Photos courtesy Victah Sailer / Photorun.net
DES MOINES, IOWA – Just a few hundred hammer throw devotees were there to see it, but they can count themselves among the most fortunate.
Just how fortunate?
They got to witness the greatest day a young American hammer man has ever had, that’s how fortunate.
All year long, the rumblings out of Princeton University were that freshman hammerman Conor McCullough was ready to step into the ring and do something truly sensational.
And Friday, June 25, was the day he delivered on all that optimism.
All he did was break the American junior record three times in a sensational six-throw series.
McCullough’s numbers, please: 244 feet, 10 inches in round 1; the record-smashing 256-10 in round 2; 25-10 in round 3; 236-5 in round 4; 254-11 in round 5, and finally, the near-record 256-9 in round 6.
The USA hasn’t had an Olympic hammer throw champion Harold Connolly upset all the odds and claimed the gold at Melbourne in 1956. These days, it’s septuagenarian Connolly spearheading USA junior thrower development efforts. And it’s McCullough – whose father is two-time Irish Olympic hammer thrower Conor McCullough Sr. – who is a poster boy for all that progress.
With the small crowd – including coaches of many rival colleges - yelling encouragement from its vantage point atop a nearby slope, McCullough was powerful and controlled and consistent.
Some hammer throwers have serious problems staying within the confines of the seven-foot circle, as they wind up, whirl four times, and let the 16-pound iron ball and its steel wire and handle fly far, far downfield.
Not McCullough. He was the only thrower in the top six to have six legal throws.
“Yeah, it went well,” said McCullough later, with total modesty.
“I was coming in just hoping to do well, to put up a good mark.”
Call that incredible understatement. It wasn’t just good. It was tree-mendous. It wasn’t just a single good mark. It was six of them.
“The first throw was just to relax and make sure I was in the finals,” said McCullough. “After that, I was working on a few technical things and the second one, it came together. The last one, I fixed a few things and threw it (nearly ) further, too.”
So now McCullough and second-placer Justin Welch (230-7) become America’s hammer throwing delegates to the World Junior (19-and-under) Championships, coming up July 19-25 in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.
“I know there are some Eastern Europeans who are right up there with me (on the 2010 year lists), so it will be a good competition.”
Actually, there’s just other athlete ahead of him worldwide. That’s Akos Hudi of Hungary, who is barely ahead of McCullough at 257-1.
With his 256-10, McCullough surged ahead of such rivals as Daniel Szabo of Hungary (who has done 251-9) and Alaa El-Din El-Ashos of Egypt (247-8) on the global charts.
The McCullough performance was a perfect tribute to Princeton coach Fred Samara’s precise planning. Wisely, Samara limited McCullough’s competitive outings to a precious few, even skipping the NCAA Regionals and ensuing finals to focus on both his Princeton academics and this day at Drake.
As McCullough put it, “the Worlds is a much bigger deal.”
So now he joins most of America’s finest young talent on the team bound for Moncton. The Moncton-bound team will have many New Jersey ties.
Two of the brightest - Ajee’ Wilson of Neptune and Robby Andrews of Manalapan - will run the 800 meters for USA in Canada.
Another Princeton freshman star, Peter Callahan, will be USA's top man at 1500 meters after a 3:46.25 triumph here.
Wilson, the 16-year-old Neptune High School sophomore representing Shore Athletic Club, was the youngest runner lining for the final of the Junior women's 800, but outclassed the field of her elders wth a front-running race that brought her across the wire a narrow winner in 2:05.75.
Taking the lead at the crack of the starting gun, Wilson grabbed a five-meter lead at the 400-meter mark, passed in just over 61 seconds, and still held most of that edge through 600 meters before the field began closing on her down the homestretch. With her advantage narrowing rapidly, Wilson had just enough left to hold off North Dakota's Laura Roesler (2:05.80), Arkansas' Stephanie Brown (2:06.11) and five others.
"I just wanted to take it out early, and not get caught in traffic," said Wilson. "I knew there were some older, more experienced runners behind me, but I thought I could win it this way.
"Sure I knew they were closing in on me, but I had no idea they were that close. But when I looked, they were right there. I am glad the finish line was where it was."
After winning the NCAA indoor 800-meter title in March, and running a 1:45.45 for the two-lap distance in the first round of the NCAA outdoor title meet, Andrews, the 19-year-old University of Virginia freshman who'd starred at Manalapan High School, was the solid choice to win the Junior men's 800 title.
Trouble was that Penn State freshman Casimir Loxsom, a former Connecticut scholastic star, had other ideas.
It was Loxsom ahead by two strides past the 600-meter mark, where Andrews, who'd been last through the first 400 and then moved up gradually, began his patented sprint finish, considered one of the best in the sport.
But there was no catching Loxsom, either. Andrews just couldn't close the gap. It was Loxsom first across the line in 1:47.45, with Andrews second in 1:47.75, settling for a silver medal just the third time in his brilliant freshman year.
"Cas (Loxsom) was awesome, just awesome," lauded Andrews. "He truly deserved winning this one.
This was his day."
More Metro area cheers were reserved for Shelby Greany.
The Providence College freshman from Suffern, N.Y. was a decisive winner of the Junior women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase in 10:27.15, leaving runner-up Eleanor Fulton (10:37.84) far down the track.
One more most happy winner was Junior women’s javelin thrower Allison Updike of Eastern Pennsylvania's Tamaqua Area (Pa.) High School.
With an all-out final-round throw of 167 feet, 2 inches - her lifetime best - Updike, a high school junior, rallied to win the gold medal and turn the tables on higher-rated foes.
"I couldn't be happier," said Updike, after final results were posted. "Representing the nation in the world meet, that's going to be amazing."
Updike not only beat second-place Avione Allgood of Las Vegas, Nevada, by over four feet but easily surpassed the World Juniors qualifying minimum of 162-5.
"That was one tremendous, clutch effort," said Barry Krammes, the nationally ranked men's javelin thrower who is a Tamaqua volunteer throws coach.
"She's always been a great competitor and today she proved it. When you come from behind like that, it's the mark of a champion."
Comeback efforts have been part of the Updike game plan for the past year. A top star in soccer and basketball as well, she endured a long, uphill battle to regain full fitness after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee.
"She worked as hard through the rehab process as she did training for the javelin," said Krammes. "A lot of other athletes might not have hung in there the way she did. But that's not Allison. She is a very special athlete."