by Jackie Jenson
Photography by Jeremy Petrick Photography
In a sport where inches determine the winner, modern discus competitors utilize superior technique, concentrated coordination and a lot of mental fortitude to become champions. There is a certain amount of trepidation upon entering a discus throwing ring, or circle, as it is sometimes called, explains 2016 Minnesota State High School League Track and Field discus medalist, Annabelle Haarstad.
“Throwing discus is more about form than anything else,” notes the recent Elbow Lake High School graduate. “You don’t go up there and just muscle it; it’s a lot of foot work and coordination.”
An ancient sport dating back to 708 BC, a successful discus hurler calls on a whole body and mind effort when throwing. Today, a high school girl discus thrower, for example, will utilize the entire 2.5 meter circle – the standard high school throwing ring diameter – to send their discs sailing more than 100 feet competitively. In this regard, discus is both fun and a bit unnerving, notes Haarstad.
Says the hurler, “The pressure can be pretty nerve wracking sometimes; it makes it more a mental toughness game. I’ll never forget a meet in ninth grade when that pressure got to me. It was a meet I was set to win, but for some reason, I freaked out about it and ended up scratching all of my throws and not even placing.”
Learning from the aforementioned scenario, Haarstad quelled her nerves and discovered how to succeed with respect to the discus. Perfecting practice and gaining confidence in the age-old sport, soon her anxious nemesis became her strength.
“Now, it’s kind of a release for me too. If I’m having a bad day, I can just go out and throw and it clears my mind,” says the state medalist who throws for the West Central Area Knights.
Haarstad made her move to the field events and most notably the discus, in middle school where the hurling sport captured her imagination early on.
“In 7th grade, I had to choose between track and softball; since I didn’t really like softball that much, I decided to give throwing a shot and ended up loving it,” says the Elbow Lake native. “I started doing pretty good in 8th grade and decided that it was something I really wanted to work and improve on, so I could be to the point where I am today.”
Thanks to her hard work through the years, Haarstad found herself competing in her second state competition this year, placing third overall in Class A discus.
“This year, it [the state championship] was more fun than anything else, since it was my second trip to state, I knew what to expect and how things work, so I wasn’t nearly as nervous as my first year,” notes Haarstad. “With field events, we get a lot of down time with our competitors and it’s really fun getting to know them.”
During the 2015-16 track and field seasons, Haarstad competed in discus and shot put. She also made time for a bit of fun, participating in a special running relay just for field event participants.
Haarstad explains, “This year I competed in just discus, shot put, and the occasional banana relay, a 4×100 relay with field event athletes. Instead of a baton, you hand off a banana and once they reach the finish line, the anchor eats the banana. The first to finish wins.”
The first in her family to see sporting success at the state level, Haarstad is confident she won’t be the last of the Haarstad clan to do so.
“My nine-year old, little brother, Ben, has informed me that he’s going to throw [discus] in high school, and that I have to coach him because I’m the best thrower he knows. He wants to go to state just like I did,” Haarstad says.
Correctly and safely throwing an official one kilogram high school discus involves spinning the body one and a half revolutions after which the thrower launches a rubber, plate-shaped object from their hand into the air. The person who tosses it the furthest wins. Requiring core strength as well as agility, successful throwers utilize both upper and lower body strength. It is a total body effort notes Haarstad. The MSHSL record for girl’s discus is 175-feet, 9-inches set by Maggie Ewen of St. Francis in 2013.
Although throwing is a true “total body” endeavor, many throwers develop shoulder issues such as rotator cuff and glenoid labrum strains. Haarstad has been fortunate to avoid those more serious injuries, but she has battled with tendinosis – a long term inflammation of the tendons in her shoulder – and has had to concentrate on, “settling down” her overused muscles and strengthening the surrounding ones.
“I have had shoulder issues for a few years; it can make throwing, especially shot put, pretty difficult sometimes. I started going to physical therapy at the beginning of this season, and it has helped tremendously,” remarks the hurler.
Hard work and pushing through adversity, though, is the path to success she says. During a typical track season, for example, practices are Monday through Friday with generally one meet each week. In this scenario, rain affords a little extra practice time.
“When we have wet springs, a lot of meets get cancelled, and we can practice for weeks without a meet,” she notes.
During the off season, Haarstad says she typically just lifts and gives her shoulder a much-needed break. But there is really no off season for the modern-day, high school athlete. With school, activities and a job, down time is a rarity.
“It does get hard sometimes, especially since I worked during the school year too. I feel like I always had something to do and at times that got a little overwhelming,” says Haarstad. “You have to learn to prioritize and use your time wisely.”
Like many of the state-bound athletes in the MSHSL system, Haarstad enjoys and competes in other sports as well. Although throwing is her mainstay, additional activities include basketball through her senior year and even volleyball for a time. “Each sport offers a different kind of challenge to excel,” notes Haarstad. “Basketball, team cohesiveness and throwing, mental toughness.”
“In basketball, you can shoot and miss and have a teammate there to rebound; you have four other people on the court to help you out. With throwing, it’s all on you,” describes Haarstad.
Striving for success in every sport she competes, Haarstad adds, “We had a really fun [basketball] season with a lot of improvement,” adding getting back to state was her goal for discus this track season.
Next year, Haarstad will be attending Graceland University, a small liberal arts college in southern Iowa. With plans to compete in track and major in psychology, the soon-to-be college freshmen will be adding even more to her list of accomplishments on the track field, and in the classroom.
Much like her love for the differences that basketball and discus afford her, Haarstad is also fond of math and English and looks forward to continuing her education as well.
“I like math because there is always an answer, even if you don’t get it the first time, which is usually the case for me,” explains Haarstad. “I like English because I really enjoy reading and writing,” she continues.
Whether it is school or sports, Haarstad remarks that a good attitude goes a long way, something she credits her coaches for instilling in her.
“My coaches have taught me so many great lessons and I appreciate them all. Hard work, perseverance, a good attitude, positivity, and a smile will get you places,” she says.
Eyeing the future and wrapping up her senior year, Haarstad looks back fondly on all the lessons learned through the sports she has participated in and the many athletes she has met through the years because of them.
“I’m going to miss the camaraderie I had with my fellow competitors. I’ve made so many friends throughout the years in sports and I’m going to miss competing with them a lot. We pushed each other to be better athletes and had a lot of fun,” she says.
“My goals were to throw at least 125’ and place at state, both of which I completed,” concludes Haarstad, adding that she also wanted to make the podium and have fun doing it – something she also achieved at the 2016 state track meet – creating the perfect bookend to her high school athletic career.