TOKYO — At seemingly every strip mall in the United States, there’s typically a dance studio populated (mostly) by little girls. Let’s say you were one of those. Growing up, you do dance. Jazz. Hip-hop. Tap. Contemporary dance. Even ballet.
Things go along, and as you’re getting into high school, it seems that maybe, just maybe, after all these years of dance, competing from the time you were 10 even, you might have some athletic talent.
So, what should it be?
Soccer? Volleyball? Lacrosse?
How does “discus” get into the discussion?
By going to your school’s spaghetti dinner?
This — this random turn of fate — spaghetti! — gets you to Stanford, and then an American record in the discus, and then a victory in the U.S. Trials in Eugene in June and, in the rain on Monday night in Tokyo, the first track and field gold medal for the United States at these Tokyo 2020 Games.
In women’s discus!
“I never in my wildest dreams thought that a spaghetti dinner could lead to an Olympic gold medal,” 26-year-old Valarie Allman said late Monday night. “Never.
“But, goshdarnit, that was the best spaghetti I ever had. Looking back. I’m so thankful for it.”
Let’s be clear. If you were to take a poll among American teen girls — would you rather do discus or TikTok? Which?
How many would even know the basics of the event?
For that matter, how many of the boys in class? Or the parents?
Or know that women’s discus is one of the original five women’s track and field events in the Summer Games — first appearing in Amsterdam in 1928, and every time since.
Twelve athletes make the Olympic final. Each throws a metal discus as far as she can. A woman’s discus is 2.2 pounds (one kilogram) and 7.09 inches in diameter (18 centimeters). The men’s discuss is twice as heavy, 4.4 pounds (two kilos) and 8.66 inches (22 cm) around.
To throw the discus, the athlete stands in a circle that measures 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) in diameter. Typically, she takes two-and-a-half spins before letting it fly. The discus must land within the cone-marked sector. The athlete must stay within the circle until it lands.
Each athlete gets six throws. The one with the longest throw — from any of the six rounds — wins.
This is what that spaghetti dinner brought Valarie Allman to Monday night in the rain in Tokyo.
Along, she said, with an enhanced sense — developed during the pandemic — of composure and calm.
Based most recently in Austin, Texas, she and her coach, Zebulon Sion, have worked relentlessly on her mental game. After the U.S. Trials in June in Eugene, which she dominated, he came up with a three-part affirmation for her to say out loud: “I’m capable of winning. I deserve to win. I will win.”
The first time she tried, at the high school near the University of Texas where they often train, the whole thing sounded a little off but, she said, “I felt kind of flattered that he in his heart believed it was possible.” About three weeks ago, she added, “I started to buy into it.” And, “This last week, I said it — I really wanted it.”
Raised mostly in Hershey, Pennsylvania (yes, that Hershey), her parents, David and Lisa, moved the family to Longmont, Colorado, where she took up track and field her freshman year of high school. The throwers had an annual spaghetti dinner. She wanted to go. So — she took up throwing.
Can we talk?
Even a brief riff through Olympic history would suggest that this might not be an optimal career move for an American teen.
Who leads the all-time medal standings? A country that doesn’t exist any longer, the Soviet Union, with 10. Second, another country that doesn’t exist, East Germany, with five.
OK, OK, the United States also had five. Six now.
But Lillian Copeland won two of those medals, a silver in 1928 and a gold in 1932. Ruth Osborn won silver in 1932. Then there were no American medals until the boycotted Games of 1984, when Leslie Deniz won silver. In 2008, Stephanie Brown-Trafton won an unexpected gold. That was — it.
The list of medal winners does include a name perhaps familiar to some American students of Olympic history — Czechoslovakia’s Olga Fikotova, the 1956 gold medal winner who would memorably marry American Hal Connolly, winner of the hammer throw. Their wedding in Prague would be attended by 25,000 or 30,000 people; she, competing as Olga Connolly, took part in every Games until 1972, and carried the flag for the United States at those 1972 Munich Games.
OK, OK, but Valarie Allman was born in 1995, so 1972 was ancient history. Spaghetti? What else?
Turns out all that dance translates well into the rhythm of the discus.
Those two-and-a-half turns? What’s that but a form of dance?
Allman has been on the national discus scene for some seven years. She was 21st at the NCAA championships in 2014. Since then, seven medals at different competitions, including the NCAAs and World University Games. In 2019, she won the U.S. championships. In 2020, she set the U.S. record, 70.15 meters, or 230 feet, 2 inches — almost a meter better than the previous record, which had stood for six years, set by Gia Lewis-Smallwood, 69.17 meters.
Allman won the U.S. Trials in June easily, throwing 70.01, or 229-8. She was the only American into Monday’s final.
In women’s discus, 70 meters is whoa territory.
In the final as well: Sandra Perkovic, the Croatian who was the 2016 and 2012 gold medalist.
On this night, Perkovic could manage no better than fourth, with a third-round throw of 65.01, or 213-3.
Allman, on her first throw, went 68.98, or 226-3.
After that came the deluge. Many if not most of the other 11 in the competition sought refuge under the carts that get parked on the track apron. Not Allman. Noticeable from anywhere in the stadium with her bright orange spikes, she calmly stood or sat by the railing and waited for the rain to pour itself out, and the action to start again.
“If there’s ever been a time that was going to train adversity, it’s been this last year,” Allman said. “I mean, the pandemic, it forced me to always be adaptable. To have to go with the unpredictable. That’s exactly what happened today.”
After 45 minutes, when the rain let up, no one could come close. In the fifth round, Kristin Pudenz of Germany threw a personal-best 66.86, or 219-4, for silver. It was Germany’s first Olympic medal since 1996. “A silver medal — I could dream of it,” Pudenz said, adding, “Yeah, I’m very happy and a little confused.”
Cuba’s Yaime Perez, the 2019 world champion, went 65.72, or 215-7, in the dry first round, and that stood up for bronze. “Whether it’s at the world championship level or the Olympic Games, we always take a medal,” she said, meaning Cuba.
The United States? Not so much. But on this night? “I”m on cloud nine,” Valarie Allman said. “And I couldn’t be any happier.”