THE RETICULATED PYTHON he keeps as a pet may in some sense serve as a role model for Payton Otterdahl as he trains through this season that remains on coronavirus pause. The ’19 North Dakota State grad—who 16 months ago spun the ball out to 71-6¾ (21.81) to take down Ryan Crouser’s Collegiate Indoor Record—is as primed as anybody to get back to the shot wars. At least he has in his corner an exemplar for patience in the snake. Pythons can go big and strike quickly when they eat but they only swallow a meal once every week or 10 days.
Otterdahl, too, is waiting these days. “Things are going pretty well right now,” he says. “Life is for the most part just training and recovery in between the training sessions. Not much else is going on. I don’t have a plan yet for what competition is going to look like for the rest of the season, but we’re hoping that come August, we’ll be able to get a few meets in. So I’m just trying to stay ready for that.
“I’d say that the biggest benefit that I’ve had is in the weightroom; I’ve seen my numbers go up in almost every single lift by quite a bit. So I’ve really been able to hammer the weights. And part of that is from when the shutdown started in March, there was still a lot of snow on the ground here in Fargo. So I had to take a short break from throwing. I threw when I could. When the snow had melted enough that there was some open concrete for me to throw, then I would throw. But for the most part I was able to hit the weights pretty hard. Luckily with me and my situation, my roommate that I’m living with has a full weight set. So I’ve been able to have very little changes to my lifting.”
With a garage as his training redoubt, the 6-4/305 (1.93/138) Minnesota native says. “I’m better in every single lift, all the core lifts. You know, bench/clean/snatch/ squat. It’s way better than it was last year.” (Continued below)
The June 19 date originally scheduled for the Olympic Trials men’s shot has come and gone. With that summit now pushed back a year, Otterdahl, the 6th-placer at the ’19 Nationals, meets Justin St. Clair, his coach and the man behind North Dakota State’s power throws program, for practices at a local middle school. Otterdahl knows he is lucky to be able to say, “They have some good circles and a good sector to throw in. It’s never busy and it’s close to where both of us live. So it’s worked out pretty well.”
Otterdahl pocketed the NCAA Indoor title last year on his first throw as the ball flew to 71-2¾ (21.71), the No. 4 all-time collegiate indoor mark. His ’19 outdoor campaign hit a bump in the road when he injured his back lifting early in the spring and reinjured it “four or five times” with the last such setback coming at the West Regional.
“From there on,” he says, “I had to take about a month off from throwing all together to get it to heal and at that point I was out of form, not in great shape and I wasn’t able to put it together at the NCAA meet, unfortunately.” The best of his two measured throws in Austin went 65-3¼ (19.89).
Fortunately Otterdahl found some consolation in six summer meets as he placed 8th at the Prefontaine DL, hit results mostly in the 67-foot range and reached 68-8¾ (20.95) in July.
His Diamond League debut 3 weeks after the NCAA “was unreal,” Otterdahl remembers. “Like going from a college kid to competing against all of the pros that you look up to and strive to want to be some day. And you’re one of them competing right there. That’s where I really noticed, ‘This is the job for me. This is what I want to do. This is the lifestyle that I want to live.’”
With the Fargo snow having given way to toasty summer temperatures but certain dates for competitions not yet known, Otterdahl is preparing to live the elite putter’s life without a firm starting time. “We’re just trying to build up strength right now and lay down a good foundation for hopefully next year,” he says.
That means “the training load is pretty heavy,” he explains, “so I’m not near as explosive as I would be in a competition setting. As soon as I know when a meet will for sure be, I can start my taper, start really working on getting more explosive and that’s when I’ll be ready to compete. As of right now, I would say that I’m a little bit slow but strong. So just as soon as the moment comes, I’ll be ready.”
Away from putting, “I’m kind of known as being the guy that has pet reptiles,” Otterdahl says. He has already traded talk about the slithery, scaly creatures with that other noted reptilophile Sandi Morris and attributes his fascination to childhood summer days at his family’s cabin in Wisconsin: “I pretty much spent the entire time there on the lake shore catching frogs and trying to catch garter snakes and salamanders.”
Anticipating a heavy travel schedule as a pro athlete, Otterdahl has downsized his menagerie to just the python and a monitor lizard. Oh, and a dog, a cat and a collection of fish.
In his putting role, Otterdahl exudes quiet self-assurance he is ready to throw with the behemoths of the event. “At the point that me and a lot of these other elite shotputters are at,” Otterdahl says, “the big difference that you see in increases in distance is just the really small, fine-tuning things, you know? Perfecting that timing.
“And I think one thing also that goes a lot with that is just the confidence and the ability to do it. You look at the shot put final at Worlds [in Doha last fall], all those guys were completely confident in their ability. They knew what they needed to do to go out and execute, and mentally they were just so prepared for that. I think that’s why we saw [the flabbergasting marks required to place well].
“For a young up-and-coming guy like me, I think that just being able to get in that zone where you just have so much confidence in your own ability that you don’t even have to think twice about it—that experience is one thing that I’m looking to get more of.”