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Aged To Perfection

Suzy Powell is 30, retirement age in many events but an advantage in her specialty, the discus, where experience counts. This year she won her second U.S. title and broke a 21-year-old American record.

July 23, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — If there were a gold standard for silver medals, discus thrower Suzy Powell would own it.

Seven times in the last 10 years Powell has been runner-up in the national championships.

"It was frustrating," Powell said. "No doubt it was frustrating."

All that frustration ended last month, though, when Powell uncorked a throw of 198 feet 11 inches to win her second U.S. title and first in 11 years.

Yet that wasn't even the highlight of her season. Two months earlier she broke Carol Cady's 21-year-old American record, kicking off the best year for an American discus thrower -- male or female -- in more than two decades. And she can add to that resume tonight when she competes in the Pan American Games at sparkling new Joao Havelange Stadium, the $200-million gem of Rio's Pan Am venues.

The fact that Powell, at 30, is competing anywhere, much less in a major international championship, would be somewhat surprising if she were in anything other than the discus. But although age can slow athletes in the sprints and jumps, Powell says it's a plus in her event.

"Experience kicks in," said Powell, who will also compete in the world championships next month in Osaka, Japan. "The technique takes so many years to perfect or to really get down. [It's] a very technical event."

She'll get no argument from Connie Price-Smith, coach of the U.S. team in Rio. A discus and shotput specialist, Price-Smith competed until she was 39, making four Olympic teams and winning four Pan Am medals.

"It's repetition, repetition, repetition," Price-Smith said. "The more you do something the better you're going to get at it."

U.S. discus throwing has changed a lot since Price-Smith started competing. With Mac Wilkins and John Powell (no relation to Suzy Powell) trading world records, it was a marquee event then, and the San Francisco Bay Area, not far from Suzy Powell's Modesto home, was its mecca.

But the event has fallen on hard times since. Until Powell broke it, Cady's record was the oldest U.S. women's mark in a field event while the men's national discus mark still belongs to the late Ben Plucknett, who set it just a few months after Jimmy Carter left the White House.

Powell might be bringing the event full circle, though, since her first training films were home movies her dad shot of Wilkins throwing at the Modesto Relays. And the first advanced coaching she got came from John Powell, who ran a training camp at Stanford.

By then she was already an age-group record holder -- and she continued setting records through her career at UCLA, where she recorded the longest throw by a U.S.-born collegian. As a sophomore she won her first national title by winning in the Olympic trials, but it has been a long string of second-place finishes since.

Which isn't to say Powell has always been a bridesmaid and never a bride. In many ways, in fact, she has taken her throwing to a new level since she got married in 2004, only four months after a devastating hamstring injury kept her off the Olympic team.

Following a long rehabilitation, Powell wound up ranked fourth in the U.S. the following year, reclaimed her customary second-place spot in the nationals a year later and then, in April, she returned to Hawaii -- where she and Tom Roos were married -- and shattered Cady's record with a throw of 222 feet in the Maui Discus Challenge.

That's still a first down short of the women's world record of 252 feet. But then Powell's not getting older, she's getting ... well, let's let her coach say it.

"Every year she seems to be getting better," Price-Smith said. "I'm totally impressed by her. She's come a long way. She's competed a long time.

"And it's great to see that pay off."

Powell would be the first to second that.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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