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Original Issue

Man with a Hammer

Walter Henning excels at an obscure—and ancient—sport

South Huntington, N.Y.

THE GYM of St. Anthony's High in South Huntington, N.Y., is a proud place, festooned with championship banners, but a sizable chunk of wood is missing from one of the basketball backboards. Walter Henning knows why. "I used to stand there when practicing the shot put," he said recently, blushing a bit as he pointed to the half-court line. "One day it went farther than I expected. I don't intentionally destroy school property."

No, but he has wrecked havoc on the record books. Henning, a 6'1", 220-pound senior, holds 12 national high school records, including the mark for the 25-pound weight throw (86'5 1/2") and the junior-year record in the 13.2 pound hammer throw (238'2" feet). "It's amazing to watch him," says his father, Walt, a track coach at nearby Farmingdale High. "When it's time for him to get ready to compete, there's an intense switch in him. This tremendous competitor comes out."

Henning trains five days a week, throwing the shot before school, practicing the hammer in the afternoon and lifting weights at night. He is instructed in hammer by a private coach, Marty Engel, a 1952 Olympian in the event. To the amazement of his father, Henning sought out Engel himself as an eighth-grader, not long after he had seen the hammer throw at a meet and became intrigued. "I just like the difficulty of it," Henning says. "It's really challenging." It helped that he had a natural talent for the sport. Henning, a Lutheran, also asked to attend St. Anthony's instead of the highly regarded local high school because New York public schools don't compete in the hammer throw.

Henning's goal this outdoor season (his first meet is April 7) is to break the 12-pound high school hammer throw record of 253'3" set by his friend and training partner, Jacob Freeman, 26, in 1999. Henning will likely demolish that mark—he was just nine inches shy last year. "I want those records," says Henning, who has already committed to North Carolina. "This season is my last chance to break them." Basketball backboards, be warned.


THE ORIGINS of the hammer throw date to 2000 B.C., when the Celts—just for sport—grabbed chariot wheels by their axles, whirled them over their heads and let them fly. About 500 years ago the event actually involved sledgehammers. Today's high school competition, done with a 12-pound metal weight attached to a wire, requires precise technique. As Henning tapes his fingers and puts on his throwing glove, he becomes intensely focused. He swings the weight above his head twice like a lasso and then spins four times, keeping his knees bent and close together. The release, with arms straight and hands out front, is the easy part. "You have to be relaxed on the top [arms and shoulders] and working on the bottom [legs and hips]," Henning says. If anything is off, he won't get a large orbit going and the hurl will look straight out of the Dark Ages.



SWING TIME High school record holder Henning studies technique with a former Olympian.