NCAA DIVISION I Familiar faces in Eugene
NCAA DIVISION II Lakey leads the way
BIG FOUR SHOWDOWN
TRIUMPH OVER TRAGEDY
By Lane C. Dowell
When chatting with the very affable Michael Mai, one cannot help but imagine this gentle giant (6í4Ĺ" and 255 lbs.) wielding his ball and wire in combat centuries ago and striking terror into the hearts of his fleeing opponents.
Like many young Americans who develop affection for the hammer, Mai became hooked in his early twenties.
American Record Holder, Lance Deal, once told me that it takes a hammer thrower 6-10 years to master the ball and wire.
From the best seat in the house (Head Hammer Judge 2000-2008), we had the opportunity to observe the Captain at our national championships. Like many of our best, Michael oozed a winnerís self-discipline and determination to excel.
Now, Mai appears to be nearing center stage.
Long and Strong: Describe your early athletic career (sports participated in, successes, etc.).
Michael Mai: I grew up out in the country, doing a lot of farm-work and give a lot of credit for my strength and work ethic from throwing bales of hay and pigs around since I was, maybe, eight years old.
I went to Gehlen Catholic High School in Iowa, which was a state, small-school powerhouse in football and track. I was basically a two-sport athlete in high school, football and track. I also enjoyed basketball, but our team was not great, so I focused on sports that I had the potential for a college scholarship.
My senior season, we won state championships in both football and track, and I was the captain of the All-State team in football and won the discus in track.
L&S: How/when/where did you get involved with the hammer, and why did it become your event of choice?
MM: I actually fell into the hammer by accident. I came to the track team midway through my sophomore year at West Point to throw the discus, figuring I could build on my high school success.
My junior year, I wasnít among our top two shot putters, so I figured I would give the 35-lb weight throw a try, because we only had one good thrower, and I had a chance to travel to some indoor meets. At that time, CPT Jerry Ingalls was back training at West Point in preparation for the 2000 Olympics in the hammer, and he was able to help me get started. So, I picked it up and was kind of a natural at it.
Then, in January or February, during the indoor season, my coach said I should give the hammer a try since I had picked up the weight so well. Three months later, I threw 186í.
The next year, I focused on the weight, figuring I had a chance to make the NCAA championships. I never was able to put it together, only hitting just under 19m but ended up throwing the hammer 61.44m outdoors.
I really loved throwing the hammer, and I never threw the discus my senior season. I was lucky in that Jerry was able to help introduce me to the Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) coaches, Mike Mielke and Dave Swan, who really got me to where I am today in the event.
L&S: Why did you decide on a military career and, was attending the academy always a dream of yours?
MM: Coming from a small community with no real military bases nearby or even family in the military, I didnít even learn about West Point until my junior year in high school. Our education director and strength coach was a mentor of mine, and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves. He looked at my academic and athletic record and basically sold me on at least applying to all of the academies.
My senior year, I really was hoping for a football scholarship to the University of Iowa, but when it didnít come through, I decided to go to West Point, because it had such a superior education and gave me the chance to play Division I football.
At that time, the military career was kind of an after-thought, mainly because I was just ignorant of it. But, I had never met a challenge that I couldnít conquer, and I was determined to get through what many consider the toughest higher education institution in the country.
In hindsight, it was one decision that I would do over again a thousand times if I had to. The opportunities and experiences I had could never be replicated at any other university. It has been truly rewarding to serve my country in the U.S. Army.
L&S: Tell us a bit about life at West Point.
MM: The first six months, starting with basic training, were tough. Not having come from a military background, putting up with the hazing and stress, and being away from home for the first time, it was tough to get used to. But, I was very successful academically, and once my first year was over, I knew that West Point was the place for me.
There was a lot of frustration at the time over rules, regulations: Saturday morning room inspections, 6am formations, and additional duties. It was like trying to squeeze 30 hours of work into a 24-hour day. If I could get more than 6 hours of sleep, it was a good night. In hindsight, it doesnít seem so bad, but I know at the time that it was stressful. The character I built because of it really helps me get through the busy and difficult times I face as a military officer.
L&S: I assume that more regimentation comes with your chosen career path. Has this been good for your development as a hammer thrower?
MM: It is, and it isnít. Learning to get into a routine and using the planning and processing tools that I have learned as an officer definitely have helped me with my career. One also has to learn to persevere, come up with creative solutions, and break a problem apart and attack it from many different angles. All of these are invaluable for training for a sport like the hammer.
However, the military mindset of "go hard all the time" can also be detrimental to a sport like the hammer, where you have to not only listen to your body and figure out when a certain level of training is too much, but also know that when the big competitions are coming up, you have to let your body rest. It took me a long time to learn that balance.
L&S: I had a roommate in college who was an excellent basketball player. Basically his years of service were to travel around with the Army basketball team and play ball. Granted that was a few years ago. Does the military see you as a valuable recruiting tool and make allowances for your training?
MM: The Army sports programs are not quite as extensive as they used to be, but there are still many opportunities. There wouldnít be a WCAP in the Army without our support for the Armyís recruiting mission or for public affairs. If you are a high enough level soldier/athlete to get into the WCAP, your main job is training and supporting the recruiting and public affairs mission.
In my opinion, as a track and field athlete, or really almost any Olympic sport for that matter, the Army presents the best opportunity to get the monetary and training support you need to make the Olympics. Certainly, there are sacrifices. You get two (maybe three) years to train instead of four. You have an Army commitment that could see you deployed after you leave the program. But, you also have an Army career, education and health benefits, and a chance to serve your country both as a role model for other soldiers, a recruiting tool, and in your chosen military specialty.
Even though I am currently not in the program, I still have excellent facilities for training at Fort Lewis, which is west of Tacoma, Washington, and have scheduled physical training time. In the military, physical training is important, and holding up the best athletes in the Army as role models is a part of that.
L&S: Michael, the last time we chatted in late May, you seemed to think that you might soon be deployed to Afghanistan. At this time what do you feel the future holds for you? Are you able to tell us a bit about your duties as a captain in the U.S. Army and what your role may be in Afghanistan if sent?
MM: Originally, when I was scheduled to come to Fort Lewis, the job in which I was slated to serve (Resource Manager on a Brigade Staff) was deploying. The unit had originally been slotted for Afghanistan, but actually deployed to Kuwait in mid-May. However, I was lucky in that a Command job within the unit was coming open, and in my specialty as a finance officer. As a senior captain, I was the only person of that rank on Fort Lewis qualified to hold that job, so my senior officers gave it to me. I am actually performing a senior Majorís job, but since I was so close to promotion (I should be promoted before the end of the year), I was able to take the position. It is actually considered the most career-enhancing job a Major in the Finance Corps can hold.
I am in charge of three individually deployable finance detachments, one of which is currently in Iraq, and the Defense Military Pay Office on Fort Lewis. I have over 100 Soldiers and 50 civilians in my command. It is an extremely busy and demanding job, but I really enjoy it. I am essentially in charge of all military pay on Fort Lewis and for several outlying units in 31 states. I probably have my signature or signature stamp on 50,000 documents in my building. As much as I like to try and get my hammer training in, I have pecuniary liability for hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions, and that is a significant responsibility that I take very seriously.
L&S: When I last officiated a meet for Michael Mai (the 2008 USA Olympic Team Trials), it was a different-looking Michael that I saw. What changed in your training this past year and based on the hammer results at the 2009 World Team Trials in Eugene, do you feel the changes you made were beneficial?
MM: To be honest, after the Olympic Trials, I had no idea whether I would pick up a hammer ever again. All of my training since I came into the WCAP in 2002 was geared toward the 2008 Olympics. I needed surgeries on both knees, and I wasnít even sure if I would have much of a military career to go back to after spending the previous two years focused on athletics training. I had to do a lot of soul searching. I received surgery on my knees three days before the hammer at the Olympics, and couldnít even walk when they were on television.
After talking to friends and family, I decided to stay in the Army and focus more on my career, which included going to the Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan. So, I spent the first four months of this year increasing my Army knowledge and then fully expected to deploy.
I changed my training to one that focused more on the endurance aspects of the Army. I firmly believe that you must always continue to be a student of all aspects of your event. With that, my old coach, Mike Mielke, got me started doing kettlebell circuits and changed my entire perspective when it came to cardiovascular training. I realized that a lot of the strength I had was not functional, so I dropped around 25 pounds from 280 or so down to 255 or less, and my speed and agility improved. I am not as strong as I was last year, but I was still basically throwing as far in practice.
I was able to keep in touch with my coach, Dave Swan, through video and phone conferences. All of the moving around, experiencing new training environments and ideas, training with different coaches like Andy Kokhanovsky at Kansas and Lex Strom up here in Washington, kept me busy and allowed me to forget about the outcome and work on the process.
I had no expectations coming in to this outdoor season, because I was not even supposed to be in the United States to compete. I think the changes speak for themselves. I know if a have a chance to train full time for the next Olympics, I will be able to carry what I have learned and still keep improving.
L&S: Talk about your performance (3rd place finish...73.80m...242' 1") at the recent National Championships in Eugene. You seemed to get better and better as you approached round six, your best throw. Was there more in the tank? What is your Hammer PR? How far can (scratch that) WILL Michael Mai throw?
MM: With my improved endurance this year, I can throw over 70 meters in practice on my first throw, my 20th throw, and my 40th throw. There is always more in the tank. I think as the competition went on, I was able to build confidence and keep improving, and I know I had even bigger throws in me.
My personal best throw of 76.28m, which I threw at Provo last year, came on the second day of competition when I had focused on the first day.
As far as my potential distance, I know I have a lot more in me than 250 feet. When I watch the throws on video, I see so many technical areas where I can improve. I will never limit myself to a specific distance, because when everything comes together, only God knows how far that throw could really be.
L&S: What do you see as some of the major corrections you need to make in your technique?
MM: My biggest technical flaws are starting to pull with my left side into my third and fourth turns, which causes the ball to get in front of my right hip and my foot to get down late. Because of this, I am not able to get good acceleration on my fourth turn, and tend to get a bit bent over and rotational at the end.
L&S: Michael will/can you comment on your future career and athletic goals?
MM: First, I would just say that my athletic goals are certainly not just for myself, but for all those people who helped get me to where I am today. I would never be here without the Army and Dave Swan and Mike Mielke. They have believed in me from the beginning and helped me reach goals I had only dreamed of years ago.
That said, I really have committed myself to a military career, and in the long term I would love to be a Division or Corps resource manager someday, I want to help make a difference in the way the military purchases and accounts for all of its transactions. I would also love the opportunity to pass on my athletic knowledge by teaching at West Point. In the short term, I really enjoy what I am doing in the military now, and I hope to continue to improve my unit and prepare them for upcoming deployments.
If I am so lucky as to have one more chance at training full time in the WCAP for the next Olympics, I really want to win a national championship and make the Olympic Team. I think that is every throwerís dream. I want to be in the position to make an Olympic final, and let whatever happens, happen.
L&S: What do you think the USA must accomplish to be a factor on the international stage?
MM: There are a lot of factors that go into making a nation a powerhouse in a particular event. For the U.S., the biggest one is that the hammer throw must become a staple in high schools around the nation, and I donít care if you have to use the "safety hammer" (using chain links instead of a ball) like they are proposing here in Washington.
It takes 8-12 years of throwing to really become a legitimate medal threat, and with the dearth of outside monetary resources available to throwers, most do not have this kind of time or the support structure once they get out of college. I think there needs to be more money in the sport. Right now, there are just too many competing sports, especially football, that have the hope of a huge payday. You are never going to get rich throwing the hammer. In todayís society, that hurdle is often too large to overcome.
Finally, a more centralized structure is needed that focuses on teaching the same technical aspects correctly. Right now, we are very decentralized, and it seems there are a lot of competing technical ideas. It seems like a lot of potentially great throwers are always changing something and never able to really latch onto a coach that can get them to the top.
Frankly, I am not the best athlete out there in this event by a long shot, but I have had a consistent coach and, through the Army, the resources to focus on training, even if it is for only a couple years at a time. I think we will always have a few good athletes who can fill out the team, make an Olympic final and maybe get a medal. I would say that maybe once in a generation we will have a legitimate threat to win a gold medal. Lance Deal was the last one, and Conor McCullough is probably the next one.
L&S: Michael, I am often asked by a number of novice coaches and young athletes who show an interest in the hammer what type of athlete is best suited for this unique event. Please comment on the mentality, as well as, the physical makeup, you feel necessary to excel with the ball and wire.
MM: As far as your question, thatís a tough one. Frankly, I donít think there is any "ideal" especially from a physical perspective. Even though I donít fit this mold, having a low center of gravity with long arms is beneficial from a physics standpoint. Sometimes, I think we convert the wrong people into hammer throwers, because they can throw other implements, especially on the womenís side.
Hammer throwers need to be strong, but athleticism and agility are the most important traits. There is an intangible aspect to it, like in any event, where you can just "feel" the implement and understand how and when to apply force.
From a durability perspective, former Swedish Olympian and my good friend Tore Gustafsson once told me that you must have a strong back and wide hips, because you have to be able to withstand that overwhelming torquing force over hundreds of throws a week.
From a mental perspective, I donít think it is any different than any other throwing event. You canít have fear, especially when you are on one foot going in to your last turn and you have five or six hundred pounds of force pulling on you, and you are one small mistake or broken wire away from disaster.
You have to have discipline to work on one or two things at a time for weeks at a time, and know that you canít go out there and throw 100% every throw on every day. You have to have a balance between thinking through the event and learning to let your mind go blank and relax. I know sometimes I can be too analytical when I just need to let go and throw.
L&S: Will you tell us three things that very few people know about you?
MM: I am an amateur guitar player, an avid reader of the Wall Street Journal, and my favorite author is Ayn Rand.
Captain Michael Mai, thank you for your service to America and for being such a great role model for our youngsters and the U.S. Army. May God be with you in your every pursuit. *L&S*