Shot putters are an emotional bunch. Look at the pictures of Darrell Hill in this story by David Hunter, and read the story as well, please. Between both, you will understand that this Big Guys spend years perfecting their trade, for inches of improvement. However, when, Darrell Hill won the Diamond League with his massive 20 inch improviement, he woke up many of the shot put fans. David Hunter captures this fine young thrower in all of his glory.
January 1, 2018
Athletes, like others, are not born with confidence. Some may think they are, but they are mistaken. That’s faux confidence. One needs to earn self-assuredness- either nurtured by others, or cultivated by one’s own experiences, or both. Some find a way to build it through a pretense of confidence, a self-acknowledged charade that they are confident, hoping ultimately to build a reality out of what they know to be an attitudinal placeholder until it can be supplanted by the real thing. Darrell Hill – the reigning Diamond League shot put champion – has travelled his own pathway, from happy-go-lucky, stand-in 35 foot shot putter who is in it for the fun to one of the most proficient putters of all time at age 24. And through it all, he has gained genuine confidence.
Hill’s love affair with track & field began with a harmless flirtation. “It was the end of my sophomore year and I was in the middle of wrestling – pretty much something to help me stay in shape for football and AAU basketball. I ran into my high school coach in the hallway and he told me the indoor track team didn’t have any shot putters and he asked me if I would be willing to help the team for a weekend at the league championships,” explains the former Penn State star. “My coach said, ‘All you have to do is throw a ball. And you could just pretty much hang out, and that’s it.’ And I was like, ‘OK.’ I had a lot of friends on the team. So I said, ‘Yeah, sure. I’ll come check it out.’ With no prior instruction or training and having never thrown the shot before, Hill was willing to give it a go. While his friends stifled a few chuckles, he threw – with a best mark of 35’11”. No one was proclaiming him to be the next Adam Nelson. “It had nothing to do with my performance or anything, I was just having fun. And I had a good time with my teammates, so I decided to come back the next week.”
That sophomoric lark later became a junior year romance as Hill bore down to learn more about the event. “When the season came around again my junior year, I just went straight to YouTube and that’s how I learned the sport,” explains Hill. Gaining insights from those instructional videos, Hill improved – throwing 47 feet indoors and 53’5″ outdoors. With increased success came a stronger commitment from the improving athlete. “My senior year is what tied to me to the shot put in a way. I was taking the sport more seriously.” Hill’s focus paid off as he opened up his senior year indoor season with a 5 foot PR. “I went over and I told my head coach, ‘I threw 58 feet.” And he said, ‘No you didn’t.” And I said, ‘Yeah, I did!’ I ended the indoor season with a throw of 60 feet. Along the way, the 6’1 280 pound shot putter was refining his technique. “I taught myself how to spin. What put me over the hump at 60 feet was learning the rotation.” With a subsequent outdoor best of 59 feet, Hill’s final senior season did not feature PR’s, but it provided enhanced consistency. “I had a fairly consistent season, but I didn’t have that big jump maybe I thought I should have had considering that I threw 60 feet indoors.”
Initially, Hill was uncertain about his college plans. “I wanted to play football in college. But I didn’t have any real offers from big schools,” explains Hill who turned his attention to track & field as his pathway to college. “As track season came around, I started to look at what schools were offering me. I thought, ‘Man, I can go to big school, have some school paid for, and I’m having a good time. I’ve had nothing but fun in track & field,” adds Hill with a smile. “I ended up going to the University of Houston [on a track & field scholarship] for my first year and then transferred to Penn State after my freshman year.”
Hill’s transfer was prompted by observed opportunity and not by any dissatisfaction with the University of Houston. “Originally, I was very interested in going to Penn State out of high school, but it didn’t work out. Penn State had a lot of talent. There were several of us who thought we could pitch in and help Penn State win the national championship [in track & field]. I just knew that maybe I could be a part of something special in my home state of Pennsylvania. The opportunity was too good to pass up.” Lured by the siren song of the big stage, Hill adds, “I never wanted to be a big fish in a small pond. I wanted to be the biggest fish in the ocean.”
Darrell Hill, photo by PhotoRun.net
Heading to college, Hill knew that adjusting to a new environment and mastering a new, heavier implement would be a challenge. . “From where I come from, we used what I like to call ‘irrational confidence,'” reveals Hill. “I would always say things like ‘I’m going to make it to the Olympics. I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that.’ Whether I believed it or not, I always spoke it. So people have actually heard me say, ‘I’m going to make it to the Olympics.’ But the incoming freshman knew he needed more than brashness; he needed a plan. “When I was a freshman in college, I set out a 4-year progression goal for myself on how I get to 70 feet. And it was 60 feet as a freshman, 64 feet as a sophomore, 67 feet as a junior, and 70 feet as a senior. And I wrote it down. I didn’t know if I could do it or how I was going go about doing it. But I just said to myself, that’s how I get there, those are the numbers.”
Hill marked his advancement by his progression plan, striving to meet each of the intermediate steps on his way to the ultimate goal. “Each year I was about 2 feet off but I tried to keep myself as close as possible to the progression. I threw 57 feet as a freshman. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll catch up.’ As a sophomore, I didn’t throw 64 feet; I threw 62 feet. Then as a junior I did throw 67 feet and I caught back up to the path that I set for myself. Now I was back on schedule.”
The undistracted environment of State College, Pennsylvania proved to be the perfect incubator for Hill and his impressive shot put progression. During his entire stint at Penn State, Hill was able to train with world-class thrower Ryan Whiting who had made Penn State his training center. Whiting – who won two world championship shot put crowns during Hill’s collegiate years – was an inspiring mentor for the young Philadelphian. “Just watching him train and with him giving me little tidbits of help here and there, he kind of instilled some confidence in me. He might have seen something in me that maybe had him think I could grow post-collegiate. He allowed me to be a training partner with him. He was somebody to throw with, someone to compete with in practice.” The uniqueness of this special world-class tutelage was not lost on Hill. “I was just taking it as an opportunity to challenge myself against a guy who at that time is the best guy in the world. I am literally developing and just watching every step. This is the guy. I see what he eats. I see the way he trains, the way he recovers, the way he does his rehab. With all of those little things I learned from him I was kind of able to instill them into my own training.” And then with a smile he adds, “It cultivated my irrational confidence. I would tell him, ‘You know what? I’m going to beat you. You’re only beating me because you’re older than me.’ Those are the kind of things I would say when I was joking with him. He always knew I was confident in myself. If we were going to compete – even if I probably wasn’t going to win – I was going to give it a zillion percent effort. Just being there at the right time helped me develop to where I am today.”
After capping his college career with a near-miss at an national collegiate title – after matching the best throw of Jonathan Jones with a 20.79m/68’2Â½’ heave of his own, Hill lost the crown to the Buffalo athlete with a shorter second-best mark – the multiple-time Big Ten shot put champion launched his professional quest under the watchful eye of revered shot put mentor Art Venegas. “At the 2015 U.S. Championships I had 4 throws that were fouls that were in the 21.60m, 21.70m range to make the team and go to Beijing, but I couldn’t hold any of them in, or I would catch my heel on the toe board. So I ended up in 6th place and didn’t make the team.” As he had done to aid others, Venegas observed those technical flaws and knew the corrective action to be taken. Explained Hill: “Coach Venegas told me ‘we don’t need to reinvent the wheel; we just need to fix it so you can start saving some of these marks and be able to compete.’ We kind of broke things down and he instilled a couple of little technical things so I wouldn’t foul.” It worked. After sitting out most of the ’16 indoor season due to injury, Hill – now a robust 6’3 and 320 pounds – threw 21.63m/70’11Â¾” outdoors to rank #5 on the year’s world list. “The big story for 2016,” proclaims Hill, “is that now I am starting to save some of these throws and not foul some of these marks that I had been seeing for a year plus.”
Hill’s ’16 momentum carried over into 2017. If you look at my first outdoor outing back in April at UCLA I opened my season at 21.91m/71’10Â¾”. That was a huge, big mark for me. Naturally, I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK, we’re going to ride this wave; I’ll get my 22 meter throw. I’m searching for it and I have 7 straight meets over 21 meters which I had never done before. I’m throwing phenomenally all year. I’m feeling great.” Despite a mid-season swoon, Hill finished 3rd at nationals to make the world championship team and ultimately finish 11th in London.
During his post-championships European odyssey, Hill sustained a sprained left ankle and then a pulled right hamstring. Limping into Brussels for the Diamond League final, Hill was nursing injuries and running out of gas. But the young professional remembers the special feeling he sensed on day of the shot put final which was held at Place de la Monnaie in downtown Brussels. “I woke up that morning and I felt a little bit better. The weather was beautiful. When I see a lot of people and see nice big buildings, the atmosphere, it always brings something out of me. I was just taking what the day was giving me. I’m warming up and the throws were going 21 meters which is the best I’ve been throwing in a while. So I’m like, ‘OK. My body feels a little bit good today.’ So I am starting to feel like I can give it some effort. And I hadn’t felt that way since the world championships. So I am going to give whatever I’ve got for my last throws.” 6th after 4 rounds, Hill was inspired by his non-legal throw in the next round. “In the 5th round, I was really aggressive and I got called for a foul, but I saw a ball go. And I thought, ‘OK, I know I have something today.’ That’s all I needed – just to know I had something. So I just said a short prayer: ‘God, this is the last throw of my season. If I don’t throw 22 meters right now, that means I did all of these great things this year, and I never got what it is I wanted to accomplish. I’m going to give it 100%. I’m not going to hold anything back. If I foul, I foul. Whatever happens, I don’t care. I’m just going go.’ That was my mentality for the 6th round. And the rest is history.” And Darrell Hill’s final competitive throw of 2017 was indeed historic: a monster put of 22.44m/73/7Â½”, a PR throw by over 20 inches which moved him for 6th to 1st and ultimately proved to be the winning mark, earning him the Diamond League crown. Hill’s winning throw ranked him #3 on the 2017 world list and places him #13 [and the #9 American] on the all-time outdoor shot put list. And in its 2017 rankings, Track & Field News listed Hill as the #3 American and #5 in the world.
When asked if his magnificent PR in the Diamond League final prompted him to re-evaluate his goals, Darrell Hill – now being coached by San Diego State’s Greg Garza in the wake of Venegas’ retirement this past fall – responds without hesitation. “Even with that 22.44, I don’t feel like I need to readjust anything,” the Nike athlete declares. “That’s because my goals have always been very high. If you talk to anybody around me, they all know that my goal is to be the best to ever do it. So that’s always been the goal.” Some might shrug this off as just another episode of Hill’s “irrational confidence.” Yet when you look back on the year the young throws star had in 2017, his terrific progression, and his dramatic Diamond League victory, perhaps Darrell Hill’s confidence is not that irrational after all.