Valarie Allman celebrates at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 2, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — Valarie Allman used to tour the country as a dancer. Now, she says, her dance routines are a second and a half, and repeated over and over again.
On Monday, she needed just one of those dances to become an Olympic gold medalist. Allman took a few well-place steps, spun and then threw the discus 68.98 meters (226-3) on her first attempt during the evening session at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. That throw not only secured a win in her first Olympics, but also Team USA’s first gold medal in track and field at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Kristin Pudenz of Germany won the silver medal, while Cuba’s Yaime Perez won the bronze.
“I can’t believe it,” Allman said. “I’ve watched the Olympics for as long as I can remember and athletics has always had such a special part in my heart, and to now be here, be in his moment, it feels so surreal.”
Coming into the Olympics with the second best mark so far in 2021, Allman set the standard with her first throw. That proved to be key when a rain delay suspended the competition after the second throw and disrupted the throwers’ momentum. A strong start was part of the plan, though, for just this reason.
“My coach and I always talk about being able to set the tone right at the start of the competition,” she said. “And to come out with a solid mark like that felt good.”
Allman, 26, becomes just the third U.S. woman to win an Olympic gold medal in discus, joining Lillian Copeland in 1932 and Stephanie Brown Trafton in 2008.
Only a decade ago, Allman’s future looked more likely to be as a dancer. Since she was a girl, she’d always loved to dance — ballet, hip-hop, tap, you name it. Eventually she was selected to join “The Pulse on Tour,” a traveling dance program organized by the choreographers of hit TV shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “American Idol.”
“I absolutely loved dance,” she said. “There’s something so beautiful about the movement and the coordination and the balance.”
A spaghetti dinner set her on a new path.
When Allman arrived at Silver Creek High School in Longmont, Colorado, the track coach there couldn’t help but notice her physical gifts. Looking for an activity to do outside of dance, Allman went out for the team. Her time as a sprinter and jumper didn’t quite tug at her passions, though.
Then she found out the throwers were hosting a spaghetti dinner.
“They said if you come try any of the throwing events you can come to the dinner,” Allman said. “That won me over. Now looking back, gosh darn that was the best spaghetti dinner of my entire life. I can’t believe it.”
Allman quickly rose through the sport. She went from setting the Colorado high school state record to Stanford, where she won All-America honors doing the discus, hammer throw and weight throw. By 2017 she had graduated and made her first world championships in discus, and two years later she made the final there.
Her real breakthrough came, of all times, during the pandemic.
In 2019, with Allman having turned pro, she used the season to “normalize” competing against top competition in Diamond League events across Europe, her coach Zebulon Sion said.
“And it worked,” he said. “She become more comfortable, more familiar, got good at traveling, all those types of things. And then 2020 was literally the opposite. All of a sudden we don’t have any meets. So now it’s literally just focusing it down, scoping it down to training, thinking about things the right way.”
The only thing missing was a competition. If one came up, they decided, they’d go.
As it worked out, there was an event called the Iron Wood Throws Center Invite taking place on Aug. 1 — the day the discus competition at the Tokyo Games was supposed to start, prior to its postponement. The only problem? The meet was in Rathdrum, Idaho. That’s about 2,000 miles away from Allman’s training base in Austin, Texas, where Sion also coaches the Texas Longhorns throwers.
They packed up the car and drove to Idaho. Then, in her first competition in 10 months, she set an American record. With a throw of 70.15 meters — or 230 feet, 2 inches — Allman also joined the exclusive 70 meter club. Allman became the 25th woman to do it (it’s since grown to 26). For good measure, she and Sion then added an eight-hour round-trip to Hermiston, Oregon, to complete a drug test needed for World Athletics to certify the record. A Doping Control Officer from Portland met them at a gas station not collect the sample.
Allman’s throw was no fluke. She hit the 70-meter mark again during the prelims at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in June, then won the final by throwing 7.38 meters (24 feet, 3 inches) beyond her closest competitor.
Arriving in Tokyo as a medal favorite, Allman cruised through the prelims on Saturday, her 66.42 meter mark outpacing the field by more than two meters. On the first throw Monday she upped her own distance by more than two meters. The final thrower in the sixth round, Allman scratched, but it didn’t matter. She already had the gold locked up. Spreading her arms in triumph, Allman looked into the dark night sky, then ran to meet Sion in the crowd and get an American flag to drape around her.
“Our team is filled with so many incredible athletes,” she said, “and I am just blown away that I am not only a medalist — I am the gold medalist. It is like a dream come true.”