Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
June 26, 1998

Building champions

by Steve Jones

Dan O'Mara took one look at a Cyclone athlete practicing the hammer throw and immediately saw a flaw in her technique.

"Get your foot down," he shouted. "Don't drag it." Then he noticed something else. "Get your arms out long. Long, long, long."

Details and mechanics mean a lot to O'Mara, an Iowa State assistant track coach in charge of the women's and men's throwers -- competitors in the shot put, discus, hammer throw, javelin and indoor weight throw.

As a 6-foot, 215-pound thrower at Kansas State in the late 1980s, O'Mara gave up four inches and 40 pounds to many competitors. Yet, by perfecting his technique, attacking the weight room and dedicating himself to his sport, he won Big Eight Conference titles in both the shot put and discus.

It's an understatement to say that O'Mara is merely a competitor. Words like "passion" or "obsession" can creep into a conversation about the 31-year-old.

O'Mara came to the successful Iowa State track program in late 1991. He worked with the throwers, allowing other coaches to concentrate their efforts with other specialties. Since 1992, the ISU men have won five outdoor and indoor Big Eight team championships.

The arrangement also helped ISU's throwers, winners of eight Big Eight and Big 12 individual championships since 1992.

O'Mara is a good motivator who gives athletes lots of personal attention. Not every ISU thrower was a high school star.

"He works really well with both elite and developmental throwers," said head men's track coach Steve Lynn. "He never gives up on the kids. Never. If they want to throw, he'll work with them."

Lynn remembers O'Mara as a great athlete at Kansas State and one of the fiercest competitors he'd seen.

"Sometimes, these people make the worst coaches because they expect the same passion out of their athletes," Lynn said. "But Dan instills that passion in his athletes. He brings it out in them. He puts his heart and soul into throwing, and the kids appreciate it. They draw off it."

Heather Nelson was the first of several outstanding ISU throwers to work with O'Mara. She captured the 1992 Big Eight outdoor shot put title and competed in several NCAA meets. Nelson trained alongside Tim Wilson, who became a conference champ in the discus and indoor shot put.

Then along came Josh Hagedorn, a two-time outdoor Big Eight shot put champion who finished second in the nation last year at the NCAA meet. Right behind him in third place was teammate Jamie Beyer. Both were named all-Americans.

This year Beyer, who was slowed by a hand injury, trained with two other standouts, Kris Curnyn and Lisa Griebel. Curnyn gained all-American honors last year in the weight throw and captured the Big 12 Conference discus championship. In the 1998 Big 12 indoor meet, Curnyn was runner-up in both the weight throw and the shot put. Griebel, just a freshman, was the shot put champion.

Cyclone women's track coach Dick Lee said O'Mara's teaching ability helped turn Curnyn into an all-American.

"The foot work and other techniques in the discus are different from the hammer throw and weight throw," Lee said. "Dan had to begin at step one because it was a brand new event for Kris. He does a great job teaching and motivating."

O'Mara himself was a standout high school athlete in Topeka, Kan. He was an all-state football player and a state champion in the shot put, discus and 100-meter dash. Choosing track over football, he enrolled at Kansas State.

A year after arriving in Manhattan, his throws coach left, forcing him to perfect his techniques on his own. He watched "thousands of hours" of videotape and dedicated himself to becoming the best.

"I'd watch a tape of a really good thrower and look at specific things," O'Mara recalled. "I'd ask, 'Where is he putting his foot? When is he lifting the other foot?' Then I'd look at my tape and compare."

He's shorter than many top throwers, so O'Mara developed his own techniques, concentrating on speed and strength.

The work paid off. O'Mara earned all-American honors for the Wildcats in the discus and was the Big Eight champion in the shot put and discus his senior season. He barely missed qualifying for the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials.

O'Mara no longer throws competitively, but he's transferred his enthusiasm for winning to a new sport -- golf. He didn't play a lot of golf before coming to Ames, but now he tackles the sport with the same intensity as throwing.

"I'm afraid we created a monster," said Lynn, who helped O'Mara become interested in the sport. "When he came here, he had one interest -- throwing. Now he has two -- throwing and golf."

O'Mara practices his golf game religiously. He watches tapes of champion golfers to compare and analyze his swing. The same passion and attention to detail that made O'Mara a self- taught track champion have turned around his golf game. He dropped his handicap from a 15 five years ago to a 5 today. He's even qualified for the tough Iowa Masters tournament.

"I want to be the best in whatever I do," O'Mara said. "You can't be perfect in golf. But you can practice for perfection."

Golf hasn't diminished his track goals, however. O'Mara's sights still are set on beating Kansas State (his alma mater) and Nebraska (ISU's arch rival). He also would like an Olympic competitor to emerge from his camp.

But first things first. O'Mara wants a national champion thrower. He almost had one last spring in Hagedorn, the leader until the second-to-last round.

"We want to get to the show -- the NCAAs," he said. "That's our reward. That's what we aim for."

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