Smashing the Javelin Records
If you ever met Dan Stimson, it’s likely that you walked away from your first interaction in awe of his breadth and depth of knowledge of track & field. An encyclopedia of the sport, he knew all about sprints, hurdles, middle and long distances, and both vertical and horizontal jumps. Yet his true passion and expertise was in the throwing events.
Dan’s mentor at Tennessee, Stan Huntsman, gave him the chance to learn and coach with his own unique style. By the time he arrived at William & Mary, Coach Stimson had coached high-level athletes in all of the speed and power events.
Yet with all of this technical expertise, Dan understood that conveying that information to athletes had to be done in a specialized manner that would not overwhelm them. You simply cannot dissect every aspect of a throw and be successful. The goal is to focus on a series of cues and repeat them until the throwing motion is perfected.
By the time a high school athlete gets to college, s/he has received hundreds of hours of coaching. Before any of that has taken place, there are some physical activities that are performed at such a young age that the athlete’s family are likely the only people who witness them. Throwing a ball, kicking a ball, or even running. But throwing a javelin? That is definitely not on that short list. So how does one become a javelin thrower?
The javelin is unlike any other throwing event. It has a running segment, which makes it comparable with the jumps, and a throwing element. It is also unlike any other throwing implement given the amount of surface area associated with it. From a physics standpoint, the angle of attack in the throw is very critical because if done incorrectly, regardless of force, the javelin will stall in flight.
There are a number of football quarterbacks who have excelled at throwing the javelin. Perhaps the most famous is Terry Bradshaw. Pennsylvania is a cradle for QBs, and in Lancaster County, a young 8th-grade quarterback was mesmerized by a high school QB in the region who was finding success in the javelin. That 8th grader was Alex Heacock. Alex started experimenting with the javelin in middle school. By the time that Alex was a junior in high school, he had found enough success to be recruited by colleges.
His coach offered to call William & Mary - what happened next is classic Dan Stimson. While Alex was out of the house, Dan called and caught his mom. They talked for 1.5 hours, which was nothing but a warm-up call for Dan. But Dan’s easy-going personality came through and Alex’s mother thought it would be a good idea to visit W&M. After a visit, Alex was convinced that W&M would be the right choice for him.
By his junior year at W&M, Alex had climbed to #6 all-time in the javelin and had won CAAs. Dan’s coaching was straightforward: focusing a handful of cues to assist the athlete in understanding proper technique. Providing too much information would overwhelm the athlete beyond what they could process, making them too dependent on instruction. On top of that, Dan was masterful in the sense that he always knew how to strike the right balance between active and passive coaching. The leash was never the same for any two athletes.
But there were a series of problems. Alex would have to sit out almost his entire senior season due to a back injury: a herniated disk. When life deals you lemons, it’s best to put your head down and make lemonade. Alex still wanted to participate, but how?
In the fall of 2008, Dan’s own health had started to deteriorate and he was in and out of the hospital. He never wanted to be a burden to anyone, but there was an incoming freshman who needed coaching and mentoring. Dan asked Alex to help. What no one knew at the time was that the freshman, Brandon Héroux, would go on to become the best javelin thrower in W&M history. What was also unknown was that Brandon would do so under enormous adversity. By mentoring Brandon, Alex would find his calling in life: coaching athletes. Brandon will also tell you that his career would not have been as successful as it was without the guidance and mentorship that he received from Alex his freshman year and years to follow.
Why are there so many injuries in this event compared to others? Even with correct technique, the very nature of the throwing motion places the athlete at higher risk of elbow, back, and/or shoulder injuries. The twisting and torque, combined with the force exerted to throw the javelin far, can wreak havoc on the body. Sometimes, just one throw under the wrong conditions can create a problem.
Prior to his first day on campus, Brandon had already achieved what many athletes dream of. He had won the prestigious Penn Relays and was a high school All-American. Brandon experienced early success during his freshman year at W&M - he won the CAA championship, broke the school record, and qualified for the NCAA Championships. But by the end of the season, he’d also torn a ligament in his wrist and was forced to compete injured. He got surgery immediately after the season was over; a promising start had come to an abrupt end.
Much like running, throwing events require year-round training. But recovering from an injury prevented Brandon from building the base he needed during the summer and fall. Even though he repeated as the CAA champion and finished 2nd at IC4As, his sophomore year seemed like a wash and ended at the NCAA regional meet. He vowed to re-focus for his junior year.
The start of Brandon’s junior year was his best yet. He won the Colonial Relays and re-broke his own school record at Mt. Sac in his first two meets. Brandon followed that up with his 3rd straight CAA championship and another record-setting victory at the Penn Relays. There, he qualified for both the US and Canadian Olympic Trials. His confidence was high heading into the IC4A meet.
The IC4A meet was in Princeton that year. Brandon remembers some of the throwers comparing notes about surgeries and injuries in the warm-up bubble prior to the competition. The day was cold and overcast, but that didn’t stop Brandon from producing what would eventually be the meet-winning throw on his first attempt. However, his second throw would become even more memorable, for the wrong reasons. Upon release, Brandon felt a pop and tingling sensation in his elbow. He attempted to ignore the discomfort but ultimately withdrew from the completion after an unproductive third throw.
Within days, Brandon’s worst fears were confirmed when he learned he needed Tommy John surgery to repair the torn ligament in his elbow. He had surgery with the NY Mets team doctor the next day, and spent the rest of the summer rehabbing in the early morning hours before heading to an internship at J.P. Morgan.
When Brandon returned to campus in the fall, he worked tirelessly with his trainers and coaches to rebuild his body. He was intent on making a splash during his senior season with an eye towards the Olympic Trials. The limiting factor was time. Most athletes require 12-18 months to fully recover from Tommy John surgery. Brandon made his return to competition 10.5 months post-op, finishing 2nd at the Penn Relays. He defended his CAA title for the 4th consecutive year and re-broke his school and conference record in the process. On the 1-year anniversary of his surgery, he earned First-Team All America honors, throwing a massive PR of 73.55m at the NCAA Championships to finish 8th place in the deepest field ever. He would go on to graduate from W&M owning 18 of the top 20 throws in school history.
Brandon would later make a run at an Olympic team but placed 6th at the Canadian Trials. He earned a spot on Canada’s U-23 NACAC team, and finished 4th at his first international competition in Mexico. Brandon continued his post-collegiate career with aspirations of the 2016 Olympics in Rio. He finished 4th at the 2013 Canadian National Championships but found that training became increasingly difficult to balance with his career in finance.
When you think about what Brandon accomplished as a thrower during the twilight of Dan Stimson’s career, you might be left wondering what would have happened if they had met much earlier in Dan’s life. If you are wondering about that, you should meet Wendy Warren, class of ‘88.
Wendy Warren transferred to William & Mary in 1985 after a freshman year at Old Dominion University. The reason for the transfer was every athlete's worst nightmare. She showed up to practice on her first day at ODU and was promptly told that the track & field program had been canceled. Since her entire reason for going to ODU was to compete in track & field, it no longer made any sense for Wendy to stick around. She decided to transfer out through an ROTC scholarship.
How do you deal with that level of disappointment and not get crushed your freshman year? Growing up in an environment with plenty of change helped. Wendy’s father was in the Army and they transferred to Germany and other locations. Leaving state-side for Germany had been tough at first, but Wendy got used to it quickly. Also, she had a twin brother and would compete with him regularly in sports activities. Wendy competed in all sorts of sports: soccer, swimming, baseball, and basketball; basically, everything but football. When her dad would show the twins how to play a sport, Wendy would always be the first to give it a try. She was the starting pitcher on the boys’ baseball team and would play outfield because she could throw the ball from center field all the way to home plate. In high school, she threw the discus and shot.
When she got to William & Mary, Wendy met Dan. Although Wendy told Dan that her events were the discus and shot, Dan converted her to a javelin and hammer thrower who could also throw the discus.
It may require some imagination to understand what Dan and Wendy were able to achieve. There is actually very little kinetic commonality between the throwing events that are circle-based vs throwing the javelin. Yet, because Wendy was such a great all-around athlete, and had thrown overhand while playing baseball, the transition to javelin was not a complete stretch.
Wendy’s training was not straightforward. She was alternating days between hammer and discus vs the javelin. How could Dan and Wendy achieve that? Wendy described the coaching style and how Dan would not attempt to overwhelm her with a series of instructions. Rather, it was a natural progression of focusing on a small set of cues in order to improve technique.
Unlike most athletes, she also had ROTC commitments. Wendy would routinely show up at drill with her throwing apparatus, which would turn heads. In the summer between her sophomore and junior years, instead of training like most athletes, Wendy went to Airborne School. In order to earn her Jump Wings, Wendy met the requirements by making 5 jumps. During every summer while she was at William & Mary, if she was not performing military-type training, she was in the weight room.
It is highly likely that her variety of physical training allowed Wendy to succeed in events that could not be more different. All three throwing events use the arms as the delivery mechanism. But that is where the similarity stops. Discus and hammer use the centripetal forces associated with the rotation in the circle. The javelin uses the force of a run-up. There is almost no kinetic commonality between the events.
To assist Wendy, Dan would video her and use it to present visual cues. Whereas this may seem absolutely pedestrian technology in 2021, prior to Dan’s arrival at William & Mary, none of the throwers had ever seen their technique in video, picture, or other media. At his HOF ceremony, Dan would joke that he had never turned on a computer. The reality is that Dan did use technology in order to coach and improve each athlete’s performance. He just may not have been particularly crazy about using it as a form of communication!
How successful was the coach-athlete combination? By her graduation, Wendy would hold both the hammer and javelin records. The javelin record was set at Penn Relays and has stood since 1988 making it one of the longest-standing records at the college. In the process, she smashed the record by 30 feet.
It would be another 17 years before Chris Parsons, another William & Mary athlete, would successfully win the conference championship in both the hammer and javelin.