Discus requires more mental focus than almost any other track and field event. And so much was going through Jon Cowden's mind yesterday at the Nike Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, N.C.
"I just tried to clear my head, tried to block everything out," the Lake Braddock All-Met said. "That's all I could do."
It wasn't easy, considering what Cowden has been through. Four days ago, Cowden's father, Doug Cowden, committed suicide inside the family's Burke home.
"It's heartbreaking," Jon Cowden said by cell phone from Greensboro. "It's a tragedy. But I felt that I needed to follow my dream."
So with the support of his friends, family and his coach, Cowden, 18, decided to make the four-hour trip to North Carolina A&T State University. And at about 3 p.m. yesterday, he entered the circle for the final time as a high schooler.
Cowden's best throw yesterday was 168 feet 6 inches, good for 11th place in the prestigious meet. It was almost 13 feet shorter than the throw he made two weeks ago at the Virginia AAA state championships. That effort, 181-0, was his personal best and earned him the state title.
"The lack of practice this week hurt," said Cowden, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound senior who has accepted a partial scholarship to throw discus for Radford next year. "It's been hard."
This was supposed to be a happy time for Cowden. Final exams are done. Graduation is on Tuesday. Sandwiched in between was the opportunity to shine on high school track and field's biggest stage.
Jon, his mother, Pattie Mancini, and Doug Cowden had planned to travel to Greensboro together. Those plans changed late Wednesday afternoon.
Cowden had returned home from Lake Braddock where he had been lifting weights and went downstairs to relax. The quiet was shattered moments by later his mother's screams.
"My mom came home and she found him in the garage," Cowden recalled. "She was hysterical. I knew right away something was very, very wrong."
Doug Cowden, a self-employed contractor, suffered from severe depression and was heavily medicated, Jon said.
"My dad took his own life," Cowden said. "But that wasn't my dad that did that. It was the [medication]. He was on some wicked, wicked stuff."
One gets the sense after talking to Cowden that the reality of his father's death hasn't hit him.
"He's not the most demonstrative kid," said Lake Braddock assistant track coach Mike Mangan, who drove Cowden to the meet yesterday. "He keeps things very close to the vest. He thinks things through before he does them."
Cowden said he wouldn't have been able to muster the inner strength to compete had it not been for the dozens of phone calls from his teammates and friends, and the support of his family -- particularly his mother, who drove to the meet with a friend. Before her son stepped into the circle, she told him, "Do the best you can and throw the hell out of it," Jon said.
"The amount of support from everybody has been phenomenal," Cowden said. "I can't believe how many people have called me. It's meant so much."
As Cowden prepared to throw, Mangan's cell phone was "ringing off the hook," he said.
"Jon's teammates knew what time he was supposed to throw, and they've been calling to see how he's doing," Mangan said. "That kind of outpouring is rare these days.
"I'm sure some people will question whether he should have come here or not. But the fact that he earned it, and he wanted to come down here and compete for one last time as a high schooler, that was his decision.
"That's what Jon wanted. I have so much respect for him. I'm amazed."