In the 1990’s the epicenter of throwing in the United States was located on the idyllic campus of UCLA. There, a group of world class athletes led by a world class ass-beater of a coach named Art Venegas laid waste to the NCAA.
Among the throwers competing for UCLA at the time were NCAA champions John Godina, Dawn Dumble, Valeyta Althouse, and Seilala Sua. They were joined by NCAA medalists Nada Kawar, Suzy Powell, Rachelle Noble, Mark Parlin, Jonathan Ogden, Greg Johnson, Dave Dumble, and Luke Sullivan.
I’ll never forget the time I got to see many of those throwers compete at an indoor meet hosted by Notre Dame in February of 1997. Godina had won the silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics the previous summer, so it was really fun to see him throw in person. He and Parlin had graduated, but they continued to train in Venegas’s group. All the UCLA throwers had fantastic rotational technique (except one, Kawar I think, who glided at that meet) and it was worth the three-hour drive just to watch Venegas coach. He was so fired up, he started yelling during Godina’s warm-up power position throws.
After the competition, Art took his throwers into the Notre Dame weight room for a lift. One of my former athletes who had made the Notre Dame squad as a hammer thrower got me in so I could watch them train. None of the UCLA kids had performed up to Art’s expectations that day, and he stalked among them, silently steaming as they lifted. Two things I remember from that weight room session were how well-trained the UCLA throwers were (their lifting technique was as solid as their throwing technique) and what a nice guy Mark Parlin was. Nobody else spoke between lifts (I think they were afraid that Art might bite them), but Parlin was really friendly and struck up a conversation with two of my high school throwers who had joined me on the outing.
Two members of the UCLA throws squad not present in South Bend that day would go on to become outstanding coaches in their own right. One, Dave Dumble, built his own throwing powerhouse at Arizona State (he is currently the throws coach at Oregon State) and another, Erik Johnson…
…created a thriving coaching business called Arete Throws Nation.
On January 5th and 6th at the ITCCCA Coaching Clinic at the Lombard Westin, you’ll have the chance to meet Erik and to find out how he took the lessons he learned from Art Venegas and turned them into his own system of building excellent throwing technique.
Erik was the kind of athlete who often makes a great coach–super passionate, successful, but not so wildly gifted that he could get by on talent without developing a deep understanding of his event.
According to Erik, he was “a skinny, undersized kid that threw 172’3″ for Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, Arizona.” Though state champion of his division, he received no interest from DI schools and so ended up enrolling at Mt. San Antonio College.
There he caught the eye of Venegas who offered him a “tiny scholarship” and the chance to be part of a phenomenal group of throwers.
Erik describes Venegas as “a strong personality, to say the least. I remember him saying ‘You’re here to win, you’re part of the tradition at UCLA and you are a reflection of me.'”
“If you didn’t work hard, he was gonna ride you like Sea biscuit and he made sure you knew that you were in the dog house.”
Fortunately, Erik thrived in the atmosphere Venegas had created at UCLA. “I personally loved it,” he told me via email, “and was pretty tight with Art. He was intense but he was a lot of fun too. He would (and still does to this day) tell great stories. Lots of joking around, but then he would flip the switch and he expected you to perform and focus when it was time to compete.”
“The environment was pretty special to say the least.”
Especially inspiring to Erik was the talent level of his teammates. especially John Godina. “He was the biggest name during my time. John and i arrived at UCLA at the same time, and I remember Art saying ‘John is going to be the best thrower i have ever coached'”
“John won four world titles and still holds the NCAA record in the shot, so Art was right!”
“But there were so many great guys, so many all-Americans and the environment was ultra competitive and everyone pushed harder because everyone was trying to be the best guy/girl on the team, which meant you were gonna be one of the best in the country.”
Erik stays in touch with Venegas, who currently coaches two of the best American putters, Joe Kovacs and Darrell Hill. “I see Art every year at the big meets when i’m coaching at the OTC, Tucson Elite, US Championships, MT Sac, San Diego Triton. It’s always cool to talk to him, or hang out in a coaching session while he’s coaching Joe and Darrell.”
“He’s paid me some very nice compliments regarding my success with my athletes and my coaching system. When he shares his approval, I still get that same feeling I got when I was a twenty-year- old thrower getting praised for doing well. And sometimes, when I coach I hear the words of my inner Venegas coming out!”
I encourage you to join Erik at this year’s ITCCCA clinic. He will present on the discus, glide shot, and rotational shot techniques. And I, for one, will be hoping to get a glimpse of his inner Venegas.