It was a night of firsts, that Friday at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, MA, March 13, 2009.
It was the first night of the first year of what would become a 2-year engagement for the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation’s indoor championships in Boston – then being the Nike Indoor Nationals. It was the first NSAF and weight-throw competition of the season for Conor McCullough, a California senior already a prep hammer-throwing, record-setting legend … and the first national meet and big stage performance for a slender freshman from Lithuania by way of Illinois: Lukas Verzbicas.
One athlete was already a “household name” among serious track and field fans; the other would soon become the same. NSAF officials were eager to how this first meet at the “Reg” would play out. Little did they know that there would be not just one, but two performances that night that could be called “Beamonesque.”
McCullough, training under his Olympian father while attending Chaminade Prep near L.A., had been a dominant force in the hammer for years already. He had set several national records of various sorts with the various-weight hammer implements (Youth, Junior and HS) and even won silver at the 2008 World Junior Championships before his senior year. But he had thrown the weight in competition just once prior to that Friday.
He had done only a few weeks of specific preparation for throwing the weight, McCollough said at the time, “just to get in the rhythm. The hammer training I do prepares me pretty well.”
With top-notch competition like New York’s Alec Faldermeyer hoping to push him, McCullough reached 86-7 on his first try – enough to decisively win the event and within 15 inches of his own national record. Minutes later, he stepped in again and this time the ball and chain landed at 87-11.5, clipping the previous standard by three-quarters of an inch.
“The atmosphere at the meet was great,” McCullough says now. “It was almost like everyone knew each other, almost like a training session. My strategy (during the series) was just to feel it out, to process through each throw.”
After a few more marks in the mid-80s, McCullough came up for the last time. Making a few adjustments with his “East Coast proxy coach” in the house, Harold Connolly, the Californian finally launched the weight straight through the center of the sector. The fans roared and eagerly awaited the measurement – surely beyond 90 feet, but how far beyond?
“92 feet, 8 inches!” NSAF announcer Ian Brooks exclaimed, calling it “Beamonesque” in comparison with the legendary 1968 effort of the famed 29-foot long jumper. Brooks laughs now at the memory. “It WAS Beamonesque. It nearly hit the rafters, didn’t it? It was one of those moments, one of those nights you never forget.”
McCullough will never forget it either. “It was surreal,” he says. “I just put it all together on that one and left it all out there.”
Brooks even claims he has never used “Beamonesque” while announcing – since that throw.
Meanwhile, the boys’ 5000 meters had just begun and, in the hubbub surrounding McCullough’s record, few were noticing a yellow- and green-clad freshman rocketing away from the field with a 31-second first lap and several more that were nearly as fast. It would have been a suicidal pace for almost any prep runner other than Lukas Verzbicas.
As he passed the 1,600 in 4:29 and 3,200 in 9:05, the fans, announcers and media realized that the kid was serious and yet another national record was immediately in play. Solomon Haile had actually broken the event’s all-time standard just hours earlier in New York, lowering Brad Hudson’s 14:29.28 from ’84 down to 14:22.88. Could Verzbicas break it again?
He could. After a series of 34-35-second circuits, the 16-year-old closed in 32 and crossed the line in 14:18.42 – winning by more than 40 seconds and leaving no doubt. After the finish, momentum continued to carry him around the oval, turning into a spontaneous victory lap complete with high-fives with excited fans.
Like McCullough, Verzbicas loved the facility and the atmosphere the NSAF provided, as well as the fast Mondo track. “It was really a breakthrough for me,” he says now. “It’s definitely a good memory.”
Setting the stage, he adds, “I had gotten injured during cross-country and didn’t get to run Foot Locker or anything, which made me angry … I had a lot to prove that winter. I put my head down and started really training hard.”
The outdoor winter training conditions in Illinois made it difficult for Verzbicas to gauge his progress, frustrating him, even with a stellar January double at the Arkansas indoor meet – freshman national records of 8:29.16 in the 3k and 4:15.43 in the mile – providing a measuring stick as well as establishing him on the national radar. But during a milder stretch that finally cleared some nearby trails, Verzbicas had a sizzling interval workout mixing 400s, 1000s and a closing 800 that let him know he was really ready for Boston.
“That workout surprised me,” he says. “Then when we got to the meet, my father was saying the 5k record was relatively soft and there was no reason I shouldn’t go for it.” Learning about Haile’s performance that day only served as additional motivation and intensified the focus.
Verzbicas’ 14:18.42, a record which he broke two years later, may not qualify as “Beamonesque” simply as a mark. Doing it as a 16-year-old freshman in your event debut, however, does.
Catching up with them now
The competitive paths for McCullough and Verzbicas have taken many twists and turns in eight years since the 2009 NIN – both with some spectacular successes and hope remaining for the future.
McCullough would reset his weight mark just two days later in New York and finish his senior year outdoors in the hammer with more titles and impressive throws. He headed to Princeton and after his freshman year made a second U.S. team and captured hammer gold at the 2010 World Juniors in Canada. Injuries then hampered his progress off and on for a few years, but he eventually transferred to USC and had a stellar senior year in 2015, winning NCAAs with a mighty PR of 252-4.
Then in the Olympic year of 2016, McCullough came to the NSAF’s Iron Wood Throws, winning there, and then took 3rd in the Trials to make the Rio team. While he didn’t make the final there, then had an off-season this past summer, he remains motivated for the future. With his Economics degree and day job with an engineering contractor in L.A., McCullough is continuing to train hard for future U.S. teams for the 2020 Olympics and the World Champs in ’19 and ’21 that bracket them.
Meanwhile, Verzbicas of course was just beginning his prep career during the 2009 NIN and 2-1/2 more years of spectacular successes were ahead. Those included a historic 5k/2-mile/Mile triple at the 2011 NBNI, a sub-4:00 mile and the national 2-mile record outdoors, and history’s only NXN-Foot Locker cross-country double in 2010.
Verzbicas’ career since he graduated Carl Sandburg HS, however, has been more challenging. He went to Oregon in the fall of 2011, but soon left school to return to his other great passion – the Triathlon – where he had also had tremendous national and international success. He turned pro and was continuing to produce outstanding results until a devastating July, 2012 cycling accident in Colorado changed everything.
Verzbicas’ recovery from the accident, which he documented online, was stunning and he was able to return to competition in spring of 2013. But training at the highest level and achieving top performances has proved daunting. After nearly three years of pushing himself with very mixed results, he’s now taking an extended break.
“After dealing with a lot of overuse injuries and talking with doctors,” he says, “I decided to let my body fully heal.” For an athlete who has lived a life of relentlessly pushing himself and believing no success is ever quite enough, Verzbicas is developing a deeper, more balanced perspective. “I really appreciate a lot of things I didn’t before … especially my family and close friends, people who really care.”
At just 26 and 24, respectively, McCullough and Verzbicas have lots of memory-making years ahead of them. But NSAF fans will also never forget those they made that night in 2009.
Photos: All photos by Vic Sailer, Photorun.net. Notes: Above left, McCullough joins his hammer-throwing Olympic teammates at the '16 Trials. Above right, Verzbicas releases the finish tape for recent Foot Locker champ Dylan Jacobs -- who joined Verzbicas as FL champs from Carl Sandburg HS.