TOKYO – Before she became one of the world’s best discus throwers, before she overpowered the her opponents and braved a rain delay to win an Olympic gold medal at National Stadium on Monday night, Valarie Allman dreamed of being a dancer.
As a teen, she spent a year traveling the United States with the television show “So You Think You Can Dance,” and her youth track coach told her to come to practices whenever she had time. None of the events she tried seemed to fit her.
The throwers at her school had an annual spaghetti dinner, and they said that anybody who tried their discipline could come to the dinner. “Weirdly, food was my incentive,” Allman remembered, and when she went to try throw the discus, she had discovered how familiar it felt to dancing.
“I think it’s a second-in-a-half dance, that you do hundreds of times, and it’s really repetitive, but gosh-darn, I do think it’s a dance. It’s poetry. It’s balance. It’s grace. It’s power,” Allman said, and all of those virtues together are what defined her performance on Monday night to give the United States track and field team its first gold medal of the Tokyo Olympics – and the first gold in women’s discus since 2008.
The sheer torque on Allman’s first throw made her smile before she was even done spinning in her stance. It landed at 68.98 meters, or 226 feet and three inches, and no other thrower was able to come within even two meters of that mark the rest of the night – not even silver medalist Kristin Pudenz of Germany, who posted a personal-best throw of 66.86 meters. Yaime Perez of Cuba won bronze with her throw of 65.72 meters.
“I felt like I had found my footing,” Allman said of her first throw.
Then it got slippery. A driving rain soaked the track at National Stadium and the discus competition was delayed for more than an hour. Even though she had given herself a cushion with that early throw, her most important challenge on the evening would be remaining loose and calm during the delay. She remembered why she was here in the first place.
“There’s a balletic movement to it that has really helped when I first started, and it’s become such a passion ever since,” she said in an interview earlier this week. “It’s incredibly challenging when you have adrenaline to make smooth movements. That’s really all about channeling your energy, especially in an environment like this.”
After the pandemic hit and Allman’s training schedule was interrupted, there were times when she wanted to quit. She was training at a local high school. Her best finish the year before was seventh at the World Athletics Championship in Doha, and there was little to suggest that she might be a medal favorite in Tokyo – until she took a trip to Rathdrum, Idaho, last August for a small meet. She set the American record at 70.15 meters, and her confidence swelled. Allman and her coach, Zeb Sion, focused on pattern-setting and the importance of nailing the first throw of each competition.
“It’s common sense, but I don’t think people think about it well enough,” Sion said. “One, it increases your chances of making it to the final. Two, it makes a statement., Three, it gives you confidence. And four, if weather happens, you’ve already put one in the bank.”
Allman remembered that as she waited out the weather on Sunday night. When the rain first started, a dozen or so field officials ran out to try to absorb the water around the competition area – “It was very strange,” Allman said – and she added that there was little communication about the delay or when it might end.
Competition continued on the soaked track, and it made for dicey situations. That included in the women’s 400-meter hurdles, where stars Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin set up their gold medal showdown by winning their respective semifinals. Muhammad qualified with a time of 53.30 seconds and McLaughlin advanced with a 53.03.
“Clean race and qualifying, that’s all you need. I’m just thankful I have waterproof mascara. That’s all I’m thankful for,” McLaughlin quipped after her race. She joined a slew of other American qualifiers on Monday: Gabby Thomas advanced to the 200-meter final with a time of 22.01, while sprinters Michael Cherry (44.44) and Michael Norman (44.52) both advanced in the men’s 400-meter final by finishing first and second in their heats, respectively.
By the time Allman came back out on the track, she had lost her groove from her first throw. She threw 64.76 on her fourth throw and 66.78 on her fifth, but it didn’t matter.
That first throw, before the storm, was not going to be beat. After all the competition was done for the night, Allman and Sion walked back out into an empty, quiet National Stadium together to get one more look. She draped herself in the American flag, pointing a phone at her and Sion as they celebrated with a stroll, before walking out of the darkened venue.
Their friends and family couldn’t be with them Monday night, but Allman thanked the community around her, and didn’t forget about the friends who lured her to sport nearly a decade ago.
“That was the best spaghetti dinner of my entire life,” she said, “and it led to this.”
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The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.