PRINCETON, N.J. – It didn’t take a rocket scientist – and quite a few of them inhabit this Ivy League campus – to determine that the old Broadmead area throwing facility, just around the corner from Princeton University’s principal track and field venue, Weaver Stadium, wasn’t going to meet future needs.
A state-of-the-art hammer throwing facility was going to be needed to keep pace with the state-of-the-art hammer thrower Princeton was about to welcome into its Class of 2013.
And so Princeton coach Fred Samara – and the Tigers’ facility team - had it done. A superb new long-throws venue was constructed on the east side of Lake Carnegie – near the site of the Princeton cross country course and a few additional blocks distant from Weaver Stadium.
Now, Californian Conor McCullough Jr. - the brightest young hammer thrower to come out of the high school ranks since Walter Henning graduated from St. Anthony’s of Long Island and moved on to North Carolina and then LSU – can whirl his implement to his heart’s content and know it’s not going to get lost in the shrubbery, or endanger passing vehicles, or pose a threat to meandering Tiger teammates, neighbors or wildlife.
When Henning was putting his immense skills to work at St. Anthony’s, high school track and field enthusiasts considered him the absolute ultimate. He heaved the indoor 25-pound weight to a national-record 86 feet, 3 3/4 inches, then turned to the hammer outdoors and whirled the high-school weight (12- pound) implement 252-6, the six-kilometer junior hammer 238-2 and 16-pound senior ball-and-chain 210-11.
In the summer of 2008, after a sensational freshman year at North Carolina, Henning traveled to the IAAF World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland and delivered a 252-4 performance with the 6K implement to not only claim a gold medal and break the meet record in the process, but give the USA its first men’s international hammer championship since Harold Connolly’s victory in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.
But – amazing but true – the USA national junior development program, with Connolly himself serving as its chairman, cheerleader, inspiration and between all that, fund-raiser - would produce yet another sensational hammer prodigy in short order.
Enter Conor McCullough Jr.
His dad, Conor McCullough Sr., had taken up the hammer at an early age growing up in Ireland, and that ability took him to Boston University, stardom on the Terrier team, selection to Ireland’s national team, and trips to the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games.
So it seemed destiny for Conor Jr. to carry on the tradition, and that’s exactly what transpired.
Growing up in Southern California, he threw his first hammer at age 12.
“I just tagged along with dad on weekends,” he remembers. “He’d be throwing and I just joined him.”
Quickly, the younger McCullough - who also dabbled in football, basketball and volleyball - was learning the rudiments of the hammer event and spinning his way to dazzling improvements every step along the way.
By his senior year at Chaminade College Preparatory School in West Hills, California, he was knocking on the door of all the Henning records - once considered “so far out there” beyond the reach of any American schoolboy that they were destined to endure for decades. It didn’t work out that way.
Just a year after Henning’s monster throws capped a huge 2007 indoor season, McCullough - now coached by his dad, with Connolly serving as advisor - did even better.
He sent the 25-pound weight on a journey of 87 feet, 10 3/4 inches to highlight his 2008 junior-year indoor campaign. And he demolished the high school (12-pound) hammer record with a 260-0 throw.
Then, twice within a three-day span of his 2009 senior-year campaign, he did even better with the indoor 25K weight.
Warming up, he delivered an 87-11½ bomb in the third round of the Nike Indoor Nationals in Boston, then muscled that one out of the way with a monster 92-7 ½ toss in the finals. Even better stuff was to come two days later at the National Scholastic Championships at the Armory Track Center in New York. He reached 90-11 in the second round, then blasted out a truly humongous 93-3 1/4 in round five.
It may have seemed utopian to some, but it still didn’t leave him satisfied. He told Track and Field News, “I felt I could improve more if I accelerated from the back and and kept the ball flat.”
Now, it was time to shift focus back to the hammer for his last year in high school.
He couldn’t top his junior-year 260-footer with the 12-pound hammer but, in a special event held at the USOC National Training Center in Chula Vista, he stepped up to the 16-pound senior-weight implement and went 218-8 in the third round to smash the previous schoolboy record (Rhode Islander Jake Freeman’s 216-2 in 1999) and then hit 219-7 with his fifth throw.
Needless to say, multitudes of college coaches around America came courting, but it was Samara and Princeton that carried the day. Southern California and Harvard were others on his list of finalists, but he was soon sold on the idea of being a Tiger.
“Conor, first of all, is an unbelievable young man,” exudes Samara, the former USA national decathlon champion and 1976 Olympic decathlete who has been head coach at Princeton for 32 years.
“He has a great personality; when I was recruiting him, I soon realized, looking at his stature and all his success, how he was so unbelievably unassuming, a hard worker and really dedicated.
“I think he gets that from his family and his Irish background. Every summer, his dad sends him over to Ireland and he works on his grandfather’s farm. It’s n o wonder he developed a great work ethic.”
Whatever the weather man may deliver.
“ Even when we’ve had bad weather here, cold and rain, we’d still go out and throw,” said Samara. “He doesn’t care. He just wants to get it done.”
To “get it done in practice,” Samara has McCullough throwing hammers as light as 3K (6.6 pounds) or as heavy as 20 pounds. Tossing the lighter ones develops speed and agility. Tossing the weightier ones - “slow and steady” - develops strength and control . And - bye-bye Broadmead - those lighter models have been seen flying between 260 and 300 feet.
“We don’t measure anything,” said Samara, smiling. “We just know he’s throwing it out there.”
Good as he can be in the 35-pound collegiate-weight event (as a likely NCAA medalist), Samara is intentionally imiting McCullough’s exposure to
the event this winter.
His only outing in the weight throw - maybe, just maybe - would come in the Heptagonal Championships, Feb. 27-28 at Dartmouth, as the Tigers scrap for every team point and a potential championship. Major explanation - there’s no use risking injury when the big-big target of the year will be the IAAF World Junior Championships in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, July 19-25. As Samara puts it, “we definitely have a long-term horizon here and I think that’s another reason he chose Princeton.
“I sold him on Princeton by telling him he could do everything here. We’ve always had a fantastic throwing program. We’ve had three or four All-Americans in every one of the throws.
“My own background as an Olympic and Pan American Games coach helped, too. But most importantly, it’s about the education Princeton provides him.
“In the future, when he’s done throwing, with the combination of being a world-class athlete and a potential Olympian, the sky’s the limit.
“There’s a lot of very fine schools in the United States, but there’s only one Princeton. You can do it all here.
“When I work with a young thrower, I want to see development from freshman year ot sophomore year to junior year to senior year, and beyond.
“ And, absolutely, in the hammer a tremendous future is well ahead of him, to the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, and beyond.
“And Conor agrees. He knows the potential is there, but you never put the cart before the horse.
“His goal is just to get better and better.
“To all the the people who say he’s going to be best thrower we’ve ever had, or will be an Olympic champion in a couple of years, he keeps that all in perspective, and that’s a very good thing.
“ Right now, I just want him to (a) most importantly, do very well in school, (b) be part of the team, © keep getting better and better.”
The Princeton varsity hammer record of 226-7 was set last spring by senior Alex Pessala. Many predict it will be erased as soon as McCullough steps into the ring for a meet, but Samara takes a more conservative approach.
“Throwing between 225 and 230 as a freshman would be good, lofty goal for him,” said Samara. “Technically, there’s not much more to do. He’s already there. Watching him throw is like watching a training film.
“But he has to get stronger, that’s a key.”
“Sure I’ve been busy since I got to Princeton, but it’s been great,” said McCullough, who is leaning toward an economics major, with engineering another possibility.
“Really, I can’t weight for the outdoor season to begin,” he says
“I know I’m going to have a pretty good year, I know it’s going to happen”
He does not, however, define “it’” Track and field fans - especially those of the Princeton Tigers - can’t wait to to find out.