RAIN POURED DOWN in sheets, imposing a competition delay of nearly an hour on the Tokyo Olympics women’s discus final. But for the American Record holder the stadium’s atmosphere was purely golden.
Valarie Allman had stepped into the ring in round 1 and dance-blasted out the fourth-longest throw of her career to take a lead she would never relinquish. The 26-year-old’s 226-4 (68.98) opener — a monster in the wet, viscous air — was the biggest in an Olympic final in 33 years and 7ft (2.12m) longer than her formidable competition could muster on the night.
At the time of the Rio Games Allman was a Stanford junior with a “mere” 201-6 (61.42) PR when Sandra Perković, the 7-time World No. 1, won her second Olympic gold. Triumphing in Tokyo over Perković, world titlist Yaimé Pérez and surprise silver medalist Kristin Pudenz was, of course, a dream come true — and the culmination of a coordinated approach developed with Zebulon Sion, her coach since ’17.
“It feels good. It feels validating,” says Allman, who has much more than that to say about her victory. “I mean, you talk about 2016, and 2017 was the first time I ever competed against Sandra, so it’s been a very tactical approach every year to improve certain aspects, to be more ready to compete on the world stage.
“I think coming into 2021 Coach Sion did an amazing job of helping me recognize that we had the tools, we had the foundation, we had the skills to be able to compete. And if we competed, we would be happy with the result.”
Happy, indeed — and suffused with an atmosphere of the elements Allman is proud she never let faze her even as she was never challenged for the podium’s top step.
Says Allman, “The forecast, even 48 hours out, always showed that there was going to be rain, but as the dates rolled in it was pretty much just sun and humidity. But as that final was approaching we had rain coming in. And I mean, rain for me is absolutely the hardest element to deal with.
“I’ve had some previous meets that have maybe not gone my way because of the rain. NCAAs in 2018 was just a downpour. So that was a tough moment [Allman placed 3rd]. And I slipped in a wet ring in 2017 and got a concussion. So those experiences, I think have maybe made rain a bigger deal, but Coach Sion and I were prepared to throw in it if that’s what we were going to have to do.
“So when the rain actually started, I honestly was expecting that we were going to have to throw in it and I was really surprised they even stopped the competition. But there really wasn’t much communication about how long it was going to go on for or what the protocol was. So it was just about staying present and adapting as it went on.”
When the slippery drops that skated Allman and others into fouls and falls starting at the end of the second round crescendoed to a waterfall and halted the action, the waiting got a little weird.
“It was a very surreal experience, honestly,” Allman remembers. “The way that the stadium was designed, kind of that upper ring sheltered us from the rain. So I was in the dry. I had a front row seat just to watch the 400 hurdles and watch 30 workers trying to get that ring dry as it was pouring. So it was insane to have so much adrenaline, be in the moment and just have everything come to a stop right on that big stage where you’re ready just to go for it.”
Allman never had to rev all the way back up. She mustered two decent throws in the comp’s second half and walked out the front on her last into history — and into a meeting with her family in Colorado she will never forget, virtual though it was.
“My mom had kind of alluded to the fact that [NBC was] going to have a camera set up in the house,” she says, “but I had no idea that we were going to be able to do that FaceTime/Zoom thing. So it was so funny. They popped up on the screen and my family was so cute.
“They’ve been watching my dog Oly [pronounced Ollie]. She was in Colorado with them while I was in Tokyo and she had an American bandana on, and my mom was freaking out and she held Oly towards the camera and I just lost it.
“It was one of my favorite Olympic moments. She held her up and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Sugar Butt!’ which is just a nickname that I sometimes call my dog. And I think I just was so happy and high on adrenaline I wasn’t even thinking about the fact this was actually on NBC.
“But they picked me up at the Denver airport, I got to go see them for a few days after, and someone at the airport recognized Oly and said, ‘Oh my gosh, is that Sugar Butt?’ I lost it. I cannot believe someone recognized my dog from their coverage. So that’s pretty funny.”
Intriguing name, right, Oly?
“She is a miniature Australian Shepherd,” says Allman, “and I got her in March of 2020. So kind of right when COVID started to really establish itself, she came into my life and has been an amazing little companion during all of this.
“I named her Oly because I got her the week that the Olympics had been announced as being postponed. So she was kind of my little Olympic celebration of 2020.”
Allman’s Olympic celebration of 2021, in a sense marked a triumph of mind and matter over mind and matter for athlete and coach.
“I think that for me it’s a holistic concept,” says Sion —who in his day job as Texas throws assistant guided Tripp Piperi to the ’19 NCAA men’s shot crown and 2nd as a junior this season.
With Allman, the priority was the nuts and bolts of discus throwing: “From when we started working together 5 years ago it became, ‘Yeah, we need to improve your technique.’ And we kind of developed a technique that’s pretty unique to her throwing that I’m very proud of. And then obviously there’s physical development and she changed her nutrition plan. I mean, we really did approach it all, and then, and then really the biggest piece, though, that connected her ability to win the Olympics absolutely became the mental side of it.
“It’s like if she made the Olympics too big or put too much on a pedestal, I think that it would not have gone the way it did. So a big part of the way we talked, it was like, ‘Our approach is journey over outcome.’ It’s kinda cheesy, but it definitely works.
“It became, ‘OK, the Olympics is definitely one stop on the journey, and sure, it’s an important one, but we’re not going to try to make any…’
“Even the Olympic Trials, we called it ‘USAs.’ We didn’t call it the Olympic Trials. The entire year I literally kept calling it USAs. I do it to other people by accident and they’re like, ‘Wait, what? Oh yeah, the Olympic Trials.’ But we did it on purpose. It’s like our goal is — she had already won the U.S. Championships twice so we’re going to go do that again. We’re going to go win at a third time and then move on.”
Allman bought in but not, she confesses, without some angst and effort.
Still processing it all 3-plus weeks post-Tokyo and with 5 Euro meets to come in the season’s wind-down, she says, “It was really interesting when I got back home to Colorado. My family, and I watched the competition in Tokyo and it was so interesting to watch myself in that environment, doing the throws and it looks so composed. I look so just together and automatic. I walk into the ring and do the throw and it’s good.
“Yet to be experiencing it and feeling it, when you’re in that Olympic Stadium, there’s so much intensity, there’s so much pressure. There are so many people reaching out to you saying, ‘Go for gold, you can do it,’ right? It is a lot to handle and I kind of started to feel maybe some of that Olympic pressure after the Olympic Trials.
“The Olympic Trials was a great performance, it was my best series to date. I mean, there couldn’t be a meet to give me more confidence going into the Olympics than how that had played out for me.
“But doubt started to creep into my mind. I started to question, ‘Can I do it when it matters? Am I gonna be able to compete with the best of the best? Am I going to be able to compete with people who have achieved this already that are going to be in the same competition?’
“And Coach Sion came up with this idea of these affirmations. My entire time working with him he has always seen more potential in me than I’ve seen in myself. So to hear him just being vocal about saying that we can do this and we can win was really helpful, but I think he recognized that I needed to also believe it.
So he came up with three affirmations. The first one was, ‘I’m capable of winning.‘ The second one was, ‘I deserve to win,’ and the third one was, ‘I will win.’
“We did it for about a month and the first few times I said it, oh my gosh, I was so bad at it. I was rambling. I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll win.’ I would say, ‘If I can do this then I’ll win.’ And as time went on, I started to say them without conditional clauses, started to say them with more belief.
“And we did it one last time before walking out to the final. I said it with all the conviction that I could possibly have. And I think it was really good.
“It was a brilliant exercise that he came up with, but it was exactly what I needed to really recognize that we have put in the work, we do deserve to see this materialize and that it most certainly can. So it was pretty special.”