Lance Brooks '08 of Denver missed qualifying for the 2008 Olympics discus throw by only 26 inches. Four years later, in June of this year, he erased that memory and sealed his spot on the 2012 U.S. Summer Olympic team by heaving a personal-best throw that was nearly six feet farther than his closest competitor at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. The suspense of “would he or wouldn’t he” make the Olympics came down to Brooks’ sixth and final throw of the day. After fouling on the previous two throws and needing to match or exceed the Olympic “A” standard distance of 65 meters (213 feet, 3 inches) in order to clinch his spot on the U.S. team, Brooks threw his discus 65.15 meters (213 feet, 9 inches), notched his right to be an Olympian and further confirmed his ranking as the No. 1 discus thrower in the U.S. With that same throw, he also beat his previous career-best throw of 64.92 meters (213 feet), set at a competition just a few months earlier.
“That’s definitely not how I’d like to do it. It’s a little stressful, a little nerve-wracking,” Brooks told the Denver Post afterward. “But I’ve always seemed to throw well at the end of the meet.”
The former Eagle Scout had long ago set a lifetime goal of competing in the Olympics. Although his first and ongoing love was basketball, beginning with playing YMCA ball in fourth grade, Brooks competed in track starting in junior high. Initially coached by his father and uncle because no track team existed, he went on to win a state title in the discus during his senior year at New Berlin (Ill.) High School. He also earned varsity letters all four years in both basketball and baseball.
When Brooks set foot on the Millikin campus in fall 2002, he fully intended to focus on basketball with the hope of playing professionally after college. However, with some persuasion from then track coach Don Luy, Brooks ultimately competed in the discus all four years, setting several school records. His throw of 57.85 meters in May 2006 still stands as first in the Big Blue record book, outstripping the second-place finisher by more than nine meters. Brooks placed fourth in the nation in the discus throw that year and was recognized as an NCAA Division III All-American for his efforts.
Following graduation from Millikin with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, Brooks briefly trained at the University of Arizona before moving to Denver to enter graduate school in limnology (inland waters ecology) at the University of Colorado. All the while, he worked part time to support himself while fitting in training during his spare time. A job in a bar brought him to the attention of throwing coach Steve DeAutremont, who had qualified for the 1976 Olympics in the hammer throw. DeAutremont could see that Brooks was frittering away a very viable shot at becoming a top professional athlete in the discus event, and he had a stern wake-up call for Brooks: Make your training your top priority if you want to work with me.
At that time, Brooks had worked up to seven part-time jobs at once to support himself, including high school coach, model, bartender, bouncer and construction worker. On the advice of DeAutremont, he cut back on employment to focus more intently on the skills he needed to successfully complete his quest to be an Olympian. “I relied on a lot of my natural ability, my athleticism, to throw,” Brooks told the Denver Post. “It got me to a certain level, but when Steve and I started working together and we started doing the [weight] lifting part, I realized your talent can take you to a certain level, but if you want to be world class and elite, you have to do the right lifts and train like one.”
DeAutremont probably wasn’t the first to realize the obvious: The New Berlin native was born to throw the discus. Unlike most humans, whose outstretched arms give them a wingspan as wide as they are tall, Brooks’ wingspan tops his 6-foot-6-inch height by a good six inches. That wingspan is anchored by a solid-as-granite foundation, with Brooks’ perennially large feet ensconced in their size 17 Nike shoes (“My footprint barely fit on the birth certificate when I was born!” he says.). For a sport where strong arms and strong legs are vital, that gives him a distinct edge, as well as the fact that the 270-pound athlete can leap from a standing position to a platform 57 inches above the ground. (Hard to believe? Watch the video: www.lancebrooksolympics.com/media.php)
“Just take a picture of him and put somebody standing next to him, you get a pretty good idea,” DeAutremont told the Post. “Then I take a look at those size 17 feet, and I just grin every day.” After Brooks dedicated himself to full-time training with DeAutremont, the results started to show, with Brooks finishing fourth at the 2009 U.S. Track and Field Championships. In 2010, he tossed the fourth-best throw in the U.S. and was ranked 14th in the world. Several top finishes followed over the next two years, culminating with Brooks’ performances in Eugene at the Olympic Trials in June, finishing in first as a qualifier and then three days later heaving that last-attempt throw of 65.15 meters to win the discus trials outright.
The transformation from naturally gifted, semi-serious discus thrower to professional world-class athlete was done. Brooks had achieved his childhood dream to be an Olympian. The next step was the Summer Olympics in London in August, an experience he calls “amazing” despite the fact his rhythm was off on competition day, and he finished in 21st place, four meters short of his personal-best throw. “I felt good and ready to throw, just mistimed a few technique points during the competition,” he said. The amazing experience continued for the 28-year-old Olympian even after the games were over, highlighted by a place of honor in New Berlin’s homecoming parade and a visit to the White House. Singled out from more than 400 USA Olympic team members in attendance that day, Brooks was surprised to find himself on the receiving end of a shout-out from President Obama for his hardscrabble journey to get to the Olympics. The president took special note of how Brooks successfully balanced his discus training while often pouring concrete for up to 12 hours a day as a construction worker.
More accolades came during Millikin’s homecoming in October, when Brooks was inducted into the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame, along with Lin Stoner ’73, Denise Fogle ’91 and Suzanne Murphy Short ’00. It wasn’t his first trip back to campus after graduation. Brooks has returned to MU four times to lead a throwing clinic for area youth and help provide the type of professional coaching he wishes he’d received as a youngster. “I enjoy teaching kids,” he says. “I didn’t have anything like this when I was growing up.” Competitors in the discus event traditionally peak in their 30s, and Brooks will be only 32 when the 2016 Summer Olympics are held in Rio de Janeiro. He plans to be ready
Deb Hale Kirchner is editor of Millikin Quarterly magazine and director of communications and services for the alumni and development office. She has never competed in a discus event, but she finished second in the pole vault while in sixth grade and still has the ribbon somewhere.