ALLENDALE, Mich. (WOOD) — Most of the select few who make it to the Olympics tell a story of dreaming and training their whole life to get there. But even though he was a great college athlete, Darien Thornton never really thought about it until this spring.
This week, he’ll have his shot to make Team USA at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon.
“It’s a blessing. I mean, to have an opportunity to compete against guys that I’ve looked up to coming out of high school and even early years in college, it’s a blessing to be on the same stage as them,” Thornton said.
The hammer throw has been an Olympic event for 116 years, first debuting at the games in Paris in 1900. The sport itself dates back to 15th century Europe. It calls for a combination of power, precision and — albeit in a mere two-meter ring — speed.
“You’ve got to be patient with the hammer,” Thornton explained. “Everything has to line up … in order to make it go.”
Thornton knows how to make it line up. He holds the all-time record at Grand Valley State University, was a nine-time All-American and won a Division II national championship.
“Grand Valley’s meant everything, probably, to me. There’s a wonderful environment. Everybody here wants to help you, whether it’s the athletics or the academic side of things,” Thornton said. “So just to be in an environment with people that just care about you just helps everybody want to succeed more.”
But he wasn’t on the Olympic radar and had never reached the Olympic standard of 72 meters until this end of his sensational senior season.
“We had a last-chance meet and I threw 70. It was the first time I broke 70 meters, and I was like, ‘Wow, maybe I do have a shot at going on to the next level,'” he said.
He threw 71 meters at his next meet, then 73 at another.
“So it’s just moving in the right direction,” he said.
To put it in perspective, 73 meters is nearly 80 yards.
Having finally surpassed the Olympic standard, Thornton continued to push for more.
“I went to a meet in Ashland, Ohio, to just get an extra six throws before competition, trials, and feel things out. And actually went down there and hit a big (personal record), moving from 11th in the U.S. to sixth in the U.S. So I got there, hit a big mark,” Thornton said. “I’m excited rolling into the trials.”
He understands that he may be considered a long shot to make the team headed to Rio in August. But he noted he has been making a lot of progress lately.
“I didn’t really think I could do anything until, I guess, this year,” he said. “I had a breakout year. I’ve thrown seven meters further than I threw last year, so…”
He said he’ll treat the trials with the same attitude he has previous competitions.
“I’m going in it to win. … I’m going to give it my all and whatever happens, I’m going to be happy with it as long as I gave it my best,” he said.
The thought of representing his country at the Olympic games in Rio is fueling the final push of an already outstanding season.
“I would be in awe. That’s all I can say. I would be astounded. I would just be shocked,” he said.
The hammer throw qualifiers are set for 8 p.m. ET Wednesday and the finals are scheduled for 10 p.m.
The Rio Olympics start Aug. 5.