As Gwen Berry approaches the IAAF World Championships, the biggest event in the sport outside the Olympic Games, she is a woman on a mission. Certainly, Berry, the holder of the American record in the hammer throw, is coming to London with hopes of winning a medal. But she’s also committed to publicizing and promoting her own athletic specialty. It can be said without fear of contradiction that the hammer throw and hammer throwers are often overlooked even by track-and-field devotees.
“Even though it’s something people don’t know anything about, once you explain it to them or show them videos they become really interested,” Berry says, “and they see that’s it’s actually a phenomenal event. I’m passionate about it because I want to be one of the people who change it. I want to be one of the athletes that gets it noticed and gets it respected and gets it to be just as popular as the sprint events. I think that’s why I drive so hard to be really good and compete.”
A native of Florissant, Missouri in suburban St. Louis, Berry grew up a multi-sport athlete. In high school, she concentrated on basketball but she came out for track when the coach, Phil Wollbrinck, was looking for some good athletes to add depth to his roster.
That led to a scholarship offer from Southern Illinois. Berry was recruited to be a jumper and multi-event athlete (ex. the heptathlon). John Smith, who coached the Saluki throwers at the time, thought Berry could become a proficient hammer thrower but Berry herself wasn’t interested. Undeterred, Smith reached out to Wollbrinck for assistance and eventually, Berry decided to give it a try. As it turned out, she had a knack for it. “It was pretty easy for me to get the routine of it,” she says. “And I just got better so I stuck with it.”
Success in the hammer throw depends on a blend of strength and technique. At the international level, the implement weights 4 kilograms (8.82 pounds) and is 3 feet, 11 inches in length.
“I think it goes maybe 60-40 in favor of strength,” Berry says. “If you’re weak, you can have the best technique in the world and the ball won’t respond to it or go far. Probably, strength is more important than technique in some aspects. The strongest people in the world can throw as far as they want to because they’re strong. They can power the ball. And you can be the weakest person in the world with the best technique and the ball goes nowhere. So, I think technique plays a role, but honestly, you have to be strong to do this sport.
Berry was a thrower throughout her time at Southern Illinois, competing in the shot put and weight throw (an indoor equivalent of the hammer throw) as well as the hammer throw. In 2010, as a junior with the Salukis, she earned All-American honors in all three events. As a senior, she won the Missouri Valley Conference title in her specialty but her career picked up after college when she headed to Oxford, Mississippi to train with Smith who had moved on to the University of Mississippi.
In the winter of 2012, Berry placed third in the weight throw at the U.S. indoor championships. In April of that year, she achieved a personal best in the hammer throw of 71.95 m (236 ft.). She entered the Olympic Trials that year as the second-ranked American woman in the event but failed to make the team; she wound up being an alternate.
She won her first national title in the weight throw at the 2013 U.S. indoor championships (and successfully defended the following year) but despite recording a new personal best in the hammer throw that spring finished just ninth at the U.S. outdoor championship meet that year.
Her breakthrough in the hammer throw didn’t occur until 2014 when she took the gold medal at the Pan American Sports Festival in Mexico City with a throw of 72.04 meters (236 feet 3 ½ inches). The silver medalist was Yipsi Moreno of Cuba, an Olympic gold medalist (2008) and a three-time world champion whom Berry regarded as a source of inspiration.
In May of 2016, Berry set a new American record in the hammer throw of 76.31 meters (250 feet, 4 inches) but soon found herself swimming in a sea of controversy. At the U.S. Indoor Championships that year, Berry, who is asthmatic, had declared in writing that she was taking the drug Vilanterol via an inhaler to manage her condition. Vilanterol is considered a banned substance unless it can be shown it is needed for medical reasons.
Berry took a drug test during that meet which came back negative and her medical records clearly demonstrated she was using the drug under the direction of a physician, but nevertheless, she was handed a three-month suspension and stripped of her U.S. record. All her results between the indoor championships the time of her suspension were voided as well.
The suspension ended two days before the Olympic Trials. Berry placed second at the trials and made the U.S. team but failed to advance to the qualifying round at the Games.
Berry, who notes that other athletes in similar situations have been publicly warned rather than suspended says that in retrospect, the incident led her to rededicate herself to her sport.
“I think it kind of woke up the fire in me a little bit more,” she said, “and honestly it made me truly commit to the sport. Because when you’re good at a young age, or when you’re good in a sport that’s really not noticed or one no one pays attention to … At the end of the day, you really don’t believe that you’re going to make a change in the world or with the people around you. So when what happened to me I was like ‘Okay I’m going to truly commit to this and going it a noticeable event.’”
Berry has turned in some noteworthy performances in 2017. She set a world record in the weight throw in March, by hurling the 20-pound implement 83 feet, 11 ¾ inches. In May she set a U.S. record in the hammer throw of 76.77meters (251 feet, 10 inches).
She will take the stage in London when the hammer throw gets underway on Saturday, August 5th. The semifinals and finals are scheduled for Monday, August 7.
The 28-year old Berry counts herself among the likely medal contenders. The group includes Anita Wlodarczyk of Poland, who took gold in Rio last summer and is also a two-time world champion, along with Olympic silver medalist Zhang Wenxlu of China.
Despite having dealt with some back issues earlier this season, Berry says she’s ready for London. I’ve been having really good practices,” she says. “I‘ve been preparing mentally in practice to get through each round. I’ve really been focusing on that in practice. Mentally I’ve been trying to stay strong and stay confident. Honestly. That’s all you can do.”
“I’ve competed against these girls numerous times so it’s not going to be anything different even though (the fact that it’s the world championship) gives it a different feel. I’m just trying to stay calm about everything.”
Berry would like to come home with a medal. But she’s also like to shed a little more light on her sport along the way. “That’s really important,” she says. I feel like hammer throwing is something younger athletes really don’t get into until they go to college.
“People really don’t know what the hammer throw is but they see video of it see it on TV or they walk up to a meet and just look at the event. It’s honestly just as exciting as any other event.”
“Slinging a ball as far as a football field is pretty exciting. Not many people can do that so it should be just as important. And honestly, my goal to bring it out in the United States. It’s important in different countries in the world. But in the United States it’s overshadowed by (sprint events) we have basketball and we have football. Track and field is already not represented well. I feel it’s important for the sport it’s important for the people who have sacrificed their lives to do this.”