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How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?

Willy Chaplin

No. 10

Putting the shot

March 10, 1998

To the uninitiated, the title of this piece suggest something to do with golf, probably meaning holing out a putt. This could not be further from the truth. The word is pronounced "put'ting" (as in "Put that down!") rather than "putt'ing" and refers to tossing a small, but heavy, metal ball, called a shotput (again emphasizing the syllable "put") as far as one can. However, one does not "throw" or "toss" or "chuck" the shot, but rather "puts" it. The methodology is quite formalized, taking place in a "ring," and, when launched, it is imperative that the elbow on the putting arm never exceeds shoulder height (as it does in, say, baseball). This sub-sport of track and field is usually confined to really, really beefy types, so when I announced to my track coach, Gilbert Mahr, in the eighth grade that I wanted to put the shot, his eyes opened wide in astonishment.

Coach Mahr, by then nearing retirement age, had himself been an olympic hurdler and broad jumper in earlier times, and I think he had something along those lines in mind for me. He had introduced me and others to track and field when I was only in the sixth grade. It is easy to forget, in these days of sports superstars and worldwide TV broadcast of major athletic events, that it wasn't always that way. When Mr. Mahr introduced the sport to Hartford (Wisconsin) grade schools, he was considered a radical thinker, a far thinking planner for the future. Not only did he take his own spare time to train us, but he also combined the three grade schools in town (two public, one parochial Roman Catholic) on a single team, itself an extremely progressive move.

The problem was that I resembled, at the tender age of fourteen, a refugee from Auschwitz. Although over six feet one in height, I weighed in at a mere one hundred twenty six pounds! Like many developing teenagers, my body parts were a bit out of synch. The joke around my household among my sisters and brother, is that when I sucked in my gut, you could see through me. Indeed, by drawing in my belly, I could reduce my waistline to sixteen inches and was able, by squeezing a little, to wrap my two hands entirely around my waist. So, Coach Mahr's consternation wasn't hard to understand.

Suppressing a smile, he asked kindly, "Don't you think you should stick to running and jumping?" There was that hurdle thing again.

"Nope. I want to put the shot." I responded. "Some day I will fill out and get extremely good at it. I promise."

Not one to suppress youthful enthusiasm, no matter how ill advised, he consented to let me try it. Now, even then in grade school there were boys who were developing pronounced muscles, large biceps, shoulders and latissimus dorsi (those muscles at the side of Schwartzennegerinoes that give their backs that triangular look). When I stepped into the ring for my turn, I often engendered loud chortling and guffawing. Nor, do I recall ever winning a ribbon in this event during grade school, but, I was the best on our anemic team (I was stronger than I looked), so I got to at least try in each meet.

The shot in grade school weighed only eight pounds. Knowing that if I were to compete in high school, it would be with a twelve pound ball, I decided to get my own shotput and build a practice ring in a vacant lot two houses down from ours. Still kind of heart and, I think, becoming impressed with my dedication, coach Mahr lent me one of the high school old iron balls (the "modern" ones were brass, filled with mercury, to make them smaller and easier to hold). During the summer between grade school and high school, I practiced each and every day. Beside doing as many pushups as I could manage each day, I made sure that I put that shot at least one hundred times. Since I had no teacher, I perfected an idiosyncratic style (see the image at the top left of this page) that was to serve me well later. Holding the shot under my chin, with my arm descending in front of me in a relaxed position rather than holding it straight out at the side in a tensed up mode (still used by championship putters), I depended upon the spin (you spin once before launching the missile) to bring my relaxed arm beneath my arm pit and quite far back before first tensing. This method took full advantage of my height and enabled me to keep my arm limber until the actual put. Also, at the very top of the throw, I used my wrist, relaxed until that point, to add a few more inches to the toss. The down side of this method was that I frequently did not successfully coordinate all these motions and, because my wrist was flexed too far, often sprained it or pulled muscles in my back.

As far as my spindly build was concerned, I had a "secret weapon" in the soda fountain connected to my parent's drug store. Since both my father and mother worked nearly full time in the store, they often relied upon that soda fountain and associated lunch counter to feed me and my siblings. Able to eat whatever and however much that I wanted...and feeling the intense cravings of an underweight teenager growing like a weed...I ate meals consisting of items like five sandwiches, two malted milks and a banana split for desert. During that summer, I gained nearly fifty pounds, and added another fifty the following year.

During my freshman year, I still wasn't much of a competitor, but by the end of my sophomore year, I was getting it out forty feet, enough to place in small meets. Also during my sophomore year, I participated in the first Ford Foundation National Scholarship contest. Scoring high in that event, I was offered scholarships to Stanford, Harvard, Columbia and the University of Wisconsin, all the schools participating in this experiment. I really didn't want to attend college yet, wanting to bask in the glory of high school sports instead, and was saved by the bell when I experienced a ruptured appendix while putting the shot late in the year. The emergency operation kept me from taking the College Board exam, the final (and trivial) requirement to attend college. But that is another story...

Spending each summer in my practice ring and dutifully building my musculature as best I could (this was WAY before weight lifting became popular) without guidance or help of any kind (Coach Mahr, despite his wonderful encouragement, simply didn't know much about the weight events...running and jumping being his only thing). I also was paying more attention to the physics of the event. I had learned that a forty five degree angle is the optimal launch angle to get maximum distance. So, when we began to practice, indoors, during the late winter of my junior year, I rigged a guidance rope in our "old" gymnasium. The high school had two gyms. The newer one, in a wing added during the thirties, had a full sized basketball court and room for several hundred spectators. The older one, built with the school many years earlier and used as a phy-ed gym, was very small...the circles at the top of the free throw lane overlapped the center jump circle...but had a rope dangling at the exact center, used for rope climbing exercises. I anchored this rope at exactly forty five degrees, intending it to be used by me and Jim Straka, who was a year older and a few feet better at the shot than I, making him the star shot putter. At least he HAD been better, the year before. When my first practice throw hit the basketball backboard at the other end of the gym, he knew he was in for some very serious competition!

In fact, at the conference championships, I became the first person in the history of our high school to put the shot further than fifty feet (just), setting a record long held by Jim's older brother Tony, a school legend in athletics. But, that was the end...or nearly the end...of my shot putting career.

During the year, because of reasons that I will explain at another time, I had engaged in a bit of juvenile skullduggery. Having learned how to break into the high school in order to lift a still from the chemistry department for a little homemade white lightning and to steal a peek at my high school records, I used this skill to open the high school gym to all comers on Saturdays...the town not having been enlightened enough at that time to provide teen age recreation facilities except to us "jocks"...which I felt was unfair. One day, one of the coaches caught a few people in the gym including a boy named Michael Buckley, the son of a prominent local attorney and a town "bad boy." He was accused of and "confessed" to the crime of breaking and entering. Since he had been earlier charged and convicted of various other offenses, this was deemed the last straw and they prepared to expel him and send him to a reformatory.

I didn't even like this guy, nor did anyone else. He was sullen and hostile not only to adults, but also to his fellow students. In addition, because of the prominence of his father, he was an elitist prick. But, I couldn't let him go down for something I had done. So I marched in to the principal's office and told the truth. At first they did not believe me. My reputation was still relatively unscathed at the time. So, I demonstrated my technique and proved that I had the combinations to the locks on the school safe and the athletic locker (I had also "liberated," for the Saturday forays, a bunch of basketballs).

This got young Buckley off the hook...for the time being, anyway...but presented a dilemma to our principal, Mr. William Casely. "Old Bill," as we referred to him, was a picture of dignity. He wore dark three piece suits with a Phi Beta Kappa key prominently attached. When he emerged from his office on rare occasions to attend athletic events, one of his indulgences, he was a definite presence. His silver hair, always impeccably combed, and old fashioned dress made him look like a nineteenth century dignitary or college president, not a high school principal. And, he was my friend.

Desperate to escape my father's wishes to mold me into a businessman in his image...my dad had put me to work in the store at the age of ten...Mr. Casely had once falsely stated on my behalf that I was sixteen years old, so that I could work on a construction crew in the high school during the summer, thus enabling me to get out of yet another summer of soda jerk, a job I disliked immensely. I never told my father the truth about how I was able to get that work permit. He would have been pissed!

Anyway, I really trusted Mr. Casely. So, when he suggested that I be "graduated" from high school a year early and that he would help me get a scholarship, I readily accepted. The alternative was possible reform school...my offense was NOT taken lightly in our small town.

So ended my shot putting days. Well, not quite. During that summer, since I was finally beginning to get the adult strength to go with my large size, I practiced with a sixteen pound ball...Jim Straka helped me make it by melting lead from toy soldiers and pouring it into a rubber ball packed in wet sand...so that I could try out for the college team. But, when I performed for the University of Chicago team the next year, my best throw was about forty six feet, nothing by college standards since the likes of Randy Matson, a truly HUGE beefer at six ten and two eighty, was already putting the big ball over seventy feet in world class competition. So I hung up my shoes. There were more important things happening to me at the U. of C....but that, too, is another story...

I will never forget those times. Despite the fact that I played and excelled at several other sports in high school, the shotput was my dream event. I had done it all by myself, with little help and scant encouragement. Team sports are great, for other reasons, but nothing compares to the feeling you get when you stand there, all by yourself...and unleash! One day, near the end of the year I turned seventeen, when I would have been a senior in high school had I not fucked up, I returned wistfully to the high school track and, by myself, put that shot as far as I could. The throw (with a twelve pound ball...remember I had already been competing with a sixteen pound shot in college) was a hair over seventy feet. God, I would like to have made that put in competition!

See you tomorrow...

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