May 23 2012 11:36 AM

Can centrifugal force carry a San Diego athlete to London?

Britney Henry begins her spin.
Photo by Brent Haywood

Britney Henry throws hammers.

Mind you, these aren't your hardware-store, ball-peen or claw hammers. Henry throws the Olympic hammer, an ancient cousin of the sledgehammer, with a cannonball-like sphere at the end of a wire. Soccer-field managers don't like hammer-throwers training on their pitches because of the craters the balls leave in the turf. Track-meet organizers will leave the hammer out of track-and-field events because of the danger it poses to inattentive people who wander into the fall zone.

There's no risk of collateral damage at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. On a Wednesday morning, most of the athletes are away. The campus is still and silent except for the wild rabbits hopping through the fields and the ground crew hosing down the BMX track. Hammers share with discus, javelin and shot put an exclusive expanse of grass, where a couple of ducks like to hang out during quiet periods. Henry, who splits her time between San Diego and Portland, is on site early today, wearing casual sports gear and flip-flops, for an interview before she undergoes a secret preparation that she hopes will help her get to the summer Olympics in London.

She keeps her practice hammers of varying weights—heavier for honing technique, lighter for practicing speed and timing—in a teal-colored locker beside the field's fourth netted cage. Labeled "Hammer Only," the cage is not unlike the enclosure where a golfer would practice swings. Where a tee would be, there's a large, sunken circle.

The rules limit an athlete to no more than a minute per throw. Henry says it usually takes only about 10 seconds; the rest is ritual. When she enters the ring, she stands on the left and looks out to the field. She silently takes in the landscape, the trees, the poles, whatever features there are to mark.

"A lot of people wonder what I'm doing while I'm standing here," she says, demonstrating her process. "It's kind of funny—the old saying goes, ‘The monster is scarier behind the door than when you open it.' It's kind of the same thing when I look at the hammer field. That is my monster, and once I look at it, it's not very scary anymore."

From there, she walks to the front of the ring, then to the back, where she lines up her toes against the far edge, at 12 o'clock, or what hammer throwers call "zero." She pauses again, then starts her counter-clockwise wind-up, bringing the hammer around her head twice to build momentum, and seamlessly transitions to a full-body turn, stepping heel to toe, harnessing the centrifugal force. As she finishes the fourth turn and hits the perpendicular 9 o'clock, she lets the hammer fly.

Henry's athletic career began in high school, when she faced two pathways to a university education: the military or an athletic scholarship. She chose hurdles. But one day, while attending a track-and-field camp, she saw another female athlete practicing with the hammer. That was more appealing than her shin-banging first choice. Before long, she'd broken the state record and won the scholarship.

"Speed has been in my blood since I was little, and anything I can do to go fast, I'm going to do it," she says. "If it's a boat, or if it's a car, or spinning in circles very hard with a hammer, I'm going to want to do it."

The hammer is one of the more obscure sports, due in large part to the logistics, Henry says. The athletes typically compete on the infield of the track, which means other sports can't run concurrently. Track meets run longer, causing challenges for television broadcasts, and so the sport is often excluded.

"Hammer's not a very popular event in the U.S., where it's pretty popular in the European countries," she says. "The hammer kind of got the shaft."

This year, however, Nike has decided to showcase the sport during the trials at its headquarters campus in Beaverton, Ore. Henry's also trying to raising awareness and has a whole media team documenting her Olympic dream at But first she has to qualify.

She needs to throw at least 235 feet to qualify on June 21 at the trials in Oregon. To represent the U.S. in London, she needs to place in the top three, which she didn't do in 2008. Currently, she can throw 232 feet.

"I have the total potential of hitting the Olympic ‘A' standard," she says. "I just gotta let my body do it."

Email or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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