Rudy's Road To Rio

In mid-June, Rudy Winkler started a summer internship with Johnson & Johnson. Just three weeks later, he left that internship after getting a better offer – representing the United States of America in the hammer throw at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“Most companies wouldn’t want someone to work for them that isn’t going to be there,” says Winkler. “But Johnson & Johnson was very, very supportive of me. They were really proud of the fact that I was even trying for the Olympics by going to the trials.”

Winkler gave Johnson & Johnson even more reason to be proud when he became the first collegiate athlete since Cornell’s Albert Hall in 1956 to win the Olympic Trials hammer throw. Unfortunately, his mark of 251 feet, 10 inches fell nine inches short of the Olympic qualifying standard, meaning he was forced to wait for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) to announce the Olympics’ 32-athlete field.

“It definitely was a high and then a low, because I won and in most scenarios – 99 percent of the time – you win and you get to go [to the Olympics],” says Winkler. “So I won the meet, and no one had the standard, so we all had to wait.”

To automatically qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics in the hammer throw, an athlete would have needed to hit a standard of 252 feet, seven inches during a sanctioned event between May 1, 2015 and June 26, 2016. The athlete also needed to compete at the Olympic Trials and finish in the top three. But no American thrower had reached that distance. In fact, only 23 throwers world-wide had achieved the Olympic qualifying mark, leaving nine spots available for distribution by the IAAF.

Rudy Winkler (center) with Conor McCullough (left) and Kibwe Johnson (right) after winning the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. (Photo courtesy: Image of Sports)

Prior to the 2016 Olympics, the IAAF had an A-standard and a B-standard for the hammer throw. If an athlete achieved the A-standard and finished in the top three of the Olympic Trials, or if an athlete reached the B-standard and went on to win the trials, that individual would have qualified for the Olympics. If the system hadn’t changed, Winkler would have made the field automatically without having to get an invitation. Instead, he had an anxiety-filled week as he waited for notification.

The Cornell senior, who claims that he “probably checked email every 15 minutes,” was in the process of travelling to El Salvador for the North American, Central American and Caribbean Championships, when he got the news that he, as well as Kibwe Johnson and Conor McCullough, the second- and third-place finishers at the trials, respectively, had all been selected to represent the U.S.

“The experience was surreal because it was something I didn’t really think I could do until just a few weeks prior … It still sort of feels like that. I still can’t believe that I went and that I can say I’m an Olympic athlete,” says Winkler.

Winkler representing the U.S. at the 2016 Rio Olympics (Photo courtesy: Image of Sports)

After throwing in the low 230s throughout the early parts of the spring, Winkler unleashed a massive throw of 246 feet, 5 inches at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships, setting the conference’s all-time record with a mark that was also the longest in the NCAAs in 2016. From there, he placed second overall at the NCAA Division I Track & Field Championships to earn All-America honors with a throw of 239 feet.

“I didn’t really think that I had a shot of going to the Olympics until I threw 75 [meters] at our Ivy League Championships … A few weeks prior to the trials I was throwing really, really well. Better than I ever have in my life, and that was when the thought came in that I could actually win the meet. And then I did actually win the meet. Everything kept going as planned,” says Winkler.

Winkler was named the 2016 Ivy League Heptagonal Championships Field MVP after breaking the conference record with a throw of 246 feet, 5 inches.

Winkler’s plan to get to the Olympics started as a teenager. After competing in the discus and the shot put his first two years at Averill Park High School, he quit the school’s team in order to focus on the hammer throw, which is not sponsored by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. Under the guidance of a private coach, former Irish Olympian Paddy McGrath, Winkler spent hours in a practice circle that he and his father built on the family farm, and he competed as an unattached athlete.

The hours throwing in solitude paid off.

Winkler became the high school national record holder in the hammer throw and went on to be a finalist at both the 2011 World Youth and 2012 World Junior Championships before winning the silver medal at the 2013 Pan American Junior Championships. A highly sought-after recruit, he decided to attend Cornell after taking official visits to Virginia Tech, UCLA and Stanford.

“Cornell was the only one that had exactly what I wanted academically and athletically. It was the place I knew I would be able to succeed in both areas,” says Winkler.

There is little doubt that he has done just that, excelling in Information Science and earning USTFCCCA All-Academic and Academic All-Ivy accolades during his time on East Hill.

Once his time at Cornell is over, Winkler plans to continue training with the hopes of making future Olympic Games. Adrian Durant, The George Heekin '29 Head Coach of Men's Track and Field and Cross Country at Cornell, agrees that Winkler’s future is remarkably bright.

“Rudy has the potential to be one of the best hammer throwers in the world,” Durant says. “By its nature track and field is a very unpredictable sport, so it is hard to say what will happen down the line. But if Rudy continues down his current path, we should see him in Tokyo four years from now aiming for the gold.”

Winkler with Cornell head coach Adrian Durant, who served as the head track and field coach for the U.S. Virgin Islands at the Rio Olympics.

“The rule of thumb is around 28, 30 is when you peak in most of the throwing events,” says Winkler. “So that’s what’s cool about me doing this when I’m 21. I could have a few more Olympics under my belt if everything goes as planned.”

With the possibility of spending nearly a decade training and competing in an event that doesn’t have the same lucrative prospects as other professional sports, Winkler acknowledges that the ideal scenario would involve a part-time job with a company that would support his Olympic career.

Maybe Johnson & Johnson will be hiring.

Members of the U.S. Track & Field Team (L to R) Andew Evans, Ryan Crouser, Sam Crouser, Rudy Winkler, Tavis Bailey, and Conor McCoullugh during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics.


Photos courtesy: Image of Sport, The Ivy League, Steve Lang, Rudy Winkler, Adrian Durant

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