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SANDY BANKS

Taking a fling at the Olympics

July 19, 2008|SANDY BANKS

Jessica Cosby is used to snickers and raised eyebrows when someone asks what she does for a living.

"I tell them I'm a hammer thrower, and they're thinking 'hammer,' like nails into walls."

But Cosby, a 26-year-old UCLA grad, is an athlete, not part of a construction crew. And she'll be throwing her hammer in Beijing next month as part of the U.S. Olympic track and field team.

I heard about Cosby from her mom, who works at my neighborhood grocery store. Bev Cosby is understandably proud, as the mother of an Olympic athlete.

"Jessica works out four hours a day, five days a week," she told me. Her daughter has traveled all over the world to compete. She was a college All-American and held UCLA and Pac-10 records. And she set a national Olympic trials record in Eugene, Ore., this month, with a 232-foot throw on her first attempt.

"But throwers don't get any love," her mother said. "Unless you're a [track] star like Allyson Felix, no one knows you. There's no publicity."

And I wonder if it dents a mother's pride to have to keep explaining to people like me what the hammer throw is and why her daughter does it.

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It's not a hammer and you don't throw it.

It's an 8.8-pound metal ball attached to a wire and handle. The thrower swings the contraption around over his or her head, gains velocity, then spins around and releases it.

"Imagine," Jessica Cosby explained in a phone interview last week, "a planet rotating around the sun."

But when I dropped in on the UCLA sports camp where Cosby was coaching high school athletes last week, the teens' throwing motions reminded me more of a kid trying to keep a hula hoop up, while swinging a broom around wildly.

It's apparently a difficult field event to master -- less brute strength than technique. It's an ancient sport, but new to the Olympic roster. The women's hammer throw competition debuted in 2000.

Why does she do it? Because it's more than a sport, it's an art to her. She likes the way it feels, "moving in a circle, but standing in a straight line at the same time." She likes that she gets better every year.

And she does it because she's so good that she's scored a contract with a shoe company that allows her to travel, train and compete year-round.

She was a star basketball player, sprinter and shot putter in high school in the San Fernando Valley, and was asked to try the hammer throw in college. "I was really bad at first. I fouled out of so many meets," she recalled. But her coaches' technical advice "finally clicked," she said, and her strength and speed as a sprinter paid off.

"I wouldn't say I'm more talented than anyone else," she said. "But I was hooked. It's hard work, but I love it."

And it's music to this soccer mom's ears when she gives much of the credit for her success to her parents.

--

It doesn't matter if it's soccer, gymnastics or violin. As parents, we constantly throw opportunities at our kids, hoping something will stick; that passion will set in and push them to excel.

Bev never doubted that her daughter -- the second of five children -- would make it to the Olympics. "It's always been her dream," since she was an 8-year-old runner on the Northridge Pacers Bantam team.

The track conference had a special award for kids who competed in every event. Jessica desperately wanted that medal, so on the final meet of the season she picked up the shot put for the first time, threw it and set a conference record.

"That's how we decided this would be something we would do," her mother said. "That led to a scholarship to UCLA . . . and we wound up at the Olympic trials."

Bev says "we" when she talks about her daughter's athletic endeavors. And I get it.

For years, her life revolved around her daughter's early-morning workouts, late-night practices and far-flung meets. She passed hours in sweaty gyms, on hot fields and in near-empty stadium bleachers. She spent more than she could sometimes afford on coaching and equipment.

"And she always told me," Jessica said, "how proud she was, no matter how I'd done."

Bev plans to make it to the Olympics -- if she can find a way to finance the $25,000 trip. I hope to watch Jessica compete on TV and I'll be thinking of the lesson she and her mother offer parents like me:

You don't have to nag a future Olympian. If you have to threaten your kids to make them practice, or drag them off the couch to make it to a lesson or a game, perhaps "we" are pursuing the wrong dream.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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