THROWS FANS KNEW that Mykolas Alekna was more than just a good catch for Cal. Coming in as an 18-year-old, the Lithuanian discus ace had already won World and European Junior (U20) titles. His best with the big platter was 208-5 (63.52). Those are the kind of skills that can make a big dent in NCAA competition.
His bloodline only made his upside look better: his dad is Virgilijus Alekna, owner of Olympic gold medals from ’00 and ’04, plus World titles in ’03 and ’05.
Even so, when the dust settled on his ’22 campaign, even the Cal frosh was stunned by what he had accomplished. “It surpassed my expectations for sure,” he says. “I didn’t expect to throw that far for the season. My goal was to maybe throw 66m [216-6], 65-66. I just wanted to qualify for the World Championships, but the season was way better than I expected. I was surprised; my coaches too. We were surprised but happy at the same time.”
PRs of 218-10 (66.70) and 222-0 (67.68) came in the early season, the latter a Collegiate Dual Meet Record. Then he won the Pac-12 with a Collegiate Record of 225-6 (68.73). He came to the NCAA meet as a strong favorite, only to fall an inch short of Virginia’s Claudio Romero.
“I learned a lot from that experience,” he says. “There was a lot of pressure because everyone expected me to win. And I just realized that nothing is promised and I just have to work way harder than I used to work. I wasn’t very disappointed because that’s a super great lesson. I just became more motivated and I came back to Europe and kept training and the results improved a lot.”
In his next outing, he won the Lithuanian title with another best, 226-4 (69.00). He followed that up in Stockholm with another PR of 229-0 (69.81), good for 2nd behind Slovenia’s Kristjan Čeh.
At the Worlds, the then-19-year-old performed like a veteran, moving into 2nd in round 2 and eventually finishing with the silver at 227-3 (69.27). Again, Čeh won, on his way to being our No. 1 for the year.
Says Alekna, who ended up rated No, 2, “It was my first major competition. I had competed in Worlds and European Championships, but those were U20 competitions and weren’t as important. This was my first major, and I learned that I need to deal with pressure better. I feel like I could have thrown better. My practice throws were further than my competition throws, but I just couldn’t deal with the pressure.”
The final meet of his season, the Euros, came a month later, and this time, Alekna would not be denied. Despite being behind for the first four rounds, he hit his marks perfectly to launch a 228-11 (69.78) in round 5 to capture the gold, leaving Čeh well behind at 224-0 (68.28).
“I enjoy every moment I compete at the highest level,” he says. “I just love competing and I knew that I could make a good throw [that day]. Because I was going pretty far in practice and I knew that I could make one strong, good throw, that’s for sure. I was pretty confident, whether it would be fifth or sixth round, I just felt it inside me.”
Calling it “the best moment” of his season, he explains, “That was my first-ever title at the elite level. I was 2nd at Worlds, but 2nd-place doesn’t feel that good. First-place always feels better, doesn’t matter if it’s European Championships or World Championships. The opponents were almost the same [as in Eugene]. The top 5 [Europeans at Worlds] were in the top 5, so it was very competitive.”
The overall key, he says, was that both his technique and strength got better in the time he worked with Cal throws coach Mo Saatara. “My technique improved a lot since last year. Also, I got stronger, more powerful and explosive in a way that helped me a lot as well. And just consistency. We kept training every day. We knew our goal for the season and we were working towards that.”
For a thrower at Alekna’s level to come to the United States for college is unusual. He admits that some people back home didn’t agree with his decision: “Some of them were not disappointed, but they thought I would achieve more if I stayed in Lithuania. No one knows how things would have gone, but I’m glad I’m here.”
The impulse to come to the States came much earlier. “Since I was a kid, I always wanted to come to the United States. My dad did a few training camps here and he really liked it. He said that the training conditions and facilities in the U.S. are way better than in Lithuania, and also I could get a good education here. He always wanted me to come here and I wanted to come here as well.”
Choosing Cal was the end result of a process to find the coach in America that matched as closely as possible the training principles that Alekna already followed. “I talked to a lot of coaches and that’s why we chose Cal, because we train a very similar way in Lithuania. But also, when I came here, we started training twice a day. I was used to training once a day. That was the biggest change. That may be why my improvement is so big too, because we just train more.
“I enjoy working with [Saatara]. He’s a great coach and he’s willing to adapt. If some exercise doesn’t work for me, I just talk to him and we find a solution. He knows a lot about discus because he works with it every day, every minute, he thinks about throwing. That’s his passion, and that’s why he’s a very, very good coach.”
Whether or not to return to Cal after a summer winning medals and ascending to the top ranks of the sport posed another question for Alekna, who admitted it was a difficult decision. “Yeah,” he says, pausing. “It was pretty tough. I had to sort through all the pros and cons and I decided to come back. The education is more important than the [throwing] career. You never know what’s going to happen. You can get injured or something else might happen and you cannot throw anymore. So you must have a back-up plan. I think that getting a degree is a must.”
Another must in his eyes: capturing the NCAA crown that eluded him last June. “Oh yeah,” he says with a laugh. “I want to get that title. That’s one of my goals this season.”
Now studying psychology in Berkeley, after having switched from business, Alekna looks forward to many more competitions in the future: “I just want to win the Worlds someday, whether it’ll be this year or in upcoming years. I just want to be a world champion one day. And it’d be great to go to the Olympics and compete there and win a medal.”
But does he plan to compete as long as his father, who World Ranked 17 straight years, 1996–12? “It’s too early to say something, because I’m only 20 years old. A lot of things can happen, so I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll be able to compete as long as my father, but I’ll try, I’ll try. I love discus and I want to throw as long as I can.”