DOHA ’19 WAS A BREAKTHROUGH for Rudy Winkler. At the very least, it marked a turning point when he made the WC hammer final, the first American to do so since Lance Deal in ’95. Though he finished only 11th, he was on his way.
“After Worlds, I’ve just kinda been on a roll,” he says. “I didn’t really miss a beat. I got back to it and was right where I left off after I took a little time off. In early ’20, before COVID hit, my training was phenomenal, better than it has ever been.
“I was throwing marks in practice that I wasn’t even throwing in meets at that point, and I normally don’t throw further in practice than in meets. So I knew I was going to throw, or at least have the potential to throw, far that season, but with COVID, all that got put to the side.”
The Cornell alum was among the those who contracted C19 in the early going, and it put a pause on last year’s progress: “I tested positive in April and I was sick for 2 weeks and I took another 2 weeks off after that, just to make sure I was healthy again before starting back up. That threw a wrench into the works, obviously, but there really wasn’t anything to train for.”
Working with coach Paddy McGrath, the Irish Olympian who coaches at Manhattan, Winkler planned a year that focused on the basics.
“We just took it back to square one and built from the ground up, which I think in a way was positive. It gave me an opportunity to work on some things that we probably wouldn’t have addressed if we had just gone into a real track season. Obviously as with everyone, [C19] messed with my training cycles. We just had to adapt and make the best of it.”
He adds, “It weirdly ended up working out pretty positively.”
One might consider that an understatement. In the close-to-home rural New York circuit of Pandemic Year ’20, Winkler reached a PR of 80.70 (264-9) that topped the world list for the season.
Lest that seem like a fluke of limited competitive opportunities worldwide, note that only two other throwers on the planet have thrown that far in the past 7 years.
Another solid winter of training followed, and Winkler, now 26, opened up this year on April 11 with a test meet at McGrath’s field in Wallkill, New York. “We hold meets there every now and then just to shake some rust off before bigger competitions.”
A final throw 255-6 (77.89) boded well; it was an early-season world leader and more than a meter better than Winkler’s PR at the end of the ’19 season. Two weeks later it was followed by a big PR of 268-11 (81.98) in Eugene, moving him to No. 2 on the all-time U.S. list (see chart).
The work in practice had focused on technique. “If I wasn’t working on technical stuff, I don’t know — I wouldn’t be able to keep doing it, it would just be boring to me,” he explains. However, the other ingredients were perhaps more important. “Staying consistent and staying healthy are the two big keys with me and my coaches. Having a healthy mindset about it, not stressing out, not treating it more than what it should be. Just trying to stay calm, cool, collected and throw far.
“The focus has shifted more from in the past when I wanted to win things and throw really far distances. Now I focus more on just producing a really good technical throw and I think that’s been a huge change for me.”
Winkler, who works remotely as a cyber-security analyst for a hospital system in New Jersey, is nothing like the nervous undergrad who didn’t make it out of the qualifying round at the ’16 Olympics.
“I’ve changed in pretty much every way as an athlete,” he says. “What I’m doing in practices is similar, but my mindset, my attitude towards everything around training, and then outside of training, my diet, my sleep, my other habits have gotten a lot more professional, for lack of a better word.
“I was still in college. I felt very unprepared for it because it happened very quickly. I won the Trials and then I was in Rio. I was like, ‘Holy crap, I’m at the Olympics!’ I’ve matured a lot in my regular life, which has helped me as an athlete. And I’ve gotten better at taking care of myself and that’s gone a long way toward making me a better athlete.”
That maturity showed when he made the final in Doha. “A big part of competing at those big meets was the mental aspect, not knowing really how to deal with nervousness and anxiety when getting into the competition and having that affect me more than I was expecting.”
In Rio, he had finished 18th in the qualifying round. The next year in London, he only managed 31st.
“In ’19, I handled that a lot better,” he says. “Obviously, I threw really well with a PR in the qualification [252-10/77.06 for 4th]. And then I threw a little bit above my season average in the final [246-9/75.20 for 11th]. I was feeling really good physically. And then having that mental aspect tuned in was a big part, a big confidence boost going into that next season. My performance there teed up my training and my performance until now. That set me up for where I am.”
With his big 268-11 standing as the longest throw in the world since ’17, Winkler is looking ahead to the championships of summer. Coming up soon are Journey To Gold meets in Ft. Worth, Tucson and Chula Vista that will lead into his final preparations for the OT. There, he knows, nothing is assured.
“The success of the rest of the U.S. hammer throwers has been a huge inspiration for my training this year as well. We have a great group of guys who are putting the U.S. on the map as a dominant hammer country, which has never happened before. We have 4 people with the Olympic standard and the potential for 2-3 more this season.
“It’s probably the first time in U.S. history that being No. 1 in the world isn’t a guarantee that I’ll even make the Olympic team, which is great for the sport and keeps me motivated.”