Marthaline Cooper exhales, then swings an eight-pound cannonball - attached by steel cable to a handle - over her head counter-clockwise several times. She begins to spin, whirring into a blur before her hands release the implement that sails silently out into the field at Winthrop’s track and field facility, landing with a thud.
The weather last Thursday in Rock Hill was cool and cloudy, much like the climate in Oregon. That’s where Cooper will be this week, throwing the hammer - essentially a medieval weapon - at the NCAA track and field championship in Eugene.
When Cooper finished third at the NCAA East Regional May 30, earning All-American status in the process, she became just the seventh Winthrop athlete to qualify for the NCAA championship. Cooper is only the third female, and the first sophomore in program history, to reach Eugene.
“It’s difficult,” said Winthrop track and field coach Ben Paxton. “Like golf, cross country, a lot of the individual sports, it’s difficult to get to the NCAA championship. You can win a title and in any sport you get to go to the tournament. Here, it’s not necessarily that way; you’ve still got to be the best of the best.”
Cooper won the Big South Conference championship, but more importantly finished third in the East Regional, good enough for 15th overall (out of 24 throwers) headed into this week’s championship.
She had just finished practicing last Thursday when a Herald reporter stepped into the throwing cage, eager to get a feel for one of sports’ most unique and ancient competitions, the hammer toss. The immediate impression is the potential danger. Winthrop throwing coach Brett Best said that the Greek used to coat the balls - Cooper’s weighs over eight pounds - in tar pitch, light them on fire, and chuck them at enemy combatants.
Not surprisingly, the hammer throw is outlawed at the high school level in 49 of the 50 American states. The one outlier is Rhode Island, Cooper’s home state. When Cooper first turned out for her high school track and field team, the coach told her she looked more like a thrower.
“I was offended,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t even know what throwing was and he just had the utmost patience with me because it took at least two years to really get into throwing and become a decent competitor. It wasn’t until my senior year that I was really a standout in the field.”
That head start gave Cooper an advantage over much of her competition. Coupling the increased repetitions with an evidently positive outlook has pushed her into the upper echelon of NCAA hammer throwing.
“Part of the secret to her success has been not putting limitations on what she can do,” said Best. “Every time we reach new goals, we reset those goals and she’s been very good with that. One of her goals this year was to throw 62 meters, she did that at conference where she threw 63 meters. You know what she said to me right after? ‘Coach, I need a new goal.’”
The latest goal is to finish in the top-half of the NCAA championship field. Only a sophomore, it’s reasonable to assume this visit to the NCAA championships is just the first of several for Cooper. But she and her coach aren’t looking at the opportunity in that way.
“She’s got to go for broke here,” said Best. “Our goal is to make the final, to be in the top-nine and see what we can do there. She’s got nothing to lose.”
The format of the championship encourages that attitude. Competitors get three throws in the first round, and, provided they advance, three in the second. The best throw out of that bunch counts, whether it was the first or last, so there really is no need to hold back.
“If she has three bad throws because she was hyper-aggressive it’s not really any different than if she had three mediocre throws,” said Best.
That’s precisely what Cooper did at the Big South championship, and again at the East Regional at the University of North Florida. After several competitors threw, the farthest about 57 meters, Cooper stepped up and slung her hammer 61.09 meters, the throw that landed her third place and grabbed the early attention of the rest of the field.
“I went in there and I was just calm and relaxed and I just went in and threw,” said Cooper, a marketing major. “I really don’t put much pressure on myself because that’s when it gets the best of you and you choke.”
As Paxton pointed out, hammer is an event where the competitors age like wine. Cooper was the fourth-best freshman in the country last season, and is the third-best sophomore this year. The 2015 field is dominated by seniors, so it’s reasonable to believe that Cooper can seriously compete on the NCAA stage as early as next season, but definitely by her senior year, barring unforeseen circumstances.
With the shot put and discus, the thrower pushes the object. With the hammer, the thrower provides resistance instead. If Cooper pushed her hammer instead of resisting it, she would lose balance, fly through the net and something awful would probably happen to a spectator or judge.
Maintaining that resistance and balance while swirling around is what makes the hammer throw a dangerous but beautiful dance.
“It’s feeling the rhythm of the throw,” said Best. “You can’t out-muscle this thing.”
The same goes for the NCAA championship experience. Instead of caving in to the nerves, Cooper will tango with them, enjoy the situation, and stay true to what’s worked.
“I’m just going in there to do my very best,” said Cooper. “I’ve gotten this far and I’m just going to continue what I’ve always done, and listen to coach Best and what he has to say, and just pray for the best and have fun doing it.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T
Miller will be in Oregon, too
Former Northwestern Trojan Zach Miller will also be at the NCAA Championship. Miller, a sophomore at Mississippi State, qualified in the men’s decathlon where he is ranked 15th. Taylor finished second in the decathlon - a series of 10 different track and field events - at the SEC Championship, his 7,466 total points booking a spot in Oregon for the NCAAs.