Build a Barn
Throwing hammers with Meghan Serdock and the Tracksmith Amateur Support Program.
Interview by Mary Cain
Photography by Ben Rayner
Track and Field is a funny sport. Despite equal billing, the track element often overshadows the field, leaving too many stories untold. Through our Amateur Support Program, we're supporting track and field athletes across disciplines as they train to qualify for the Olympic Trials in June. One of the athletes currently training for Eugene is Meghan Serdock. To find out more about what it takes to become one of the leading hammer throwers in the U.S., Mary Cain spoke to Serdock from her home in upstate New York.
Mary Cain: Over the summer, your dad constructed a barn for you to train in. Can you tell us a bit about that process and what went into that decision?
Meghan Serdock: Back in the summer everything was up in the air with COVID, and we didn't know winter training-wise if I could get into the facilities at Cornell. The only option would be to throw in the snow, or move down south, but again we didn’t know if there’d be another outbreak and if I could get home to see my family. So my dad built the barn, since he owns his own construction business. They were going to build a barn anyways, so I was like, “How big were you planning on making it and could it be a little bit bigger?” He helped with everything and he put in one of his old heaters, which doesn’t really work very well. So we got two space heaters. I turn them on about an hour beforehand to attempt to get the barn a little bit more warm. Next year we’re going to get a big heater.
MC: How did you discover you have a talent for hammer?
MS: As a high schooler, I was a soccer player and ran indoor and outdoor track to stay in shape for soccer. My junior year of high school, my coach Paul KoretzkI asked me to throw shot and discus to help us score points in some of our meets. After a week or so I was put into a 4x400m relay and my coach told me the only way I didn’t have to run was if I threw discus over 90ft. After throwing 91ft I was qualified for New York State Qualifiers, off of the 4x400m relay and soon enough I was being recruited to throw at SUNY Oneonta.
I learned how to throw hammer during my first year at Oneonta working with Angelo Posillico and from the start I loved the event. I was lucky enough to have two amazing teammates to look up to, Patrick Weinert and JD Roth who were both working towards All American titles that year. With the help from Angelo, Patrick, JD, and the rest of my support system I was able to realize my talent and work hard to finish off my collegiate career a 3x All American.
MC: For runners less familiar with throwing events, how do you narrow down which throwing event to pursue?
MS: I wasn’t exposed to hammer or javelin until college and even after I learned hammer we just added it to the events that I was training in. As a women’s track and field team at Oneonta, we worked hard together to propel the women’s team to their first conference championship title, and a big part of that was all of us being competitive in multiple events. I trained in shot and discus just as much as hammer and weight until conference was over for the season and we shifted our focus to performing at the NCAA Championship meet.
MC: In running the progression is pretty natural but how do you work out that, 'woah, I'm a hammer thrower now' moment?
MS: I think this comes at different times and looks different for all athletes, depending on when they started throwing, who their coach is, access to facilities, and much more. For me I had the “woah, I'm a hammer thrower now” moment when I went to the NCAA DIII Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 2016. I went into the meet after fouling out of indoor nationals, I was ranked ninth and we recently made some big changes to my technique. With a huge PR and a great competition I finished 3rd, getting my first All American title. After years of training in 3 events, overcoming a lot of performance anxiety and working towards this goal I felt like I was finally a hammer thrower and not just a thrower.
MC: What does a typical day look like while you’re balancing training and work?
MS: I work at Cornell for the NASA New York space grant program. I am on the administrative side of things and I work at our main office, which is at Cornell. When I interviewed for this job, I explained that I'm training and that it’s an Olympic year, so I set my own hours and my supervisor and team are really great at letting me adjust my hours when I have other things pop up. I am part-time, which is very nice, so I normally work from 10:30-2:30. I'm there in the middle of the day, which is when people typically like to have meetings. I run the social media, website, and am monitoring the email.
I usually have a bit of a break between work and throwing, so I hang out and watch a show on Netflix, just something mindless. Then I take pre-workout (shake or snack) and head down to the barn around 3:00. When I’m throwing here, my coach isn’t here, so I set up a tripod to record all of the videos. Then I put on my throwing shoes, tape my fingers, put on the glove, and get right to it.
MC: Looking at your training schedule on a weekly basis, how do balance throwing-specific work vs supplemental training, such as lifting?
MS: It’s every other day; throw, lift, throw, lift. Lifting is a really big thing for me. I have done two-a-days and would go straight from throwing to lifting. Right now, though, I'm on a cycle where I throw Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then I lift Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, but that can change. For example, I took a training trip recently, so I threw for four days in a row and I just did accessory lifts and mostly core stuff. My coach was here for the last two days, so I just threw two days in a row and I'll just lift today and tomorrow I'll do a double.
MC: Take us through what a normal throw day looks like for you. How much are you throwing and what are you throwing?
MS: I get into the cage and do some warm-up drills, like wind and releases. Then I do some two-turns and three-turns. In competition, I turn four times, so I get up to the four-turns. I do the same throw schedule every time for six-weeks straight. The throws are a mix of 3KG, 4KG, and 5KG weights with different variations, such as the 5KG I might do just three turns, the 3KG I do full throw, and the 4KG can be two, three or four turns.
The number of throws in a session does change a bit. The question is if we’re counting two-turns and three-turns, which are turns, but they’re more of a drill leading up to it. So on this cycle, I'll do two two-turns, four three-turns, six four-turns with the 4KG, and then I do ten of the 5KG and 3KG, so it’s between 30-40 throws a day. It takes about two hours to get through the practice. It’s a lot of throws, but we’ll dwindle it down as we get closer to the Trials and competition phase. It’ll drop significantly right before a big meet, but that’s pretty average.
You throw 4KG in competition, which is 8.8 lbs. I have thrown below a 3KG, but over the past year or so I haven’t dipped below that. It’s like you can’t feel anything on the other end of the wire, so you feel like you’re turning without anything there, which is hard. I’ve gone all the way up to 6KG. That was interesting, since my training partner is Rudy Whinkler, he’s the world leader in men’s hammer, and he was throwing the 6KG at the same time I was, which was just tough, because I was struggling to get it around and for him that’s a light ball. It is just so heavy.
But in the throwing sessions we go up and down in the weight. A lot of people do low variance, some people do high variance. Some people go really light, other people go really heavy, it really depends on the athlete. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about that, since my coach does. We do the light balls to go faster, and get some speed on it and make sure we’re not super tight in the throw and make sure we’re relaxed through the left side and then we do the heavier ball to get some more strength base in there. It slows it down a bit, so you have to be more patient with that.
MC: What’s the difference between throwing indoors at the barn and the outdoor season?
MS: Indoors it’s a lot, since I'm throwing into the net. If I'm throwing a 3K outdoors, I'm walking to go get that thing between throws, so we joke around between throws that we get into indoor throwing shape, since the breaks aren’t as long.
MC: Field event athletes have down time between each jump or throw. I imagine this is tougher mentally, so how do you prep yourself mentally for competition?
MS: Some throw days, I'll cry in between throws and I’ll get frustrated. I'll cry it out for two minutes and then you have to get back and throw. But I did a lot of work with mental prep in college, since I got really bad performance anxiety my freshman year. I remember I sat down with my coach and I actually told him he should cut me from the team, and he was like “What are you talking about?” I was just so stressed so I was not doing what I could be doing and what we were training for. So I worked on it my sophomore year a lot.
The mindset between practice and competition feels so different. When you go to practice, you’re being very analytical and trying to work on cues; when you go to a meet, you’re just trying to throw. So when you go to competition, you just have to trust in what you did all week, all month, and all year. You have to trust that you’re ready to show up and get it done. Sometimes it can be tough if you had a bad first throw, but the nice thing is you get three tries.
MC: For runners, lifting is important, but people often focus more on their running-specific training if they’re busy and drop the “supplemental” work. Is that also true for throwers, or are lifts just as important/hard as throwing days?
MS: Lifting days are hard, but it feels like a little bit of a break. We’ll play music a bit more often and we’re hanging out and talking a bit more, since we’re next to each other. But we’re still cleaning over 155 and snatching a ton. So you’re still on it, since it’s more than just getting the bar moving. It’s like we’re going to put as much weight on this bar and see if you can catch it. It’s a different kind of mentally on than lifting, since it isn’t as in the trenches, but this is what I have to do to get better.
MC: So if your throwing and lifting days are both hard, do you ever have easy days?
MS: It depends what level you’re at and who your coach is, but we go harder. There are some days where I'm struggling and my coach is like “you can move in”. I might have four more throws, but why put ourselves through more torture. But if anything, we are more likely to add extra. That’s the nice thing about having my coach there. He can see it and I can keep going and he’ll pull me back or go for it.
In college, I had an activation/mobility day. I have Sundays off, so I'll try to go for a really long walk and do stretching. I do active recovery - it’s not yoga - but it’s similar to it. For a couple of months when I first started post-collegiately throwing, I had a virtual mobility coach who was working for the air force and he’s all about over the years slowly overloading your joints so that when you twist your ankle, it’s not going to blow up. I still do a lot of the things that he taught me on my day off and in the morning. So I guess Sunday would be my easy day, since I still do things, but it’s not like any throwing or anything.
MC: Tell me about your relationship with your coach, Kevin Phipps. How did you meet, what does your coach-athlete relationship look like, and how has COVID made you need to adjust your training?
MS: I moved to Ithaca to train with my coach. I finished my masters and I had reached out to a couple of people. I had never worked with him before and barely knew him, but I moved to Itahca to be with him every day, because that’s what I like. In practices when he’s there, there’s direct feedback and I do really well with it and the way he words things. You, me, and him, the way we see things would be analyzed differently and talked about differently, but the way he says it always makes sense. We get a couple of warm up throws and he’ll be like, “hey your shoulders look a little tight, relax them a little bit.” Or if we jump from a 3KG to a 5KG, he'll be like “they’re acclimation throws”. But it really depends, and it’s changed over time. When I first started working with him, there was a lot to fix and I remember being like “I am terrible right now and I apologize”, since I had taken a lot of time off. So in-person he will have something to say most throws. Even on lifting days he’s there doing his own thing and lifting. It’s nice, I do a lot better when I'm in a group setting and I’ve known that for a while, but we do a pretty good job virtually.
We have gotten better being apart with COVID, since over the summer, I was back-and-forth between my family’s home, which is two hours from Ithaca. I can throw at Oneonta where I went to school, since it’s close to that, but I didn’t have an apartment for a little while, since my apartment was being sold and I had to move out for a while. But we pivoted well to this new, virtual version. Now I set up the tripod and record the videos and come inside and as I'm doing wrapping up stuff like having my protein, I will upload them to my google drive and label them so he can go through. Then before the next practice he reviews the film and he tells me “you did this good” and “these are the cues for next practice”. Now that I'm alone, it’s more of a big picture, so it’s not like “relax your shoulders”, it’s like “fix your right push”, which is the whole right system. There are things that I can come to mind.
MC: I find the idea of recording your throws really interesting. Do you ever go on and analyze film yourself?
MS: My senior year of college, I did not have a throws coach. My coach left for another school and we did not hire a new coach, so I recorded, analyzed, and did. I had a lot of cue advice from local coaches who I had known for three years already, they’d help me out at meets. That was very intensive, every single day, and it was a lot mentally. Instead of being able to just show up and throw. So now, I'll look at throws especially if I knew that was a good one and I want to see if I do what I was supposed to, I typically won’t look if I felt like they were bad. There’s no point in me seeing if I knew it was bad and then going over it. Leave it in the past and move forward. I definitely look at them sometimes, but it’s Kevin’s job and he can take it over since I know it stresses me out and there’s no need. We also talk a lot about the positives of having a job outside throwing and letting the stressors of that to take over vs “I train full time, I track everything I eat, I do all these things” and then if that’s not working having other things to worry about is better for me.
Meghan Serdock is part of the Tracksmith Amateur Support Program, a program designed to champion amateur runners as they train to achieve Olympic Qualification standards: learn more.