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Gold medalist inspires Lake Oswego track team

by: Vern Uyetake, 
Mac Wilkins visited Lake Oswego High School last week and provided some demonstrations for its track team. Wilkins won a gold medal in the discus in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. He was the last American to win a gold medal in that event.

Mac Wilkins is still pretty awesome after all of these years.

The Olympic gold medalist was on the campus of Lake Oswego High School last Wednesday to provide a heavy dose of inspiration and technique to the eager track athletes of Coach Eric Lider.

Big Mac had a little help from his friends, too, because he brought coaches and athletes from Concordia University, where he is weight events coach, to provide demonstrations of training and performance.

In return, Wilkins received hero worship.

'It is important for us to hear someone like Mac,' said Lider, who has been track coach at Lake Oswego High School for three decades. 'Whether it's me or my athletes. We need to catch his vision and get his passion.

'When you have a chance to rub up against the best, you do it. That's why we invited him.'

Jimmy Jacobson, a junior, figures to score a lot of points for the Lakers in the discus this spring, and having the chance to hear Wilkins was a big boost.

'Mac has always been a hero of mine,' Jacobson said. 'I've watched a lot of his videos and I definitely learned a lot today. He's a real great guy.'

There were about 100 kids on hand, but there were some parents, too. One mother, of a young girl who shows excellent promise in the javelin, expressed her heartfelt gratitude to Wilkins for coming to Lake Oswego and providing a push that could help her daughter reach her potential.

Actually, it was Wilkins' pleasure.

'Whenever I have the opportunity, this is something I like to do,' he said. 'My purpose is two-fold. One is to improve these kids' techniques in the throwing events. The other is to share some positive life lessons.'

Certainly, it was great for the young athletes to see Wilkins right in the discus ring of their own high school's track, giving an up-close demonstration of grace and know-how that previously they could only have imagined. As Jimmy Jacobson could attest, it was so much better than watching a video.

'I want to give you a deep view of what track and field is all about,' Wilkins told the students. 'I want to give you the insight of how to train and compete at a level above high school.'

But the aspect of Wilkins that seemed to have the most impact on the young tracksters was finding that he was once very much like them. Not an Olympic gold medalist, not a world record holder in the discus. Just a kid struggling to find his way in life.

At the end of Wilkins' senior year at Beaverton High School, 'I didn't know what I wanted to do.' His best bet seemed to be the possibility of a basketball scholarship from a school called Blue Mountain Community College.

Then came a conversation with the legendary track coach Bill Bowerman, followed by a very up-and-down career at the University of Oregon. Wilkins showed great promise in the javelin as a freshman, but then he blew out his right elbow as a sophomore.

'That was before they had the Tommy John Surgery,' Wilkins noted.

His efforts to switch to the discus were going nowhere until one day he decided, 'I'll just really go for it.' The results were very good. 'That was fun,' Wilkins said.

The fun snowballed for Wilkins as he racked up championships and records.

'I found that the process could be infinitely amazing,' he said. 'I wanted to go for it. It was fun, fascinating, and I was learning something each day.'

In 1976, Wilkins took the track world by storm at the Montreal Olympics when he won the gold medal in the discus, coming on like a young Samson with his long black hair and beard. The former high school 'nobody' had come a long way.

'It was awesome to see someone who didn't start out being so talented and then being able to go so far,' said javelin thrower Becca Hodges. 'This is my fourth year and I've been working really hard and it pays off eventually. That was the message I got today.'

The only non-fun aspect of the Mac Wilkins saga is that he was the last American to win a gold medal in that event.

He is already working to change this situation by developing athletes capable of moving on to national and even Olympic competition.

Athletes like Scott Halley, who won the NAIA national championship in the javelin. At only 155 pounds he lacks the brute strength normally associated with standouts in weight events.

What Halley does have is remarkable finesse and technique.

Athletes like Annie Hess, who won the NAIA women's discus championship as a sophomore last year, getting off the best five throws in the competition. Hess is so hungry for improvement that Wilkins gave her the 'Big Spoon Award.'

However, it is with his Oregon Throwers Academy that Wilkins will have the greatest influence on weight throwing events.

Especially when its permanent home in northeast Portland is completed some time in June.

'We get 50 to 60 kids out there a week, and some of them drive an hour and a half to get there,' Wilkins said.

Who knows? Mac Wilkins might find another Mac Wilkins out there. He's proven it can be done.

For more information about the Oregon Throwers Academy, go to the website located at www.cuatthethrowcenter.com.