“I’M FEELING GREAT. I feel like I’m finally starting to come back down to earth,” says Valarie Allman. The 25-year-old Stanford alum has almost reconnected with terra firma but the remarkable flight was that of her discus, which dropped into the sector on August 1 an American Record 230-2 (70.15) distant from the circle wherein she launched it.
Allman’s world-leading first-throw effort at the Iron Wood Invitational surpassed Gia Lewis-Smallwood’s previous AR, 226-11 (69.17), from ’14, by just shy of a meter. The longest throw in the world since May of ’18, it has been exceeded since ’15 only by double Olympic champion Sandra Perković. Allman spun it out a year to the day ahead of the rescheduled Tokyo women’s discus qualifying round.
Allman attacked the throw—we can see from video—with exquisite fluidity and power, finishing after the release with a nimble double spin befitting her history as a teen dancer before she discovered throwing. (Continued below)
— Zebulon R. Sion (@CoachSion) August 2, 2020
“I think when the first throw hit, in my brain I was thinking it was close to 67m [219-10],” Allman says. “I was hopeful maybe it’d be a PR. And when they started to read the tape and they said ‘70,’ I just was in shock. I immediately started crying. I could not believe it. It was absolutely wild.”
After racking up a pair of fouls in the emotional moments after, Allman cranked out a fine trio of throws to finish: 216-1 (65.86), 216-7 (66.03) and 203-8 (62.09).
Determined that her AR should be ratifiable, Allman and coach Zeb Sion arranged for doping control on the fly. A 4-hour-each-way drive to tiny Hermiston, Oregon, to meet a tester was required and she delivered the sample in a gas station restroom. “We made the best of it,” says Allman laughing. “It was fun. Sorta cool.”
While this big one came early in her pro career, just over 2 years since college graduation and in her only meet this mostly shutdown season, the last 8 years have felt at times to Allman like Waiting for Godot. (Continued below)
“I’ve always been, I guess, a bit of a dreamer, right, and set big goals,” she says. “I felt like throughout my career I’d come so close to doing amazing things, just I’d never quite got there. I mean, I’d always in high school had my eyes on the high school national record. And then in college it became trying to be a national champion and set the Collegiate Record and I just felt like I’d always kind of come up a bit short. And then in going pro last year, I just decided that I was going to do everything I could to try to maximize my potential, and it just kinda felt like things have been coming together, you know. I didn’t want to have that feeling anymore of not reaching what we thought was capable.”
As a Silver Creek High senior (Longmont, Colorado) in ’13, Allman led that year’s high school list at 184-2—good for No. 5 on the all-time list—and rated as the No. 2 prep All-America behind soon-to-be Pac-12 and NCAA rival Maggie Ewen. One had to think her World Junior Champs silver as a Stanford frosh the next year augured auspiciously for an international career down the road. It helped that the top-5 placings for Stephanie Brown Trafton and Smallwood in the two World Championships just before had showed U.S. throwers lofty dreams could be reality.
Allman credits Sion as being “so instrumental.” Texas throws assistant Sion, who worked for two seasons on the Stanford staff, has guided Allman’s development from ’17 onwards. While ’17 was a redshirt season, Allman’s 3rd-place finish at the USATF Champs got her to her first Senior Worlds. Injury trouble early in ’18 put a hitch in things but Allman managed 3rd in that year’s rain- and hail-challenged NCAA final and 12 days later won the first of her two USATF titles with a 208-6 (63.55) PR.
Sion—who this summer has watched over Allman’s training at an Austin middle school track and then a high school during the pandemic lockdown—says, “I think that everybody saw the potential. Super-talented, right? And I felt like she needed the right direction and the right approach to achieve that. When we first started working together, she had thrown 61m the previous year at NCAAs, which was huge—I believe like a 3m PB at the time. And the first year working together she threw 64. The next year, injuries, 63.55, last year 67 and this year 70.
“So I think to see the trend of improvement and see those types of distances when you’re already at an elite level obviously speaks to her potential, her abilities. But I think it’s just a matter of training the right way, mental focus and changing those things. So many factors have come into her development. I think that she’s a totally different human in all the ways, such positive ways.”
Same-paging with Sion, Allman says, “I think it’s been a very dramatic shift over the last two years of figuring out the right things to focus on. I mean, I kind of attribute it mostly to Coach Sion, honestly. His coaching style is to really understand his athletes and nothing about it is cookie cutter. The way he talks to me versus Tripp Piperi, his shot put NCAA champ, is completely different. But it’s so specialized and it works. I think the fact that now it’s our fourth year working together, he just knows how to communicate with me to get the best out of me and I think it’s exciting.”
Of her ’19 inaugural pro year that ended with a 7th-place WC showing in Doha last autumn, Allman says, “I think honestly, the best thing that happened to me was moving to [Austin] a place with such little distraction. I think that in college there just was so much going on between school and between personal passions and between trying to do track. Now I was in an environment where I could be all-in.
“I think that last year was absolutely essential in terms of starting to feel more comfortable on the international circuit and just gain appreciation for how meticulous and procedural the best of the best are. I mean, in the U.S. you go to a competition and you have 30 minutes to warm up. Then if you need more time, you can probably just ask the officials. It’s so laid back versus the first Diamond League I ever went to where I remember I had literally two throws in the ring before the competition. And that’s just the normal.
“I think that I just grew in leaps and bounds and started to find some confidence to feel like I knew what it would take and could see maybe that I have the potential to compete with the best of the best. But it was honestly just a long season, and I think that kind of caught up with me by the end, just going from nothing to tons of meets abroad. But I think it was the perfect stepping stone for this year.”
If only this year had not unfolded as a royally awful annus horribilis. Amid the reality, news of Allman’s AR mark and then online video of the throw brightened the day for many an American field fan. For Allman it was a season-opening (and likely closing) day like no other.
“We opened last year in Chula Vista,” she says, recalling the circumstances around her previous PR, 220-3 (67.15), set in an early-April ’19 comp. “That day really was probably the most perfect conditions I’ve ever been in, in the sense that there was just a constant 10mph breeze down the right sector.
“This time it literally was no wind. I think honestly it was the first time that I’ve had a meet where I was just thankful to have a meet. I mean, my mindset normally for the opener is I’m so stressed out, I’m so anxious. And this time was like, ‘Holy crap, I get to compete.’ Just such a different energy, really positive.”
Allman’s A Dancer Turned Discus Thrower: “There’s a show that used to be on called So You Think You Can Dance, and I got invited—I was a freshman in high school—to travel with them for a year around the country. I was too young to be on the show but I pretty much got to go to a bunch of different cities around the U.S. and just learn from them. And it was awesome.”
Sion saw indicators ahead of time that Allman might have a special performance in her but kept some of his impressions to himself. “We did a mock meet on June 27,” he says, “and it was just her and obviously it was not a real meet. But we measured that day. We actually lifted that morning. She had a really difficult lift that morning and we went and trained and we were like, ‘Let’s just see where we’re at.’
“So we put up a cone out at 60m and it was wet so the throws were leaving legitimate impressions in the grass and the dirt. So we measured the deepest throw that day and it was just over 65m—which to me was a huge indicator when we started talking about her potential for the season.
“It was like, ‘Wow! You just crushed this very difficult lift, which taxed your system obviously and then you’re able to go throw 65m kind of right after.’ It was pretty exciting. But then in training sessions leading up though to the actual meet—especially once we knew kind of days out that the meet was happening—she started throwing serious, seriously deep, she started throwing far.”
Outlining a lesson synopsis for Coaching Communication 101, Sion adds, “Part of the psychological part is making sure she understands what’s possible based on what I’m seeing, but not pressuring it, not putting pressure on it in a way that makes her think about it in anything but a positive way. So she started throwing really, really far, and then [practicing on] the premeet day at Iron Wood, I wasn’t sure how far, but I thought we were super-close to 70m. So again, it was just keeping it all in our brains the right way and not overthinking it or thinking about it too much. I kind of hold it in and don’t share, ’cause I don’t want to change her mentality, I want her to execute.”
As noted, when Allman finally got in a competition ring and spat out the AR, she at first failed to recognize the full magnitude of her effort. “Yeah, my measurement radar was a bit off,” she says, “but I was blown away. I was so excited. I mean, 70m is, I feel, the ultimate barrier for discus on the world stage. So, yeah, I was in complete shock.”
Allman’s training year—as for just about every athlete, especially field eventers—has been one of back to the basics. “From the mental side,” she says, “I’ve never felt so lost in a way. There were a lot of times where I was so tempted to want to wrap it up for the season. And Coach Sion just did a very methodical job, laying it out day by day and keeping the train going. It’s kind of wild to actually think about how close I was to wanting to shut it down at points when we were on the brink of something so amazing.
“But I think that the pandemic just gave the opportunity to focus on aspects that normally you have to overlook when you’re traveling abroad and there are competitions. You have to make prize money and you need to think about your Ranking, versus this time we just focused on the basics. I felt like in a lot of ways I kind of fell back in love with my sport again.”
It’s good to be in love with an Olympics on the horizon.