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Student-athlete Brooke Pleger hammers records

By Bridget Tharp

When she winds up and launches that hefty ball and chain in competition, BGSU student-athlete Brooke Pleger isn’t thinking about breaking records in the hammer throw.

She isn’t thinking at all, actually. Plenty of that happens during practice.

“When I’m at a meet, I just shut my brain off, honestly. Because if at that point my body doesn’t know what to do, I didn’t come prepared,” Pleger said.

The Saline, Mich., native is already earning a reputation as a rising track and field star as a redshirt sophomore. She holds the women’s record for farthest hammer throw in BGSU history, and the second all-time best record in the Mid-American Conference. She broke the meet record at the April 5 Northeast Ohio Quad in Akron with her career and season-best throw of 219 feet, 9 inches.

She is now the first team All-MAC, based on results at the MAC Outdoor Track and Field Championship, and BGSU’s first track and field MAC champion since 2005.

As if that weren’t enough, Pleger ranks fifth in the NCAA and is edging toward the ranks of the 10 all-time best women’s collegiate hammer throwers in history.

Such achievement in one of the oldest Olympic sports and newest for collegiate women requires more focus on balance and technique than on strength training, according to Matt Conly, BGSU track and field throws coach. Pleger’s routine builds core strength by focusing meticulously on repetitive turns — a fluid movement that would be something like a golfer’s or softball player’s swing if it went 360 degrees around several times before striking the ball. That, and swap the bat for a bowling ball at the end of a chain.

The complexity of the sport has fascinated Pleger since the summer before her senior year of high school, when she first explored how to adapt from being a runner to a hammer thrower.

“I like the challenging aspects of it. Even now, there are still 100 things that I have to learn how to do,” Pleger said. “You can’t be super, super, super strong and have no technique and just muscle it. You have to have your turns right. And you have to let the ball go at the right time or its not going to go anywhere no matter how strong you are.”

Conly was initially impressed not only by Pleger’s work ethic during practice, but by her natural balance. He credits such body awareness to Pleger’s childhood involvement in gymnastics. But he continues to be impressed by the rate at which Pleger seems to improve, after only minor tweaks to her technique and his major changes to her training routine.

“To improve by 35 feet in 18 months in this sport is really dramatic. She absolutely has dramatically increased,” Conly said. “That would speak highly to her natural ability in the event.”

Conly recognizes Pleger’s natural ability to balance in her academic work, as well. Her academic focus helped her achieve membership in the Chi Alpha Sigma National College Athlete Honor Society. And it’s why the coaching staff supported her decision to change her major from exercise science to nursing. Pleger’s new program involves long hours of required clinical rounds, creating new challenges with her equally demanding training schedule.

“To balance nursing and throwing is going to be an extremely difficult task, but I feel good about it being her as the person that’s going to take it on,” Conly said. “She is extremely Type A. Very organized. She’ll be stressing about something and it’s not due for three weeks. I like to tease her to settle down and live a little more within the week.”

Regardless of the rigorous academic schedule Pleger will face as a nursing student, she has ambitious athletic goals in mind.

First, to become an All-American athlete. Long term? Face the world’s best in competition: the Olympics.

“I think I have a pretty good chance,” Pleger said.

Conly agrees.

“I don’t like to speak in absolutes, but if she would continue to progress even at a slower rate, than yeah absolutely, competing in the Olympics is a realistic goal,” he said. “But you have to go at it right, stay healthy, and have some good fortune, too.”