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Hammer thrower sets Calvin record
By Lynn Rosendale

Ryan JensenThe hammer throw has a long history as a sport, dating back to the Middle Ages, when it was contested using a blacksmith’s sledgehammer. It became an Olympic sport in 1900 (using a modified implement), and the event was even a part of the MIAA’s first track and field competition in 1888. In fact, John Hooper of Michigan State was the MIAA’s first hammer throw champion with a throw of 68-10½.

In 1913, however, the javelin replaced the hammer throw in MIAA competition. Ninety-five years later, behind the efforts of Calvin senior Ryan Jensen and others, the event is making a comeback in the MIAA. And while only contested in exhibition, the event, which features an implement comprised of a 16-pound ball attached to a wire and a handle, still names an unofficial champion.

Calvin’s Ryan Jensen was named champion last year, a title that would have surprised the senior thrower a few years ago. “If four years ago you would have told me this is where I would be at, I never would have guessed it,” he said.

Jensen transferred to Calvin three years ago from Ferris State University after earning an associate’s degree in automotive service. “I threw the hammer there because they needed someone to throw it. I was really no good at it. At the Bulldog Invitational there, I came in last. I barely threw it 100 feet.” This year Jensen placed third at the same event.

Jensen’s throws now top the charts at Calvin at a record 178 feet. He earned All-American honors in the event with an eighth-place finish at the NCAA Division III finals. He finished second in the MIAA this year; he also won the MIAA in the discus, was third in the shot put and was named the MVP field performer at the MIAA conference meet.

He attributes his success to Calvin throwing coach Norm Zylstra. “Norm never really coached anyone in the hammer before, but he’s become a student of the sport. He talks to people and other coaches about technique. We’ve learned a lot about it together.”

Zylstra said that Jensen has become a part of the larger throwing community. “We have previous throwers and other coaches helping out,” he said. “Ryan has built relationships, valued the training, trusted me and the program as a whole. He’s allowed himself to become a part of the culture here, and if you do that you will excel. It’s fun to try to do well, and we try to all do well together.”

But it’s not just Jensen’s evolvement in hammer throwing that has surprised himself and others. “After I attended Ferris, I decided I really didn’t want to go into automotive service,” said Jensen, who graduated with a degree in history. He hopes to attend graduate school and pursue historical research.

“In high school I barely got anything done,” he said. “My mom used to just hope that I would graduate from high school. When I told her I wanted to transfer to Calvin, she said, ‘Whoa, that’s a really good school.’ I knew that it would be a big challenge, but that excited me, too.”

Jensen also was interested in developing in his faith and understanding of God. “That intrigued me and brought me to Calvin,” he said. “I might not have said that then, but I know that it’s true now.”

Despite graduating from Calvin this spring, Jensen does not plan to leave his hammer-throwing days behind. In fact, he feels like he’s just starting to catch on to the technique. He plans to continue training under the tutelage of Anatoly Bondarchuk, a world-renowned throwing coach, in British Columbia, with the goal of qualifying for the Olympic trials.

“I just want to see how far I can take it,” he said. “I’ve grown to love it so much; I would love to take it to the fullest potential, whatever that is.”

As for future hammer throwers at Calvin: “I hope for it to become an event in the MIAA,” he said. “If I could leave that legacy it would be great.”