Inside the circle, she is focused solely on the distance. Liz Podominick has devoted years to studying the whirling dance of the discus thrower, seeking the synchronicity of power, rhythm and balance that will launch her ideal flight.
With every toss, the Lakeville native and former Gopher can measure her mettle in feet and inches.
It’s not as easy to calculate the lengths to which she has gone to pursue her peak.
Podominick, 28, has given up a second sport, left a dream job, drained her savings account and moved to two far-flung cities. The farther she has pushed herself, the farther she has thrown, culminating in her greatest distance yet: the 5,352 miles from her training base in Portland, Ore., to Moscow, where she will compete this week in her first world championships.
Podominick finished third in the USA Track and Field national championships in June with a throw of 199 feet, one inch. That earned her a spot on the U.S. team for the world meet, where she will join fellow Americans Gia Lewis-Smallwood and Whitney Ashley in Saturday’s preliminaries of the women’s discus. The top 12 qualifiers from the field of 27 will advance to Sunday’s finals.
After finishing a disappointing fifth in the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer, Podominick moved from Colorado Springs to Portland to train full-time with discus guru Mac Wilkins. Despite hip and shoulder injuries that hampered her training earlier this year, she has added 7½ feet to her distance this season, throwing a personal-best 207-9 in June and delivering the breakthrough performance she has sought for so long.
“While I absolutely loved training and living in Colorado, I knew I needed to work with Mac [for the next four years] to make the 2016 Olympic team,” said Podominick by e-mail from Austria, where she was training for Moscow. “It has been extremely hard financially, and I live day by day, month by month, trusting that God will provide.
“It’s been my goal all season to make the world team and start the new quad off with some international experience. It’s definitely gratifying that I accomplished that goal.”
The next step
The world championships marks Podominick’s debut in international competition and will be her first meet in Europe. Wilkins said that no matter how she does, he is “very optimistic” about her future.
“Competing in Moscow is a big step for Liz,” said Wilkins, a four-time Olympian who won the gold medal in the discus at the 1976 Montreal Summer Games. “She has made progress that hasn’t been expressed in her distance; often, it takes 18 months or more to make these changes and have the result show in the distance thrown. If we can keep her healthy for the entire year, everything will be better next year.”
Though Podominick established herself as a throwing prodigy during her teen years, most Minnesotans knew her for her basketball skills. A high school All-America, she led Lakeville to Class 4A championships in 2001 and 2002 and was named Minnesota’s Miss Basketball in 2003. She went on to play three seasons for the Gophers as a 6-2 center on teams that went to the NCAA Final Four and Sweet Sixteen.
Her heart, however, lay with track. Podominick won four high school titles in the shot put and two in the discus, setting state records in each; she continued to progress with the Gophers, earning three Big Ten championships in the shot and one in discus. Though she was considered stronger in the shot during her prep years, she said, she realized that her body type and skill set made her better suited for the discus as her career matured.
Chasing a dream
Podominick quit the basketball team after her junior year to concentrate on track, she said, although her departure came under controversial circumstances. Four other key players also left coach Pam Borton’s team in a span of 13 days, sparking an internal university investigation. The players did not publicly comment. The investigation concluded the players and an assistant coach quit because of poor communication within the program, but found no NCAA rules violations.
After completing her track eligibility in 2008 — and just missing the cut to compete at the Olympic trials — Podominick felt she had more to achieve as a thrower. In 2010, she moved to Colorado and took a job with the U.S. Figure Skating Association; while she ran high-performance camps and managed international logistics for U.S. team events, she carved out time to train with Air Force coach Scott Irving.
After meeting Wilkins in 2011, Podominick began flying to his home base in Portland for week-long instructional sessions every couple of months. She saw substantial improvements after each, as Wilkins helped her refine her rhythm and feel for the disc. That fueled her belief that she could make the 2012 Olympic team, but her fifth-place finish stung deeply.
“It was hard to swallow,” Podominick said. “I had to take a little time off to regroup and come up with my next step. I knew I wanted to train full-time. While I loved the experience of working with elite athletes, I wanted to pursue my own Olympic dream.”
Podominick moved to Portland last September and began training five to six hours per day, six days a week. A part-time job at a supplement shop pays the rent most months, she said, but she has tapped out her savings and relies on financial help from her parents and occasional donations from others.
Her commitment yielded the kind of results she had been chasing for years. Training with others in Wilkins’ throwing group, Podominick said she has thrown more than she ever has in a season, and she has built the task-specific strength she lacked.
“She’s become more consistent with getting on balance, and she’s able to create more power as a result,” Wilkins said. “Her delivery is still inefficient, but that only means upside for the future.”
After the world championships, Podominick anticipates moving yet again. Wilkins has been appointed as throws coach for USA Track and Field, and he and his training group will be headquartered at the U.S. Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif.
Her world championships goal is to make the finals. From there, she hopes to get a sponsorship that will allow her to keep training full-time toward the 2016 Olympics. That might seem like a long ways away, but Podominick is eager to see how much distance she can add to her throws — and how far that might carry her.
“It’s exhausting, but I love what I do,” she said. “I am truly blessed.”