After four knee surgeries and one on his elbow, perhaps it wasn’t unreasonable people told Weston Cottrell to forget about throwing the hammer for Wichita State’s track and field team.
Cottrell, a junior from Nickerson, did consider quitting to focus on his criminal justice major and a future that might point toward the FBI or the CIA. When somebody else told him to quit, however, it activated a stubborn streak.
“I was probably going to say ‘All right, I’m done,’” he said. “Someone challenged me and said ‘You’re right, you can’t do this.’ I am a very competitive person and when someone tells me I can’t do something, I have to prove them wrong.”
WSU’s record book is proof of that diagnosis’ short-sightedness.
“He tore his left ACL twice and then he totally blew everything out in his right knee,” throws coach John Hetzendorf said. “They said ‘Well, this guy is probably not going to be able to throw anymore.’ When I was told that, my comment was ‘You don’t know Weston.’ Call it stubbornness or hard-headedness or determination, he has that.”
Cottrell broke WSU’s 24-year-old hammer record with a throw of 209 feet, 2 1/2 inches last month, topping John Hamilton’s 1991 mark of 205-9. The throw ranks second in the Missouri Valley Conference and No. 36 nationally. Cottrell and the Shockers are entering the season’s final stretch that starts with Saturday’s Rock Chalk Classic in Lawrence. The Shocker Open at Cessna Stadium is May 8, followed by the Missouri Valley Conference Championships on May 15 and the NCAA West Preliminaries on May 28.
WSU track thrives by taking athletes who once did something else well and molding them into runners, jumpers or throwers. Cottrell competed in the state track meet as a pole vaulter for Nickerson. He played catcher for the baseball team and earned honorable mention All-Class 4A honors as a running back. He went to Hutchinson Community College to play football because he loved the brotherhood of the locker room and the team spirit.
“About midseason, I tore my (anterior cruciate ligament) and decided I needed to do something different,” Cottrell said. “It wasn’t three months later and I re-tore it and that’s when I really decided. I went in for a checkup and they said ‘It’s not there anymore.’”
The injuries pushed him toward the track team at Hutchinson. Skylar Arneson, also from Nickerson and also now at WSU, encouraged him throw the hammer.
“When you start out, you hate it,” Cottrell said. “It doesn’t do what you want it to do. It’s one of those sports, the more you get jacked up and amped to do, the worse you end up doing. Hammer, you have to stay really calm, really relaxed.”
He considers the hammer the most technical event in the sport, even more than pole vault. That is why he spends hours in the throwing area next to Koch Arena honing his footwork and timing.
“Not everyone can pick it up and do it, like sprinting or jumping,” he said. “You have to actually train. The only way to get better is more reps, more and more reps.”
Cottrell, who carries a 3.8 grade-point average, is well-suited to grind away on the technical aspects of the sport. He reads articles and watches video of great hammer throwers to improve his form.
“He started with a limited background, but I would call it great throwing instincts,” Hetzendorf said. “He can feel his own mistakes better than most.”
Cottrell’s junior college best of 178 feet got him to the NJCAA meet. The distance didn’t wow college coaches, unless they researched his background. Most hammer throwers start late, because few states offer the event in high school. Cottrell started later than most because of his injuries and his time with football.
“When we found out his background, it was impressive what he was doing,” Hetzendorf said. “Which really kind of spurred us to recruit him, just knowing that he’s doing this with very limited experience.”
Cottrell came to WSU and injury problems continued. He tore a ligament in his right (throwing) elbow. He tore three ligaments in his right knee. He totaled two surgeries on each knee and the elbow surgery and it seemed wise to stop putting all that stress on his joints.
“That’s when I was debating if I should really keep doing this,” he said.
After he decided to stick with the hammer — elbow surgery eliminated his javelin days — Cottrell set standards for himself. If he improved by roughly four meters a year, he could stick with the hammer. He wants to pass 216 feet this season — a mark he says he hits in practice — to qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in June. By next year, he wants to reach 236 feet to make a run at the Olympic Trials.
“As soon as I don’t meet my progressions, that’s when I fall back to my grades and my degree,” he said.