It's hammer time
Hammer thrower Mike Mai practices at Fort Lewis, July 1. Mai finished third at the U.S. National Championships and will soon compete at the World Track and Field Championships in Berlin, Germany.

FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Give hammers to most people, and they'll pound a few nails. Mike Mai prefers to throw one far enough to reach the world championships.

With his third-place finish in the hammer throw at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Eugene, Ore., late last month, Mai secured a spot on the U.S. team for the 12th World Track and Field Championships Aug. 15 to 23 in Berlin. His heave of 242 feet, 1 inch fell five feet short of the winning effort of Nike's A.G. Kruger. Mai, Kruger and Thomas Freeman of the New York Athletic Club will represent the U.S. in the event.

"To finish on your best throw of the day, your best throw ever at a national championship event, that's really what it's all about," Mai said. "Showing up on the big day - that's the most important thing."

Just what version of Mike Mai, the athlete, would show up at Hayward Field in Eugene was unclear. After all, Mike Mai, the Soldier, had been somewhat busy in recent months.

"I wasn't really expecting to make the world team," Mai said. "I'd only thrown a little bit this year."

After attending the Army's Intermediate-Level Education at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Mai reported to Fort Lewis in early May and took command of the 9th Financial Management Company and the Defense Military Pay Office on May 28. He will soon be promoted from captain to major.

"I'm happy to be in command and have this opportunity to lead Soldiers and, on the side, be able to train," Mai said. "It's already been very, very rewarding for me to be in this position."

Effectively commanding Soldiers while training enough to maintain his world-class status in the hammer throw will challenge Mai, 31.

"As I get closer to the Olympics, would it be nice to have more time for training to really improve'" Mai said. "Yeah, I'm not going to deny that fact."

Nor would Mai deny that he needs to stay current with his Army career branch while honing his athletic skills.

"That's on me," Mai said. "That's very important to me."

Mai pointed out that for weeks after his arrival on Fort Lewis, he had no place to throw. Then Julie Sullivan, the head track and field coach at St. Martin's University in Lacey, welcomed him to campus.

"She got me in there," Mai said. "They've been great down there at St. Martin's. I owe them. I'd have nowhere, really, to go."

Dave Swan, chairman of the men's hammer throw for USA Track and Field, and Mai's coach, said that finding a place to throw is always an issue for elite athletes.

"You're not really welcome," Swan said. "You're throwing deadly weapons. People don't want you around."

Mai had an easier time finding a weightlifting home at McVeigh Sports and Fitness Center on post.

"Everything I need to lift is in there," he said.

A native of Le Mars, Iowa, Mai led his high school football team to a state title as a senior, when he was named captain of the all-state squad. He won the discus throw at the state meet that same year.

"Basically, I grew up in a farming community," Mai said. "My background is pretty much blue collar, country."

The second-youngest of six siblings, Mai went off to the U.S. Military Academy. He spent two years on the football team at West Point.

"I had a lot of injuries my sophomore year, and I just decided it was best to go over to track and field," Mai recalled. "To be honest, track was really my first love. I loved throwing.

"So I picked up the hammer. It was one of those things where it was a natural fit for me."

Swan said that Mai's late start wasn't unusual for a hammer thrower.

"There's not a lot of hammer throwers out there," Swan said. "Usually people (start) it in college."

Mai, who still owns the fourth-longest hammer throw in academy history, graduated in 2000 and began his Army career with 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Carson, Colo. Then it was on to the first of two stints with the World Class Athlete Program at Carson, where his distance improved dramatically under Mike Mielke, now the strength and conditioning coach at WCAP.

Mai competed at the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, finishing eighth and fifth, respectively. He called 2008 "definitely my best year. I was just short of the Olympic 'A' standard (257-6.5), and that's what I really needed to do to go to the Olympics. I ended up throwing (250-3)."

That effort at Provo, Utah, a personal record, placed Mai among the top eight throwers in U.S. history.

"I've only really thrown for eight years, if you count my actual throwing years," Mai said. "They say that, really, the Olympic window for a hammer thrower is after eight to 12 years of throwing."

Watch the 6-foot-4-1/2-inch, 255-pound Mai spin through the throwing circle, both arms extended to hold the 16-pound, nearly 4-foot-long hammer before releasing it, and you gain an appreciation for the physics involved in the discipline.

"In any throwing event, it's not just about the strength, power, agility, speed - there's a feel to it," Mai said. "The hammer throw, it's a rotational event. The hammer is a speed event.

"It's all about acceleration of the ball, speed of the ball. You have to be able to move it, and you have to be able to keep up with it with your body. It's something that takes years and years of development and a real understanding of the sport."

Swan worried about Mai's size from the outset of their relationship eight years ago.

"For a hammer thrower, he's pretty tall," said Swan, who watched Mai's early clumsiness with the hammer vanish. "He became much more graceful. For a guy his size, Mike is extremely agile."

Months shy of 32, Mai can't be certain how many years he has left before putting down the hammer. He's already had three knee surgeries, and one of his hips has been giving him trouble lately.

"It's unavoidable when you're putting these kinds of forces on your body," Mai said.

Swan explained that top throwers produce 600 pounds of force while spinning through the circle.

"The ball is moving at 60 miles per hour on an 80-meter throw," Swan said. "There's a lot of potential for disaster."

Mai would like to avoid disaster and produce a respectable showing in Berlin. A season's best throw and a top-20 finish would make him happy.

"That's really all I'm looking at doing," Mai said. "I'm realistic going in. In order to get in the top 12, it's going to take not only a best this year, but a personal best."

Perhaps, but Mai plans to stay the course with his training.

"I've gotten where I am doing what I've done," Mai said. "I don't plan on changing a lot."

According to Swan, Mai has plenty of untapped potential to apply before his throwing career ends.

"Thirty-one is not old by any means," Swan said. "In my mind, he could be the next great American hammer thrower. Mike is right there, vying for that top spot right now. Mike has a lot more he can improve."

Swan said Mai could have an 82-meter throw in him. That's just short of 270 feet.

"He could be the next 80-plus-meter thrower," Swan said. "In my opinion, he's the guy."

Swan believes that Mai will be on the U.S. team that travels to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

"It's a three-year journey," Swan said. "If it was an Olympic year this year, he'd be an Olympian.

"He's a great man," Swan said. "He's a great Soldier. He's a great athlete."

Bob Reinert is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.

Page last updated Thu July 9th, 2009 at 17:53