Leigh Petranoff may turn heads as she trains in Carlsbad or near her home in San Marcos. But her goal is to turn her body into a cannon — shooting a 7 1/2-foot pointy stick as far as Phil Rivers can heave a football.
Ounce-for-ounce, Petranoff at 5 feet 7 and 140 pounds may be the best female javelin thrower in America.
Her aim? The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
Lacking the physique of American record-holder Kara Patterson Winger (6-0, 180) or Brittany Borman (5-11, 170) — the top two Americans — Petranoff still has a profound genetic advantage.
Her father, and mentor, is former world record holder Tom Petranoff, a two-time Olympian who launched his career at nearby Palomar College.
“You know, for the longest time I have been striving to get stronger to make up for my size,” she says. “But [I’ve] come to the realization that you just have to do what works for you.”
For Petranoff [pa-TRAW-noff], that also means using social media, a crowd-funding campaign and assorted jobs to promote herself and pay for her Olympic quest.
The four-time Rhode Island prep champion (who also won four Missouri Valley Conference titles at Illinois State University) blogs her workout progress.
It’s all toward the end of hitting two figures — the IAAF qualifying standard of 62 meters (203-5) and 3 — as in finish among the top trio at July’s Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
A recent arrival — she moved to North County from Rhode Island a year ago — the 26-year-old athlete hopes to regain the form she had in 2014, when she took third in the USA Track & Field national championships and earlier threw a personal best 191-6.
But 2015 was a disappointment for Petranoff. She failed to make the national finals — as she had at the 2012 Olympic Trials.
With a new strength coach and other changes, however, she’s confident of making the podium in Eugene.
“I have … added a ton of speed work to my regimen,” she told Times of San Diego. “The combination of strength, speed and mental focus will get me to the 2016 Olympic Games.”
A panel of experts agree: Petranoff has a great shot at marching into Maracanã Stadium on Aug. 5 for the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Games.
This interview took place via email in October:
Times of San Diego: You’re about 12 feet short of the IAAF standard for Rio. What changes in strength or technique are needed to help you reach that level?
Leigh Petranoff: Strength is definitely a huge factor for me; it’s been the focus of my training for the past year or so now. Last offseason was dedicated almost entirely to strength, although my 2015 season didn’t nearly show my potential. This year I have added a lot more running, along with the strength training. I went too hard too fast last year and it really drained me… I have smartened up and have a better plan for 2016.
At the 2012 Olympic Trials, you suggested that you weren’t fast enough and perhaps a little overwhelmed mentally. How will you become ready in 2016?
I honestly wasn’t prepared in 2012; I had just graduated and didn’t “train” for it. The one thing I have noticed along the way is I always told my self “next year, next year.” It’s like I was giving myself this never-ending excuse that I am not ready. I went out and had fun, trying to do what I know how to do.
Then last year I did the complete opposite, I may have overtrained and I most definitely mentally lost it. With the big move and everything relying on me to truly perform, I trained at 125 percent 24/7. I was so driven, I went strong with that plan all year. Unfortunately, it didn’t show in my performances and I quickly lost it mentally.
It is incredible how fast and hard I fell mentally. It is so draining. I am leaving that in 2015, but taking my strength with me! I have also added a ton of speed work to my regimen. The combination of strength, speed and mental focus will get me to the 2016 Olympic Games.
You know, for the longest time I have been striving to get stronger to make up for my size, but have come to the realization that you just have to do what works for you.
I was passed some phenomenal javelin mechanics from my dad, although I do wish I inherited that arm. I am not sure if it is an advantage to be lighter moreso than knowing what to do with what I have. And yes, I do have hope because if you look at the top javelin throwers, you will see all different shapes and sizes.
Do you see the 2016 Olympic Trials as a fight for third — behind Kara and Brittany?
Yes, it is definitely going to be a fight for third at Trials. I still have to hit [the IAAF] standard, but there are a handful of girls that are right there with me. If the Trials are anything like U.S. nationals this past year, then it’s going to be a crazy competition. I still have a hard time looking back to it, but the year before I was third so I know I can do it.
What would it take for you to throw 67.69 [222-1], Kathrina Molitor’s winning mark at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing?
You know, I am constantly in my own head about how far I can REALLY throw. My training over the past year has me feeling 65 meters [213-3] although my results only show 58 meters [190-3]. It only takes one throw. And if I can just get everything lined up, I have no doubt in my mind I can throw 67 meters [219-10].
What it really is going to take for me to break [into] the top in the world is to keep pushing in the gym, but most importantly to get my mind right. I have been struggling mentally for the past year now about my career. I didn’t have one meet in 2015 that I was happy with — even my best opener ever in Australia.
I think my high expectations paired with constant disappointment in myself was a recipe for disaster. I couldn’t understand how all my hard work in the offseason couldn’t transfer over; it was super-draining meet after meet. It could have been a number of things, the biggest being my move from Rhode Island to San Diego. With a bad year under my belt, I can learn and move on with the hopes this fuels for my best season yet in 2016.
Your dad had the ironic motto “You can’t, you won’t and you never will” because of what he heard as a rookie. Have you heard similar things about yourself? How do you deal with it? What is your motto?
Haha. I have heard that one my entire life and I love it. “I can, I will, you watch me!” As much as I love it, it doesn’t exactly pertain to me in the same way it did with him. I have been in love with the sport since I was born and always competed for the love of it.
I have been finding that my biggest fight has been with myself and not so much others telling me I can’t. So in a way I guess “I can, I will, you watch me” means more than I thought it did.
In such a mental sport, I am constantly asking myself if I am good enough, is it worth it, etc. I guess my motto has been to just let it go. Let it go in my head and then let it all happen. I am still learning to trust myself, but I know I can. So I will and you watch me. ?
Your biography makes note of your ability to avoid injury, but you apparently had shoulder problems in 2015. (You wrote: “This has been the toughest season of my career.”) What were the issues? Are you fully recovered?
When I was talking about it being the toughest season of my career, I was referring to my mental toughness. I could not understand how I was in the best shape of my life, living out in beautiful California, with all the tools I needed, and just could not deliver.
I wish I could blame it on an injury (knock on wood) because that would be so easy to do. An injury is a physical thing you can do A, B and C to fix it and get better.
How do you fix a mental funk? There is no step-by-step proven formula for this. I did battle with being supersore and supertight all the time, which may have created an issue in my right shoulder over the year. On more than one occasion, I pulled out a few ribs in offseason lifting, which led to some scapula issues. I don’t think I gave it enough TLC before going back at it in the gym and on the track.
It’s a learning curve when figuring out how and when to train hard and on the other spectrum when and how to back it off and recover. I am still battling a little tightness issue but am doing a lot more recovery this year and will be more than ready next year.
A video posted by Leigh Petranoff (@lpetranoff) on
Do you have any job outside the TurboJav work with Throwing Zone? Are you still traveling and showing kids how to throw TurboJav — your dad’s invention? What’s your travel schedule like?
As of right now no, I don’t. It’s a never-ending search, I got to tell you! When I lived in Rhode Island, I had so many friends and family that knew my story so I bounced around from job to job wherever I can work it in with my training.
Now that I am out in California, I know no one, which makes it an impossible task finding part-time work — in an extremely expensive state, mind you. In a perfect world, I would want a real job that allowed me to train and compete. We all (in TrackNation) know too well how hard it is to make a living off a track athlete salary, [but] a thrower, a FEMALE thrower track athlete.
“I am honestly looking for anything right now! I have a MakeAChamp.com/leighpetranoff campaign that’s been superhelpful. I am also working with a couple companies like Quest Nutrition, who are helping me become a brand ambassador for my favorite protein bars. It has been a huge financial help, not having to buy sportswear (thanks to Nike) or protein bars (Thanks to Quest Nutrition) so I hope to find more companies to be brand ambassadors for.
I absolutely hate asking for money — that’s just not me. I would rather work for it and know I earned it. I love posting on social media my favorite brands and companies’ products, so to get them for free in return is a dream come true (and a massive lifesaver).
Now if I could only get a coffee company to join my team! One of the biggest things I am doing right now is creating a beginners track and field program for kids. I am working with Throwing Zone to get kids introduced to our dying sport. You wouldn’t believe how many kids don’t know what track and field is.
With the Olympics coming next year, now more than ever we need to get them involved! Anything to get kids off their iPads and video games, fight childhood obesity, and maybe deter them from other dangerous sports.
Most if not all sports consist of running, jumping and throwing, and that’s exactly what track and field is! Welcome to the basic fundamentals of ALL sports. Anyways, we hope to get our fun “Games System” into schools and any other programs looking for a way to get kids moving! If you know anyone, let me know! (;
Where do you train? How often do you train?
I really lucked out finding Prolific Athletes in Carlsbad and being able to train with such an amazing team. I am on a whole new training system, practicing four days a week, conditioning and lifting every day. Some days I could be at the gym for four hours, it just all depends what lifts I am working on.
You recently wrote about deadlifting 315 pounds. Is that your personal record? Does this indicate a significant increase in strength?
I am still increasing my strength tremendously as I have now dead-lifted 330 pounds. With this whole new training system, I am not sure where my PR is. Be sure to keep up with me and my training on my blog — thedreamteamtraining.blogspot.com. I am still new to blogging, so bear with me. But I do post all my workouts!
You also do sprints. How does this help throw farther?
I honestly have never worked on my speed, ever, in my 15 or so years of throwing. I only started this year sprinting so it will be a surprise to you and I both! I believe it will really give me more horsepower and speed down the runway, allowing me to transfer the power from my legs on up to my throw.
Never will I accept failure, I’m taking it as lessons to be learned. Working through it all with a stronger will and a different perspective. Sometimes it changes you, accept it. #TrackAndField #Javelin
A photo posted by Leigh Petranoff (@lpetranoff) on
What did your recent test results indicate about your progress? I’m referring to this test:
Standing long- 2.35 (7-8 1/2)
Three hops — 6.65 (21-10)
Vertical- 20 inches
Standing — 37.40 (122-8)
Weak side — 23.80 (78-1)
3-Step — 45 (147-8)
30-Step weak side — 27.30 (89-6 3/4)
Standing — 31.60 (103-8)
Weak side — 21.20 (69-6 3/4)
3 Step — 40.10 (131-7)
3 Step weak side — 23.70 (77-9 1/4)
30m — 4.05
30m backwards — 5.03
It is always important to test yourself through our long offseason. That way, you know you’re improving. These test scores in particular are showing that I hold the same strength at the beginning of offseason training as I did during the peak of my season last year.
It says a lot, seeing as though I took a month completely off and am now in super heavy training. It is also a good indicator of what I need to work harder on, as test scores may not increase in certain areas.
How much of your training and technique work is guided by your dad? Any other coaches or trainers? Is your style of throwing modeled after your dad or anyone else? Or it tailored to your physique?
Up until about a month ago, 100 percent of my training was guided by my dad. Any training I have ever done has come from him, which I am beyond fortunate for.
Right now, my strength and speed work has been guided by the one and only Ryan Flaherty. If you don’t know him, you really need to.
I am on his training program now, and am blending it with my dad’s. It really is the absolute best of both worlds. I have only ever watched my dad; I grew up following in his footsteps, so any technique I picked up was from him!
Among four sisters, were you the one expected to have the most track and field potential? Were you a track surprise to your family?
Each one of my sisters threw the javelin, but from what I was told I was the one from the beginning that always wanted to go to my dad’s practices. We always joke about my dad wanting a boy and getting me. He got four girls. ?
Did you have an interest in any other sport? If so, what was it? Any achievements?
I grew up playing basketball, which I loved and still love! If I could go back, I would have tried to do both track and basketball in college. I also love, love, love football. #PATRIOTNATION
A photo posted by Leigh Petranoff (@lpetranoff) on
You’ve set a modest goal of $2,000 for your fundraising drive and a closing date this fall. How did you decide on the amount? Will you have further fundraisers for travel, training and nutrition?
I have never done anything like this before and quite honestly anything helps. As I said before, I would rather work for what I can make so I am hoping, if anything, that I can catch the eye of a company that I can do work for.
Brand ambassador type work is the best, and I hope to do more of it — especially because I get what I NEED, not necessarily money. Nutrition is huge and I have to thank Quest for sending me bars and protein. You don’t realize how much it helps when you save on things you need every day.
I am sure everyone knows how expensive it is to not only eat right but eat enough or know what to eat. I am on a never-ending search for ways to work that allow me to train, so if the future calls for another fundraiser I may have to.
I guess this goes hand in hand with the last question because I have been able to use my social media to gain exposure and really just build my brand. I have always loved that social media allows you to keep up with friends and family, especially as you go away to college or move from coast to coast.
I am just recently learning the importance your social media holds as an athlete. I am even more recently learning to build my brand in order to be more successful (ie: Quest Nutrition). It has also acted like a support system, allowing friends, family and fans to be a part of it all with me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hopefully YouTube soon! I slack on the whole Pinterest thing although I am on there, too.
Although athletes like Amy Acuff and Lolo Jones have leveraged their looks to draw attention to track, you might be among the few throwers to do so. Are you consciously capitalizing on your photogenic qualities to advance your career or sport? Have you ever modeled professionally?
I have done some modeling on the side and found to really like it. It’s like being able to get all dressed up and pretend to be someone else — the complete opposite of what I do every day!
I also am always looking for new and exciting things to do to challenge myself. I never thought I would ever model, but had too much fun at my first shoot and have continued to enjoy it. If it helps advance my athletic career, hell yeah! Track and field needs any help it can get — us throwers especially.
Gia Lewis-Smallwood got her discus PR at age 35 — also an American record. When do you expect to peak? Do you see yourself training for 2020 or beyond?
I definitely see myself training for 2020 and beyond! I have also learned a lot about myself season to season — what works and what didn’t. The older I get, the better of an understanding I have (of many aspects of throwing).
I have always been told I am a late bloomer and I believe there is so much more to come. I want to be able to continually improve, peaking in my mid-30s.
Who knows what life will bring? But I will never stop training to be the best.