World Athletics Championships 2019: Andreas Hofmann puts Rio 2016 setback behind as Tokyo 2020 appears on horizon
Part of the golden generation of German javelin throwers, Andreas Hofmann talks to Firstpost about the dejection of missing out on Rio 2016 despite making the cut, training indoors in winter months with tennis balls and more.
Hofmann is one of the many javelin throwers the conveyor belt at Germany has churned out in the past decade.
Besides Hofmann, there is Olympic champ Thomas Rohler, world champion Johannes Vetter, Bernhard Seifert and Julian Weber.
Despite the cruel setback at Rio Olympics 2016, Andreas Hofmann says he has never consulted a sports psychologist.
Mannheim: The highlight of the front wall at Lutz Klemm’s tiny office at the Michael Hofmann Stadion is a page from a calendar printed five years ago. In it, javelin thrower Andreas Hofmann is dressed as Spartan king Leonidas heading into battle, spear in one hand, shield in another, a deep crimson cloak hanging off his neck exposing the chiseled blocks of muscles that form his torso.
The present-day Hofmann ― dressed today in a maroon t-Shirt that hides his musculature ― looks much older than the man in the calendar, but watch him at a competition and you will have no difficulty understanding why someone thought of casting him as a Spartan warrior for the calendar. Especially when you see him standing at the top of his run-up flexing his throwing arm, eyes transfixed hypnotically on a point in the distance. Even more so when you hear him let out a primal roar right after he has let fly his javelin.
But once that moment has passed and the competition ends, he returns to his regular, ever-smiling self, at times guffawing at his own jokes. Australians call it white-line fever, the phenomenon of athletes to get seriously competitive when on the field and ease up once they’re off it. When the fever of competition subsides, Hofmann's laughter often arrives sans warning, sometimes without merit, like a tic.
Today it makes an appearance as he is talking about possibly the biggest setback he's faced as an athlete: Missing out on qualifying for the Rio Olympics three years ago.
“In 2016, we were five competitors from Germany who threw over the standard for the Olympics. Unfortunately, I was fourth on the list. The top 3 went to Rio and I was left waiting in case somebody from them missed out due to an issue. So I stayed at home in August 2016,” he laughs before adding, “It was a little bit tough.”
Being a javelin thrower in Germany is not a little bit tough. It's excessively difficult. Hofmann is one of the many javelin throwers the conveyor belt at Germany has churned out in the past decade. There's Thomas Rohler, the reigning Olympic champ with a personal best of 93.90m, and Johannes Vetter, the reigning World Champion who's thrown 93.44m. And then there are Bernhard Seifert, Lars Hamann and Julian Weber, all of whom have breached the 86-mark in competitions and are knocking on the doors of the 90m.
While Hamann has called time on his career, the remaining five are left to jockey for limited spots to represent the country in big events.
Yet, the German javelin setup is not teeming with undertones of acrimony or insecurity between throwers. At national camps, all throwers and their coaches come together to discuss the tweaks they’re trying to implement in their throwing.
“At the national camps, we throwers talk to other throwers. Our personal coaches talk to other coaches. And throwers talk to other throwers’ personal coaches as well. So we have coaches telling the whole group that they tried something different during the off-season preparation as opposed to last season. And then my coach will come to me and say 'let's try this because the other javelin thrower is trying this too.'”
Hofmann says German athletes even seek advice from each other during competitions if necessary.
“During competitions, we're rivals. But even then in the midst of a competition, if we're not feeling that good on a day, or we can't understand why our javelins do not fly that well, we talk to each other. Let's say Thomas (Rohler) is throwing well on a day, I will go to him and ask him 'What are you doing? Are you looking for a spot on the horizon? Are you throwing the javelin higher or lower today?' Then he will tell me what he's doing and give his opinion.
“Of course, when you have special events like the Olympics final or the finals of the World Championships, then it's a little bit strange. We have our coaches with us, so we go talk to our coach. There we are very focused on the competition.”
Another thing Germans seem to be focussed on is throwing beyond the 100m mark, javelin's equivalent of the sub-2-hour marathon that long-distance runners are obsessed with.
Rohler was the one who first said that a 100m in competition was achievable.
The 100m is the sport's elusive number which no one has crossed with the 800gm javelin before, barring the German Uwe Hohn, who now coaches India's brightest track and field hope Neeraj Chopra. Albeit, Hohn's throw of 104.80m came in 1984 with the old javelin, which had its centre of gravity four centimetres behind than the current version.
"The 100m question?" laughs Hofmann before adding, "I think Thomas (Rohler) hit the mark with his answer when he said we don't want to build barriers. He said, yes we can throw 100m. Nobody else would say that. Thomas and I think, why not? Why do we say 100m is a barrier we cannot throw? We're very good 90m throwers at the moment. We don't know what will happen in the future. Maybe you have a great day. Maybe you have great conditions like Jan Zelezny had in Jena in 1996 when he threw 98.48m (the current World Record after the javelin was redesigned in 1986). When you see the video, you notice that it was very, very windy! The conditions were very good. Not too hot, not too cold. Everything was right at that moment. His throw was just a metre-and-a-half away from a hundred. So it's possible."
As Hofmann talks about testing the limits of possibilities, naturally the topic of what could have been had he gone to Rio 2016 comes up. You wonder if a sports psychologist was consulted after the cruel heartbreak of missing out on the Rio Olympics. Hofmann, though, has never visited a sports psychologist. Never needed one, he shrugs.
He responded to the Rio 2016 debacle by throwing 91.07m at the 2017 University Games in Chinese Taipei — the first time he had breached 90m in competition and an improvement on his personal best of 86.14m in competitions achieved back in 2015. Only three men threw further than Hofmann in 2017, his compatriots Thomas Rohler and Johannes Vetter and the Chinese Taipei thrower Chao-Tsun Cheng.
“2016 was not a good year. But at the start of 2017 I focussed specially on making the run-up more fluent. Now my steps have more efficiency. I have more power being generated from the legs. This was what I changed between the two seasons. I hit the tip a little better. First, it was too low. Now, the javelin has more height,” he says.
Not just the height of his javelin, his stature too grew in 2018. He won the Diamond League meetings in Birmingham and Zurich ― both events stacked with competitors like Rohler, Weber and Magnus Kirt ― besides winning the German National Championship and finishing second in the European Championships. He added two more Diamond League golds this year ― at Monaco and Shanghai ―and retained the German Championship title.
“Last year at the German Championships you had to throw 87m to reach third place. 89m for gold! It was a bit like the World Championships if you see the results,” says Hofmann, right before he heads to his afternoon training session.
In the midst of his afternoon training session at Michael Hofmann Stadion, Hofmann pauses as he fumbles while trying to find the right English word. “Sore,” he finally says with some help. “My muscles have been sore for the last two days,” he says as if to imply he's not training at full capacity.
— Amit Kamath (@jestalt) October 3, 2019
You want to believe him. But he's just spent the past few hours punishing gym equipment, stretching resistance bands against their will, doing double-leg bounds, holding four-kg medicine balls on the nape of his neck before propelling them 30 feet in the air like they are pebbles, hoisting 110kg barbells — same as his body weight — over his head. In between reps, he sits on a bench crossing off items from a to-do list he's jotted down himself.
To round off the day's training, he does pullover presses with a barbell loaded with 70kg plates — an exercise seemingly designed not much to build strength in the shoulders but to make them crumble. “This is special training for javelin throwers,” he chuckles before going on to do a few more reps for added emphasis.
— Amit Kamath (@jestalt) October 3, 2019
As the afternoon sun bears down on the trio of Hofmann, his coach Klemm and his training partner, Niko, and the mercury lingers around 22 degrees, the former seems almost reluctant to want to go indoors.
Indoors is his retreat for the frigid winters. When the winter months arrive and a sheet of snow covers the outfield of the Michael Hofmann Stadion, making it almost unusable for javelin training, Hofmann works on his technique by throwing balls — weighing between something slightly heavier than the average tennis ball to 1.5-kg balls — into a net. The indoor arena where he trains in the winter is tucked away into the bowels of the stadium and severely limits his run-up as well — he says he can take just five steps before throwing. The other alternative in these months is to travel nearly two hours by road to the Stuttgart Olympic training centre to train.
“It’s a big wish that we can have the possibility here as well like in Stuttgart to throw outside instead of training inside during the winters. There were some plans in 2014 to have a house from where we can throw outside on the field. But it was too expensive. So now I can just throw a ball in the net with a run-up of five steps. I cannot take my full run-up in the winter time. And if I do the full run-up, I cannot release the javelin,” he says, his voice a deep rumble.
Does the lack of outdoor training facilities for the winter months affect his preparation? Yes. But Hofmann shrugs and chooses to concentrate on what he can control. So he grabs a tennis ball, alters his run-up to five steps, and chucks the ball into the net with the full might of his six-foot-three-inch, 110kg frame.
Strength is good, he believes, but he is a true believer in the potency of technique.
“My philosophy is that the last three steps have to be the most efficient ones. They have to be the best ones. You have to focus on where your arm is. Those three steps are what I look at for producing speed. I feel if my last three steps are not so good, I can throw what I want, but the javelin don't fly!” Hofmann laughs.
As he begins talking about his throwing philosophy, he dissects the technique of his illustrious compatriots as well.
“Each of the javelin thrower from Germany is a different type of a guy. Thomas (Rohler) is looking for the right technique in throws. He tries different things, you know, technical things like pushing the hip more in front. The arm higher. He thinks of himself as a professor. He just wants to improve the technique more and more.
“Johannes (Vetter) is more the strength guy. You can see it, with his big biceps. In my opinion it's a bit too much, but he's very flexible as well. That's the biggest attribute for Johannes, he doesn't just have the strength, but he also has the flexibility. Not only with his shoulders, but also with his very good last step. His knee is very stiff, so he can transfer the power from the run-up into the javelin really well,” says Hofmann.
As he winds up his gruelling training session and stretches to cool down, he also analyses India’s Chopra, currently recuperating from an elbow surgery on his throwing arm.
“Neeraj has a very fast arm, and a good technique at the moment. During the last season, though, I felt his arm was a little too low. And now he's had elbow surgery. When he improves his last steps, he could be a very good competitor in the next few years. Perhaps, next year at the Olympic Games he will come back very healthy after his surgery. I hope the best for him. It's a big chance for him at Tokyo 2020 and it's a big chance for India to have a very good javelin thrower.”
Given the Rio Olympics disappointment, surely Tokyo 2020 is at the back of his mind.
“Not yet. For me, my focus is from training session to training session and competition to competition. Once the World Championships are over and I come back from my vacation, then we can talk about the Olympics,” he says before reconsidering the answer and adding, “Of course you have it at the back of your head. You keep thinking that it is next year.”
This time, though, when he says this, there's no laughter.
The writer was in Germany recently as part of the Robert Bosch Media Ambassadors Program.
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