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For Georgetown's McMahon, It's Hammer Time

By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 31, 1995

The hammer throw always has been an eye-catching event in track and field, at least for the minority who have seen it. The first thing a hammer thrower does -- after he picks up a 16-pound weight at the end of what looks almost like coat-hanger wire -- is to start spinning like a top. Then comes the terrifying scream, right out of a horror movie, as the athlete releases the hammer. The result is astounding: This dead weight rises against the sky, soaring far into the distance as if it has taken wing.

Kevin McMahon, a dark-haired Georgetown University graduate student, throws the hammer as well as all but a few in the world. One reason is the white-haired man who observes him from outside the hammer cage. That would be Harold Connolly, 1956 Olympic champion, the last American hammer thrower to win an Olympic medal. McMahon, preparing for his quest for the NCAA title today in Knoxville, Tenn., spins four times and "separates from" the hammer. He screams. The hammer soars. It goes straight, and far.

"That's better," says McMahon.

"A little bit," says Connolly, as if he's spotted some flaw that, if corrected, could add precious feet to McMahon's throws today in the NCAAs and on into next year as he vies for a place on the U.S. Olympic team and a trip to Atlanta. McMahon welcomes Connolly's advice, to say the least. Four years ago when he sought out Connolly at a meet to help coach him, "I felt like a little kid asking Joe Montana if he would help him with his passing."

As it happened, before McMahon could get the words out, the most famous American hammer thrower said to him, "I'm Harold Connolly. I'd really like to help you guys." Frank Gagliano, Georgetown's track coach, already had asked Connolly to work with McMahon and a couple of teammates. The director of U.S. programs for Special Olympics International in Washington, Connolly happily became a volunteer coach at Georgetown and virtually a tutor for McMahon and the few other Hoyas who compete in field events.

"I wouldn't have believed back in high school that I would come to Washington and bump into Harold Connolly and that he would coach me," McMahon, 23, who grew up in San Jose, said the other day. "Even though he's a volunteer he's here every day."

"It's perfect," said Connolly. "It enables me to get out of the office. I've got a hip replacement and after I get a knee replacement I'm taking up the sport again. I'm going to be a masters hammer thrower with replacement parts."

The 63-year-old Connolly, who grew up in Massachusetts, is well suited to work for the Special Olympics. He has demonstrated a will to overcome a handicap. His left arm is four inches shorter than his right, and his left hand is two-thirds the size of his right -- the left arm was damaged badly from a difficult birth. He has never been able to raise his left arm over his head or straighten out the arm or close his left fist or extend the fingers on his left hand. Since a hammer thrower uses two hands on the triangular handle, he had to overcome a huge disadvantage. He did, representing the U.S. in four Olympics, including the triumph in 1956 in Melbourne, Australia.

There, as has been told many times, he fell in love with Olga Fikotova, Czechoslovakia's gold medal discus thrower, and their Cold War marriage the next year was renowned. Long ago divorced and remarried, Connolly and his second wife, Pat, are the parents of Adam Connolly, a 1994 graduate of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring who was No. 1 nationally in the hammer throw among high schoolers and who now attends Stanford. Northern California is as much a hotbed as there is for the hammer throw. McMahon came out of a grass-roots field events program in Los Gatos, Calif., directed by Ed Burke, a four-time Olympian in the hammer.

"You have to stumble into the hammer throw -- you're not going to be brought into it," said Connolly. Only one state, Rhode Island, has the hammer throw in its high school programs, he said; there may be only a thousand or so hammer throwers in the country. McMahon found his way to hammer throwing because an older brother trained under Burke. "Kevin was short, skinny and bowlegged," Burke said. "He kept lining up in the discus line. I told him, You'll never be 6-6, 300 pounds, but you could be a great hammer thrower.' "

Therein is the crux of revised American thought about the hammer throw. "You have to be a certain size," said McMahon. "As Ed Burke says, You can't shoot a cannon out of a canoe.' But you don't have to be huge." McMahon is 6 feet, 220 pounds. "The big thing is, it's a speed event, it's not a strength event" -- discovered about 15 years ago by Soviet athletes, who made a study of the sport they dominated, and perfected their tradition.

One doesn't exactly finesse a 16-pound hammer 245 feet 1 inch -- McMahon's throw on May 10, one of the best ever by an American collegian. But being the size of a small house is not necessarily going to propel the hammer either.

"You insert yourself into harmonious orbit with the universe in a way you never do without the hammer," said Connolly, somewhat mysteriously. "You become close to that orbiting universe. The idea is to get the two orbits, yours and the universe, in harmony, in sync. Then you get a good throw. And you get a special feeling. It's an infectious feeling. Very few who start, quit. You have to bury 'em to get 'em to stop."

All four rotations have to be in "harmony," he said. And McMahon said that what's important is how fast the ball is turning in the delivery, not how fast the person is turning.

"It's a pursuit of the effortless throw . . . the right amount of energy at exactly the right time," said McMahon, a 1994 magna cum laude graduate with a double major in English and fine arts.

Of course, one never knows if he's made the truly effortless throw, all he might know -- from distance and feeling -- is that it's awfully good.

"The scream is a big part of it," he said. "It's such a good feeling when you separate from the hammer just right."

In Connolly's heyday the thinking was that the hammer thrower had to be huge. "We used to stress brute strength -- power lifting and weightlifting," said Connolly. "I paid the price. I blew out a knee and hip."

With replacement parts, he'll be able to resume his own search for the right orbit alongside his student. The two can throw for years to come because, as Connolly said, "Kevin won't reach his real peak for another 10 years," the hammer being something one doesn't simply pick up and throw very far without years of practice, and thought.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post

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