Finding his sweet spot

STANFORD, Calif. – While it’s true that Michael Lihrman likes to throw his weight around, and at 260 pounds he’s well equipped to do so, he’s actually a big Boy Scout in disguise.

After a recent competition at the Stanford Invitational, the Wisconsin hammer thrower sought out every official, shook hands and thanked them for their service and then spent a good half-hour helping a competitor from UC Santa Barbara with his technique.

“When we were competing, he was asking for a little help,’’ Lihrman said. “He didn’t understand what it’s supposed to feel like. It’s hard to convey that. You have to find that sweet spot. It takes a long time to find that sweet spot. When you do, you can jump meters.’’

That’s exactly what Lihrman did during the 2015 indoor season, when he defended his NCAA championship in the 35-pound weight throw and established an all-time collegiate best of 83 feet, 11 ¼ inches in this arcane event. That’s No. 3 in history behind Lance Deal’s 84-10 ¼ from 1995 and the 84-3 of Slovakia’s Libor Charfreitag from 2005.

“The world record is 28 centimeters away,’’ Lihrman noted. “That’s what I’m shooting for next year.’’

Wisconsin thrower Michael Lihrman won the NCAA indoor title in the 35-pound weight throw. His PR of 83 feet, 11 1/4 inches in an all-time collegiate best and No. 3 in history. (Photo courtesy of Walt Middleton for UW Athletics Communications).

Wisconsin thrower Michael Lihrman won the NCAA indoor title in the 35-pound weight throw. His PR of 83 feet, 11 1/4 inches in an all-time collegiate best and No. 3 in history. (Photo courtesy of Walt Middleton for UW Athletics Communications).

A senior, Lihrman now turns his attention to the outdoor season and the opportunity it presents to him to finish his college career with an NCAA championship at Hayward Field in June. He was third in 2014 as a junior when he spun his 16-pound implement out to 233-9 from a cage designed by Deal, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist.

“We love throwing there,’’ Wisconsin throws coach Dave Astrauskas said. “We love the cage Lance made. The sightlines are great. It’s cool how the spectators get to look down on the throwers. Just a great venue.’’

For his outdoor opener at the Stanford Invitational, Lihrman showed his fastidious side when he grabbed an official’s broom and swept the 8-foot circle himself and later used a towel to disperse dirt that had accumulated at the front of the ring. This is probably a fellow who alphabetizes his sock drawer.

“I love quick rings but I can’t stand slick rings,’’ he explained. “The ring is very slick. There’s dirt in it.’’

Lihrman reached 223-5 on his final heave at Stanford to finish second to Great Britain’s Nick Miller, who used greater velocity in the ring to hit 247-5. Miller was second in last year’s NCAA meet for Oklahoma State but plans to redshirt this outdoor season, according to the Oklahoma State sports information office.

Lihrman’s modest opener reflected the fact that Astrauskas had him training twice a day while the Badgers were on their spring break.

“We’re definitely not trying to do anything huge,’’ Lihrman said. “I’ve only had 14 throws at 16 pounds.’’

This being a World Championships year – the 2015 IAAF World Championships will be held Aug. 22-30 in Beijing – Astrauskas said he’d like to see Lihrman reach 76 meters (249-4) this season, while the thrower himself figured he’s in line for 75 meters, or 246-1, using his own metric of improvement.

“I’d love to hit 75 meters,’’ he said. “My weight throw increased five percent. I figure I should get a five-percent increase in the hammer. I’m stronger. It’s still early. A five-percent increase in the hammer should be about 75 meters. If I can get the correct feel I’m looking for, I can go way beyond 75. There’s no reason I shouldn’t throw that far.’’

At 6-foot-5, Lihrman is unusually tall for a hammer thrower. Ranked No. 8 among U.S. throwers, he’s almost two inches taller than the tallest thrower in Track & Field News’ Top 10 world rankings for 2015 and more than a half-foot taller than two of the men in the rankings.

That’s both good and bad. Being taller means he has longer arms which increases his throwing radius but it also means he has to work to get his body into a lower center of gravity in the ring.

“It’s almost like you’re sitting in a chair,’’ is how Astrauskas described the ideal position. “Being taller, one thing it helps is it creates a bigger radius, which means the ball is going to travel faster. It’s a big reason for his success. He’s got a real good understanding of what he wants to do and how to do it. He’s also a student of the event. He’s constantly trying to learn and tweak things so he can throw far.’’

Lihrman said, “I understand the physics behind it more than any other event. I know what it looks like and what it was supposed to feel like. I dropped the shot and discus after my freshman year. I didn’t have much coaching (at UW-Stout). What makes (the hammer) easier to understand is you’re using both arms. I just understand it more. It’s all about creating the biggest radius.’’

Wisconsin senior Michael Lihrman hopes to improve on last year's third-place finish in the hammer throw at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. (Photo courtesy of Walt Middleton for UW Athletics Communications)

Wisconsin senior Michael Lihrman hopes to improve on last year’s third-place finish in the hammer throw at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. (Photo courtesy of Walt Middleton for UW Athletics Communications)

Considering Lihrman started out on the Division III level at Wisconsin-Stout and now holds the Div. I weight throw record indicates an athlete in ascent. When his personal graph starts to trend toward descent, Lihrman will put down his hammer and put his economics degree from Wisconsin to good use.

“I’m not going to be one of those guys when it’s clear they’re coming down they continue to compete,’’ he said. “I don’t see any point to it. I’m going to keep going until I start going down.’’

Lihrman spent his first two years at Wisconsin-Stout before transferring to the big UW in 2013, when he redshirted. He recalled once throwing the hammer in the snow at Stout, an enterprise that involved finding one’s own implement under a drift; the discus throwers had it worse because their implements tended to skip under the snow for longer distances.

“Pretty fun,’’ said Lihrman, a native of tiny Rice Lake, Wis., population 9,000.

Lihrman surely left a good first impression from his competition at Stanford, both with the officials and his fellow competitors. Asked about shaking hands with the officials afterward, he said, “It’s something we’re taught at Wisconsin, to show respect and sportsmanship. It’s kind of automatic now.’’

Spoken like a big Boy Scout.

Previous TTUSA stories by John Crumpacker:

Sun Devils eye repeat of NCAA titles

John Crumpacker was a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades. In that time he won seven national writing awards and covered 10 Olympic Games. He was president of the Track & Field Writers of America on two occasions.