Before his Division I days, before he became known as a record-breaker, before his rivalry with Southern California's Conor McCullough, before answering what’s next as a graduated senior, Michael Lihrman had a question. He was a Wisconsin-Stout freshman at Division III Track & Field nationals and asked if anyone knew a coach around Rice Lake, Wisconsin, his hometown.
He wanted extra training during summer break. Nothing too strange at first glance, just an eager freshman. But Lihrman, competing in discus at nationals, asked for help with the hammer throw. He had only picked up the hammer throw as a Wisconsin-Stout freshman and failed to qualify that year in nationals.But he linked up with Deren Wilder, father of LSU’s Sidnie Wilder -- a fellow hammer thrower -- and got to work. He naturally understood the weight throw, an indoor event, and hammer “physics-wise” compared to shotput and discus. Wilder restarted Lihrman, teaching him the basics.
Not only that, but his coach instilled an attitude in Lihrman that carries him through today.
“In Division III it seemed I always choked when it came to big meets, when it came to our conference meets or when I made it to nationals. Something was wrong,” Lihrman said. “And [Wilder] knew it needed to get changed.
“I needed to think in a completely different way not only about the sport but anything in life. Just being more optimistic about everything.”
Wilder taught Lihrman how to think and how to approach competition days. Remember all the throws already under your belt, Wilder instructed. Think of all the work you’ve already done. The meets are the reward, not more work.
That type of philosophy sharpened Lihrman, improving his skills to gain a transfer to Division I Wisconsin. There he’s thrived, becoming well-known for setting records in events. He has the collegiate record for weight throw (83-11 1/4 (25.58m)) and holds the Big Ten record for hammer throw (247-0 (75.29m)).
“I like breaking records and knowing I hold them. If there’s these records out there that don’t have my name out there, I want it. When I get it," he said, adding a chuckle, "it feels like my throwing portfolio is becoming more complete.”
As much attention as Lihrman has garnered throughout his career, an equal amount of eyes will be focused on McCullough, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA this year. The two have formed a small thrower rivalry, competing neck and neck. Lihrman holds a personal record of 75.29 meters in the hammer while McCullough's career-best throw is 77.20 meters.
McCullough and Lihrman couldn’t have traveled different paths, though. With Lihrman’s rise to weight and hammer-throwing elite all occurring within the past four years, McCullough grew up a thrower and won World Championship Junior Gold in 2010 in hammer throw.
The margin between the two couldn’t be more slim, but Lihrman isn’t letting McCullough’s history vex him.
“It’s all about staying positive and doing your best on that day,” Lihrman said. “It could come down to one of us sleeping bad the night before. I mean anything could happen.”
Lihrman has specific goals he’d like to hit, regardless of McCullough. He’s looking to hit the 76-meter mark during the hammer throw event Wednesday. Should he hit that, it will be a new PR and qualify him for the USA and World championships.
Still, beating McCullough would be a perk.
“I’ve got plenty of years left to throw,” Lihrman said. “Conor [McCullough]’s been doing it for so long, but I’m just getting started.”