POST FALLS – Ian Waltz’s road to the Olympic Games began where many do, at the intersection of Accident and Destiny.
Or in this case, with his mom putting in for a transfer at work.
Waltz was maybe 14 at the time, the family living in Butte Falls, Ore., home to maybe 400 souls tethered to the timber industry and a statue of their patron saint … Ralph Bunyan? Yes, that’s right – Paul’s little brother. Any old logging town – even Coeur d’Alene – can have a Paul Bunyan statue, but only Butte Falls has Ralph. Some burg in North Dakota claims yet another Bunyan, brother Earl – but no sense letting this tale get hijacked by Bunyans.
“It was a real small town,” Waltz remembered. “I had 12 kids in my class. We played 8-man football and didn’t even have a track team there. We came up to Coeur d’Alene on vacation one summer and liked it, and my mom put in for a transfer with the Forest Service, and we moved up.
“Good thing she did or I probably wouldn’t have ever touched a discus.”
These days, Ian Waltz – 6-foot-3, about 295 pounds, stronger than a blue ox – could pose for a statue himself, but Discobolos would be more appropriate. He is a long way from Butte Falls, or even Post Falls. He is in Europe, his ticket punched for Athens and an Olympic dream that seemed to have turned into a cul de sac as recently as a year ago
If ever the Olympic movement had a poster child for the twin virtues of opportunity and support, it’s Ian Waltz.
His own gifts and hard work got him on the U.S. Olympic team – with a runner-up finish in the discus behind best buddy and training partner Jarred Rome last month in the American trials in Sacramento, Calif. But without the circumstance of a guiding light at the start of his throwing career and a helping hand at the end, perhaps Waltz never gets to send platters sailing in the shadow of the Acropolis, plying his classical trade in the most classical of settings.
“It’s true,” he said. “Everybody’s always told me I had all the athletic talent in the world, but the combination of things that have happened to me this year has really brought it all into focus.”
A graduate of Post Falls High School, Waltz is four years removed from his throwing days at Washington State University, where he was an eight-time All-American and broke the oldest field-event record in the school’s books – his throw of 211 feet, 5 inches as a junior in 1998 displacing John van Reenen’s 28-year-old standard of 208-10.
Four years … which means four years removed from anybody paying attention.
It has long been lamented that America cares not a whit about track and field between Olympics – unless there’s a juicy drug drama, of course – but the apathy is rarely as emptying as it is for the lumbering thrower, out of the collegiate cocoon and the warmth of at least a little campus appreciation.
The hot-shot sprinter can set his shoes on fire, the mile prodigy can make people pay attention, the vaulters can attack the heavens.
What can a discus thrower do? Grunt louder?
“There’s no money in it,” Waltz acknowledged, “and even less attention.”
Waltz discovered just how tough the going could get when he moved to Boise after finishing his Wazzu eligibility, to join Rome, a Boise State graduate and a friend and rival going back to a recruiting trip they shared to Pullman. Waltz, with his eye on pharmacy school back at WSU, enrolled at BSU to tackle some prerequisites, Rome moved into graduate school and both were set to work with the school’s coach, Mike Maynard, something of a throws guru.
But the training arrangement – for reasons Waltz prefers to not to detail – never quite worked out.
“I did finish third in the U.S. championships in 2002,” he said, “but I never felt like I was improving. Going to school and working and all that – it just never felt like we were making progress.
“Finally, with the Olympic year coming up, Jarred said, We’ve got to get out of here and do something to get serious.”
So they applied and were accepted to U.S. Olympic Committee’s training center in Chula Vista, Calif., home to maybe 150 runners, throwers, rowers, kayakers – you name it. About 30 of the residents are track and field athletes and, by Waltz’s accounting, 17 earned trips to Athens this year.
There, Waltz and Rome were housed and fed and coached and treated and motivated – on the USOC’s dime, although Waltz also held a part-time job at a Rite-Aid pharmacy. At their disposal were state of the art training and medical facilities, coaches, therapists, shrinks, chiropractors – in short, people to do almost everything for them except lift the weights and throw the throws.
Which they handled just fine. Rome has the best American throw of the year, 221-6. Waltz, who hadn’t improved on his best since that record throw at WSU, has bettered that mark four times, topped by a 217-0 throw in a pre-Trials meet. In 10 other meets he’s been better than 200 feet.
These happy gains had both Waltz and Rome assessing daily their chances of making the Athens team together – and only rarely considering the possibility that only one of them might make it.
“It just seemed like we were the most consistent guys throwing all year,” Waltz said. “I remember once Jarred saying there was a 75 or 80 percent chance of both of us making it, but I always thought it was closer to 100.”
They have been model partners, or almost – “sometimes it wasn’t so good when we needed a light day in the weight room and we’d just kind of hype each other into lifting heavy anyway,” Waltz said – and model pupils for their new coach, Brooks Johnson, to whom Waltz can’t give enough credit for his development.
“From the work he did, I feel my technique is so grooved right now that I can go anywhere and throw far,” he said.
He means Athens, where he estimates it will take a throw of 206 feet to reach the finals, and probably 220 to medal – another measure of how far Ian Waltz has come.
“I remember my freshman year at Post Falls, and Dan Nipp, the coach, pulling me aside in the hall and saying, Why don’t you come out and try throwing?’ ” he recalled. “I didn’t even care about the discus, I pretty much just did the shot. But the last meet of the year, I finally did a full spin in the discus and threw it something like 118 feet. By my senior year, I threw 203-9 and led the nation and thought, Maybe I am pretty good at this.’ ”
Maybe not Bunyanesque, but getting there.