RICHMOND, Va. – Although he grew up as something of a track and field junkie, Ethan Tussing never had much use for throwing events. Not that they had much use for him, either. Usually the only reason you’d find a 5-foot-10, 140-pound guy like Tussing around the shot put pit is if he went out for a five-mile run and got lost.
Sometimes, back when he was an intern on the track and field staff at the University of Florida, the throws coach would ask him to film the shot put or the discus. But Tussing would usually get bored, miss a bunch of attempts and get an earful from the coach.
He saw himself as a sprints coach one day or as the head coach of a high school track team. What he did not expect, was to be leading arguably the best crop of throwers in VCU history to the Atlantic 10 Conference meet this weekend.
What’s that saying? Life is what happens when you get busy making other plans.
When he was five years old, Ethan Tussing watched the Olympics with his dad, Tony, a respected high school track coach and official. Ethan decided he wanted to be like Carl Lewis.
“Then I got to high school and found out I was a terrible sprinter,” The 30-year-old Deland, Fla. native said.
His sprinter’s dream dashed, Tussing tried the pole vault, going as far as to help his coach transport a used pole vault pit his school had purchased from across the county. But after two years, Tussing’s pole vault career ended with a thud – literally. One day at practice, he stalled out on a vault and came crashing to the ground, breaking his arm.
It turns out he wasn’t Sergey Bubka either.
But in a way, those missteps launched a coaching career. As he bounced from event to event – there were also stints with hurdles, middle distance, even cross country – Tussing tried to overcome his athletic limitations through science and technique. He says he even took weight lifting in high school four straight times. It didn’t get him any closer to becoming an elite athlete, but he sure learned a lot. Eventually, he found himself advising team members.
“My [athletic] ceiling was about two inches off the ground, and so when I was hurt, I realized I knew more than the kids around me, so I tried to start to help them and teach them,” he says.
As a freshman at the University of Florida, an 18-year-old Tussing walked into the office of then-sprint Coach Michael Holloway and boldly declared, “I’m only here because I want your office.” Holloway didn’t miss a beat.
“He told me, ‘as long as I’ve got the [head coach’s] office around the corner, we’re cool,’” Tussing recalled.
Four years later, both men got their wish.
In all, Tussing spent six years with the track team at Florida. Holloway eventually allowed Tussing to coach and develop a group of walk-on middle distance runners. One of the runners became an All-American, and the group ended up with six NCAA qualifying times.
Tussing’s work with middle distance runners at Florida helped him land a job at VCU coaching the women’s cross country team and the women’s throwers in 2007. There wasn’t much of a throwing program to speak of back then. That first year, he had two shot putters, Kira Hauser and Natalie Duncan. Up until that point, the throwers had pretty much been left to their own devices.
That first year was rough. Tussing’s throwing credentials were limited, and while he had picked up a working knowledge of the shot put over the years, he met resistance. The shot put circle, he learned, was not one of immediate, unconditional trust. His background and his stature conspired against him.
“Getting them to buy into what I was saying was very, very difficult at first because no matter what I said, they’d always say, ‘What does this guy know about throwing? This guy only weighs 105 pounds,” Tussing said.
After three months of butting heads, the frustration on both sides boiled over in a late January practice. In an emotional back-and-forth, Tussing, Duncan and Hauser aired out their grievances. While uncomfortable, it proved necessary.
“I told them I didn’t care if they threw 20 feet at the next meet, you need to go to this meet and throw the way I’m asking you to throw,” he said. “So we go to the meet the next day…and we leave that day with two PRs.”
That moment, Tussing says, was the breakthrough he and his throwers needed.
That summer, Tussing says he read every book on throwing he could find. He also attended a weeklong coaching clinic in Colorado with the USA Track and Field Coaches Education Program.
“I learned a whole lot,” he said. “I learned a lot of drills and concepts I didn’t know before. I came out with fundamentals, finally.”
Tussing poured himself into the study of throwing, but he acknowledges he stood out at clinics for other reasons. The world of throwing coaches is populated by scores of former throwers, large, barrel-chested men and women who were 140 pounds in the seventh grade. Tussing admits there’s a stigma he’s had to overcome.
“I get called the distance runner when I go to clinics,” he said. “It’s tough for me outside of VCU to go to a clinic or a conference with other throws coaches and be taken seriously. It’s still tough. I haven’t necessarily figured that one out yet.”
While the physicality of throwing may not seem a fit for Tussing, the technical aspects are a perfect match for his meticulous, detail-oriented personality. Tussing later attended camps in Arizona and Las Vegas. At every turn, he was looking for more information.
As Tussing grew professionally, so too did the VCU throwing programs. The following year, freshmen Julia Anyaugo and Samantha Mosley placed fifth and eighth, respectively, in the discus at the CAA Championships – the first VCU freshman throwers ever to score at the meet.
Records began to fall, and in 2011, Tussing also took over the men’s throwing squad. That season, Anyaugo became the first VCU thrower to qualify for an NCAA Regional meet and shattered the school mark in the discus.
There are now 12 throwers on the “VCU Throws Squad”, as they prefer to be known, a united, motley collection of hulking athletes who live to throw heavy things far. And they’re really good at it.
Last season, VCU throwers scored 90 points at the CAA Championship meet, the most by any school. Prior to 2012, VCU throwers had won an event (shot put, discus, hammer, javelin) at the CAA Championships just twice in 16 years. In 2012, they won three. This weekend at the Atlantic 10 Championship Meet, they’ll look to do even better. Sophomore Brandon Ruffin won the CAA shot put title last year and is an emerging star. Last year, senior Frank Alriye set a school record in the discus. On the women’s side, junior twins Jaleesa and Jessica Williams have been terrorizing the shot put, discus and hammer throw.
In the middle of all those giants is Tussing, whose abilities are no longer in question, not at VCU.
“Sometimes he isn’t respected at first because of his size, but he lets his throwers do the talking,” says junior Luke Thomason, a 6-foot-4, 300-plus pound mountain of a man who could pass for Tussing’s bodyguard.
In “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell hypothesized that it takes some one about 10,000 hours to master their craft. Whatever Tussing’s hourly count is at, he’s certainly getting close. These days, Tussing is quickly able to dispel any fears about his credentials.
“He may not be able to throw it, but he can go through the movements of throwing. Because he won’t expect you to do any drill that he can’t do himself,” says Thomason.
Jaleesa Williams, who currently holds school records in the women’s shot put and discus indoors and outdoors, says Tussing surprised her early on in the recruiting process.
“He came to one of my meets and he just dropped some knowledge on me. That did it right there,” said Williams, who qualified for the 2012 NCAA East Regional in the discus.
There are instances where Tussing’s background may help him. Williams says that because Tussing isn’t a former thrower, he doesn’t try to mold throwers into his style. Instead, he can step back and assess each individual thrower’s needs.
“I really liked seeing someone who has a plan for you, not someone who wants you to throw like they used to throw – because that tends to happen,” she said. “It was more of like, this is what you do and this is how I can help make you better.”
Thomason says Tussing’s technical, conscious approach to throwing has helped the Rams diagnose and correct their own mistakes.
“He’s conditioned us to when we throw, good or bad, we’ll walk over to him and start saying what we felt and didn’t feel in the throw, and that’s one thing that he’s done really well because it’s all about how it feels,” he said. “He may be able to tell you over and over how to do something, but if you can’t feel it, you can’t do it.”
When he attends meets these days, Tussing rarely pays attention to the happenings on the track. Instead, he gravitates to the throwing events. A few years ago, the notion seemed ludicrous. The last barrier of acceptance he had to cross, apparently, was his own.
“I do self-identify as a throws coach now,” he said. “I wake up, and I think throws.”
Instead, he’s fully invested in a job he never dreamed he’d have, one where he hopes to leave an indelible mark.
“I’m looking for a culture of success; success and hard work and championships,” he says. “The group that’s here now, that’s what they’re all about. When we go to conference meets, we want to be the best group of throwers there. When we show up at meets, and people see that the VCU Throws squad is there and be upset that they’re going to have to take second fiddle that day. That’s the goal.”