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Shot-putter Clarke back on track after injury

Beth Bragg
Charlie Neibergall

Forgive Jordan Clarke for finger-pointing when he explains why it seems like he disappeared from track and field following a spectacular career at Arizona State.

Clarke, a big, strong Anchorage man who excels in a sport known for muscle and power, is like the mighty oak felled by little strokes. A four-time NCAA shot put champion, Clarke's journey from amateur athlete to professional was hampered and almost halted by an injury to his pointer finger.

For more than a year Clarke struggled with a torn tendon in the index finger of his throwing hand, at one point taking a four-month break from training and competition. He spent the winter trying to get back to where he was before the injury, and the comeback trail ultimately led him farther than he'd ever been before.

Earlier this month, Clark, 23, reached one of his sport's milestones by surpassing the 70-foot mark. Clarke let loose with a throw of 70 feet, 11/2 inches, a personal-best mark this is the sixth best in the world this year.

The effort could not have come at a better time -- his next competition is Wednesday at the USA Track and Field Championships in Sacramento, California, where he will be among the favorites.

How he does there could impact his quest to make the 2016 Summer Olympics team.

"I'm really happy I PR'd and that I'm sitting No. 6 in the world right now," Clarke said from East Mesa, Ariz., where he lives with his fiancee. "The problem is, we have so many really talented shot putters in the United States right now that sponsors are going to invest in only a few select people.

"It's really difficult to make it in this country. It really depends on what I do at the U.S. meet -- if I medal or win it will solidify my chances. Or it may very well work out that I don't have a sponsor next season."

Americans rule when it comes to men's shot put. Five men have thrown farther than Clarke this year, and four of them are American. Below him on the list is another American, two-time world champion Ryan Whiting.

Clarke, a chiseled 6-foot-4, said he signed a one-year contract with Nike earlier this year that is largely performance-based. He hopes to land a longer-term deal next year, one that might see him through the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The2008 Bartlett High graduate appeared to be on track for that kind of a contract until his injury. He had earned four straight NCAA championships at Arizona State and was flirting with the 70-foot mark. Then came the tendon tear, which happened during training at the beginning of the NCAA indoor season last year and created pain and trouble for more than a year.

An injured index finger may seem like small-scale stuff, but it's huge if you're a shot putter.

"If you're living a regular life, it really doesn't make that big a difference, but in my particular event, it's quite important," Clarke said. "It's supposed to come off three fingers if you do it correctly -- index, middle and ring.

"We're throwing a 16-pound implement, and with the amount of force it takes to make the ball go far, there's only so much you can do to prevent injuries. ... There's a very, very small number of professional shot putters that have never had a hand injury before."

Clarke's injury evolved into a serious setback. First diagnosed as nerve damage, the tear wasn't detected for nearly a year because the inflammation was so bad it didn't show up on the initial MRI. Once the tear healed, it left scar tissue that caused continued trouble and pain.

"I had the option of having surgery, but that would have been a really long recovery and it would've been kind of iffy, because it's in such a small area -- it could have done more damage than good," Clarke said. "So I just rested it, splintered it, iced it and did every bit of rehab I possibly could.

"Now it's back to where it should be. It only took a year."

The injury proved costly.

It restricted Clarke's training during his senior season at Arizona State and probably cost him a fifth NCAA championship -- he placed second in his final college meet with a throw that fell short of his usual standards.

And it may have cost him a better deal once he turned pro.

"What I did before (at Arizona State) was basically building my resume, but since my senior year was so poor, everyone lost interest," he said.

Clarke wound up getting a job as a nutrition counselor and spent nearly eight months working 40 hours a week and training 20 to 25 hours a week. "My day was train from 9 till 12:30 or 1, and work from 1:30 to 9:30 every night, five or six days a week," he said. "It was rough. It was not easy to do."

In February, less than two weeks before the USA indoor championships, Clarke quit his job so he could focus on the shot put. He threw 68-2 at the indoor championships, his best throw of the season and less than four inches short of his personal best at the time.

Then came a PR of 69-7 at a meet in May in Tucson, Arizona, a throw that ranks as the world's eighth-best this year. He improved his personal record on June 15 when he broke the 70-foot barrier at a meet in Idaho. A yellow line of chalk marked the 70-foot mark at that meet, and Clarke saw chalk fly when the ball landed.

"I just started clapping," he said. "I yelled a little bit."

Clarke hopes the 70-foot throw will propel him to more good things this week in Sacramento. The stakes there are huge -- a strong performance could be his meal ticket for the next couple of seasons -- but Clarke is focusing on the competition itself and not its potential consequences.

"I love these championship competitions," he said. "I like the fact I have to perform well at this one meet. I'm going into it with the mindset that I have not yet once failed or done poorly at a championship in the last five years, so I have that going for me.

"I'm focusing on having fun, competing and doing my thing. If I focus on the what-ifs or maybe not having a sponsor, to me that takes away from the sport. I'm trying to make the Olympic team for this country because I love this sport. If I put too much emphasis on the money aspect, it takes away some of the focus."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

 


By BETH BRAGG
bbragg@adn.com