Hammer throw isn’t a sport that gets a tremendous amount of attention in the sports world. Indeed, it is an anomaly in sport, in that the champions usually begin to make their mark in the late 20s and in their 30s. Rudy Winkler, who is just 23, has already made a big name for himself, breaking several records as well as competing in the Olympics. A graduate transfer to Rutgers from Cornell, Winkler is preparing to defend his NCAA title at the Track and Field Championships later this week in Eugene, Oregon. On the Banks caught up with Rudy before he headed west.
Rudy, In the Pan American Games you won the Silver medal, you were a member of the Olympic team in 2016, you won the NCAA Championship in 2017, the Big Ten Championship just last month, which is quite a list of accomplishments. How do you get ready for these big events?
“Well, it doesn’t change as time goes on. I mean, I prep for it the same way I have since my high school years. I just trust my training, my coaches, and just am confident in what I am doing, knowing it’s going to work. Usually it works out pretty well for me, at least so far!”
Has your attitude about it changed with the success you’ve had?
“Yeah, it’s always…I mean after the Olympic year, I came back with this feeling of more pressure, because all of the sudden there are these expectations. Things were said like, ‘well, he had a great season last year, now is he going to get close to the NCAA record’ and things like that. You hear all these things. There was just more pressure from that than there was in previous seasons. I began re-evaluating and re-teaching myself how to go into meets, to stay confident and not be too nervous.”
Was this self-imposed pressure, or was it from the outside?
“Yeah, it was self-imposed. It was just me saying in my head, ‘well, I’ve done this, now I should be able to do even more’ kind of thing. So it was coping with that, plus I had an injury last year, and coping with that was tough. I feel great now, and I’ve had some of my best practices so far, and feel good.”
Well, you’ve set the Big Ten record of 242’ 3” in the Championship meet. That’s pretty good!
“Thank you! That was a big deal. The kid who had it before is a friend of mine, so I haven’t really brought it up to him yet, but I will the next time I see him.”
In high school, you competed in an event your school didn’t even offer. How did you decide to get involved with hammer throw?
“Through my coaches at Averill Park HS (NY), I threw the weight throw in 7th and 8th grade, which is very similar, really the same technique. It was good, but I really wasn’t that great at it. But that summer as I was entering high school, I tried the hammer throw. My freshman year, I went to Indoor Nationals for the weight throw, I guess it was 2010 (where Rudy was the youngest competitor to be ranked) and I met (former Irish Olympian and coach) Paddy McGrath. He coached the kid who won the high school championship that year, and he knew I was from the (upstate NY) area and I wanted to throw hammer. He offered to coach me. He coached me all throughout high school, and is still sort of my coach. And the rest is history. Paddy was a 2000 Olympian, and he is very knowledgeable and a really great resource. I really took off after that.”
Back in 2016 when you were on the Olympic team, a large group of your hometown (Averill Park, NY) neighbors held a “watch party” to see you compete for the USA. Due to the time zone differences, it was a 7:00 AM breakfast party where a local restaurant was packed by excited friends and neighbors to watch you compete. Were you aware, and if so, what difference did that make?
“For sure! Bridget Ball Shaw was the local person who was in communication with me about it and to see if my family wanted to have that, and get media coverage. She wanted to do it. I didn’t really want to deal with media and things like that. I was in Rio and I let her take the reins and organize it. She sent me pictures of it. It was awesome seeing the whole town get involved like that. A lot of people I didn’t even know came together to see me compete at the Olympics, it was something I wouldn’t have expected. It was amazing.”
You did a great job at Cornell, won the NCAA Championship, and you still had a year of eligibility left, so you decided to transfer as a graduate to Rutgers for your final year of eligibility. What made you decide to come to Rutgers?
“A few things. I wanted to stay in the area of the Northeast, I wanted to keep contact with Coach McGrath as well. Rutgers was not only the best school in the area for sports, but it was also the best school for what I wanted to do in my masters program. So it just made perfect sense to choose Rutgers.”
Have you enjoyed your time at Rutgers?
“Oh yeah! I mean, I still have another year left to finish my degree, and I’ve enjoyed it so far quite a bit. I’m in a somewhat newer program here, called the Masters of Business and Science. It is a lot of the core courses of a traditional MBA, with science courses included in them. I am concentrating in cyber security. I think it is really neat stuff, and is one of those fields that is getting bigger and bigger.”
Being a Division I athlete does not provide you with much free time. What do you do with your free time?
“I haven’t really had a lot of free time. I graduated from Cornell in December, and I’ve only been here about five months. Most of my time is just getting adjusted, figuring out my training, and coursework. I am spending some of my time with friends, and prepping for the NCAA’s.”
You’ve set the Big Ten mark of 73.85m (242’3”) last month, and in doing so you broke your own record which you set here at Rutgers. So, what do you do to get ready for the NCAA Championship Meet?
“Now, compared to the rest of the season it is a lot of rest, just fine-tuning things. There are no major changes I need to make right now, just getting the right feeling, and making small adjustments to make sure I am ready to go.”
Do you get nervous as you prepare for these important events?
“No, I’ve gotten better with it over time. The more big meets I go to, and the more people I see compete, it gets easier and easier as time goes on. There’s always a little bit of nervousness, but that helps me with the adrenaline.”
Is there a particular mindset you get in as you prepare to throw?
“Just relax. I think that is something that a lot of people don’t see or don’t really understand. The more relaxed you are when you throw, generally the better you will be with the throw.”
How does it feel realizing you’re preparing for your final collegiate competition?
“It’s kind of strange, because it feels like I’ve been doing it forever now. I mean, I’m only a year older than other seniors competing, but I feel old compared to others, just because I’ve been around so long. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to go to the NCAA’s every year since my freshman year (in 2014).”
So what’s next for you after the collegiate season ends?
“I still have another year here at Rutgers to finish the masters program, so I’m going to be here, and training, and possibly working part-time somewhere. I’m organizing that now. There are the World Championships next year, I’ll be training for that, and the year after that obviously is 2020 and the Olympics. That’s my ultimate goal, to make another Olympics. After that we’ll see what happens. That’s the short-term mindset right now.”
Anything to say about your time this year as a Scarlet Knight?
“It is actually really amazing seeing the support the Scarlet Knights get from the alumni, and how passionate everyone is about sports. It’s not only about sports, but activities going on. The size of the Rutgers alumni network makes it even more magnified. The school as a whole, the students, coaches and everything is just so accommodating in every way, particularly with the background I’ve come from. It is an amazing thing.”
Rudy, we are all rooting for you to bring home another NCAA Championship this week, and are ready to follow your exploits as you continue to post-collegiate career, as well as look forward to seeing you again in Olympic competition in Tokyo in 2020!