Mason Finley in action in the men's discus final at the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships at the London Stadium on Aug. 5, 2017 in London.
Before Mason Finley got on the path to become an Olympian, he had to reshape his thinking. And for Finley, that meant rethinking his shape.
Over the course of three years, Finley lost 89 pounds to become a fit 6-foot-8, 348 pounds — still a mountain of a man. Trimming down on size led to better footwork and agility for the discus thrower. It led to the Olympic Games Rio 2016, and last week it led to a bronze medal at the IAAF World Championships in London.
At the world championships, Finley threw a personal record of 67.07 meters on his first throw. He set another new PR on his second throw at 68.03, which was good enough to hold down the eventual bronze medal. The 26-year-old became the third U.S. man to medal in discus at the world championships, and the first since 1999.
Finley’s journey to the top began in Salida, Colorado, and had important stops in Lawrence, Kansas; Laramie, Wyoming; and Eugene, Oregon.
Having learned the throws from his father, Finley became a three-time high school state champion in both discus and shot put in Colorado. He set the U.S. national high school record in the discus with a throw of 236 feet, 6 inches.
Each year in high school he added 40 more feet to his discus throws, he said.
His path to stardom and becoming the top thrower in the United States took off in college. Competing first for Kansas and later for Wyoming, Finley wanted to see how big and strong he could be. He ate a lot and he lifted a lot of weights, eventually tipping the scale at 437 pounds. But with added body weight came added problems.
“I hurt my back, I had a herniated disc and my joints hurt in my knees and ankles,” Finley said. “When I was injured I couldn’t lift the same.”
At the time he was benching nearly 400 pounds at three reps and cleaning the same amount. His front squat was about 500 pounds. But the big man started swimming. He pulled a sled for 30 minutes. The weight fell off and his energy levels rose.
“Once the weight started falling off I started doing more jumps and sprints,” he said. “My weight room numbers dropped, but I could do more plyometric-wise, and it correlated to my throws getting better.”
In 2012, he placed second at the NCAA outdoor championships in the discus and finished sixth in the shot put as a junior for KU. In 2014, he placed sixth at the NCAAs in the discus while throwing for Wyoming, where he graduated with a theater degree.
He’s played a few roles as a bouncer in small independent films. Finley said he’d like to get some speaking parts added to his portfolio.
Meanwhile, the sport of discus throwing has provided Finley with financial security.
Finley has an imposing presence — one that would make most NFL linemen and professional wrestlers envious. However, he said it’s not all about size when it comes to discus prowess.
“Technique is everything. There are big guys out there all the time who struggle,” Finley said. “You have to develop a technique that plays to your tools. It’s all physics. You can’t throw the discus with just heart. It’s speed times power. Energy and all of that.”
Finley carried his energy into the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field in Eugene last summer, where he won the meet and qualified for Rio. He made the Olympic finals and finished 11th with a throw of 62.05 meters.
“I thought I did great in Rio. Just being able to get there was awesome,” he said. “I’ve seen many of my competitors on YouTube, and they’re my heroes.”
He said confidence gained from the Games carried over to his training. Finley said that he and his team have taken a microscopic approach to training, whether it’s diet, lifts, speed training or throws at practice.
“I’ve cleaned up my diet and worked on technical issues and plyometric training,” Finley said. “I’ve gotten to a high level, now I have to be more technical on those things.”
He said that the farther a discus athlete throws, the little things matter even more. Now he hopes to take those little things and his big physique atop the medal podium at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“After the season we’ll take a more powerful microscope to push out another meter or two,” Finley said. “We’re planning for at least Tokyo, and we’ll see what the body says after that.”
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 18 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.