EUGENE, Ore. – For the first time in history, the men’s and women’s hammer throw is coming to Hayward Field.
And nobody is happier about that development than Lance Deal.
Deal, one of only two Americans to earn an Olympic medal in the hammer throw over the past 60 years, designed and built the new hammer cage that will be used to stage the event on the infield of the iconic venue on Wednesday, July 6 during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field.
Deal, of course, spent most of his professional athletic career living and training in TrackTown USA, but the 1996 Olympic silver medalist and U.S. record-holder (270 feet, 9 inches) never had the opportunity to perform his specialty inside the stadium.
Due to safety concerns, the hammer throw at Hayward Field has always been contested in a separate venue outside of the stadium, far away from the vast majority of spectators.
So, what does it mean to Deal, who now works for the University of Oregon as the Director of Track and Field Venues and Program Support, to see the men’s and women’s hammer throw moved inside Hayward Field for the first time?
“It means a lot of work,” he laughed. “Beyond that, I think it’s great. Knowing how (TrackTown USA President) Vin Lananna and the local organizing committee put on events, I know it’s going to be fantastic. I know we’re going to get people in the stands, and it’s going to be a really, really great competition. I’ve always wanted to throw in here, forever.”
This isn’t the first time that event organizers have gone out of their way to showcase the hammer throw.
Four years ago, at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, the hammer throw was staged as a stand-alone event on the Nike campus in Beaverton the day before the rest of the Trials began in Eugene. The atmosphere was electric as an enthusiastic crowd grew steadily throughout the day, with nearly 5,000 fans on hand to watch the men’s and women’s final.
“That was the single best hammer competition ever on the planet,” Deal said. “This will be different. It’s at Hayward Field and that adds a lot. In 2012, it was at Nike, and we had a lot of support and a lot of spectator presence because of that … but throwing on the infield at Hayward is a completely different vibe. Everything I’ve heard has been positive. Everybody is excited to be inside the stadium.”
There will be no admission charge for the Trials’ men’s and women’s hammer throw at Hayward Field on July 6 – the second of two rest days built into the competition timetable. Women’s qualifying begins at 1 p.m. with the finals set for 3 p.m. Men’s qualifying starts at 5 p.m. and the finals are scheduled for 7 p.m.
The women’s competition should be fierce.
According to the athlete entry list published by USA Track & Field, five American women enter the Trials with the Olympic standard of 232 feet, 11 inches (71m) already in hand – Amber Campbell, Jeneva Stevens, Deanna Price, Amanda Bingson and Gwen Berry.
As a group, they understand the significance of competing on the infield inside of Hayward Field.
“It’s huge,” said Price, a two-time NCAA champion from Southern Illinois who broke her own NCAA meet record with a winning throw of 234-8 in early June. “Hammer is kind of the side child on the outside. I’m excited being in the center, having all the fans around watching you, being able to compete (to) the best of your abilities and getting people revved up and excited about the sport.”
On the men’s side, while no American has been able to reach the Olympic standard of 252-7 (77m) since A.G. Kruger in 2013, the stage could be set for a changing of the guard. Kruger and Kibwe Johnson are the established veterans, but a new group of younger hammer throwers is on the way, including Conor McCullough (age 25), Michael Lihrman (24), Rudy Winkler (21), Sean Donnelly (23) and Darien Thornton (21).
Johnson, who tested out the new Trials hammer cage prior to his appearance in the Prefontaine Classic earlier this season, is also excited about throwing inside Hayward Field.
“It’s never been done before,” he said. “So, my opinion is bring it on. It’s going to be awesome … Lance built the cage and that thing is immaculate. I think the energy will be electric (for the hammer throw), so I’m really looking forward to throwing there.”
Without a doubt, the hammer throw promises to be one of the highlights of the 2016 Trials, and those in attendance are encouraged to stick around for a post-competition barbecue in the Fan Festival area behind the West Grandstand. There will be food, beverages, field games and live entertainment on the main stage.
In addition, once the hammer throw is complete, the Oregon Track Club will hold a free All-Comers meet with three events – 60m dash, 100m and mile – plus an all-ages victory lap around the Hayward Field track.
Although this will be the first official hammer throw competition inside Hayward Field, there are two other instances of hammers being thrown on the stadium infield.
At the 1978 Pac-8 championships, the men’s hammer throw was scheduled to be held inside Hayward Field, but the first warm-up toss sailed over the net and skidded across the track, forcing officials to shut it down and move it back outside the venue to its normal location.
Several years later, after the 2007 Prefontaine Classic, four hammer throwers sneaked onto the infield at Hayward Field under the cover of darkness. They slipped a sock soaked in lighter fluid over the ball of the hammer, lit it with a candle, and then cut loose with an incendiary series of flaming hammer throws. The video is legendary.
The clandestine operation took place because the Hayward Field infield was already scheduled to be redone. Just a few hours earlier, Deal had broken ground on the project when he drove a backhoe into the stadium and took the first chunk out of the ground.
Today, he feels fortunate that he gets to help shine a light on the event he holds dear to his heart.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Deal, who is eager to move the new hammer cage into position around the west shot put ring. “I’m fortunate that I’m in a position where I get to change the sport just a little bit. I used to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about throwing, but now I wake up wondering how am I going to get this hammer cage to stand up.”
The new cage is designed with fewer poles than usual to allow for better vantage points for both coaches and media.
“We always want more coverage of the hammer throw,” said Deal, who still owns 10 of the top 11 hammer throw marks in American history. “We want to make it easier for coaches to see their athletes, and easier for photographers and TV to cover the event. The challenge was figuring out a way to do it with just two poles and leave the back open.”
By all accounts, he has succeeded in that mission.
Track and field fans can see for themselves on July 6 when the hammer comes to Hayward Field for the first time in history.