When you think track and field, you probably picture sprints around the oval, maybe some hurdles, and perhaps a jumping event, like the high jump or the long jump. Those are all accurate visions, but there’s another, super impressive event that should be in the mix: the hammer throw.
In the hammer throw, a component of the Olympic track and field competition, athletes take an 8.8-pound metal ball connected to a grip by a steel wire, rapidly spin three to four times, and then release it, launching this specialized “hammer” as far as possible. It’s every bit as badass as it sounds.
For proof, just take a scroll through Gwen Berry’s Instagram. The 29-year-old Olympian and former American record holder in the hammer throw posts video after video of her demo’ing the intense speed, strength, and explosion that this sport requires.
You can see Berry in her element here:
Berry, who placed 14th in the event at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has bested the American record multiple times, and her most recent performance last month at the IAAF Hammer Throw Challenge in Poland of 77.78 meters—that’s 255 feet, 2 inches— surpassed the mark again, though it was broken weeks later by DeAnna Price.
As Berry vies to reclaim the record and a spot on the podium at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (which would make her the first ever American woman to medal in the event) she shared her backstory, intense training regimen, and future goals with SELF.
Unlike most Olympians who have been practicing their sport since a young age, Berry didn’t pick up hammer throwing until she was a sophomore in college.
As a kid growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry began playing sports at a young age—”around 4 or 5 years old”—and joined team sports in middle school, playing soccer and basketball and running track. She expanded her repertoire in high school to include softball, though her main focus remained track, specifically the jumping events. She was recruited to Southern Illinois University for her triple jump, but after one year on the team, her coach had a different idea. “My sophomore year, the coach told me to try something different—the hammer,” Berry tells SELF. “He said I reminded him of a former thrower.”
So in 2008, at the age of 19, Berry picked up the hammer throw for the first time—and quickly discovered an unparalleled passion and aptitude for the sport. She won fourth in the hammer throw at the 2008 USA Junior Championships, took third in her first international debut for the U.S. at the 2010 NACAC (North American, Central American, and Caribbean Athletic Association) Under-23 Championships in Athletics, and entered the 2012 Olympic Trials as the number two seed. (She ended up serving as an alternate for the London Games.) This year, with the American record in June, she’s throwing her best distances yet.
The most important skills in hammer throwing, says Berry, are upper-body strength, balance, and body awareness.
Throwers begin by swinging the ball in angled circles around their bodies “like a pendulum,” says Berry. Once they get a baseline level of momentum, they’ll begin spinning their bodies, too, as the hammer rotates around their center. One foot stays grounded while the other foot lifts off with each spin, and after three to four spins (Berry does four), they’ll release the hammer up and out.
Throughout these spinning motions, it’s important to keep your chest up and your knees slightly bent, says Berry. “You don’t want to bend over too much and use your back,” she says. Instead, she imagines she is sitting back in a chair and spinning from that position.
While the hammer throw, with its spins and squatting motions, may look very leg-centric, the power is primarily derived from the upper body, says Berry. “You want to use your arms more than your legs.” A good hammer throw also requires good hand-eye coordination. “You want to be connected to the ball with your hands and with your eyes,” says Berry. Balance and symmetry throughout the body is another important element. “You want your arms to be parallel to each other,” says Berry.
The best way to become a great hammer thrower is to practice this motion over and over (and over) again, Berry explains.
Because the sport is so technical and nuanced, “you have to practice those motions all the time,” says Berry. It’s not like running, biking, or other physical activities where the motions are simple and intuitive for most people. With hammer throwing, the general consensus within the sport is that it takes “10 years to become a really good hammer thrower,” says Berry, who has been hammer throwing for essentially that exact amount of time. “The main focus is getting strong while doing that specific movement.”
Berry practices hammer throwing three hours a day, six days a week. She also does twice-weekly weight-lifting sessions and weekly cross-training sessions.
Her 180-minute hammer throwing sessions include a 30-minute warm-up (think jogging and stretching), an hour of drills, which focus primarily on precision ("It’s not about throwing too far or too fast, but about walking and turning with the ball to feel the connection with it,” says Berry), and 90 minutes of throw practice, where Berry uses hammers of varying weights and sizes—some smaller than the competition weight, and some larger—to practice her throws.
The ultimate goal, says Berry, is to practice these motions so much that they become second nature. "When you walk in [to the rink at a competition], your body and mind should be on autopilot so that you are focused just on execution," she explains.
In addition to the 18 hours of specific hammer throw training, Berry also lifts weights twice a week, for two hours each time. She describes these strength-building sessions nonchalantly—”It’s mostly about making sure the correct muscles [used in the hammer throw] are moving, and that my back isn’t straining," she says—but her weight-lifting abilities are far from average.
When she’s not training, Berry likes to cook (her go-to dishes are baked Salmon and pasta, but "I can make a mean turkey burger with homemade french fries," she says), clean her house, watch TV, and “just chill, to give my mind a break.”
Berry likes the hammer throw for its history and uniqueness, and is focused on several big goals moving forward.
“It really goes back so far,” says Berry of the hammer throw. “They used hammer throws in wars, when they tried to conquer different villages. It was an art, and the best warriors were the best at throwing.” She says this historical context inspires her during practice and competition. “I’ll watch movies, like 300 and Pirates of the Caribbean and see the hammer throwing techniques used.”
That said, Berry says she has a love-hate relationship with the sport. “I have a love relationship because it’s what defines me and makes me different than my peers, but I also hate it because it’s sometimes the only thing I do,” she says. “It takes so much time to get good, and if I want to medal, I have to be diligent and do it every day.”
Love or hate, Berry will continue to push forward with her goals. On setting the American record last month: “It felt really good,” says Berry. “It gave me the confidence to be an Olympic medalist and even an Olympic champion.” Her next goals: medal in Tokyo, and also at the 2019 World Championships in Doha.
In the process, she hopes the sport will become a bigger part of American sports culture.
“I wish [the hammer throw] was more popular and respected in the United States,” says Berry. “It’s just as athletic—and in some ways more athletic—than the major sports like football and basketball.”
The IAAF World U20 Championships (also known as the World Junior Championships) are coming up on July 19, and hammer throw is one of the events. That’s where we’ll see the next up-and-comers in the sport. For more information and to watch the championships, see here.