What The Discus Can Teach You About Life: Lessons From One Of America's Greatest ThrowersS

Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today: Mac Wilkins, one of the United States' greatest all-around throwers.

Though he also threw the javelin and put the shot at the University of Oregon, Wilkins's greatest accomplishments came with the discus. He made four straight U.S. Olympic teams and returned home with a gold medal in 1976, a silver in 1984, and a fifth-place finish in 1988. Wilkins is also the first man ever to throw the discus more than 70 meters, and he held the world record for over two years, bettering his own mark three times between April 1976 and August 1978.

He retired from competitive throwing at the national championships in 1989 and went into computer technology sales. In 2000 he began handing out fliers for a throwing club, and he is now the throws coach at Concordia, a Christian university in Portland.

* * *

I tell people I'm a coach. I tell them I'm a teacher. Or a mentor.

It means you're guiding young people out past toward maturity and growth, pursuing their passion, and most of the time that passion is focused on throwing. I'm not a drill sergeant. I'm not a high school football coach. Like my college coach Bill Bowerman, I prefer not to be called "Coach." We had our taste for that word tainted by bad experiences in high school from football coaches.

* * *

When I was a kid, I'd go out and play. I'd come home from school and go out and play every afternoon until it was dark and I had to come in for dinner. I just wanted to go out and play. I liked sports. It was fun. And when I got to junior high school I thought I'd go out for track to help my conditioning and coordination for football and basketball.

My dad went to the University of Oregon and was a well-known athlete. He played three years in the NFL and he was an All-American basketball player and a semi-pro baseball player and a scratch golfer and all that kind of stuff, and so I had the heritage to be an athlete. And I was really lucky. My dad never pushed me into sports. He encouraged me, but he never really made a big deal out of it.

I was 13 years old when I first went out for track, just to improve my conditioning and coordination for basketball and football, and I wanted to be a miler. The coach wouldn't let me run the 880, which was the longest race they had, but I did get to try the hurdles and I ran on a relay team, and he had me throw a shot because I was tall and fairly coordinated. And I was pretty good at the shot put. And then when I got to high school, for the same reasons, the coach had me pick up the discus and I was fairly good at the discus. And by the time I was a senior in high school the coach was afraid that he wasn't going to have any hurdles left because I kept hitting them too hard and breaking them, so he had me stop running the hurdles and I was stuck with the shot put and discus.

In Oregon they throw the javelin in high school, so as a senior I picked up the javelin and was very successful with that fairly early, fairly quickly, and without very much coaching. And I really think the javelin was my natural and best event. But I had a couple of letters from small colleges to play basketball, and I thought that was really a cool deal. I didn't know if I was good enough to play a varsity sport. And then my senior year I won the state meet in the discus throw and Bill Bowerman talked to me about coming to Oregon to do track, and so I was a thrower.

* * *

I was in the same class with Steve Prefontaine, and he was world-famous before he got to college. He made the U.S. national team as a senior in high school, and toured Europe with the U.S. team as a senior in high school. And he came to college and was wearing USA national sweats and that's like …. I don't know what to say that's like. There's nothing like that. I mean, you can go buy an official NFL jersey. Big deal. Who cares? But you couldn't, at least back then, you couldn't go buy a USA national team jersey. And he had one and he wore it sometimes, and he'd hang it up in the window of his dorm room to let it dry and stuff like that.

What The Discus Can Teach You About Life: Lessons From One Of America's Greatest ThrowersS

And some people thought he was cocky and some people thought he was arrogant and it's easy to come by that, but he's 19 years old, and he had his priorities so clear. He was so clear on what he wanted out of life, and what he had to do to get it. Some hot babe would ask him if he could go out with her Friday night, and he'd say, "I don't know. Let me check my schedule. I think I have a hard workout Saturday morning." And I'm watching this from 15, 20 feet away and I can't believe it. I was 19 years old and just having a fun time. And he was 19 years old and one of the best in the country.

I was always kind of puzzled about his attitude and behavior, and then I realized that, because he was 19 and from a blue-collar town on the Oregon coast, he wasn't very socially skilled. I mean, he wasn't a complete bozo, but, you know, he's 19. He's a 19-year-old guy and on the national team in high school.

But he was so clear about his priorities and what he wanted to do and what he needed to do to be successful and to improve. And I was right there at the same point about six months after he died. He passed away in May of 1975, and at that time I was becoming like him. I didn't realize it until later. I was a little bit gruff and a little bit impolite at times. It was only when I thought people were getting in the way of what I needed to do, and what I wanted to do was be the best thrower that I could be. It just took me a while for my priorities to clarify and for me to have the passion and the desire to have the self-discipline to live those priorities on a daily basis. And he had that when he was 19.

He developed that much earlier than I did, and he was a runner. And yeah, I could relate to what distance runners went through, and I appreciated some of his races. He wanted to see who could stand the most pain. And he was going to stand more pain than you were. And you kind of have to do that when you're a thrower—the workouts are hard work. But it's also a skill thing. There's not a whole lot of skill in left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right for 10 minutes or however long you do it.

* * *

I really think my best event was the javelin. The problem is, I didn't really have anybody show me how to do it correctly. As a senior in high school and as a freshman I had a little bit of guidance, but it was from Bill Bowerman, who was a distance running coach. So at the start of my sophomore year I was getting more power into it, but in the wrong positions, and I blew out my elbow. And this was before Tommy John blew out his elbow, so there was no Tommy John surgery for me. I just struggled for the rest of the year and into my junior year, and finally in January 1972, my junior year in college, I decided I was going to give up the javelin and just focus on the shot and the discus. Go back to the good old shot and disc just to keep my scholarship for the last two years of college, then get a job and disappear into oblivion [laughs]. It was really depressing.

That January and February were not real pleasant times for me. I had given up the javelin. So one day I go out to train and I say, Oh, what the heck. Let's just give it a little extra effort today. And I did, and I got better and it went farther. And I thought that was kind of fun. What if I could that again tomorrow? And so pretty soon, I'm hooked on, Can I do it better today? And it was fun. I knew I could get better and I enjoyed it.

By the time I was a senior I won the NCAAs in the discus, and I was third in the shot put, and I also won the national AAU championship in the discus. And I thought that was really fun and really cool and I wanted to do more. And I knew I could get better. I knew I was barely reaching into my ability or my skill. And another thought that popped up was, Well, if I keep doing this for another three years and I don't get hurt or really screw up or go down or backwards, I might even make the Olympic team. Not that that was a huge, major goal, but it was just like, I can get better. I know I can get better. I know this isn't the end of the road. I know I can get better.

* * *

I competed much of my time against the Germans and the Soviets. And for them it was a big priority. It was a big deal, and it was a national thing. And yeah, there were abuses in what they did, but they also have an institutional knowledge of how you do things: the right way to perform the shot put or the discus or the hammer throw.

We have that in golf and we have that in tennis and to some degree probably pitching baseballs, but you certainly don't have that in the shot put or the discus or the javelin or the hammer. And so the knowledge exists in the world, but not very much in this country. And I thought it was such a waste of talent. So many people working so hard and pursing their dreams, and, to one degree or another, they were kind of clueless about what was really important to be successful.

It's a skill. The skill of throwing is very similar to the skill of swinging a golf club or a baseball bat, for that matter. And it's all timing and leverage and rhythm, except you have to be a lot stronger because the implements are heavier obviously.

Your life is certainly unbalanced. I mean, you're very narrowly focused and you're going a mile and half deep on one tiny little thing. And you have to give up other stuff. You give up a lot of things in life. A lot of it is not a normal, natural life. You're so focused. It's all about me. It's all about my performance. What's the most important thing for me to do right now so I can have peak performance at the most important meet of the year 10 months from now?

And that's what you think about constantly. And if it's a holiday and the gym's closed, you can't train. So it's not bad timing on your part. It's just the stupid gym's closed. It's horrible. I hate Thanksgiving because the gym's closed and you can't train. Come on. Just change the program so you don't have to lift weights on Thanksgiving. But that's not how you see it at the time.

It was all about, There are no limits. There are no limits. I have no restrictions. I have no inhibitions. And you can achieve anything that you set your mind to. There are no limits.

* * *

Starting in 1976, a regular part of my routine was to throw left-handed at the start and the finish of every workout. Now certainly that's not going to equal the same amount of stress on my left side that it put on my right side, but it would help balance things out a bit. There were also some stretching exercises that I did, and a sort of a power-walk kind of thing that I would do to stretch from side to side. And those were all things to help you extend your career.

I'm slightly larger on the right side than the left side. But tennis players are the exact same way.
My right side was slightly larger. You wouldn't so much notice it in my upper body, maybe a little bit in my lower body, my legs, but not nearly as much as a bowler or a tennis player.

At some point you're going to wear things out, especially with the javelin. The javelin's a very violent event. It's not nearly as gentle as throwing the shot, for example, relatively speaking.
It's a put because your hand and your elbow stay behind the ball, but you're really pulling the ball with your hips, just like the discus or a golf swing or a baseball swing.

* * *

In Montreal I felt like all I had to do was go out there and have an average performance and I'd win the gold medal. And I did. I had an average, slightly above average performance. It wasn't that great. I threw 67.50 [meters] and then 221 [feet] in the finals, 224 in qualifying. Warming up for the qualifying round I threw 230 and 236. In the qualifying they have one line out there, and it's the "A" standard. If you throw it over the line you're automatically in. And you don't get any more throws. And I threw a bad throw. It was low and it was wobbly, and it went 224. And I stood for a second thinking maybe I should step out of the circle so I'd get another try and really throw it far. And I said, No. I'm a wild and crazy guy, but not that wild and crazy [laughs].

* * *

I don't think I was a slam dunk to win [in 1980]. First of all, the Soviets won all four men's throwing events, by hook or by crook and some of them by crook. Absolutely by crook. The Cuban [Luis Delis, who finished third] should've won the discus, but they mismarked his throw by about a meter. Udo Beyer, the East German, should've won the men's shot put, but the Russian won. I even heard this from a Russian thrower: In Moscow Stadium they had these huge doors at the end, and they would open up the doors to improve the air flow to help the aerodynamics lift the javelin for the Russian throwers, and they'd close them for everybody else. So I was not a slam dunk, and I threw the longest throw of my life in that year.

I thought that the boycott was a stupid thing to do. We continued to sell wheat to Russia. We continued to sell Pepsi to Russia. We bought vodka from Russia. It was business as usual except for the Olympic Games. And, of course, we only boycotted after we won the ice hockey game in Lake Placid that year. So I thought it was very naïve, and I was very disappointed because I really liked Jimmy Carter. And there's still a war in Afghanistan, even to this day. So it didn't do anything.

* * *

In some ways, I was more satisfied with my performance in Los Angeles than Montreal, in spite of the silver medal versus the gold, because I think I threw better. I was more consistent. I had two throws that would've won and I think one of them, or maybe both of them, would've broken my Olympic record from Montreal in '76. But I didn't quite have enough of the right stuff to make those throws and stay in the circle. My focus was not as sharp as eight years earlier in Montreal. And that was a result of life situations.

In L.A. it was like, Oh man, I know it's right there. Where is it? Is it this? Is it that? I just know it's right there. And it was right there, but I couldn't touch it on that day. And then in 1988 in Seoul it was like, I'll be happy if I can throw high teens, close to 220. I know I'm not going to win. I know that. I'm happy to be here. I want to perform well. And you always want to fight against "I'm happy to be here" versus "I'm going to give it my best, and I have a chance to win" and all of that stuff, except that you're not going to win.

When 12 guys go out onto the floor of the Olympic stadium for the final of the event, they pretty much know within one or two places where they're going to finish. And there's nothing wrong with that. What matters is, Can you move up out of that? Is there something that you can do that's above and beyond where you think you're supposed to finish?

* * *

In 1988, after the Olympics in Seoul, there was a party in someone's apartment, and there were throwers from all around the world. Some of them had two or three gold medals. Some of them had three or four world records to go with their two or three gold medals. And some of them had no medals and no world records, but they had just been part of the group for years, competing internationally.

The hardest thing about the throw is to go slow and be relaxed and let the reach and the rhythm and the timing create all the power. You have to let go.

And in this group, at this party in this apartment, it really didn't matter who had what. Everybody was equal and the main thing was we were all friends and we'd shared our common pursuit of throwing far. And not everyone was a discus thrower, but they were all throwers pretty much, and we all shared this common bond of competing with each other, competing against the challenge of making the throw.

And that's what I remember—such a warm and pleasant and strong memory of the friendships that you make with people who are doing the same thing you're doing. They understand what you're going through and they understand the challenge because they face it themselves. That's the real reward.

* * *

At that time I had planned on '88 being my last year. '89 was an afterthought. It was just because I could. '88 was supposed to be my last year.

I did one more year just because it seemed like, with all things considered, it was something I could do and at the same time still try to develop a career outside of throwing. And, in fact, I was able to do that. I did actually start a job before I finished my throwing. I was able to get a job and continue training, and they gave me some leeway in terms of leaving early. But then I was done for good at the end of June at nationals. I said, OK, I'm all done. I can't do this anymore.

The national championship was always the biggest meet of the year for me. I always planned to do my very best in that meet, except for a few years when I could train through it and feel comfortable that I would win. But I always wanted to be the national champion, so I was trying to get up to my best level of performance, and I think I had taken three weeks off from throwing right before that competition because my back was in such pain. I could not turn my right hip ahead into the throw.

I competed in nationals. I qualified second with a horrible distance of 193, and I went home the next morning because I was in such pain I knew that I couldn't continue. And I could go on throwing in July and August, maybe September, but why? I'm not going to set a world record. I'm not going to make $200,000. I'm not even going to make $20,000 probably. And there's no good thing that will come out of it, so just stop now. Stop now. Go to work. Do your job full-time instead of 30 hours, 25 hours, and make a change in your life. So I did.

I walked away from the competition. I walked away from the qualifying round and I never had such a burning in my lower back. I tried to hang on some pull-up bars and I tried to stretch and took some pain medicine and by dinnertime I said, This is not getting better. I'm not going to throw tomorrow. I don't want to do this anymore. This hurts [laughs]. This is no fun. So I knew then that I was all done, and I didn't compete in the finals.

* * *

It's very difficult to stop. It's very difficult to stop. I was very lucky. I had a couple of bulging discs. I was physically unable to throw. Every time I made the throwing motion it was like a knife in my back. I had a wife and a young son and I wasn't making much money at all doing the discus. I was getting tired of all the bureaucratic rigmarole and politics in the sport. And I was 38, 39 years old, and my performances were declining.

I'm a very, very fortunate guy. I can't believe how lucky I am to have a woman who is so loving and understanding and [laughs] lets me kind of be this guy who … all I did was I kept turning and turning on my left foot, working on the discus move at the start. And we're in the grocery store even now, and I'll kind of start. It's like I have this uncontrollable twitch. My body starts pivoting on my left foot. I joke and say, Ever since I've retired I've taken thousands of throws. I have this turning thing going on. And my wife says I should see a doctor and get rid of it.

My satisfaction when I was selling corporate technology solutions was not nearly what it is now or what it was when I was throwing. And it was about when I was 50 when I realized that this isn't the best use of Mac Wilkins.

I got into technology because I wanted to be rewarded for being good, which is another way of saying, I wanted to make a lot of money. And that's not always the best reason for doing things. I had some successes. Absolutely I had some successes. But the realization in 2000 was pretty clear. It was like, This isn't really what you're all about, and this isn't the best thing for you to be doing. And it took a while to figure out how to get back to where I could make a living, support my family, because I knew it wasn't going to be as a thrower [laughs], at age 50, clearly. So yeah, it took a little while and I struggled with letting things happen.

Maybe I was in the right place at the right time sometimes, and perhaps this was the wrong place at the wrong time. Or I didn't have what it takes. I don't know. I just had all these questions, and finally about 2000 I went around to some youth track meets and handed out fliers and said, Hey, I'm going to start a throwing club. We'll meet here at this time, come on out, and I'll teach you how to throw.

And I started doing that and sometimes we'd meet at this place and sometimes that place. We didn't have a home. We just met wherever we could, and sometimes we'd be throwing and the sprinklers would come on [laughs], but I had some pretty good kids and finally it occurred to me about a year or two after that that that's really the best use of Mac Wilkins in this lifetime.

* * *

Is there a moral to the story? Well, probably.

I have so many, so many times when I would fall down or fail. Being a teacher/coach, I have to be ... well, it's exactly like being a parent. You have to be a better person than you really are [laughs]. You have to be a role model.

My throwers all want to throw 200 feet, or 60 feet in the shot, or go to the Olympics or something like that, but that's not the real goal for me. The real goal is for them to get hooked on learning and enjoy that passion and then share that with somebody else, be compelled to share that.

The hardest thing about the throw is to go slow and be relaxed and let the reach and the rhythm and the timing create all the power. And the bigger lesson from all of that is, You have to let go. You have to trust that there's something greater than you that will make it work right. And that's what you need to try and practice. And that's really hard because you spend all this time trying to get strong, and you want to use those muscles and you want to work hard when you throw, but that's not how you throw far.

* * *

There was one interview before the '88 Olympics, and the guy says, Why do you keep doing this? And I wasn't trying to be funny. It came across like I was being a real wiseass or something. I just said, Well, you know, it's beautiful. It's a beautiful thing and I can still do it, so I do it. And that was just a sincere, honest response, and looking at it on tape later, it looked like I was a wise ass [laughs]. It's a beautiful thing. Because it's beautiful. Because I can. That's what it boiled down to. Because it's beautiful. Because I can. And I think there's nothing wrong with that answer.

Rob Trucks's latest book is on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album. Actually it's about more than Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album, and most reviewers understood that, but people who commented on Amazon hated the work with a passion almost breathtaking in its purity. You may monitor Trucks's reading list at tusktusktusk.com, follow him on Twitter at @tusktusktusk, or write him directly at trucks@deadspin.com.

For a handy master schedule of every Olympic event, click here.