THE TRAJECTORY OF Rudy Winkler’s hammer career has been leading to a special place, particularly since his ’19 breakthrough in Doha. That it came together in Eugene at the Trials had an air of inevitability.
Specifically, Winkler took down one of the oldest American Records, Lance Deal’s quarter-century old 270-9 (82.52) with a 271-4 (82.71) that was part of a series where 5 of his throws broke 80m (262-5).
“I definitely did” expect it, Winkler said in the aftermath. “If you saw my practices leading up to this I don’t think my meet would have surprised you. I was making easy throws at 79m [c260ft]. My mindset going into this was to stay focused, do what I’ve been doing in practice, don’t overdo it; we did exactly that. I’m super proud of this. I was more prepared for this than anything in my entire life.”
The 26-year-old New Yorker has been laying siege to Deal’s record for two years and while he knew this day was coming, he still found it surreal.
“It’s a bit unbelievable,” he said. “If you saw me during the competition, I would walk out of the circle after throwing 80 and was saying, ‘This is crazy.’ It felt effortless and it felt good to be able to do it. In the past, if you look at my series from 2016, I was throwing 70, 72, I popped off a 76. But here, every single throw except one was over 80. I feel ready, I feel very prepared this time around. It’s kind of unbelievable, it’s great.”
As to how his day went, “My first throw felt very easy, at that point I knew it was likely I was going to make the Olympic Team with that so I got to relax a little bit,” he said. “The second throw I knew it as soon as it came out of my hands it was a better throw. I didn’t know if it would be the American Record, but I knew it had the potential. I was staring at the prompter waiting for the mark to come up, then when it came up I was overwhelmed with the distance. It was an amazing feeling.
“Lance was the second or third person I talked to immediately after the throw. He told me he was proud of me, to keep going with the rest of my throws. That was awesome. He’s an amazing person and I’m happy he was here to see it happen and was proud of me in that moment.”
Winkler thinks there’s more where that came from.
“I threw the 82.71, it felt very easy,” he said. “I had never thrown that far. But I think I can throw further, that’s not it for me. Come the Olympics I’ll be in better shape to throw further. I’m looking forward to that.”
What struck Winkler is his transformation since he first came on the national scene in ’16 with a Trials win and an Olympic berth. He was throwing for Cornell then, coming off a runner-up finish at the NCAA, and his growth and maturity since then, including a senior year at Rutgers, is striking.
“2016 was unexpected,” he said. “The weeks leading up to it I started throwing really well in practice and it was like, if everything goes well I might be able to win and maybe get the standard and go to the Olympics. But it was very unsure, I was still all over the place, immature in terms of my competitive experience.
“Going into this was a lot different. I’ve been preparing for 5 years now. I knew what to expect, I’ve gotten experience at countless other Nationals and Worlds. This was a whole different experience for me and after this I’ll be much more prepared going into Tokyo.”
While the journey there really got going when he made the final in Doha two years ago, Winkler also handled the pandemic well. He contracted the virus in April of ’20, which knocked him out of training for a month, but also led him to a better place mentally.
“Like everyone I had to figure out how to train during the pandemic,” Winkler said. “Everyone lose training locations, competitions, things like that, it took some adjusting. In April I got COVID, went through the gauntlet of symptoms, I took a month off to recover. After that I had to build back up from square one it felt like, but that was good in a way.
“I focused on some things I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to focus on. That allowed me to throw 80 in 2020 and everything kept rolling after that. One thing led to another. My physical fitness and my mental fitness built up along the way. The hurdles I faced were a positive in a way, funny enough. It was tough at the start, but finding that stride again and working through the adversity was super useful.”
That Winkler will be going to Tokyo with runner-up Daniel Haugh and Alex Young makes it even more special as America looks to get two hammer throwers on the stand for the first time since Hal Connolly and Al Hall were 1st and 4th in ’56.
“That’s very likely in my mind,” Winkler said. “We’ve been so consistent this year, every time we’re together we push each other. Today everyone threw a personal best, that bodes very well going into Tokyo. It’s very possible we will have multiple medals. We have to prepare, but it’s possible for sure.
“I couldn’t be happier to have Alex and Danny there with me. Alex is one of the best friends I’ve ever had, I’m good friends with Danny, too. Dan was my roommate in Doha, we hit it off as soon as we met. We’re going to feed off each other and do something amazing in Tokyo with a great group of guys.”
That group of guys is led by Winkler, who put himself in a special place on a special day in Eugene.