The looming risk

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Letting go of something heavy feels good – usually.  

By Maddie DeBilzan | Sports Reporter

The hammer throw happens within seconds, but those who watch it are mesmerized.

At this particular meet on Saturday April 29, the 40-degree air blushed the athletes’ cheeks and chattered the teeth of little sisters wrapped in blankets. It’s game time.

Weather doesn’t change a thing. There’s a formula. A routine.

There’s the shaking of muscles and throat-clearing and neck-cracking. There’s this tension in the thrower’s shoulders and lungs and back and core — if you look close enough, you’ll see it. The tension pulls on the gravity. It hushes the silence to a full-on standstill. It makes mothers hold their breaths and dogs attached to leashes sniff the air for an answer. Then the swings come and although you’re too far away to feel the breeze, the goosebumps make you think otherwise. One, two, three, the ball spins over the thrower’s head in expectation: like a plane hovering between the ground and the air before takeoff. Like the moment you stick your elbow out before a sneeze.

Senior Anika Agerlie’s body spins with the ball, and it happens so fast you won’t even realize it’s about to take flight until the third rotation.

Then a grunt — you’ll hear it just before the nine to 16-pound ball digs into the grass where it lands and the ball retriever points a laser where the mark was made and the coaches clap and the throwers pump their fists and the mothers let out their breaths and the dogs look for a place to pee.

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A Bethel University athlete demonstrates the methodical sequence of the hammer throw at a Hamline University meet. The throws usually consist of two or three spins before the ball is released. | Photo by Josh Towner

But wait. Let’s rewind.

Four days prior to the meet, the Bethel University throwing team stood in the middle of the Sports and Recreation Center with a few metal balls attached to a chain. Sprinters heaved and keeled over on the track surrounding them. Jumpers yelled as sand made its way into the creases of their tank tops.

The throwers stood in one place, spinning. Working on their footwork and balance and consistency.

Dylan Larson was chosen for player of the week, and he laughed when he saw his throwing coach Josh Olson.

“I swear,” Larson said. “The only reason I won was because I gave [Bethel’s head coach Andrew Rock] a Perkins coupon a while back.”

Olson laughed. “Probably right,” he said. “Suck-up.”

It’s not true, of course. The freshman is ranked 17th in the MIAC for shot put. There’s only one freshman ahead of him, and it’s by less than half a meter.

But the 4:00 practice times, the shoulder rolls and form run-throughs, the three-times-per-week weight-lifting outside of practice: they do all of it for a five-second window in a tiny spotlight in the outfield of a Division-III complex. And it begs an imposing question.

Why?

They’ll answer before you’ll be able to apologize for your bluntness.

It’s not the process or the buildup or the tension that the throwers deem worthy enough to dedicate two days’ worth of practice and meets each week. The throwers do it for that split-second feeling after the hammer throw leaves their fingertips, and the weight is gone, and the tension goes away, and the ball lands farther than they’ve ever thrown it.

Letting go of something heavy feels good. It’s tough to deny that one.

Olson graduated from Bethel two years ago. Tuesday before the meet he showed up to practice wearing a white collared shirt and nude tie. He helps professionals budget and keep track of their money by day. By night, he helps students throw a metal ball across a field. When meets are open to the public, he puts his name on the list and “shows his athletes how it’s done.”

“Just kidding,” he said, chuckling. “They out-throw me. I just do it for fun. Throwing is such a blast.”

Most non-throwers would purse their lips and nod in polite-yet-phony appreciation. But within the throwing community, there’s this universal truth, like an inside joke kept between a group of lifelong friends.

It’s just fun to release something heavy and watch it go. – Amy Nelson

Larson loves the ability to control his own performance. At the St. John’s meet, he was off-balance and the hammer went right into the cage. But at Macalester, his balance was perfect. He threw close to a five-meter record. “When the form clicks and you see that hammer fly farther than you’ve ever made it go before, it gets you excited, and that’s what you train for.”

Amy Nelson speaks concisely with a shrug, as if she knew her answer wouldn’t make sense to most people anyways. “It’s just fun to release something heavy and watch it go.”

But with the relief of a thrower’s release also comes a looming risk. Nelson threw out her rib last month and couldn’t practice for two weeks. It wasn’t very fun, she said.

No kidding.

Three weeks ago, Bethel’s thrower Hannah Van Sickle was the hammer throw newbie. It was only her second day. She stood on the left side of the thrower’s ring, listening to tips from her coach when she heard a desperate “Heads up!” Then, she was on the ground.

The four most painful minutes of her life, she said, and she has a lot to compare it to. Like a hernia and a back injury.

She giggles at the thought of the moment now. A security guard arrived at the field to help her, and he sprinted right past her. He didn’t know a hammer throw from an actual hammer, so he was looking for someone lying on the ground next to a toolbox.

She was in the hospital for three days. Her pancreas was hit, she had internal bleeding, and her insulin levels were off the charts. Doctors diagnosed traumatic pancreatitis. The nurses couldn’t believe it. She should have died, they said. She received messages on Facebook from track sprinters she’d never met. Pastor Laurel Bunker contacted Van Sickle’s mom to let her know she was praying.

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Freshman thrower Hannah Van Sickle poses in a hospital bed next to her sisters. She was hospitalized earlier this year in a throwing accident, but is already back to normal and ready to conquer the hammer throw. | Photo Courtesy Hannah Van Sickle

She says it’s a God story. That’s the only way to explain it.

Van Sickle was throwing and back to normal within two weeks.

But some aren’t so lucky.

April 23 was a normal day for Illinois-Wesleyan student Zach Anderson. He slept in too late, so he stopped at the McDonald’s drive-through with his roommate before catching the bus for the meet at Wheaton College in Chicago. He listened to his usual pre-meet Taylor Swift playlist on the bus. His dad and little brother live close to Wheaton, so they stopped by to watch him throw. He felt well-prepared during warm-ups.

Everything was normal. The routine, the uniformity: shake out the muscles. 1, 2, 3 spin. Grunt. Thump. Breaths of relief and scattered applause. Everything was normal.

Until it wasn’t.

Anderson was next in line to throw. The routine ran its course until the hammer left the hands of the man in front of him. When it landed, there was no relief, no energy release, no deep breaths. That instinctual tension – you know, the kind that makes mothers hold their breaths and dogs sniff the air?

It manifested into sheer chaos.

The throw’s impact killed Wheaton student Ethan Roser: a 19-year-old pastor’s son who was working the meet, measuring the distance from the thrower’s circle to where the hammers landed.

A freak accident is what it was, Anderson said. The memories of that day will always haunt him.

But it won’t take away his love for the sport: his vehement addiction to the release and relief and high that the man in front of him, by one throw’s tragic misfortune, was not granted.

“There’s this feeling… it’s — it’s hard to explain.” Anderson reached for the right words. “There’s such a relief that comes with [throwing].”

The day after the accident at Wheaton, throwing coach Josh Olson went over safety guidelines. It’s all about being aware and always looking up, he said. At meets, he never takes his eyes off the throwing circle. Although he sits a safe distance away, most spectators don’t, so he watches for them. Van Sickle nodded passionately. She learned the hard way.

Van Sickle doesn’t want to be compared to the tragic accident at Wheaton. But like Anderson, there’s something…there. Maybe it’s the energy behind the static silence before the throw, or the way their voices pivot into a near-giddy tone when they talk about it. Something among throwers is eerily similar.

If you ask Van Sickle if she’s afraid to keep throwing, she’ll look at you like you asked if she was afraid to walk.

“You only hear about airplane crashes,” she said. “Not about the millions of airplanes that land safely.”

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