THE BIG INTERVIEW JAKE NORRIS
World under-20 hammer gold medallist talks to Jason Henderson from his Louisiana State University base
THE METEORIC rise of hammer thrower Jake Norris shows no sign of slowing down. In 2018 the 19-year-old from Windsor won the world under-20 title in Tampere with a UK junior record of 80.65m. It was one of several British records he set during a memorable summer and he is now being rewarded with a series of end-of-season accolades.
Last week he was named junior male athlete of the year by the British Athletics Writers’ Association. A few days earlier he received an award from the British Athletics Supporters’
Club for best performance by an 18-19-year-old British male athlete. Next year he hopes to improve further, too, but the question is – by how much?
“Last year I improved by five metres and the year before by six or seven,” he says. “Those are huge jumps. No one really does that. I think that’s simply because I’m getting older. It’s bound to slow down soon and I don’t know when that will happen.”
Norris is speaking to AW via Skype from his room at Louisiana State University, where he has been studying for just over a year. A huge Union Jack flag hangs on his wall behind his head as he talks about his brilliant year and plans for the future. Coincidentally he shares a four-person student flat with pole vault talent Mondo Duplantis, a fellow world under-20 champion, while
British middle-distance runners Katy-Ann McDonald and Hollie Parker are also studying at LSU.
Despite being on the other side of the world, Norris has recently been included in UK Athletics’ Futures programme again. The funding scheme helps him more so when he’s
back in Britain. Back home he is also able to spend more time with Paul Dickenson, his longtime coach and an Olympic hammer thrower himself.
Such is Norris’s talent, he edged past Dickenson on the UK all-time rankings with the senior hammer this year when setting a UK junior record of 73.24m with it.
Despite being a long way from Windsor, Norris is not homesick. As we chat it is about 21C and sunny outside his room and he says he has a perfect training environment in the States.
“There’s nothing to complain about,” he says. “We have an indoor and outdoor track. We don’t really need the indoor one because no one hardly spends any time there because the weather is always decent outside.”
Norris is studying physical therapy with psychology and has lectures every morning with training in the afternoons. He adds: “Everything you need is always nearby such as fridges with drinks and food around.
Our gym is basically right next to the track and the physios are always around too.”
Norris praises the facilities back home too. His family live close to his home club of Windsor, Slough, Eton & Hounslow where he spends spends roughly half his competitive season. Naturally, he also owes most of his success to the talent inherited from his parents. His mother won a
Swiss long jump title a few years ago as Barbara Fischer whereas these days, competing as Barbara Norris, she has turned into a decent veteran hammer thrower.
Norris says his mother was a good athlete and handball player but broke a vertebra in her back. “So she stopped because she couldn’t get in the positions for long jump anymore,” he says. “When I started doing hammer she joined in because she got bored watching and she’s picked it up quite well and is doing quite well.”
Hammer is not an easy event to master but Norris himself also managed to pick it up and is doing rather well after having spent his early teenage years playing football and rugby. He wasn’t an instant superstar in the hammer circle, though.
At the English Schools Championships in 2012 he was only fifth, while in the 2013 English Schools he finished runner-up to the superblynamed George Marvell.
Most of Norris’ domestic rivals, like Marvell, have struggled to progress, so how did Norris manage it?
“Most of it is because of the way Paul was coaching me,” he explains. “The people that used to beat me were almost training like full-time athletes. They were doing gym work and getting physio and everything at quite a young age. They carried on doing the same thing and expected to carry on improving.
“Whereas with me, in the early stages, it was all about throwing the hammer. I didn’t do weights, or do sprints or stretch. It was all about getting my technique better,” he says, adding that he dropped the ball sports in 2015 to focus solely on athletics.
“We did that until the World Youths in Colombia (in 2016) and out there I did quite well in seventh but began having problems with my back and it was because I was generating so much speed and force but my body wasn’t able to handle it anymore,” he continues. “So that’s when we started doing weights. Every year we’ve been adding a little bit more in order to keep improving.”
Norris cuts a relaxed figure as he happily and patiently chats about his development. He talks in a measured, thoughtful fashion and his passion for hammer throwing is clearly evident.
During 2018 he split his season into two parts. Firstly he threw with a senior 7.26kg hammer and then in the second half with a junior 6kg hammer.
“I can’t be any happier about the season but looking back I think there are ways I could have done better in everything,” he says, showing a quest for perfectionism that is also part of his make-up.
“You can’t get everything perfect. I know that. But there are many things I could have done better.”
“IN THE 7kg PART OF THE SEASON THERE WAS A BIT IN THE MIDDLE WHERE I HIT A WALL. I FELT GOOD BUT MY PERFORMANCES WEREN’T MATCHING HOW I FELT. NOT SURE WHY BUT WE MANAGED TO FIX IT ANYWAY IN THE END”
JAKE NORRIS, on his hammer throwing season
He elaborates: “In the 7kg part of the season there was a bit in the middle where I hit a wall. I felt good but my performances weren’t matching how I felt. Not sure why but we managed to fix it anyway in the end.”
On the 6kg part of his summer, he says: “I felt my rhythm was a little bit off. Getting back from the US in June I had a month to change my rhythm from the 7.26kg hammer to the 6kg one but I struggled a bit. Toward the end of my 6kg season things got a lot better, though, which coincided with the World Juniors.”
He adds: “I feel like I turned more into an athlete this past year than any other years, mainly relating to how I handle things and approach training.”
As for that victory in Tampere, he remembers: “I didn’t care about the distance or the weather or anything. I just wanted to be on top.”
The weather was good for his competition in the Finnish city but rained heavily just after he won. “It was during my interviews. I was dripping wet but didn’t care.”
Hammer throwers obviously cannot throw indoors, but unfortunately for Norris he’s been asked to do the weight throw – an indoor equivalent of the hammer. “So I have an indoor season which I’m not exactly happy about,” he smiles. “It’s fun every now and again but actually throwing it destroys your hand because it’s so heavy.
“Even though I hate it, I still don’t like losing so I’d like to make the NCAA indoors. Then, when we go into outdoors, I want to come top three at NCAA outdoors again. Obviously the European Under23s are definitely on the cards.
“As for Doha, I’m not sure about it yet. If I manage to improve at the rate I’ve been going, I should be able to make the team. But if I don’t hit a distance that will get me there, I won’t be doing trials because trials are going to be when my classes start back here again.”
Did he shock himself with his progress in 2018? “I surprised myself in the first competition when I went over 70m for the first time,” he says. “But after that it wasn’t so unexpected.”
What does it feel like to release a throw which you instantly know is a great one? “It’s a hard feeling to describe but feels like a spring,” he says. “If you’re not balanced, the spring will bounce and go anywhere. But if you release it right it’s like a ‘ping’ in the right direction. So that’s what I try to chase most of the time.”
British hammer throwing is doing well right now. Nick Miller has been in great form leading the men’s rankings and winning the Commonwealth title, while Sophie Hitchon took Olympic bronze in Rio.
So while they train hard in California, Norris will also be working hard in another part of the US as he combines his training with studies.
On his training right now, he explains: “I throw four times a week and lift three times a week. The lifts are quite heavy, slow lifts for raw strength. But closer to the season I will do more power lifts such as cleans and snatches. Then when the season starts power will still be the main part but with more speed things thrown in too.”
He enjoys the throwing and lifting but isn’t a fan of all types of training. “I definitely don’t like it all!” he laughs. “I’m not too keen on things like med ball circuits and ‘stadiums’, which are awful.”
These ‘stadiums’ involve sprinting up the steps in LSU’s gigantic football stadium – a 102,000 capacity arena in Baton Rouge which is called Tiger Stadium but sometimes nicknamed ‘death valley’.
“It’s like a bowl and goes up and gets steeper the higher you go,” Norris winces. “So at the start it’s easy but gets harder as you go on. And it’s a big stadium!”
It sounds painful, but with sessions like this the world under-20 hammer champion is set to continue his relentless progress in 2019 and beyond.
World under-20 champion:Jake Norris took the title with a British record throw
Relentless improvement: Jake Norris isadding metres to his PB every year
Studying in America: Jake Norris combines athletics training with physical therapy and psychology lectures