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Launching the Hammer

In the 1980s, the men's track and field team was a diverse community in a relatively homogenous student body at William & Mary. Athletes’ backgrounds ranged from being a 2nd student at the College to a first-generation-student who was also an immigrant to the United States.

Marlon Mattis was born in Jamaica and his family moved to New York when he was a child. Marlon embodies many dichotomies. A 275lb thrower who could bench press in excess of 465lbs while at the same time being fast enough, and stubborn enough, to attempt to break a 60 second 400 meters. It is unclear why on that sub-60 attempt Jay Marzullo took him out on the first 200m at a 55-second pace, or why Marlon kept going. Regardless, he broke 60. An econ major, his first and real love was the fine arts. He was a shot putter first, who ended up selecting the most technical throwing event of them all, the hammer throw.

Yet, he encountered a problem. William & Mary lacked an event-specific coach who could teach him the event. Marlon resolved to teach himself the physics of the hammer by reading everything that he could about the event. In the process, he would successfully set the record in the hammer, which would stand for 10 years.

20+ years after graduating from college, Marlon’s own son became interested in the throwing events. Not satisfied with the coaching that his son, Sam, was receiving, Marlon coached Sam and continued to learn. Sam was a heavily-recruited athlete. In one of the many college visits, Marlon and Sam would meet a man that could most certainly coach throws and who had built an enormously successful program; that man was Dan Stimson.

Prior to Marlon’s arrival at William & Mary, there had been three impressive athletes in the program: Jeri Daniels, Drexell George, and Mike Schay. Jeri’s story is an important story for all women athletes as she would have a unique and critical role in increasing overall participation in the sport for women.

In the late 1970s, the Women’s track & field team was coached by volleyball coach Debbie Hill. On her visit to the College, and when Jeri mentioned to Coach Hill that she was interested in being part of the program, she was told, “That is nice, come and see me when you get here”.

Several months later, when Jeri arrived as a freshman, Jenny Utz had become the women’s team coach. That spring term, 2-3 basketball players joined Jeri in the throws. But by the next season, she was the only woman on the team. The women’s track coach was a distance runner and did not specialize in throwing events. That is when Jeri decided to ask Coach Roy Chernock whether she could train with the men’s program and be coached by Dave Derrick.

Jeri went on to become the sole woman from William & Mary to be a national champion and won four All-American titles. Her discus record at the college stood for 27 years and her shot put record for 23 years. What is not very well known is that Jeri very much wanted to compete in the hammer.

Yet, hammer competition was not available for women at the collegiate level or even in the Olympics. Jeri would spend a decade of her life working as part of a group of coaches and athletes to get the hammer throw introduced as an exhibition event at several Olympic Trials. Then to the launch of the event at the 1999 World Championships and finally at the 2000 Olympics. That group was the USATF Women’s Development Committee. The Development Committee created subgroups for each event and each subgroup was tasked with creating post-collegiate training and competition opportunities for their specific sport. Jeri worked with the women’s hammer throw subgroup.

Interestingly, there were three women’s field events that were working in unison to break into the Olympics: the hammer, the triple jump, and the pole vault.

Jeri remembers the unique circumstances of the 1992 Olympic Trials in New Orleans as the radiant heat from the infield was so intense that the throwers had to place their feet/shoes in iced towels to prevent the bottom of their shoes from becoming too sticky.

Jeri’s love of the sport has led her to coaching. She has had a very successful career at Penn State (1984-94) and has represented the USA as a coach on several international teams including: the 1990 and 1992 USA vs Great Britain meets and the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Spain. The highlight of her career was coaching throws at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

As part of her coaching career, she explored the conditions that would be necessary to develop an environment in which athletes could succeed. Working with other coaches on this issue, the principal finding was that women needed to stay in the sport through their mid to late 20s in order to have sufficient time to focus on training, competition, technique, and athlete development.

One of the main drivers of this finding was that women were not even picking up a hammer until college. It was simply not possible to properly develop in 4 years. The athlete whose win is the hallmark of this philosophy is DeAnna Price; she is the first American woman to win gold in the women’s hammer at a major championship with her win at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

In an interesting and connected manner, this was the finding that Marlon had independently made of his own 4-year experience of throwing the hammer at the College. The 4 years at William & Mary did not provide him enough time to receive event-specific coaching associated with the hammer. That experience would be different for his own son and it followed Jeri’s findings associated with the importance of post-collegiate competition.

Marlon’s son Sam graduated from college in 2016 and set the American Collegiate record in the discus that year. On his first attempt to represent Team USA for the Rio Olympics, Sam would fall short. However, he continued to train and compete; 4 years later, Sam would win US Nationals. He was part of Team USA at the 2019 World Championships and advanced to the final round.

Marlon ‘85 and Jeri ‘82 also share another interesting connection. Jeri taught Marlon how to throw a football; according to Marlon, Jeri had the most influence on his developing a sheer joy for the throwing events. Marlon paid that forward helping to mentor Wendy Warren before Dan Stimson arrived at W&M in ‘86.

Jeri thinks that the next push will come to have women compete in a full decathlon. As she says, women have proven that they can pole vault and that was always thought to be the barrier to entry.

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