Former Utah State All-American James Parker Still Hammering Away
Aug. 7, 2008
LOGAN, Utah -
By Jane Koerner, USU Magazine
In ancient Greece, the ball and chain were implements of war. The hammer throw, its modern equivalent, stoked national rivalries in the name of peace at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
As usual, the Russians and Eastern Europeans were expected to dominate the event. James Parker, a 2001 Utah State graduate and nine-time All-American, was one of two Americans representing the United States in a field of 35 contenders. He had never competed in front of so many people. Their cheers merged into a constant roar.
"It was so noisy, it was quiet," he recalls. "It made it easy to focus."
The fate of each contestant is determined, without bloodshed, in a matter of seconds. The ball whirls overhead; the body blurs in rotations of accelerating speed and momentum. Then the hip torques the body into a squat that applies maximum force to the ball as it is released. Sixteen pounds of metal fly through the air at 60 miles per hour.
The Olympics gave Parker a taste of what it's like to compete in a celebrity sport. Instead of signing autographs and posing for product endorsements, the three-time U.S. outdoor champion usually has to answer questions about his specialty.
Unfamiliar with the sport's ancient Scottish ancestry, most Americans assume those bulging biceps are from tossing claw, or sledgehammers.
"We are the red-headed step-children of track and field," Parker says of his sport. "We're in it for the personal satisfaction and learning, not the fame and fortune."
Competing for Utah State University in 1995, Parker won Big West conference titles in three events - the shot put, discus and hammer. Seven years after his graduation, his school records still hold in the indoor shot put and weight throw, the outdoor shot put, and the discus and hammer throw. Nine NCAA All-American designations and a silver medal at the 2003 Pan American Games add further distinction to Parker's resume.
Of all of his achievements, the 2004 Olympics represent the apex, even though his stomach-flu-tainted performance in the qualifying round kept him out of the finals. His impaired toss landed far short of the 78.65-meter minimum to qualify for the Olympics.
Prior to Athens, he was the only American to meet the Olympic minimum in the hammer throw, not once but four times in 2004, and to qualify at the U.S. Trials in Sacramento. He hoped to repeat that accomplishment the first week of July for a second shot at the Olympics in Beijing.
He trains five days a week, throwing, lifting weights and stretching to maintain his flexibility and protect himself from injury. He has to make up for last year's hamstring injury and the three years of reduced training during his military service. In January he took an early-out option from the Air Force and secured a part-time civilian job at Home Depot. Now there are fewer distractions, but a groin strain was still bothering him in late March and his throws needed to improve by 15 feet in order to qualify for Beijing.
No longer at the beck and call of the Air Force, he and wife Kamilla and their three boys moved to Eugene, Ore., so he could train year-round with his coach, a Scotsman who used to coach at University of Oregon.
Parker is training hard and seeing results. This winter's personal best for an indoor meet has bolstered his confidence and focus.
Competing in an obscure sport has its advantages and disadvantages. It is hard to find sponsors but he doesn't have to deal with the intense scrutiny of the media. His part-time work for Home Depot, an athlete-friendly workplace with flexible scheduling, allows for rigorous training and national and international competitions.
His event, which evolved from the Scottish highland games, debuted at the modern Olympics in 1900. At Beijing, the Eastern Block athletes are favored to sweep the medals, as usual.
"The hard part is getting to the Olympics," he says. "To make the team, you either have to be on or you have to be on."
This time, the Olympic Trials were in Eugene, Oregon - his home turf.
He had risen to the occasion before. He hit his personal best in the outdoor event in 2004 at BYU, his nemesis. Every time he competed there for USU, mental blocks shortchanged his performance. In 2004, when it really mattered, he overcame that challenge to set the stadium record. "It felt effortless," he recalls. "After hundreds of throws a year, you know when you have a good one."
Parker made the finals of the Olympic Trials in July, but wound up seventh overall, being forced to try again. He'll keep competing. The hammer throw isn't nearly as hard on the joints as the running and jumping events are, and competitors who throw correctly can last a long time - into their late 30s. At age 32, James Parker could compete in other Olympics - those games that convert the warrior spirit into fierce but friendly competitions among nations.