America's greatest hammer thrower is the real Deal

EUGENE, Ore. – As the story goes, Lance Deal, a raw but talented left-handed discus thrower from Montana State, was supposed to be in town for just a couple of weeks.

The year was 1985, and at the behest of his collegiate coach, Mike Carignan, arrangements were made for Deal to drive to Eugene and spend a few days training with Stewart Togher, a transplanted Scot, who was the University of Oregon throws coach.

Carignan had crossed paths with Togher earlier that season, and asked him, “Hey, I’ve got this 200-foot left-handed discus thrower and I think he may be pretty good at the hammer. Can he come train with you for a little while?”

Togher agreed.

And, after working out on the hammer field adjacent to Hayward Field under the watchful eye of Togher for just a few days, Deal threw a personal best of 207 feet, good enough to qualify for the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. At the end of two weeks, he was consistently throwing the hammer over 220 feet.

At that point, Togher approached the 6-foot-2, 255-pound native of Riverton, Wyo., with one question:

Lance Deal hammer throw USATF Olympics

During his Hall of Fame career, Lance Deal won 21 national titles in the hammer throw and indoor weight throw. (USATF photo)

“So laddie, are you staying?” he asked.

The answer was an emphatic “yes,” and the relationship which blossomed between Togher and Deal over the next 18 years produced a string of historic achievements which still stand today, a dozen years after Deal’s last U.S. title in 2002.

It also led to his forthcoming induction into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame.

Deal, 53, will be honored on Thursday night at the USATF Jesse Owens Awards and Hall of Fame banquet in Anaheim, Calif., along with four other Class of 2014 inductees: Stacy Dragila, Tom Burke, Pat “Paddy” Ryan and Theodore “Ted” Corbitt.

Togher, who is now 77 years old, and known worldwide as a hammer guru, is usually reluctant to heap praise on his athletes, but with Deal, he makes an exception.

“To me, Lance is the greatest American thrower of all-time, not just the hammer,” he said. “He rewrote the books.”

A record-breaking career

Togher obviously saw something unique in Deal, just as Deal sensed something special about Togher, and together, they combined to hoist an obscure event into the U.S. track and field spotlight.

Consider these achievements:

  • A four-time Olympian (1988, ‘92, ‘96, 2000), Deal won the silver medal in the hammer throw at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games at 266 feet, 2 inches; the first American to medal in that event since Hal Connolly won gold in 1956, a span of 40 years.
  • During his professional career from 1985 to 2002, Deal claimed an astonishing 21 U.S. titles; nine in the hammer throw and 12 in the indoor weight throw.
  • Deal still holds the U.S. record of 270-9 in the hammer throw, set at the IAAF Grand Prix finale in Milan, Italy in September of 1996, and the world record of 84-10 in the indoor weight throw, established in 1995.
  • Deal competed in four IAAF World Championships (1991, ’93, ’95 and ’99) with his best finish of fifth place in the hammer throw coming at the 1995 meet in Barcelona.
  • Deal still owns 16 of the top 20 all-time American throws in the hammer. He was ranked No. 1 in the world in 1996 and was the top-ranked American 10 times.

Deal, who said he is most proud of his 21 national championships, is quick to credit Togher for his long and distinguished career.

“Stewart had a huge impact on my life as both an athlete and a person,” he said. “The guy doesn’t sleep. He sits up and thinks about things, and I was real fortunate that he sat up and thought about the hammer as it related to me for a long, long time. I wouldn’t be here (today) if it wasn’t for Stewart. I wouldn’t be this guy.”

As for Togher, he points out that beyond all of Deal’s accomplishments, the most significant fact is that he did it the right way – without the aid of performance enhancing drugs.

“Nobody would believe us,” Togher said. “But Lance showed it can be done without drugs. When he won the silver medal in Atlanta, one of the great things said was when Hal Connolly told Ed Burke, ‘that’s the world record.’”

Grateful for support

When Deal gives his acceptance speech at the USATF convention in Anaheim this week, he will take the time to thank numerous people, Togher among them, but no one played a more important role in his life than his wife, Nancy.

They were married in Eugene in 1989, and have a daughter, Sarah, who was born in 1993. Without Nancy’s unconditional support, Deal isn’t certain how his future would have unfolded.

“If it wasn’t for Nancy, Stewart would not have mattered, because I would not have been able to stay in it,” Deal said. “Like everybody else, I would have left (the sport) after three years.”

Fortunately for Deal, she has been there for nearly every step of his Hall of Fame career.

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Deal was the top qualifier among 12 finalists in the hammer throw.

He famously fouled on his first two throws, and his third effort of 76.94 meters came up as ninth place on the scoreboard. Deal was actually tied with Italy’s Enrico Sgruletti, but the tiebreaker is each thrower’s next best mark, and with two fouls, Deal didn’t have one.

Only eight throwers advance to the medal round for their final three attempts, so he thought his Olympic dream was over.

“I knew eight go to the final, so I was done,” Deal said. “I had my gloves off, my shoes off, my tape off, my top off. I wasn’t crying yet, but I was wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

Suddenly, Bob Hersh, the announcer at Olympic Stadium, could be heard throughout the venue: “Ladies and gentlemen, in an Olympic or World Championship final, there are no tiebreakers. There will be nine athletes going to the final in the hammer throw.”

Given new life, Deal rushed through his first two attempts and stood eighth going into his final throw. Before he got into the ring, however, he asked for an escort to the bathroom, where he did his best to collect himself, trying desperately to break out of his funk.

When he returned, he saw Nancy standing at the entry way to the infield. Deal held up one finger – signifying it only takes one throw – and she responded with six words that still resonate to this day:

“You know how to throw far.” 

So, Deal did just that, unleashing a mark of 81.12 meters, which catapulted him into second for the silver medal, a mere 4 inches – or the diameter of a hammer ball – behind gold medalist Balázs Kiss of Hungary.

“I was mad because I didn’t win the gold,” Deal said. “But I was then, and I still am, very proud of what I did that day. I’m mad that I put myself in that situation and proud of hauling it back from very close to not happening.”

On his own terms

After Deal’s retirement from the sport in 2002 – he missed 1997 due to a back injury and didn’t compete in 2001 – he spent eight years as University of Oregon throws coach.

During his tenure, he guided UO athletes to 21 all-American honors, 12 Pac-10 titles and 25 school records.

He recently stopped coaching altogether, ending his official duties as mentor to Britney Henry, the UO school record-holder in the women’s hammer throw. Henry was effusive in her admiration for Deal, whom she considers a part of her “extended family.”

Lance Deal Ducks University of Oregon hammer throw

Lance Deal spent eight seasons as the throws coach at the University of Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Geoff Thurner)

“I’m so thankful that Lance is in my life,” she said. “He not only taught me how to be a stronger athlete, but how to be a stronger person … . He did a lot of great things at a time when people were taking shortcuts, and for that, he is a hero among us. He did it the right way, and he showed us, that no matter what, if we train our butts off, we can all do great things.”

In 2010, Deal transitioned to his current job as UO Director of Track & Field Venues and Program Support, where he is responsible for ensuring that one of the most storied venues in all of sport – Hayward Field – is prepped and in top condition for every meet.

During the renovation prior to the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, Deal played an integral role in the realignment of the grass infield, besides putting his mechanical skills to good use in designing and building new cages for the hammer and discus throwers.

Through it all, Deal remains grateful that he was able to walk away from the sport on his own terms.

“Once I started throwing the hammer, I was hooked,” he said. “It was definitely not a love affair, it was an imperative. I just had to do it … now, what I am most grateful for is that I was able to do it until I was done, and I really do appreciate all of the people that helped me and added something along the way.”