EVEN A THROWS DILETTANTE can’t have failed to notice while watching Valarie Allman in the ring that the style with which the Tokyo discus champ spins the platter stands out as unique among the event’s stars.
Connections have been made — and certainly were in T&FN’s Tokyo report — to her teenage career as a dancer.
Allman and coach Zebulon Sion acknowledge the parallels with dance kinesthetics and body awareness but they also describe a rigorous process that built her balletic technique.
“It is interesting,” says Sion, who first took Allman under his tutelage in ’17, a redshirt season after her Stanford junior year. “You look at videos of her the first year we worked together when she threw 64.69 [212-3]; she threw pretty far and improved 10 feet, but her technique now is so, so different.
“Within the last three years it’s really changed and became more refined. At this point the finish of the throw looks more like a dance — and especially her double pirouette concept at the end. Now people are really connecting this dance-to-technique concept, but it’s not like that’s how it always was.
“A big priority for me is we’re always trying make her techique more efficient. We’re trying to be stacked in the middle of the throw, we’re trying to have better angles, we’re trying to create separation and longer pulls. Specifically the way she lands in the middle is very unique: we try to bring her left arm back to her chest as her right foot touches down in the middle of the ring, which creates a lot of tension. When her right foot grounds we want that discus behind her still — as opposed to a lot of people who teach rotating the athlete’s body more in the air prior to landing in the middle of the ring.
“So there are just small things that, in actuality, are big things that she does that are different than everyone else. This approach creates a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing fluid movement that still has an element of violence and power to it, and power. It’s very different than everyone else.”
For her part, Allman recalls her technical progress as a deep study in figuring out what worked for her.
She says, “I think just throwing as a female, sometimes it’s hard to know what to strive for. You know, I think the model that [the author] described of how you normally see [discus throwers operate in the ring] is I think what I was trying to emulate for so long. And it just wasn’t the right thing for my body, the right thing for the strengths that I have.
“Coach Sion was the first person I think — and I honestly do believe he’s the only person — that could actually really harness the abilities that were positive into my throwing.
“He did such a phenomenal job of making it a whole-body coordinated system, rather than just strength and a hunker down and get that thing out as far as you can. He’s always coming up with different ways to communicate and vocalize things.
“In throwing there’s a lot of really old methodologies and a lot of old cues that you hear all the time — things about like, ‘Are you a more rotational thrower or a linear thrower? You gotta focus on the disc’s orbit.’ And those are important things, but the way Coach Sion teaches is very practical, about energy and if you’re efficient.
“He’s helped me rewire my brain about how to optimize the throw, especially within the system that I have. At first I had to definitely rewire some things in my brain to understand what he wanted our technique to look like.
“I’d say that it was probably in 2019 that I first started to really get a glimpse of what that could look like as it kind of smoothed out and started to come together and really build throughout the ring. But 2020 was the first year that I really felt that energy go into the discus and build across from the back of the circle to the front of the circle.
“The way he’s developed this technique has so much ingenuity, it’s so different, and it’s been really impactful to see how many people have just seen discus in a new light for the first time as they’ve been able to see our technique compared to how a lot of other people do it.”
For Tokyo, the goal ever since Allman whirled her 230-2 (70.15) American Record a year and a day before the Olympic final was to be in 70-meter shape on arrival and consistently near that distance from the first round. That’s exactly what she did, hitting her 226-4 (68.98) winner straight out of the gate.
Says Sion, “It is all about pattern setting. It’s not about throwing far in the warmup. It’s not about anything else. Our priority is making sure the pattern is set. Typically her first throw has been pretty far, and this exact moment is why that’s critical. One, it’s a confidence concept, and two, you don’t have to scratch your way back if someone else opens up big.
“And three, if there is a delay or any type of other issue that you can’t control, you’ve already put up a real mark on the board. I honestly felt pretty confident that her opening mark was going to hold up no matter what happened after that.
“So that was critical. Obviously it’s different when you’re the athlete so Valarie, while feeling confident, still had to be ready to respond if someone passed her.”
Manifestly so. “Historically a mark like my first throw would be strong enough to medal and potentially win,” Allman concludes.
“As an athlete I didn’t want to win with an asterisk being like only one round and then rainy next five rounds. So I am very thankful that they did the delay and the next five rounds was a perfectly dry ring. I think they did a good job of trying to let people optimize where they were at on that day. But I felt good to have a strong first round regardless of what the environmental elements would have done.” ◻︎