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Masters Track and Field:  The Second Dance

 

This section was written for a separate semi-autobiography project.  Please consider this as a personal story than a website summary.

Read about the journey from buying used throwing shoes, as I had no idea if I could be an athlete at sixty, to winning two World Masters Championships.

I started my masters throwing career on Father’s Day, Sunday June 19, 2011. I was fifty-eight and a half years old and pretty fit from indoor treadmill running and upper body weightlifting. I was curious if I could throw again and reasoned that I would use the 1K discus when I turned sixty years old which at a body weight of 183-185 lbs. seem something I could handle. Not being that committed, I bought a pair of used Nike throwing shoes off eBay for $10 plus shipping and the cheapest discus I could find.

Kendal was gracious enough to come along to Concordia College in River Forest, Illinois. I threw maybe ten standing throws and twenty with a turn. We measured the best throw at 38.50M. While I was “gym fit” I used a lot of muscles that I had not used for nearly thirty years. It seemed to take around two weeks to get over the session!

I looked at the ranking lists for M60 Masters discus throwers. It would take around 145 feet or 44M to get in the top ten in the United States. This seemed a reasonable target based for my first season. I did not throw again until November 2011.  I was visiting Jeff in Florida.  Jeff was attending Rollins College in Winter Park, Orlando; studying International Business and working towards an MBA while on a basketball scholarship. While I was in Orlando, I scheduled a session with Andy Vince, at a track facility in Clermont. I took quite a few throws; both standing and turns. They were sort of OK around 36-38M. My plan was to train for a year and be ready to compete in January 2013 once I had turned sixty.

I would come to Florida around once a month, sometimes every other month, in 2012. I gradually started throwing over 130 feet / 40M and by the end of the year was up to 140 feet /42-43M.  I trained in Chicago at Concordia College two to three times a week when the weather was OK, and worked out in the weight room at the health club in Oak Park, Illinois where I lived. I added cleans, front squats and deadlifts. I also did some sprinting and jumping on the artificial turf at the high school soccer field, or on grass depending what worked in my schedule.

I turned sixty on December 31, 2012. In January 2013, I made my debut at the Clermont track, in a throws competition that Andy Vince had organized. I threw five throws into the net of the cage.  My one legal throw was 37.92M. Not the start I was hoping for!  I met some of the local Masters Throwers at that competition and several high school throwers as well. I started to become part of this new community, which has expanded over the years from this local beginning to a worldwide network of friends.

By the time the second competition came around, probably in February 2013, Andy suggested I try the hammer, which I did.  I had truly not thrown the hammer for over thirty years. I did two turns and managed over 40M, which wasn’t too bad apparently. In the discus, I still only threw 38M, again suffering from the same technical fault of under turning out of the back of the circle. The next day, I stayed on for a training session with Andy, and tried the weight throw, which is a shorter, heavier version of the hammer. On my first ever throw I threw 16M+. The weight felt good to throw, and was something that was quite natural for me.

By the end of 2013 I had thrown the discus 45.98M and ranked eleventh in the United States, just outside my goal of the top ten. Ironically, I was ranked ninth in the hammer with 41.87M and eighth in the weight with 15.84M. Also, as I tried the five events of the throw’s pentathlon, I was seventh in the US. The super weight is another hammer-based event, but the weight is 44 lbs. / 20 kg. I ended the year ranked fifth in the US and world in the super weight. The super weight is really only thrown in North America and Australia. My World Rankings for my 60th year were as follows:  Discus twenty-first; Hammer thirty-fifth; Weight Throw twenty-ninth; Throws Pentathlon twenty-third and super weight, as noted, fifth.

I had travelled to the US National Indoor Championships in Landover, Maryland and the US Outdoor Championships in Olathe, Kansas; and had attended the Southeastern Masters in Raleigh, NC. The World Masters Championships were in Porto Alegre, Brazil in October, which was my first international competition. Unfortunately, I got a virus just before leaving Chicago and was very sick for the whole time and several weeks into November on my return. I did make the final in the discus, hammer and weight; finishing seventh, sixth and seventh respectively.

It was really important to go through the ridged process that is involved at international events. First you have to pick up your registration. Second you have to “declare” for your event, which is a separate step from being registered. Third, when you get to go to your event to compete, you have to find, and go to, the “call room”, which is an assembly area for athletes to gather for their event. You have to be at the call room, exactly on time. Then you get taken out to the throwing location as a group. It pays to be early to make sure you get a chair and shade or protection from rain. Then the warm ups begin.  You get two warm-up throws, in the order of throwers listed. In Porto Allegre, there were thirty-seven throwers, that they should have split into three flights, but they didn’t.   Warm-ups took an hour and a half, plus the hour in the call room. Once the qualifying competition got underway, if you threw 42M+ you qualified for the final. I did reach this standard on my first throw, packed my bags and left. The final, for the top twelve, was the next day. After three throws, the top eight get three more for a total of six. All of this was new to me as a master’s thrower.  In 1975, I represented Britain in the World Student Games in Rome.  This was over thirty years prior to Porto Alegre, but some of the experience in Rome was helpful in terms of managing the World Masters Championship.

Prior to, and after, the World Championship there were great opportunities to travel.  After landing in Sao Paolo, Brazil; my friend and I visited the Iguazu Water falls on the borders of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. An amazing sight to see that led that Elenore Roosevelt to say after seeing the Iguazu Falls “poor Niagara”. Following the event, we travelled to Buenos Aires in Argentina and then to Santiago, Chile. A short flight and we were in Pucon in the Chilean Lake District, visiting Sean Forman from our home town in Oak Park, Illinois.  Lifetime memories and rich experiences. Clearly, by travelling to international track events around the world, the opportunity is created to explore near and far, and meet up with friends on occasion.

Even though I had lived in the United States for thirty-five years at the age of sixty I have represented Britain in international events. I am a dual citizen of the United States and the United Kingdom. There are several reasons is chosen to compete for Britain. First my performances in my young throwing career are still in the British Athletics rankings: commercially housed in the “Power of 10”. Second, entries to international events are open to all and there are no qualifying standards, and you have to pay to compete. Masters’ athletes are not selected to compete for their country. If athletes were selected, I would have considered representing the United States. Third, by representing Britain, the opportunity to compete in international competitions is doubled as I can compete in the European Masters Championship, which are often in great locations and are highly competitive.

From sixty to sixty-four, I made steady improvement in gross strength, specific strength and improved technique. As a result, my distances increased, as opposed to getting worse with the impact of aging. In the United States I began to medal in the USATF National Championships, and the USATF Throws Championships. In 2014, I competed in the European Outdoor Championships in Izmir, Turkey.  Jeff and Kendal came too and we spent time with John and Pat Watts while in Izmir, including a day trip to Ephesus. I was a finalist in the discus, hammer and weight.  Following the event Kendal, Jeff and I visited Cappadocia in central, southern Turkey and looked at phallic rock formations.  We followed this excursion with a few days in Istanbul. The pattern was beginning to be established that a championship will be blended with travel. Also, I was starting to form relationships with repeat championship participants, which has provided richness to my life in many ways.

In 2015, Jo Phelps and I went to Lyon, France, to compete in the outdoor World Championship. followed by an excursion in Tuscany. I made the final in the discus and weight, and the hammer, but in the latter the officials made an error, which placed a guy from Estonia in, my, eight place. When we left Lyon, we stayed in Rada, Tuscany, just south of Florence. The hotel was recommended by Ralph Frugaletti who was the winner of the discus in Lyon. Jo, in particular, loved the hotel, room and views.

In 2016, I went to Ancona Italy for the European Indoor Championships.  World and European “Indoor” Championships also have the long throws (discus, hammer and javelin) outside, but do not include a Throws Pentathlon. I again spent time with John and Pat Watts and also Ian Cooley, a British hammer guy. I won my first international medal in Ancona, a silver in the weight throw. I had to ask the wife of the Finish winner where to go for the medals and the procedures. I explained that this was my first medal and did not understand the medal procedures. She opened up her answer with “Ah, so it begins!” with a smile. I have not forgotten her empathy and the somewhat prophetic statement.

 

For the trip to Ancona, I first flew to Manchester in England and stayed a few days with Jeff who was playing basketball professionally for the Cheshire Phoenix in the British Basketball League. After the Ancona event, I flew back to Manchester to watch a home game, before returning to the US. We were joined at this game by Uncle Ron and wife Chris.  Uncle Ron was the last survivor of my father’s relatives in his generation. A super guy.

To this point in the above description, it should be apparent that Masters competition has been merged with both National and International travel. The competition, provides an initial anchor with travel opportunities both before, often while getting over jet lag, and after the event. I will shift gears a little now and describe my transition from a participant, to a contender to world champion.

In 2017, in my last year of M60, things really started to improve. In March, I had a great start to the year in a Throws Pentathlon in Lockhart Texas, at Carol Finsrud’s Atlas Field. I threw 45.20M in the hammer; 11.38M with the shot; finally broke 50M in the discus with 50.44M; the javelin went 29.48M and the Weight 17.63; all added together this was 3911 points. In April 2017, we journeyed to the World Masters Games in Auckland New Zealand.  I threw a 50M warm up in the discus, but threw poorly and just grabbed second place in between two Russian throwers. I ended up with golds in the hammer and weight a personal record in the hammer of 45.97M and another personal record of 18.33M in the weight. As noted, I got a silver in the discus and also a silver in the Throws Pentathlon.  At 64 years old, I was still ranked fifth in the world in the discus and surprisingly fourth in the Throws Pentathlon. Graduating to the M65 age group was looking pretty good.

At sixty-five, 2018 was a magic year, but not without both drama and baggage. I started the year by throwing a lifetime best with the 5K hammer of 47M+ in Ft Lauderdale in February. The following month I threw the discus 50.08M in Atlas Field in Lockhart, Texas. Fifty meters at sixty-five is a quite rare. My throws Pentathlon at the same meet was 4000+.  Going into the European Indoors in Madrid, Spain I was ranked first in the world in the hammer, weight and discus. I won the hammer, the first of my three events, by 7cm over Andrez Piakowski from Poland. Next, I dominated the discus, throwing 49M+ into a tricky wind that turned my winning throw over, causing it to tomahawk into the ground. Former world champion and one of the throwers I looked up to a few years earlier, Milos Gryk from the Chech Republic, was second. He was 3-4 years older than me. This 49M throw was probably the best of my M65 age group.  It felt good, and had a lot of power. The last event was the weight, which took place in the early morning of the Friday. I threw close to 18M in the warm ups, nice and easy.  As soon as the competition started, I was struggling around third or fourth. In the final round I just got aggressive and threw 16, XXM for the win. A triple European Champion to start the year. The trip to Madrid was a good dry run for the world championship, also to be held in Spain, in Malaga, in August.

I repeated this triple at the United States Championships, held in Spokane, Washington, before leaving for Malaga.  I had also thrown several hammer PRs, with a best of 47.90M. This still led the world. Normally, there are a couple of “real” hammer throwers that throw further, but my nearly 48M was good for a non-specialist. I arrived at the World Masters Championship in Malaga, leading the world in four events: the hammer, discus, weight and throws pentathlon.

The hammer came first, and was held in the main stadium. I had a warm up throw of 47.50M. There was a bit if drizzle in the first few rounds and I was third or fourth. I then took the lead with 45.XXM.  In the last round, Andrez Piakowski switched to two turns from three, and took the lead by 12cm.  I hit a 44M throw on my final attempt, and ended up with the silver medal. To be honest, I had snatched the win from Andrez Piakowski in Madrid, and he did well to beat me in Malaga.  A fair fight. I was satisfied with the result, even though of course it would have been nice to win.

Next up was the discus at a secondary stadium in Torremolinos, the coastal town next to Malaga. A few days earlier, I had inspected the circle, it had fifty-year-old concrete with a fist sized hole in the middle of the circle.  The fix was to skim coat the circle with floor leveling compound.  This is a rapid drying coating in the cement family, but super slick. I like fast circles, but the grass sprinklers were next to the circle and made the circle too slippery to execute good technique. I had been expecting to throw 48-49M, which would guarantee the win.  In the first three rounds I had only throw 43M. In round four, I threw a 45M throw. But in round five Milos Gryc, exceed my distance pushing me to second. Still in round five, I responded with 46.66M to regain the lead.  Gryc, hit the net in round six and I became World Masters Champion in the M65 age group. The distance was lower than I expected but, with the circle issues and an unhelpful left-hand wind it was all that was needed to win.

A few days later came the weight throw. The organizers decided to use an indoor wooden circle, which was illegal, but they needed an extra throwing area to make the schedule work. The problem was that it was left out overnight and there was a rain shower. This made the wood very sticky. My footwork in the hammer and weight was not the best, so I had a tough time getting a decent throw. I really should have won this event, but had to settle for the silver. Part of my performance was that I had let the circle issue get to me.

As always, the throws pentathlon is at the end of the championship schedule. The event took place at Torremolinos with the slippery circle for the hammer and discus and the wooden circle for the weight. In the opening event, I only threw around 41M in the hammer, fouling 45M in round, slipping around, and fouling in round three.  From this point forward I was seething and not thinking about throwing. To be competitive I needed to score high in the hammer weight and discus. I threw poorly in all of these events, with the lowest distance throws for several years. I ended up fourth, which was actually surprisingly high given how poorly I had done. Should have had the silver medal, but that was not to be.

After Malaga, I was flat for a long time. It had been an immense amount of effort for seven years to get a world championship. Being emotionally flat is probably pretty normal, but other pressures started to creep into the mix. I felt I had to win.  For some this maybe a motivating force, but I was not ready. Actually, I did continue to do well in 2019, but it all seemed unremarkable. In September 2019, I competed in the European Championships in Venice, Italy. I was still throwing quite well in the hammer, but came sixth in Venice.  I did win a silver medal in the weight throw, and was close to the winner on distance. In the discus, my throwing was uninspired, as they say. I was not having a good day and was in the bronze medal position going into round six. A Frenchman moved into third and I finished fourth. And then came the throws pentathlon. The event started at 8:30 AM and finished at 5:30 PM.  I learned my lesson from Malaga, taking each event one at a time and trying to score a handful of points more in each event. At the end of the day, I got the silver medal. Fourth place was a mere 20 points behind. This still is one of my most satisfying performances as a Masters athlete.

Because of the Covid 19 pandemic the World Championships that were to be held in Toronto, Canada, were cancelled. The irony, is I was the reigning world champion from 2018 to 2022 in the discus; a four-year reign instead of two!

 

In Florida, we had two private throwing facilities that could be used, with caution, for competitions during 2020 and 2021 and I was able to continue to compete Throwing the discus 47. 31M in 2020 and 46.26M in 2021   In March of 2020, Gottfried Gassenbaur, Andy Vince and I had a discussion about putting on a virtual throw’s competition, perhaps getting throwers from around the world to compete. This idea quickly morphed, and Gottfried and I organized a virtual competition for all the track and field events.  John Seto, who runs the website for the ranking lists, became the engine behind the scenes creating and entry, payment and results website. My role was primarily in social media marketing, strategy and tactics. In the end we had 1500 athletes from sixty-one countries. This was very satisfying.  To be able to offer people a chance to continue to enjoy what they enjoy was rewarding. An element emerged that was a good lesson. Out of the sixty-one countries, many were smaller and/or from the third world. Athletes in these countries could seldom afford to travel to the live world championships. Much was learned about the needs and challenge in these countries. A spin off of the virtual championships might be to focus on the smaller countries in the future.  At the time of writing, this has not taken place.

In 2022, I attended the World Masters Championship in Tampere, Finland. I was in the last year of the M65 age groups at sixty-nine, but had the longest discus throw of the competitors present at the competition. I had competed in the hammer a few days before the discus and finished XXX.  I would have needed a seasons best to get a medal, but never-the- less underperformed. In the discus, I was being careful to set up the throw at the back of the circle, too careful.  I slowed down below the necessary speed to effectively turn and drive across into the throw.  I came a very disappointing sixth. The event was won with a throw well within my capabilities, but the group of throwers was tightly packed, as are any championship. I just did not get the job done. A couple of days later came the weight throw. It seemed like a redux of the discus was about to happen.  After three throws I made it into the final in eighth place, the last above the cutoff. The men who were first and second had those places locked up. The bronze medal was being contested by three or four guys. I basically, with my wife Jo’s advice, just got more aggressive. I moved into fifth place. Multiple former world hammer and weight champion Vasilis Maganas from Greece had moved into third.  He and I both had long warm up throws and foul throws, but we were both struggling. In the final round I moved from fifth to third place, beating Maganas’ throw buy 7cm. Got the bronze.

Meanwhile I was still fuming at myself regarding my discus throwing. The Throws Pentathlon was a chance to test out a solution to my discus throwing. I was the second-best hammer thrower in the Throws Pentathlon, but as usual had a terrible shot put.  When the discus came, you have three throws. I did two good warm ups, got a decent throw in to secure points in round one, which is the normal strategy. In round two, I threw the longest discus throw in the event and beat the distance, in worse conditions, that won the individual discus. I know this was too little too late, but it made a big difference to my take away view of my performance at the championship in general.

On New Years Eve 2022, I turned seventy. The start of a new five-year age group. It’s one of the fun parts of getting older! In 2023, my attention was on the World Indoor (the long throws are outside) Championship in Torun, Poland at the end of March 2023 and the European Outdoor Championships in Pescara, Italy in September 2023. In my first competition of 2023, I achieved one of my goals by breaking the M70 British Masters Record, with 43.92M, in late January. By March I was leading the world in the hammer, discus, weight and throws pentathlon, admittedly in the early part of the year. We made the journey to Poland.  I was in pretty good physical shapes and expected to get a medal in the weight and discus and if I threw well, the hammer. In the weight, I threw two throws in the cage and on out of the sector, which meant I failed to make the final with no mark. I should have been first or second, but again screwed up. I don’t really have reliable technique in the hammer and weight.  The plan is to simplify the events by switching from three turns in the hammer to two.  This should make the hammer and weight movements easier with similar properties.  Needless to say, my hammer did not go well and I finished fourth.  Three “real” hammer throwers won the medals, leaving me the tall, fast guy who could, but didn’t.

The discus was the last event in Poland.  The weather had been around 33-36F / 1-2C, but was dry for the discus. I took one warm up throw, because it went about 44M and was a pattern of what I wanted to replicate in the competition. I opened with 42.77M, Mylos Gryc, former multiple world champion from the Cech Republic, threw 42.62M also in round one. In round two, the Dutch thrower Jan Van der Hoof came close with 42.50M. The dynamic of the competition after that was interesting as we all tried to throw another meter more.  The longer we stayed out in the cold weather, the more energy we spent trying to keep warm. We all came close, but no one improved. Going into my final throw I was already the world champion again, for a second time. It was different my win in Malaga. But, as always, they are hard to win.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following event in Poland we continued our trip east, circumnavigating the globe. All in all, the masters athletics flame drew us not just to Poland. Our journey included: Dublin, Eire; Bristol, England; Torun, Poland; Doha, Qatar; Bangkok, Thailand; Siem Reep, Cambodia; Phuket, Thailand; Singapore; and Perth, Brisbane and Sydney, Australia. Six weeks away from home, fifteen air flights and magical memories. I write this on the plane from Sydney, on May 1, 2023. Time to get back and work hard on training and our interests. The focus will now be the European Championships in Italy in September, with more add on journeys to create indelible memories and another chance to meet good friends across the seas.

Amazing Footnote

Below are two photgraphs.  The one on the right was taken in 1974, at the Northern Counties Athletic Championships in Britain. On the podium is John Watts, me and Geoff Tyler. The one on the left also has, (left to right), me John Watts and Geoff Tyler; along with Andy Vince my friend and current coach.  The well aged group met up in Malaga, where I won the M65 and John won the M75 discus. I had net seen Geoff for forty years. This is an example of the special nature of sport and the long running enjoyment of training and competition. 

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