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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘As athletic as ever’: Former Lewis and Clark discus standout Josh Syrotchen takes family-friendly path to Olympic trials

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Josh Syrotchen followed a girl, and now it’s taken him to within 220 feet of the Olympic Games.

Reaching that destination would be undeniably cool. But he might tell you that it will never top the journey.

Syrotchen is 12 years gone from his days at Lewis and Clark High School, time spent in an incremental climb up the ranks of American discus throwers. The best meet up on Thursday for the qualifying round at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, where on Saturday they’ll try and decide the three qualifiers for the Paris Olympics.

And Syrotchen – ranked sixth in the United States the past three years – is very much in the hunt.

“At every national championship, you walk in there and tell yourself you have a chance of making the (U.S.) team,” he said. “But I put people in three categories. There’s a group that’s lucky to be there, who just barely made it in. There are guys who don’t have the rank or thrown the distance or run the time to make the team, but who can mess up the day for people who do – knock somebody out of a final. And then there are the top six or seven who can make the team.

“I wasn’t in that position until two or three years ago.”

Getting there wasn’t simply about being better in the ring.

Syrotchen was a pretty fair linebacker and thrower at LC, reaching a state best of 185 feet, 10 inches as a senior. But whatever college recruiting interest there was didn’t much matter, because he was busy recruiting himself elsewhere.

“My junior year at LC I went on a cruise ship with my family,” Syrotchen said, “and I met this girl. I didn’t believe in love at first sight, but there was something about her.”

From St. Louis and Spokane, Tori Wagner and Josh Syrotchen carried on a budding romance over cell and Skype. During their senior year, Syrotchen even asked her father if he could fly down and stay with her family and take Wagner to the prom.

“He said, ‘Sure – you’ll be in the basement and she’ll be on the third floor,’ ” Syrotchen recalled.

Wagner planned to attend Harding University, a private college in Searcy, Arkansas – which meant that, in short order, Syrotchen planned to, as well.

“I was crazy enough to just call up the head football coach and say here’s who I am,” he said. “I sent some video that a dad of one of my teammates made and a letter about my interest in their school – when my only interest was this girl who wants to go there.”

By 6 the next morning, the coach was back with an offer for Syrotchen to visit the campus. He was on the field that next August.

His football tenure at Harding didn’t last long after he tore an ACL, MCL and meniscus, but by 2014 Syrotchen had horsed the heavier college disc out to 181 feet and finished fourth at the NCAA Division II championships– the first of four All-American honors he’d win – despite the fact that Harding didn’t have a throwing coach. Before graduation, he was 16 inches away from 200 feet.

Also before graduation: Tori Wagner had become Tori Syrotchen.

They’ve been married nine years now, living in St. Louis with a daughter Abbie, 5, and a son Malachi, 3. A medical sales rep, Syrotchen puts in a lot of 50-hour weeks that include sitting in on up to 20 surgeries. Training for the discus gets wedged between some family time and dinner.

“I don’t think any other (discus) thrower in the U.S. is doing what I’m doing,” he said.

Now 30 and 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, Syrotchen said he’s “as athletic as ever” and proved it a year ago when he improved his best to 217-2, the No. 3 throw in the country. This year hasn’t produced quite the same results – though he reached 213-7 earlier this month – or the same good feeling, and a couple weeks ago he learned why: he’d developed an ulcer. Medication has helped him bounce back “and it’s a good time to be feeling better,” he said.

He credits his emergence as a ranked thrower to increased flexibility (“I’d never stretched or any of that – I thought I would lose snappiness, which is ignorant”) and motivation.

“I’ve found some purpose,” he said. “I believe the abilities I have are God given, but I also want my kids to look at me and think, ‘My dad works really hard to do this’ and maybe that will help inspire them, whether that’s in school or music or whatever.”

Based on recent trials results, it might take as little as 205 feet to crack the top three in Eugene, but Syrotchen has yet to hit the Olympic qualifying standard of 220-6 – and four other throwers have. That increases the pressure in an already pressure-packed environment.

“There’s a weight,” he confessed. “You have three throws (in the qualifying round) to execute something you’ve been striving toward for three or four years. And I’ve had some trouble focusing up in the past. But I’m not nervous. I’m excited. This year, there’s just a difference.”