TIM PEELER: Shot-putter Pope Hopes for NCAA Title
Editor's note: This article appeared in the May, 2007 issue of The Wolfpacker. It is reprinted with permission of Coman Publishing Co.
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH -- Mitchell Pope knew that he didn’t necessarily need to be stronger to be better in the shot put technique trumps brute strength any day in this track and field event.
But that didn’t stop the Wolfpack’s All-American shot putter from spending nearly every day of the offseason in the weight room, working on his leg strength and upper body strength. After all, he could always use the improved explosiveness to throw the 16-pound steel ball a little farther.
The changes were remarkable. Pope improved his bench press by 115 pounds over the last year and used a variety of squats, power-cleans and snatches to make his legs even more powerful. “You can get the ball in better spots the stronger you are,” Pope said.
Now, as he prepares to qualify for the NCAA Track and Field Championships for the third time in his five years with the Wolfpack, Pope is trying to find the right mix of technique and power.
“[Getting stronger] has messed with me a little bit because I am trying to overpower the ball a little bit instead of throw it,” Pope said. “It has made my technique really rough. The reason I have gotten better this year is that I got a lot stronger. That’s why my bad throws go a lot farther now. I am really working on the technique right now, especially in making the transition from indoor to outdoor.
“Once they come together, I am expecting big things. Definitely, if I throw what I am capable of at the end of the year, I can contend for a national championship.”
So far this year, Pope has twice approached 65 feet in competition, which well exceeds his previous career best of 62-5. He believes he can go much, much farther, when his strength and technique come together.
“I am really shooting for 70 feet,” Pope said. “My career best is 64-10. I have thrown 66 or 67 in practice. I know once I get it all together, a 70-foot throw is possible. That would rank me high in the world and at the top of the U.S. in terms of collegiate or professional.
“I really do believe it is all within reach.”
The funny thing is that Pope never intended to spend his athletic career throwing the steel shot put or the hammer. The Hudson, N.C., native wanted to be a college basketball player. Track and field was just his way of getting out of bagging groceries at his hometown Food Lion after his sophomore year at South Caldwell High School. His parents told him it was time to find a part-time job to earn extra money and to have something to keep himself busy.
“How about I go out for track and field instead so I can stay in shape for basketball?” asked Pope, figuring he could improve his running and jumping while working out with the track team.
But he flamed out as a pole vaulter and a high jumper. He even broke a couple of poles trying to learn how to vault himself over the bar. His coaches steered him in a less destructive direction, knowing that Pope probably couldn’t break a shot put.
As he got stronger and put on more weight more than 100 pounds between his sophomore and senior years of high school Pope got better and better at the shot put, even though he was using an outdated scoot-and-push technique favored by amateurs. As a senior, he won both the indoor and outdoor state championship in the shot put.
Even though he might have been able to play basketball at a small school, Pope instead chose to come to NC State to study technology education and compete for head coach Rollie Geiger’s track and field program.
“Definitely, if I would have stayed with basketball, I might have played at a small junior college or something, because I was all right,” Pope said. “But track has taken me way above that.”
After redshirting in 2003, Pope has continually improved his distances, especially after learning, from NC State assistant coach Tom Wood, the spin-and-throw technique used by most world-class shot putters.
“He is consistently developing and throwing the ball farther every year, which is what you want,” Wood said. “I think he has an awful lot more in him, to be honest. We are constantly developing his style and making the subtle adjustments we need to move his line forward.”
Pope was not particularly happy with the way he performed at the NCAA Indoor Championships March 9-10 in Fayetteville, Ark. He finished seventh, with a throw of 63-3, still picking up All-America honors.
“I didn’t throw quite what I wanted to,” Pope said. “I had hoped to finish in at least the top three. If I had thrown my best throw [64-10], that is where I would have finished. I guess having a bad day and still getting All-America is not all that bad, but I was hoping for better.”
Pope knows he can open a lot of eyes with good performances at the NCAA East Regionals May 25-26 in Gainesville, Fla., and at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which are slated for June 6-9 in Sacramento, Calif. It may even allow him to fulfill his dream of earning the contracts he needs to compete as a professional shot putter. Pope plans to make his professional debut two weeks after the NCAA Championships.
“I really have, over the last couple of years, tried to turn track into a lifestyle,” Pope said. “I would like to continue doing it because I can’t imagine myself not doing this after college is over.”
It sure beats bagging groceries.
Tim Peeler is the managing editor of www.GoPack.com and a frequent contributor to The Wolfpacker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.