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 Young Discus Specialist Has Displayed Impressive Progression

 

September 17th, 2020

In an individual sport like track & field, ultimately it is event performance that propels any athlete's ascension in the sport. To climb the ladder of success on the track or in the field one must, rung by rung, run faster, throw farther, or jump higher. But when we witness a track or field athlete compete, we see only the tip of the iceberg. That finished athletic performance is the product of commitment, direction, and work which comes not only from the athlete, but also from critical contributions by the coach and other key members of the athlete's circle of support. Valarie Allman, who set a new American record in the discus on August 1st of this year, would be the first to agree that her Coach Zebulon Sion has been an essential ingredient in her impressive progression.

 

Val1.jpegValarie Allman, photo by Oiselle

Make no mistake. Valarie Allman has always had the necessary attributes to be a successful thrower: she is bright, committed, focused, coachable, and willing to make the necessary sacrifices to explore her upside potential. And she packs all of that into a 6 foot frame tailor-made for the discus cage. But it took a little while for her to find her way there. After developing no chemistry with the high jump, the 400m, and the 200m, the high schooler found a fit with the discus and can now admit that her initial attraction to the disc was her high school's post-season Throwers Spaghetti Dinner.

Val5.jpegValarie Allman, photo by Oiselle

Before long, Allman, the high school discus thrower, embarked on a tear of virtually unbroken progression. While at Silver Creek High School in Longmont, Colorado, Valarie was a multiple-time state champion, a high school All-American, and co-valedictorian. At the Texas Relays as a senior, her winning discus throw of 55.52m / 184'2" was the national high school leader, broke the meet record by more than 34 feet, and exceeded the Texas Relays winning college mark that year.

Improvement continued at Stanford. While competing for the Cardinal, the 7-time All-American was a two-time PAC-12 discus champion, made the 2017 U.S. World Championship team, and improved her discus PR over 29 feet to 64.69m / 213' 3" . But it was while a collegian that the accomplished thrower experienced a life-shaping moment. "After the Olympic Trials in 2016, when I was working with the previous coach [Michelle Eisenreich, now the Director of Women's Track & Field at Princeton] that I had a really transforming experience. I had just missed making the USA Olympic team by 3 feet. And I remember thinking after the meet 'Gosh, it would be the best thing in the world to make that team.' Little did I know that after the meet [I would learn Coach Eisenreich] would no longer be at Stanford. It was kind of a bittersweet moment."

Val2.jpegValarie Allman, photo by Oiselle

Enter Zebulon Sion, the new assistant coach for throws at Stanford. The new mentor knew to introduce himself to the near-Olympian thrower in a sequential and respectful way. "For me, my coaching philosophy when I start to work with athletes, especially if they are having success already, is getting a feel for them, how they move, and the kind of things they can improve," explains Sion. "It was much more about wanting to get to know her; I wanted to start to work with her in the weight room, the throwing circle." Zeb was able to sense what was important to Valarie in the new athlete/coach relationship. "She [Valarie] wanted to make sure the transition was smooth and that we were going to vibe, be on the same page, that the technique wouldn't be totally overhauled. It was important for me to be progressive and those things take time to develop which creates buy-in," states the then-new Stanford coach who notes that his throws pupil also brought some good ideas of her own to the table. "It was her idea to red-shirt that first outdoor season that we worked together to make sure that things were vibing." Contributions from both the coach and the athlete quickly fueled a progressive step early on in the new relationship. "The first meet she competed in - unattached - she threw a personal best and moved up to 64.69m that year. It was pretty amazing: a 3 meter improvement the first year of working together."

Val3.jpegValarie Allman, photo by Oiselle

It didn't take long for Allman to understand Sion's coaching philosophy and see its many benefits. "Because Coach Sion and the way that he works is about building a relationship and building trust with his athletes I felt that we were finally starting to meet my potential. He just celebrates and encourages his athletes to become this exponential thing. You just get traction. It was the first time in a long time that I felt like I couldn't wait to compete the next time. There were so many things at work that were coming together. And I felt like every month I was just having huge steps of growth. And that was so energizing. And I think his best strengths are the incredible relationships he has with his athletes and the fact that he is an energizer. When he gets more excited the more you buy in. It just becomes dynamic. That's just the way he is. It's very special."

Val4.jpegValarie Allman, photo by Oiselle

Valarie finds Zeb's instructional style particularly helpful in wake of the current pandemic. "I think his approach to coaching is even more effective now given how challenging it [COVID-19] has been. He's definitely been the person that has kept me going. There were a lot of days when I wasn't sure I wanted to throw any more The dynamic of our relationship has built such a strong foundation which has helped us have the success that we've had. It has become a really, really critical part.

Zeb's enthusiasm and support along with the visible progression the duo were creating inspired Valarie to reevaluate her viability as a post-collegian, professional athlete. "Prior to working with Coach Sion I wasn't sure if I was going to try to train and compete post-collegian. I had so much doubt initially. I kind of thought I would be done when my eligibility had finished. I felt I could get a really good job leaving Stanford. But when you're a thrower you're just a starving artist. The money is tough, especially at the start," states Allman frankly. But the more she worked with Coach Sion, the more doubt ebbed and the more clarity and confidence flowed. "It really was my belief in Coach Sion. He didn't doubt me. He saw in me potential and that really was the whole reason I was willing to take on that next journey." Reflecting back on her initial apprehension and her ultimate decision to undertake a professional career, Valarie knows the decision she made was the right one. "Now I can admit it," she confesses. "It [turning pro] makes so much sense. But when you're in it [the decision making process to go pro], it's scary."

IMG_3059.JPGValarie Allman, photo by Oiselle

Coming into the 2020 Olympic year after a successful defense of Valarie's national championship crown and her commendable performance in Doha's World Championships [where she finished 7th in the discus final.], the athlete and her mentor were eager to target competition opportunities in the new year. But, or course, the Coronavirus complicated matters. "We'd pick a meet and then it would get cancelled. We'd prepare and prepare and get close and then the event would not be on the calendar. I think that happened 4-5 times. Every time that happened I became a bit less optimistic," laments Allman. "It was kind of a bit of magic for me when Ironwood popped up. We were able to make it work."

Val1.jpegValarie Allman, photo by Oiselle

In the days leading up to the Ironwood meet, there were observable hints that big throws might be coming. "I wasn't really thinking about how far I had been throwing. We had really been focusing on the technique and trying to prepare for a meet. My brain wasn't thinking like" 'Could I throw 70 meters?'" explains Valarie. "In the few sessions before the meet it did feel like things were starting to cook. There were a few times where Coach and I kind of looked at each other after a throw and be like, 'That throw is pretty far." But we didn't measure anything. We didn't put out any markers. We didn't even have the sector lines within the field."

val.jpgValarie Allman, photo by Oiselle

From his perspective, Zeb was also witnessing some encouraging signs. "I was starting to see things that suggested she was about ready to throw really far," offered the coach who knew he needed to downplay what he suspected might be coming. "We talked about the American record like one time and really quickly. We didn't want to make it a big deal. But she started do things in practice that emphasized the other facets of our training: lifting; improving her strength, and her power. When those things started to happen, I realized these are indicators of what I think she was capable of. And then as we got closer to the meet, I didn't hint to her that she was throwing incredibly far." And after a pause, Sion reveals, "But she was absolutely starting to throw lights out."

The Ironwood Throws Center Invitational in Rathdrum, Idaho was Allman's first [and ultimately only] competitive appearance of this distinctly different year. But clearly Valarie was ready. Look at her first round throw [and enjoy Zeb's post-throw exhortation] here:

Allman's American record throw - complete with her patented, dance-inspired double pirouette finish - measured 70.15m / 230' 2", bettering the prior AR [Gia Lewis-Smallwood's 2014 mark of 69.17m / 226' 11"] by nearly a full meter. Explains the new record holder: "The fact that I was going to be able to go to this meet was elating. I was so excited just about that. And then the performance made it more over the moon."

ironwood_discusresults.jpg

Oiselle's Valarie Allman sets American record at discus! photo by paulmerca.blogspot.com

Allman's record mark ranks #24 on the All-Time World Performer List. But deeper examination reveals how impressive the 2-time national champion's 1st round heave really is. Consider this: Over the last 28 years, only two athletes [Croatia's Sandra Perkovic (71.41 / 234' 3") and Cuba's Denia Cabbalero (70.65 / 231' 9")] have thrown farther. The remaining 21 athletes with heaves farther than Allman's AR twirl set their marks between 1976 and 1992 - an era during which covert use of performance enhancing drugs was widespread [even tacitly encouraged by certain nations] and testing for detection was often spotty and unrevealing. Bottom line: many discus performances from that era should be considered specious. Another eye-popping stat: Allman's record throw would have won the gold medal at every Olympiad since 1988.

va 70.15m .jpgValarie Allman with Coach Zebulon Sion, photo by news5cleveland.com

Valarie's coach sees Allman best pathway in the upcoming Olympic year to be a blend of the last two seasons. "The first season [in 2019] had all the learning; the traveling; the warm-up; the learning to compete against the best in the world," explains Sion who notes "The second season took on a more bare bones approach: to be really efficient with our time; to do things the right way; to not travel; to not compete when we really didn't have a choice; to train harder; to focus on some things; to do things differently." And Zeb wants next year to reflect a blend of these two prior seasons. "There are a lot of positive take-aways from these last 5 months. And we intend to implement them next year. The overall goal - the way we're wording it - is for Valarie to be in 70-meter shape at the Olympics. If she's in 70 meter shape, that doesn't necessarily mean she's going to throw that far. I get it. But if she is fit enough, technically in the right space, all those things, I think we've done our job and it is just a matter of executing it. That's going to be the approach."

Val4.jpegValarie Allman, discus, photo by Oiselle

While Coach Sion's approach to the postponed Olympic Games is multi-faceted, Valerie Allman has a simpler view. "My approach is to do whatever Coach Sion thinks the approach is," declares Allman with a laugh. Aligning with the time-tested philosophy: If it's not broken, don't fix it, the new American record holder offers one final understatement. "Coach's approach seems to be working pretty well so far." 

/ Dave Hunter /

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Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.

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