What is your vision of how elite Olympic athletes live and train? Are they able to enjoy the financial fruits of their athletic achievements? Are they surrounded by a cadre of coaches, trainers, sponsors, and handlers who attend to their every need? If this is your image of an Olympic athlete, prepare to be disappointed.
I recently caught up with Mike Hazle, a 32 year old javelin thrower from Texas who now lives in Chula Vista, California at the Olympic Training Center. Mike, like his fellow United States teammates, has toiled for years preparing himself for a few precious chances to achieve an Olympic dream.
Over the past decade, Mike has seen his PR in the javelin increase from 193 feet 4 inches in college to an impressive 269 feet 8 inches; however Mike is just now reaching the peak of his athletic career having been an Olympian in 2008 and the USA National Champion in 2011. So for the next year, he plans to be 100% focused on achieving the best possible outcome in London at the 2012 Olympics.
Beyond his competitive athletic career, Mike will make a fairly radical change in his life – he plans to join the US Military. You might think that spending a lifetime competing in amateur athletics would have been enough of a sacrifice for Mike and that military service would be the last thing on his mind; however Mike doesn’t look at it that way. For him it is simply “a choice,” one that makes sense and provides context and value for his life.
I believe after learning more about Mike from the interview below, like me, you will respect him as an athlete and as a person who isn’t confined by typical boundaries.
During the recent CrossFit games, I observed that many of the participants took time after completing an event to cheer on fellow competitors. It appears that there is a similar supportive atmosphere among javelin throwers. Do you find this to be the case? For example, I understand you train with Andreas Thorkildsen, the reigning Olympic gold medalist.
I believe that the majority of javelin throwers and most technical event athletes tend to hang out with each other and train together. It’s easier to train with a group of people, and in some cases, train with your direct competitors. It allows you to sort of “check your oil” and see how well your training is going. Of course, a lot of how successful those training situations are depends on how the athlete handles competition, and constructive criticism. If you train with a direct competitor and find that you are way behind your competitor’s training progress, sometimes athletes panic and compensate to play catch up and that almost always never turns out good.
I wouldn’t say that we “cheer on” our competitors, because at the end of the day, if they win and you lose its money out of your pocket. I think that almost all javelin throwers wish for good results for our friends when they compete, as long as it’s not you they are competing against. Andreas and I have a good situation because I can obviously pick up technical cues from him and his coach – and he can always use someone with similar physical characteristics to push him.
Unlike some professional athletes, javelin throwers may not peak until their thirties. Can you describe the difficulties associated with pursuing a sport that takes such a long-term commitment to achieve success?
It’s extremely easy to do, if you live outside of America. The US system is set up for sprinters and distance runners who tend to peak immediately out of college or a few years after. The NCAA system is perfect for young athletes. You have all your needs taken care of and paid for: your medical, nutrition, housing, coaching, travel – it’s all there for you. If you can capitalize on that as a sprinter or a distance runner, you can be ready for the international circuit immediately after college, which almost always is accompanied by a nice endorsement contract, which virtually extends your NCAA career into your professional career without any major interruptions.
In Europe, you have the club system, which caters to athletes and coaches at extremely young ages. Athletes get stipends directly from the clubs, as well as stipends from their National Governing Bodies and any sponsors that they pick up along the way is just icing on the cake. The European system tends to pair athletes and coaches up at very young ages and the funding system sees that they are taken care of long term.
In the US, technical event athletes who don’t make it to the international scene until their late 20’s are left with a 5-8 year gap where they are trying to train, work, and pay bills all at the same time as competing against athletes who are fully funded from their country’s federations. And then we have our own National Governing Body look at us and tell us we don’t qualify for development funding because we don’t meet the criteria to be considered “development” when that’s exactly what we are. Our most talented throwers in the USA don’t stick around the sport long enough to reach their maximum potential because real life, such as bills, and medical expenses gets in the way. It’s hard to ask someone to live below poverty and pour their heart into something that yields almost no financial return and expect to compete against international athletes who are fully funded.
How have you found the support from various organizations that are chartered to advance the interests of US athletics?
Very few and far between, but the ones that have showed support have been absolute saviors for not only me, but also many other struggling athletes who share the same Olympic dream. Amory Rowe and In the Arena almost single handedly funded my career from 2007-2010. If it were not for her taking a chance on me back in 2007, I can guarantee you I would not be where I am today, and for that there are no words to explain the depth of my family’s and my gratitude. My parents have also gone through just as much as I have; they have been there for the highs and the lows and have been unwavering in their support. They have taken a huge financial hit, chipping in a few dollars for gas or helping to pay the rent while I tried to travel throughout Europe and compete against full time athletes. They even delayed their own retirement in order to help me to be where I am today.
The USATF Foundation has also been instrumental in helping me keep my head above water. Unlike USA Track and Field, the USATF Foundation actually understands what development is and targets potential athletes who not only possess the physical talent but the drive, character and determination to push through the numerous difficulties that accompany post collegiate athletics. They do a great job of identifying athletes who have the intangibles and make future Olympic Teams – these are the outliers who don’t fit into the USA Track and Field traditional “development” model.
The USOC has also been unbelievably helpful in my career as well. In 2006, I was working a full time job and trying to train and compete at the same time. I lost my job and my training facility all in one week and was faced with immediate retirement. With no source of income, I contacted USA Track and Field and requested to be accepted into the US Olympic Training Center’s athlete residency program. USA Track and Field said very clearly, no, I was not good enough and did not have the international standard to get in. I then appealed to the USOC and said that if I wasn’t accepted I was going to quit and get a job so that I could pay my bills. The USOC granted me my request on a provisional basis and that same year I finished 2nd at Nationals, won Silver at the Pan American Games and achieved the Beijing Olympic “A” Standard. But if it was up to USA Track and Field, I would have been working a 9-5 in Texas.
The USA Track and Field “development model” is almost solely based on an outdated formula compiled by outdated individuals who have outdated power to say who gets what help and when. USA Track and Field wants to give “development” funding to athletes who have achieved an international “A” standard. What they don’t understand is that when athletes reach the international “A” standard, they are considered “elite” and almost always do not need what little support USATF is prepared to offer. Once I achieved the international “A” standard in 2007, USATF was quick to reach out and offer to fly me to meets and put me in hotels to help my “development.” At that time, I had already secured an agent, an endorsement deal with Nike, and a full schedule of international meets that offered prize money and bonuses. USATF wants to help develop athletes who are already developed and well on their way to international success. “Development support” would have been back from 2002-2006 when I was sleeping on couches and floors working full time jobs and trying to train at the same time.
Can you describe what your training is like at the US Olympic Training Center?
Thanks to the USOC, I have the opportunity to train like a full time professional athlete. I have access to meals, medical, coaching and sports psychology all at no cost to me. An average training week for me is as follows:
Mondays and Thursdays:
10:00AM – 12:30PM – Dynamic movement warm-up, special strength throwing development followed by a throwing session (med-balls, iron shots and javelins)
12:45PM – Lunch and shoulder rehab
3:00 – 6:00PM Weight lifting and cool down
6:30 – 7:30PM Ice bath and rehab
Tuesdays and Fridays:
10:00AM – 12:30PM – Acceleration development, sprints and jump training
12:45PM – Lunch and back rehab
3:00 – 6:00PM Gymnastics, special strength development and cool down
6:30 – 7:30PM Ice bath and rehab
Wednesdays and Saturdays:
10:00AM – 12:30PM – Hurdle mobility, core stability and back rehab, easy jogging
2:00PM – 6:00PM – More rehab, massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic or sports psychology sessions
What about your diet?
I have a pretty basic diet, the only thing I try to limit is bread and pasta. I cut the majority of gluten out of my diet a few months ago and saw an immediate change in how I felt. I eat about 5 meals a day and sometimes 6 depending on my training volume. I eat a large amount of meat and fish – sushi and steaks have become my weakness, not the best foods to eat regularly when you are on a budget. I follow a pretty simple diet, limit the bad fats, fried foods etc., and eat clean foods and a lot of them.
I understand that you are considering military service after your athletic career is over. Can you explain how you came to this decision and how your athletic background may have prepared you for this future?
I was first introduced to the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Center on December 17, 2007. I was with a group of athletes from the Olympic Training Center that were invited to the NSW Center for a day of team building and soul searching. We went through a 14-hour day, which was essentially day 2 of the 1st phase of SEAL BUD’s training. What I learned about myself that day, and the men who represent the NSW community, remains the most influential day in my life. A close 2nd is the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games – but as the years go by, the lights and fireworks of the Olympic Stadium have faded, but what I learned in that extremely long day in Coronado will carry me much farther than an athletic accomplishment or experience ever will.
Near the end of 2009, The Olympic Training Center saw an influx of highly decorated athletes, successful competitors having won several Olympic and World Championship medals. They were highly talented, highly motivated, and successful individuals both on and off the track. I was surrounded by many other athletes who had accomplished the very things that I had longed to do. They had the Olympic and World Championship Medals, the financial freedom to do whatever they pleased, the stats and the sponsors, but yet I did not long to be like any of them. It was around this time that I knew that I would not be happy with winning an Olympic Gold Medal, or even a World Record, owning the fancy sports car or the super model girlfriend. I was longing for something deeper, I wanted more self-worth, and I wanted to serve something larger than me, larger than the next Olympics, larger than athletics.
I believe that my athletic career, the highs and the lows, has prepared me for military service. The skills that I have learned in my career, how to condition, prime, peak and recover my body can be vital components in stressful combat situations. The constant international travel forces you to become proficient at adapting to multiple environments, cultures and time zones but yet remained focused on how to maintain peak physical and mental condition. More importantly, I believe that the psychological warfare that all athletes undergo before major competitions greatly simulates that of preparing for combat – nerves, anxiety, the fear of the unknown or failure etc. The main difference is in athletics, if you screw up, you can regroup and try again at another competition. In combat, if you screw up, there are no second chances.
Best wishes to Mike in the coming year and beyond!
To learn more about how you can support elite athletes at the “development” stage of their careers, visit the USA Track and Field Foundation.