4/9/2014 12:14:00 PM Lihrman makes meteoric rise to national champion
What a difference a year has made for weight and hammer thrower Michael Lihrman. As Lihrman waited in 87˚ weather Friday to compete in the University of Florida Relays in Gainesville, he could only describe his meteoric rise in the throwing world by saying, "My mind is blown." A year ago, the walk-on athlete at the University of Wisconsin was competing unattached from the Badgers' track and field team. He is now a Badger, a UW and national record holder, a Big Ten champion and a national champion. "I expected this next year, maybe," said Lihrman, who won the NCAA national indoor championship in the weight throw last month in Albuquerque. Lihrman now goes from the indoor season to the outdoor season, from the 35-pound weight to the 16-pound hammer. He owns UW records in both events, having thrown the weight 79 feet and 7.5 inches and the hammer 226 feet and 8 inches. The 79-7.5 weight throw is a national. In the hammer throw, his new personal best and UW record, set just last Friday, of 226-8 bested his previous best mark of 220 feet and 10 inches, set last year before he was competing as part of the Badgers' team. While Lihrman is now a college champion in the weight throw-the indoor version of the hammer-it's the hammer event in which his coaches have said he is a natural with unlimited potential because of his size, quickness and technique. The coaches who saw Lihrman's potential had to be right, for Lihrman didn't pick up the hammer until he attended UW-Stout in Menomonie. And though Lihrman was a Big Rivers Conference shot put and discus champion as high school senior, he wasn't competing in track and field until his junior year. Lihrman started seeing success in his new sport immediately at UW-Stout, even though he was pretty much self-taught for a time. "As a freshman I was doing one turn with bad technique," recalls Lihrman, who now spins four times before unleashing the 16-pound hammer weight with a 4-foot cable. Despite the lack of technique, Lihrman was seeing the hammer fly a considerable distance when it left his 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame.
Lihrman credits former college hammer thrower Deren Wilder of Cameron with helping him take the next step-the transfer to UW-Madison and a Division 1 college program. Before he got to Madison, his personal coach Wilder helped Lihrman change his technique, said Lihrman. Wilder, whose daughter, Sidnie, is a national-caliber hammer thrower headed to LSU on a track and field scholarship, saw that Lihrman had focus and desire to go with his physical attributes of size and "pure speed." "I've been in this sport for 20- plus years and have never seen an athlete with this kind of potential," said Wilder last summer, shortly after Lihrman recorded a hammer throw of 220 feet and 11 inches in the Chicagoland Summer Throws Series. As a redshirt junior, Lihrman was not a member of the Badgers' indoor and outdoor squads in 2012-13 seasons, but the throw in the Chicagoland event quickly got the notice of UW coaches and accelerated Lihrman's addition to the team. When Lihrman competed in June in the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, he was wearing a Badgers singlet for the first time. The meet was not an NCAA event, but Lihrman's throw of 207-11 was officially a UW record and placed him 12th in the senior men's competition.
At the Florida Relays on Friday, Lihrman predicted that he "wasn't going to do anything crazy" in terms of hammer throwing distance. Nevertheless, while in the midst of making the transition from weight throw to hammer throw, Lihrman put up a 226-8 throw-a new personal and UW record-and placed third. "The transition is going better than last year," said Lihrman, noting that the hammer demands more balance and technique. "With the hammer you hold it so much longer, so you need more balance to build the speed." Lihrman's speed in the throwing circle is built by four turns, which the elite throwers use. The velocity of the ball at the end of the 4-foot cable can reach up to 90 mph at the point of release. Lihrman has also increased his weight lifting to build strength, hoping the increase in muscle weight transfers into more throwing distance without hampering his technique. Lihrman is academically a senior majoring in economics. He admits that being a Division 1 student-athlete, and a national champion athlete at that, is demanding of his time. "My day is pretty dedicated to athletics, up to 4 to 6 hours a day," said Lihrman, the son of Carl and Virginia Lihrman of Rice Lake. In high school, besides taking up track and field in his junior year, Lihrman also played football. His speed for a big boy was evident in both sports. Ted Romportl, Rice Lake track and field coach at the time, recalls that Lihrman wanted to compete in sprints besides discus and shot put. "He was fast, but we couldn't have him turning an ankle in the sprints," said Romportl. Lihrman did, however, sprain an ankle in his first season as a junior. He missed practice several days in a row without reporting to the coaches, said Romportl, who had a policy that two misses in a row without communication meant dismissal from the team. In what Romportl now recalls as a humorous incident, he got word to Lihrman to return. The junior admitted that he sprained an ankle while doing something he liked at the time, skateboarding. "We went over the policy with Michael. We could see his potential, and because he was new to the sport we made an exception," said Romportl. Potential, indeed. When Lihrman won an NCAA title last month, he became the first national champion for the Badgers since Chris Solinsky won the 5,000-meter run in 2007. The only other Badger to win an NCAA indoor championship in a field event was world record high jumper Pat Matzdorf in 1971. Lihrman has seven meets this spring to fine-tune his hammer technique before the Big Ten Outdoor Championships in mid-May, followed by the NCAA Championships. The Badgers are in Athens, Ga., this week for the Spec Town Invitational. The only home meet in Madison, at the McClimon Complex, is the Wisconsin Twilight Invitational on Saturday, May 10.