammer facility at Clark CC where he is currently coaching the throwers.

Coach Debra Farwell, the mistress of the “ball and chainers” at Washington State University, has been more than eager to travel and speak/instruct our state’s youngsters and coaches. Coach Farwell is also instrumental in staging the Cougar Invite which is one of the many fine invitationals available to our prep hammer throwers.

Like Coach Farwell, the passion our coaches have for the event is manifest in that we will arrange a FREE, on- the-spot clinic with little lead-time and that they provide some type of competition with the weight or hammer every weekend from January 5 through August 16.

Some of these same coaches have provided hammer competitions at major invitational track and field meets. At last count we have eight major hammer invites during the spring season. The newest of these is the (four state/Canada) Sandberg Invite to be contested the first Friday of May in Spokane. WSTFCA President Chuck Bowden with help from Arnie Tyler will be staging the competition. From these meets our top 16 boys and girls are selected to compete at the state hammer championships which have been held on Memorial Day the last two years.

We have created two very visible focus events for our youth hammer throwers in the Evergreen State. The Washington Teen Hammer Championships is entering its third year. It is surprising how eager folks are to sponsor an event that brings so many of the state’s youth who excel in this event to their area. The first year we staged this event, Pacific Lutheran University offered its site free of charge, as has Washington State University for the 2003 event. The Cougars are even willing to provide free room for the contestants.

Our athletes qualify for state by establishing one of the top 16 marks at one of our major hammer invitationals. We charge them a small entry fee to cover the cost of an attractive T-shirt (with our very popular Hammerhead Shark logo) and a first class medal for the top 8 in each division. Our meet directors have provided a full team of USATF certified officials for these championship contests. Insurance coverage for the first two competitions has been obtained from USATF ($45 in our area for the sanction fee).

Last season we held our first hammer all-star competition with the state of Oregon. This was conducted at the newly reborn Washington vs. Oregon high school all-star competition (Meet of Champions) held the first weekend of June in the Portland area. The top four from each state in each division faced off in this very popular inaugural.

2002 ushered in what many in youth hammer circles felt could develop into a national youth hammer championship. At the annual Rhode Island (only state to sanction the event for its high schools) Hammerama, a team sponsored/accompanied by one of our finest coaches, John Sells, took on a squad from the New England state. Contact either Sells , or Gourley for more information.

I hope it is obvious that we are still very committed to growth for the sake of our young hammer throwers and this fascinating event. At a recent meeting of the Washington State Hammer Coaches, it was decided to create a financial committee, which will solicit sponsorship. The funds raised will be used to help new pockets of interest appropriately introduce the hammer. Money will be available to help these virgin areas establish a proper throwing facility, purchase implements, setup clinics/education, and provide more first class competitions.

2002 USATF National Convention:

The heartland of America served as the meeting place for the recently held annual gathering of the top officials of USA Track and Field. In Kansas City, the National Youth Committee met to decide if youth ages 15-18 should be able to conduct a hammer competition in facilities deemed safe. The final vote was 22 in favor while 26 voted against this proposal for our youth. The USATF Rules Committee then tabled the decision so that the proposal may be revived at next year’s meeting in Greensboro, NC.

From the Rules Committee meeting emerged two very positive occurrences. First, Youth T&F will form a task force to study and give feedback on the proposal. This group will be made up of members from Men’s and Women’s Track and Field, Masters T&F, and the Development Committee. Secondly, Youth T&F was instructed by the Rules Committee to provide a procedure for selecting qualified male and female representatives in the hammer throw for the World Youth Championships in Canada next summer.

Another very positive turn seems to have been taken at the convention. George Mathews, the President of USATF Masters T&F, is crafting a plan to have Masters throwers serve in consulting capacities with our nation’s youth clubs. The Master’s wealth of experience and love of the hammer should plant deep seeds in the future of America’s throwers. If you have an interest in being a part of this plan, contact George at

What’s Ahead:

The numbers who see this wondrous event as an opportunity for many more to participate in our most popular youth activity, track and field, are snowballing. It is truly unique in the type of individual to which it caters. Just like the witches in Salem, the unfounded, voodoo-like fears of the hammer will dissipate as we gain more positive experience and as more become involved. I offer as an example of the assets of our youth hammer ledger the prestigious Mt SAC Relays, which will offer a high school age hammer competition this next April 17. This should be a fine stage for the best in the west orÉto show their stuff. For more info contact Meet Director Scott Davis (an ardent hammer advocate) Ssd@aol.com

If this article has provoked positive thought and elicits some sort of pro-hammer action, our youth will be served.

If your organization decides to follow the route traveled in Washington, we would advise that initially you don’t ask for too much, be positive, and anticipate and answer all questions in your presentation to governing bodies of youth activities. As you may imagine, the most asked questions involving the implementation of the hammer concern SAFETY (see Rhode Island High School’s where there are no reported insurance claims in decades). Other popular queries involve proper facilities from which to throw (see use of alternate hammers which can be thrown in existing discus cages), damage to fields (alternate devices are easy on fields), and expenses (what will we get for our money?).

I don’t mean to preach, but sometimes a bit of locker room oratory helps to buoy the spirits and rally the troops. In facing the hurdles that will come your way, it is vital to be united in purpose and effort, as well as, to stay positive and be willing to “give a little to get a little.” Persevere in your attempt to recruit and train coaches. Bringing one into the fold is a victory. Just as the snowball rolling down the hill grows, your passion and effort will be rewarded. Do NOT expect too much too soon!

If this former history prof might borrow a passage from The Edge written by Howard E. Ferguson. It is called, “Abraham Lincoln Didn’t Quit.” It just seems to fit. I think it trivializes the frustrations we may experience in reinstating this wonderful event to its rightful position of greatness in USA Track and Field.

“Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout his life. He lost eight elections, twice failed in business and suffered a nervous breakdown. But Lincoln, who most historians consider America’s greatest leader, was a champion. He never gave up!”

1831 – Failed in business
1832 – Defeated for the Legislature
1833 – Second failure in business
1836 – Suffered nervous breakdown
1838 – Defeated for Speaker
1840 – Defeated for Elector
1843 – Defeated for Congress
1848 – Defeated for Congress
1855 – Defeated for Senate
1856 – Defeated for Vice President
1858 – Defeated for Senate
1860 – Elected President


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