J.C. Lambert dropped off his wife and pupil, hammer thrower DeAnna Price, on Sept. 28 at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha and sent her off with a message.
Go get ’em. It only takes 76 meters to medal.
Price completed their pre-competition routine like she always does. She grabbed the sides of Lambert’s head and crashed craniums.
“We do not give good-luck kisses,” Price said. “We give good-luck head-butts.
“We don’t want to be mushy. We want to stay in a competitive mindset.”
Hours later, Price was in tears and on her knees in the throwing circle, seconds after the world championships final ended.
Price didn’t just become the first U.S. female hammer thrower to ever finish in the top five of an Olympics or worlds. She won gold.
Price recently relived that night in a watchback with NBC Sports track and field commentator Leigh Diffey — from the head-butt to Sharpie reminders on the inside of her left arm to the weight off her shoulders once it was all over, knowing that five months earlier she considered retirement.
“Why it meant so much is I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to throw,” she said.
In high school, Price was a .500-plus hitter in softball, the program home-run record holder and could have swung a bat rather than a hammer in college.
She played four sports at Buchanan High in Troy, Mo., including track and field. Initially an 800m runner (her mom had the school record), a 16-year-old Price was handed a hammer for the first time, even though only the shot put and discus were contested at that level.
She wound it around her head. The handle smacked her just above the eyes.
Price stuck with it. She shifted her priority to the throws after softball was cut from the Olympic program, taking a partial scholarship to Southern Illinois, two and a half hours away.
She won two NCAA hammer titles, earned a full scholarship and made the Rio Olympics, placing eighth. Her hometown raised money to send her parents to Rio, including, reportedly, a 12-year-old boy bringing in thousands by placing a hog for sale.
Price ranked second in the world in 2018. But, the following spring, she suddenly lost about 40 feet on her throws in training. The top throwers clear 250 feet. A drop off that drastic would take Price from medal contention to failing to qualify for a major final, if she made the U.S. team at all.
She wasn’t hurting physically — at first — and struggled for answers. She wondered if she was pregnant. After a month, she began feeling lower back and hip pain. Price, who had her left kidney removed at age 5, saw four chiropractors to no avail.
She tried massages, dry needling, acupuncture. Nothing. She was stuck in a funk in Carbondale.
Cory Martin, a friend, 2013 World Championships shot put finalist and throws coach at Indiana, recommended another specialist: Brian Murer, an elite hammer thrower from the 1990s who became a chiropractor. Price drove three hours to Murer’s base in Bloomington.
“He put me back together,” including with baling wire and duct tape, Price said last fall.
A day after treatment, Price threw 75 meters, just seven feet off her personal best. She brought Murer with her to the USATF Outdoor Championships in July, where she broke her own American record. Price launched the 8.8-pound hammer 78.24 meters, nearly 257 feet. It was the world’s best throw for the year by nearly five feet.
Price went to Doha as the gold-medal favorite, consolidated by the absence of Poland’s Anita Włodarczyk, the Olympic champion and world-record holder out after left knee surgery.
Price says she has an attention span of a squirrel. So, before major competitions, she scribbles in Sharpie, as legibly as she can, throwing cues. At the bottom, she pens three words in capital letters, “WHO, WHY, PURPOSE.”
“It changes every single day, but I believe for that day, I was doing it for my husband, I was doing it for women, to have women empowerment, that you can be strong and beautiful, and the purpose was to finally bring home a medal for my country,” Price said.
Price was second on the start list and won the competition with her first throw, 76 meters. The distance that her coach and husband mentioned at the drop off. She ended up with the top two throws and three of the best four from the 12-woman field.
“I didn’t even think I was going to compete this year,” Price told NBC Sports’ Lewis Johnson after her victory lap.
Price has one regret from that night. That she didn’t defy those on the sideline who discouraged her from climbing over a barrier to embrace Lambert, a former thrower. That leaves an unanswered question: Would they have celebrated with a head-butt?
“He likes that better than showing affection,” Price joked.
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