Interview with Gwen Berry the new World Record Holder


Few schools have a year like McCluer High School Alumni had in one night. The Comets have long been known as a home of incredibly talented athletes. The high school has benefited mightily from an alchemy of passionate coaches and driven young people. In the last few years of Fergeson-Florrisant has been in the news for racial strife and protest. Times have been tough, to say the least for the residents of all colors in the surrounding community. But, on one night March 4, 2017, three McCluer graduates had everyone smiling young and old. McCluer High School celebrated these fine athlete's accomplishments in a recent Press Release.  //

    First MMA fighter and McCluer Graduate Tyrone Woodley defeated his opponent Thompson at UFC 209 to defend his Welterweight Title. On the same day, former McCluer All-State shot put thrower Demetrius Thomas won the NAIA national title for Williams Baptist College in the 285 lbs. Weight Class. Not to be outdone, on the very same day, Gwen Berry met her amazing potential by launching a World Record throw in the indoor Weight Throw at the USATF indoor championships. While Gwen was in high school she was a sprint and jump athlete for Coach Wollbrinck. She was a presence even back then very heavily muscled and powerfully built. For the Comets she was their go to long and triple jump. Her explosive training would serve her well under master throws coach John Smith at SIUC. To be an elite thrower you must be athletic and Gwen has always been a once in a generation thrower. The following is an interview I did with World Record Holder Gwen Berry and her coach from high school Phil Wollbrinck.

Mo.MileSplit: Gwen, what made you fall in love with track in the first place?
Gwen Berry: What made me fall in love with track is the history and the totally individual demand of the sport. Track and field are actually the basis of every sport. Strength, speed, vertical athleticism was all introduced through track first and then used in other sports. I like that it's an individual sport also because your success and or failures depend solely on your on efforts, will, and determination.

What was the most challenging aspect of the transition from being a high school jumper into a college thrower?
The most difficult transition would be patient. In throwing the number of reps you have determines your growth in the event. It takes time, years of doing the same routine correct even to begin to understand what your body needs to do. This was the headrest thing for me because, in college, even thoughI had good meets, I would always fail in the major championships because of the lack of experience I had, the lack of body control and lack of knowledge it took for me to when, when I was in the position too.

How did Coach Smith help you reach elite status at SIUC?

Coach Smith pulled out all the stops to get me to be an elite hammer thrower. He borrowed Ideas, he made up ideas, and he had a lot of sleepless nights with trying to figure me out. One thing he did was make me throw longer hammers, he made me tie my knees together with tape, and he made me do thousands of turning work to understand the concept of throwing. He stayed tough on me and made me work even when I didn't want to or was discouraged. 

As you have pushed to international status what has been the biggest hurdle you have faced? 

The biggest hurdle I have faced was competing well in major championships and the Olympic games to maintain a high world ranking status. I have been wishing to be top 5 in the world for a long time and every year I am faced with a disappointing event. My ultimate goal is to medal at a World Championship and Olympic Games. 

Competing at the highest level can be very stressful. What skills have you developed over time manage the stress in championship events?
Honestly, the only way you can manage stress is to be happy, trust your training, trust your coach and focus on one or two small technical things you need to remember to make your body react. Overthinking causes too much stress! When you repeatedly practice a movement over and over, you should find comfort knowing that you can execute when it matters. 

What was the Olympics like for you? Highlights? Challenges? Was this a breakthrough moment for you?
The Olympics was the most amazing experience of my life, so amazing that I'm willing to get back into grind mode to get back there in the next for years!! The highlights, of course, was the competition and meeting team USA. The challenges I faced was definitely executing when It mattered most because I felt like I underperformed. My body maintenance was poor, and I needed to be more aware of myself. I know better for next time around. 

The USATF indoor championships was obviously a special night. Looking back at your training what do you think has been different over the last year?
What I have focused on this year is my body. Seeing more chiropractors and body specialists make sure I stay healthy and maintain proper body movement. Also, My lifting has been much harder than it ever has before, I'm working harder overall with throwing and building a solid base. 

As a hammer thrower, what is essential to train all season long? What aspects of the event do you feel gets neglected?
As a hammer thrower essentially being in a great environment, and in a place where you can work and train is the best way to be. Because Hammer throwing isn't the most popular event, it gets paid less money than the other events. So I have to work, which is hard but you have to survive if you want to stay in the sport. The aspect that gets ignored the most is the excitement. Throwing is just as exciting as running and hurdles. But most people don't see it or even know what the hammer is because it isn't talked about or mentioned enough and it really makes staying in the event hard. For you are broke lol, for two your doing an event that gets no attention. So you think to yourself sometimes "Why am I doing this again." It's hard, but so many things make it worth while. Being a strong woman, a mentor, an inspiration, and AN OLYMPIAN are some of the many reasons 

If you had any advice for other aspiring track and field athletes what would it be?
My advice for aspiring athletes is NEVER to lose sight of what means most to you!! When you are faced with your hardest challenges, don't run from them, take them head on because honestly, something even better is waiting on the other side. And finally don't do track just for the money, most of your career you are going to have to work, struggle, and sacrifice a lot to stay in the sport. You won't find happiness and joy in it if you only think about what you can GET out of the sport. Think about what you can BRING to the sport and all things will come to you eventually. Coach Wollbrinck, how does it feel to have been a part of a world record holder's story?

Coach Phil Wollbrink: It's a small part, but it is very exciting! Gwen has worked harder than any athlete I have ever met to get to where she is today. It's inspiring to say the least.

What first impressed about Gwen?

Her competitiveness! I kept going to her basketball games when she was a sophomore in high school to recruit her for track. She worked extremely hard on the court and she hated to lose. I think she hated losing more than she loved winning and would always come back stronger.

Now getting to look back at her career what do you think was the key moment to her greatness?

There were numerous moments where I saw her grow. Through each one you saw her gain more confidence and work harder. Gwen has always swam upstream and achieved things that many thought not possible. Probably a trait that most Olympians have.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that she has faced?

I think the toughest challenge are the lack of resources for her to pursue her athletic career. There isn't a lot of money for athletes in track and field to be able to sustain themselves and focus on their discipline, especially for a Weight/Hammer thrower. I am grateful that her longtime Coaches John and Connie Price-Smith have taken care of her, along with the New York Athletic Club, and Nike. Even with their assistance, you would be shocked how hard Gwen has to work to continue this journey.

What are talents that she had that many of us track and field fans are not aware of?

I have coached high school/club for a total of 15 years, and I am in my second year of coaching collegiately, and I have not seen anyone renew their passion on a year to year basis like Gwen. I am sure she has her moments, but I have never heard "quit" in her voice or come out of her mouth. She has an amazing ability to push ahead no matter what. It's inspiring! We have these dreams and the first sign of adversity we lean towards despair or quit. Gwen has taught me that you could miss your biggest breakthrough if you give up on yourself too soon. Gwen is an Olympian, and World Record holder and that would never have happened if she gave up on the first, second, third, twentieth lol sign of adversity. It's truly a story for everyone to enjoy.

With a talent like Gwen, what should coaches do when they encounter their own special athlete?

I think with all athletes we need to be patient and embrace the process. I would be a liar if I told you I knew Gwen was going to be a World Class Thrower. We had her in the jumps the majority of the time and then tried to make her into a multi to increase her scholarship opportunities. I am grateful to Coach Andre Scott for recruiting her when no one else would and getting her to SIUC. I am equally grateful to Coach John Smith for recognizing Gwen's potential and patiently developing her. Gwen truly is an example of if you want it bad enough and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, then something special can happen. Gwen put in more than her fair share into this game, and I am so happy for her!