When Rudy Winkler was in 4th grade, he signed up for the Averill Park Road Runners, a Rensselear County track-and-field club team for children ages 7–14. “I started out doing the two-mile and and the high jump and shot put,” Winkler says. “You had to do a running event and a field event, but eventually I ended up just doing shot put and they let me skip the running. I was a bigger kid, and the whole purpose of me starting it was to lose a little weight, but then I ended up not running anyway. It was kind of funny.”
It may have been a laugh at the time, but switching his focus exclusively to a throwing event is what set Winkler on his path to the Olympic Games. In 7th grade, he made the Averill Park High School track team, where he was first introduced to the weight throw—essentially the indoor version of the hammer throw, Winkler’s current discipline. He was a natural, and in his freshman year, he made it to high school nationals. “I fouled out,” Winkler remembers. “I got, like, last place. But this [coach] came up to me—his athlete had just won the meet—and he gave me his card and offered to coach me. His name is Paddy McGrath, and he’s been my coach ever since.”
McGrath, a former Olympic hammer thrower himself, coached Winkler through the junior championships and his college career (he threw for Cornell and Rutgers universities), all the way to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and beyond. “In 2016, I threw 76 meters at nationals and won the meet, but because I didn’t [receive the minimum mark to qualify for the Games], I wasn’t immediately invited to the Olympics,” says Winkler, who was still in college at the time. “That experience was a little strange. Winning trials was kind of unexpected, and I didn’t really feel like I qualified for the Games until I was at the opening ceremony.” Winkler finished 18th in Rio.
This year was different, though. Winkler met the standard for the Games at his first meet of the year, and, while he wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the US team heading into the Olympic trials, he knew if he did well at the meet, he’d be headed to Tokyo.
Winkler didn’t just make it onto Team USA, he did so by shattering the 25-year-old US hammer throw record with a distance of 82.71 meters. (The previous record, set in 1996, was 82.52.) “The 2016 Olympics feels like something that just happened to me,” Winkler says. “But this year, it’s like, this is what we’ve been planning and working for since the last Olympics. So it feels a lot more real than it did the first time around.”
The 26-year-old will be joined in Tokyo by fellow hammer throwers and friends Daniel Haugh and Alex Young, who will each be fighting to put the US on the medal podium for the first time since 1996, when Lance Deal, the thrower whose US record Winkler broke at trials, won the silver medal in Atlanta. And they have a decent shot at doing so—Winkler, Haugh and Young are ranked No. 6, No. 9 and No. 10, respectively, worldwide.
Despite the COVID-19 quarantine requirements at this year’s Games, and the fact that spectators won’t be in stands to cheer on their respective country’s athletes, Winkler says he’s excited for this year’s Olympics. “It’s all going to be strictly business,” he says. “Part of that is nice, because 2016 was a bit overwhelming. You go, and there’s all this stuff you can do and people you can see, and if you don’t have the right headspace, it’s tough. This time around, you don’t really have a choice. I’m excited to use the experience I have from the 2016 Olympics, but also from world championship and other national meets I’ve made since then. Getting to use that experience in a competition like this will be awesome.”
Winkler, who currently lives in Ithaca with his girlfriend, leaves for Tokyo on July 24. The men’s hammer throw qualifying round will take place on August 2, with the finals taking place two days after that. Stay tuned for updates on Winkler and the rest of Team USA’s performance on crlmag.com.