Olympic javelin hopefuls are track and field nomads By NED BARNETT, Staff Writer
CHAPEL HILL -- A group of men with 8-foot spears is gathering intent on taking over someone's land. Four hundred years ago, they would get their way, but in modern times its hard to find property owners who will surrender their land to men who throw the spear known as a javelin.
Jeff Gorski, a Chapel Hill resident and the national coach for U.S. javelin throwers, is looking for a place to get U.S. contenders ready for the 2000 Olympics. It will serve not only his javelin throwers, but people who toss the discus, shot put and hammer.
"We just want a facility where people can go and throw stuff and not worry about anybody coming and bothering us," Gorski said.
A former thrower and coach at the University of North Carolina, Gorski has been able to use UNC's Fetzer Field occasionally, but the throwers are often displaced by university teams. So the spear thrower has gone hunting. He drives around the outskirts of Chapel Hill and rural Orange County looking for a place where his students can throw in peace.
Since 1991, Gorski has run a club for throwers who want to continue training and competing after college. It's known as KLUB KEIHAS, the Finnish word for javelin. (The Finns, a people who became proficient at spear throwing through harpoon fishing, traditionally rank among the world's best in the javelin event.) This year, Gorski obtained tax-exempt status for the club so that any donation of land, permanent or temporary, would be tax deductible for the donor.
The club needs access to a flat expanse of clear land a little larger than a football field, but so far no one has volunteered to turn their turf into a javelin catcher.
"You see someone out in the field throwing an 8-foot spear and you get scared of it," Gorski said of the reaction he gets from onlookers and property owners. But the sport is not dangerous if there's enough space and skilled throwers are handling the javelins.
Gorski's throwers are among America's best. On a recent afternoon, four of them met at UNC's Fetzer Field for practice. They were:
* Mark Fletcher (Fig 1), 29, a recent medical school graduate who is working as a teaching assistant at UNC while he trains. Fletcher, who set a school record as an undergraduate at Colgate University, ranks fifth among U.S. javelin throwers.
* Rob Austin (Fig 2), 26, an All-America in the javelin at Penn State and a graduate student at N.C. State.
* Leigh Smith (Fig 3), 18, the 6-foot-7 quarterback at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh who won the javelin event in last year's National Scholastic Invitational at N.C. State.
* Rob Curtis (Fig 4), 36, one of the nation's best in the javelin before retiring in 1996. A former thrower at the University of Kentucky, his best throw of 265 feet is the eighth longest in American history.
All four throwers are aiming toward qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Tom Pukstys, who set the American collegiate record at the University of Florida in 1991 and this year won his sixth USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in June with a throw of 256 feet, will be moving to Chapel Hill to train under Gorski.
An animated 44-year-old who still can throw well despite bad knees, Gorski represents something as hard to find as a good javelin field -- a good javelin coach.
"[Gorski] knows his stuff, so people come to him," said Austin, who looked up Gorski shortly after he arrived in Raleigh from Penn State. "It's very tough to find [a javelin coach] at a certain level." Austin said strong-armed Americans who can throw it over 200 feet tend to coach a style of "just gunning it." Gorski teaches a method that stresses the use of the whole body to create a slingshot effect. He compares it to the timing and lower body movement that creates a powerful golf swing.
As the throwers began to warm up at UNC, a dozen javelins -- 8.5-foot long hollow metal tubes that weigh about 1 3/4 pounds -- were planted in a clump in one corner of the soccer field. The throwers stood in a ragged line and made short tosses. When the young Smith tried throwing it by leading with his arm, Gorski grabbed the back end of the javelin and had Smith tug it forward.
"Umph! Right there. Umph!," Gorski says, stressing how the chest and shoulder must lead the arm into the throw.
Smith, a long-throwing quarterback for the Crusaders, agreed this month to attend the University of Tennessee on a track scholarship. As a javelin thrower, he is a rarity among high school athletes. The event is held at the high school level in only 14 states, and North Carolina is not one of them.
Smith has made his way in the sport by appearing in AAU events and invitational meets. But practicing on his own around Raleigh is a challenge. "Nobody knows what the thing is. They think you're going to hurt somebody," he said. Still, with Gorski's help, he has found enough chances to throw and improved so much he can't put the spear down. "It's like an addiction, a good addiction," he said.
While the javelin in hand might be intimidating, in flight it is a kind of visual poetry. The thrower approaches the throw with a run of about 33 meters. Then he launches the spear in an arc that can be as high as 80 or 90 feet. The javelin can soar more than 300 feet. The world record is 323 feet.
High in the air, framed against the timeless sky, the javelin looks just as it did when the ancient Greeks made it one of the five original Olympic events along with the discus, boxing, wrestling and the "stadia race," a footrace of about 200 meters.
"I think it's the greatest event," Smith said, "If you watch it, it's beautiful. It's just an art form."
Fletcher appreciates the history of his event. He notes that Odysseus of Homer's "Odyssey" was "a great javelin thrower." But Greek roots may be the only thing classic about throwers, particularly javelin throwers. They tend to avoid tradition and conformity.
"Throwers are a certain type, a little more wild, a little more unconventional, but very intense," Fletcher said. "We're a breed apart."
With what they throw, they need to be apart. But in Chapel Hill, this sport that prides itself on its uniqueness has yet to find a field of its own.
Anyone interested in donating land for use by KLUB KEIHAS may contact Jeff Gorski at 919-967-1175, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
The club's Web site is http://www.klubkeihas.com
Staff writer Ned Barnett can be reached at 829-4555 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) November 16, 1999.
Thrown for a Loss
By: Ned Barnett
Fig 3- Leigh Smith & Jeff Gorski