Breakout ’23 Motivates Double Throws Threat Ben Smith

Having rated as our No. 1 shot All-America and No. 2 in the discus last season, senior Ben Smith has big numbers in mind for ’24. (BECKY HOLBROOK)

WHEN HE STEPPED INTO the ring for his seasonal shot put debut last March, Ben Smith was just hoping to build momentum for something big later in the year. He accomplished his mission exponentially, unleashing an eye-opening 65-8, adding more than 6 feet to his personal best.

“That just blew me out of the water,” Smith, now a senior at Hortonville High (Wisconsin), says of that paradigm-shifting effort at a low-key indoor meet in Oshkosh. “I was expecting to end the season with that, and kinda work my way up to it.”

That was just the beginning. Later in the indoor season he hit 67-8¼, and by the spring he reached an outdoor best of 68-10½ that would top the yearly prep list. He also landed as the No. 2 discus thrower of ’23 with a 210-4 effort, and was runner-up in both events at the Nike Outdoor Nationals.

Bob Smith, who coaches his son, says it was a “surreal” year. “I don’t even know if we were looking at those kinds of numbers at the end of his senior season,” he admits. “Obviously there’s going to be a progression, because he had a decent sophomore season. But things kept coming. It got to the point where nothing was surprising anymore. It was a fun ride, but kind of a shock.”

As a soph Smith had won Wisconsin Division I titles in the shot and discus and notched bests of 59-5½ and 187-9. Those were promising marks, but nothing that indicated the numbers he’d register a year later.

Still, Smith knew there was potential to improve. “Winning State was exciting, but I didn’t want that to throw me off track and keep me distracted,” he says. “I had to keep focusing on moving forward.” He gave up football to concentrate on track, though he continued with wrestling. (The Wisconsin high school association doesn’t have an official indoor season.)

Of course, it took more than focus. Getting bigger and stronger certainly helped, too. He grew from about 6-0 and 185 pounds as a soph to 6-1 and 225 as a junior “Hitting the weight room was a big thing,” says Smith, who is now up to 6-2 and 250. “I really worked on technique in there and getting strength up, [and] my weight up while staying speedy and flexible at the same time. I’m working on the same thing this year. I got a new lifting program and I’m trying to get big, strong, fast and drop a bomb this year.”

In addition to physical growth, his father also credits his work ethic and his mastery of technique. “He’s always been a little advanced,” says Bob Smith, who threw collegiately at Wisconsin and had a lifetime best of 59-5 (18.11) with the 16lb shot in 1996. “He’s been around it since he was a kid. I started him playing around in the shot when he was 8 or 9 years old. When you describe the shot and discus, a lot of coaches will use the word dance. There’s a definite flow to it, and a rhythm and a timing that he has always seemed to understand.”

All that translated into an impressive junior season. In early May, Smith blasted his big 68-10½ (20.99, metrically speaking) in a low-key meet. After early foul trouble, “I told myself it was time to lock in now,” he recalls. “It wasn’t a big meet, but I wanted to get a big throw. I remember going through it in my head and practicing what it should feel like to hit a big throw, and then I hit it.”

From there, Smith defended his state title in the shot and finished 2nd to Bryce Ruland (Union, Waterford, Wisconsin) in the discus. He then made his debut in national competition at Nike Outdoors in Eugene, opening the meet with his monster discus PR 210-4, 2nd to Ruland’s list-leading 213-9. The next day he was disappointed to finish 2nd in the shot to Michael Pinones (East Central, San Antonio, Texas) with a 65-5½.

He believes a big throw that was marked as a foul would have been enough to win, but he was able to redeem himself a day later when he was invited back for the bonus “showcase” competition. There he hit a big 68-4¼, his second-best mark of the year, to win under the Hayward Field lights.

The trip to Eugene was also pivotal as it gave the Smiths a chance to meet Oregon throws coach Brian Blutreich. A ’92 Olympian in the discus, Blutreich joined the Ducks staff two years ago after stints at UC Santa Barbara, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona State, where he coached multiple NCAA champions, including Maggie Ewen, Turner Washington and, most recently, Jorinde van Klinken, who has won the past three NCAA discus titles — the first two at ASU, followed by the ’23 crown for Oregon.

“You could just tell that Coach Blutreich is very passionate about technique, passionate about his athletes,” Bob Smith says. “And he’s a very fatherly type figure, too. Thirty seconds into the conversation I knew this was the guy I want my kid to work with.” It also helped that the elder Smith could bond with Oregon head coach Jerry Schumacher, a fellow Wisconsin alum.

The deal was sealed when Smith took his official visit to Eugene in September during the Pre Classic/Diamond League Final, perhaps one of the most enticing recruiting trips ever. “It was fun to watch Ryan Crouser, Joe Kovacs and all those guys in person,” says Smith, who ran into New Zealand’s Tom Walsh at the airport, where he had a chat with the two-time Olympic bronze medalist. “I think that’s the first real meet that I actually got to sit down and watch, because I’m usually competing.”

Before heading to Oregon, of course, he’s looking forward to his final prep season. Smith has dropped wrestling from his repertoire and his goals include winning the Nike Indoor and Outdoor titles and taking a shot at making the U.S. team for this summer’s World U20 (Junior) Championships in both events. He’s also hoping to surpass 70 feet in the shot and 230 in the discus.

“Looking at my progressions from freshman to sophomore to junior year, I do feel that it’s possible,” says Smith, who turns 18 in April. “With all the information we learned last year, I’m just really trying to focus, craft my technique and just stay patient with it, and hopefully improve little by little this year.”