Preps and pros will come together again at Chicagoland Throws, July 12

by Steve Underwood

File photo of Braheme Days, Jr. from NBNO; Rudy Winkler and Aaliyah Pete submitted

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At first, it was designed for elite throwers – Olympians and other Team USA-level athletes, those aspiring to become so, and others looking for an opportunity to compete at a high level.  To have timely summer competitions where throwers were the focus, in a genuinely “positive environment,” as event founder and all-time U.S. javelin great Tom Pukstys has said, and where, truly, “throwers can be supported.”  Where there’s a chance to build camaraderie and community.  That’s how Pukstys envisioned the Chicagoland Throwers Series in Lisle, Ill. (now Chicagoland Throws), and that’s how it played out during 2011 and 2012.

But what if you could also bring in 32 of the top male and female high school throwers, spread across the shot, discus, javelin and hammer?  What if they could compete together with the elites, providing for mutually beneficial mentorship and inspiration at both levels?  How cool would THAT be?

Pretty darn cool, as it turned out.  For 2013, the Series and the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation (NSAF) entered into a partnership and – “spearheaded” by NSAF board member and 1972 Olympic medalist in the javelin Bill Schmidt – the event reached new heights as it was held the weekend before New Balance Nationals Outdoor.  To wit: You had Indiana and New Jersey state champs and 168-footers Adriana Brown and Jessica Woodward in the discus with 4-time Olympian and 216-footer Aretha Thurmond.  You had multiple NBN champ Braheme Days, Jr., and California state champ Nick Ponzio in the shot put ring with 69- and 70-foot pro talents (16-lb. shot) like Kurt Roberts and Joe Kovacs.  You witnessed Alabama and Pennsylvania state jav champs firing away with 270-footers like Cyrus Hostetler, and Throw 1 Deep’s Casidy Callahan and Rhode Island champ Marthaline Cooper enjoying hammer time with Olympians Jessica Cosby and Amber Campbell.

No doubt inspired, the preps responded with excellent efforts, including PRs like Aaliyah Pete’s US#2 52-3.25 shot put and eventual prep record setter Rudy Winkler’s then-PR 254-10 hammer.

Days -- now a UCLA Bruin and who was 2nd in both the shot and the discus -- had high praise for the event. "It was the best throwing atmosphere I had ever been in. The focus was entirely on the throws and everyone there was more the supportive. As an elite high school thrower, it can get lonely in terms of competitiveness. This meet gave me an opportunity to not only compete against  the best of my peers but to get to know them as well.

"The trip was more than amazing," he added. "I would recommend it for any elite high school athlete. Walking around the city of Chicago with some of the best high school athletes in the country was also fun."

The CTS is back for this summer with a later date and a new twist.  It will be, July 12, four weeks after NBNO (and a week after the U.S. Juniors) and the athletes invited by the Foundation will be the top three finishers in each NBNO throwing event – plus an “at-large” pick in each of the four boys and girls throws.

There was a time in Pukstys’ own career, in 1986, when he hoped to make a U.S. Junior team and didn’t have the financial wherewithal to travel to the Juniors and try and qualify.  That wouldn’t hold him back, it turns out, from a career that included two Olympic teams and five World Championship teams in the 1990s.  But it did help move him to start the Series, even before the opportunity to partner with NSAF came along.

“Originally, I set out to have meets that had a positive environment, something the local meets were sorely lacking,” he recently reflected.  “I met up with the throws coach at the meet location, Alex Heacock, and he offered support and to use the facility.  We just thought we would get local throwers having fun and going for good performances.  I paid for officials and a few friends chipped in some extra cash to have some funding in place.  Then we had our first meet.  We had a better turn out than expected and we had many personal bests.  The facility and conditions were very good.

“We were proud.  We hoped to offer a meet so throwers can be supported and have a chance to improve their normal season performances.  After the last meet, Alex and I exchanged high-fives because we had about five or six personal bests from people. All we wanted was to give some people a chance.”

With great feedback from participants, a location that worked out great, and hopes that were exceeded, there was great impetus to continue into 2012.

“In year two, I was able to gain funding for the top us javelin throwers to come,” continued Pukstys.  “The first meet of the series was their last chance to throw far enough to qualify for the London Olympics.  We had 90-degree weather, a tailwind, and a magical energy all day.  Two athletes threw lifetime bests, and made the Olympic Team as a result of their throws in Chicago.”

Pukstys has said of the event, “we are a family” ... so it could be said that the family became multi-generational in 2013 with the addition of the preps – with the best possible results.  “I can’t begin to describe the pride I had when I watched athletes relate to each other last summer,” he said.  “I was so proud to be an Olympic thrower.  Having the NSAF involved is a blessing.  Our elite Olympians were beside themselves from the admiration offered by the top high school athletes the NSAF brought in; it was simply special for all involved ... We just had a magical event in 2013 and we will focus on maintaining that.”

The concept of having the preps – using their own high school-weight implements – compete with the elites worked out wonderfully.  The elites were allowed a chance to mentor and the preps a chance to witness, up close and personal, athletes who have reached a level they aspire to.  “Our top tier throwers are unique, and very cool,” said Pukstys.  “We get to watch absolute world-class efforts that only would be viewed at the national championships or Olympic level meets.  You can stand 20 feet away from the shot circle as Joe Kovacs blasts 70 feet.  No chance for that anywhere else.”

There’s also time during the weekend for evaluation and discussion of performances (more mentoring and coaching), as well as social events and opportunities in one of the nation’s biggest cities.

“Last year was my first year throwing in the CTS,” said the above-mentioned Thurmond, now the Associate Director of International Teams for USATF.  “I love the concept and the idea of having throws-only competitions.  Adding in the high school athletes was genius!  All of us throwing together and having some real time mentoring is great.  The messages I got from the athletes post-event about how I inspired them, really inspired me.

“This is a unique time to have direct impact on high school throwers.  I really want to see this event grow and thank USATF, Tom and NASF for all their hard work ... This is a concept that can be moved into the rest of track and field.”

Her final statement is certainly true ... and at the same time it’s valuable to consider Pukstys’ sense of the special place of throwers in the sport and how this event serves them.  “Throwing athletes work in more solitary environments, without the press and notoriety normally reserved for star athletes.  The abilities they display take enormous effort, massive amounts of time, and a passion likely greater than some professional athletes offer.  I am hoping to offer a modest, but deeply passionate support for their endeavors.  A shout, a cheer, a pat on the back for their efforts.  I am rewarded with the spirit the athletes offer.  It is genuine, not based on money, and you can be up close and personal.”

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