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Epic Toss: Discus World Record-Setter Adds to Cal’s Olympic Momentum

He’s not the only Cal athlete heading to the Paris Games.

May 2, 2024
by Margie Cullen
Mykolas Alekna prepares to throw a discus at the 2024 Brutus Hamilton Invitational. Mykolas Alekna prepares to throw a discus at the 2024 Brutus Hamilton Invitational at Edwards Stadium. Courtesy Cal Athletics, Catharyn Hayne/KLC fotos

It was the perfect day in the tiny town of Ramona for the second meet of the Oklahoma Throws Series when Cal discus athlete Mykolas Alekna ’25 stepped up to the throwing circle. Despite the ideal wind conditions and open fields, he had been finding it hard to decompress.

“Mentally it’s hard sometimes, you want to throw relaxed but then you’re too hyped up,” he said in an interview with throwing expert Daniel McQuaid.

But by the fifth round, he had loosened up enough. His throw reached 74.41 meters, shattering the world record by 11 inches.

“I can’t put in words what it felt like,” said his coach Mohamad “Mo” Saatara. “Obviously, a world record is huge, especially in the discus. That’s a legendary record.”

The mark Alekna surpassed was the longest standing record in men’s track and field history, set in 1986 by Jurgen Schult. Many great throwers have come and gone since then, unable to break it, Saatara said, until now.

“It’s hard to understand what I just did,” Alekna said following the throw. “I knew that it could be the day, and it just happened.”

Saatara said it wasn’t a surprise, but a matter of time. 

Saatara started recruiting Alekna from his home country of Lithuania when he was improving rapidly his junior year of high school.

Lithuania has a long tradition of successful discus throwers; since 1992, there’s been at least one Lithuanian featured in the discus Olympics finals. Alekna comes from a throwing family, too: his father, Virgilijus Alekna, was a two time-world champion and an Olympic gold medalist whose personal record is still the third best discus mark ever. From early on, Saatara could see that he had all the characteristics of being great, from his explosiveness to his technique. 

Right before coming to Cal for freshman year, Alekna won the discus at the U20 world championships in Nairobi, Kenya.

“He didn’t go back home: he came from Kenya straight to school,” Saatara said. At 19, Alekna won the senior European Championships for the first time, and last year he got third at the World Championships.

Now at 21, Alekna’s sight is set on the Olympics, where Saatara says “the goal is victory.” Alekna has already been selected to represent Lithuania at the Games.

He will join star hammer thrower Camryn Rogers ’22, who won the 2023 World Championships and came in fifth at the Tokyo Olympics as the youngest competitor in the field. She will be representing Canada in Paris.

Camryn Rogers competes in the hammer throw at the 2024 Brutus Hamilton Invitational at Edwards Stadium. Courtesy Cal Athletics, Catharyn Hayne/KLC fotos

While they are the only two Cal throwers that have been officially selected for the Games, Saatara has several other athletes that have a shot, like Anna Purchase ’22, M.A. ’23, of Great Britain, who finished 11th at the World Championships last year, or Elena Bruckner, an assistant coach at Cal who was third at the 2023 US Championships. Other hopefuls include Sweden’s Caisa-Marie Lindfors and Canada’s Rowan Hamilton ’24. Jasmine Blair ’23, a fifth year who was a walk-on to the team, just qualified for the US Olympic Trials.

“To see someone develop that much over the years,” Saatara said. “She’s an extremely talented young lady and has a very bright future as a thrower.”

For an event that often goes under the radar, the Olympics is its grand stage: discus was one of the five original events in the first games in Athens. And Cal is a powerhouse program for throwing; in fact, Cal’s first national champion was hammer thrower John Merchant.

Saatara said it’s a great honor for him to have so many athletes who can compete at a high level.

“We don’t have a lot of fancy equipment. Some of the programs that are in the NCAA now, they have incredible facilities,” he said. “But what we have is our student athletes that are disciplined, that understand the value of competitiveness.” The group is very close, he added; on Instagram, they often use the hashtag “#moskids.”

A Bevy of Cal Athletes Expected to Compete in Paris 

“Mo’s kids” won’t be the only Cal athletes in Paris, of course. UC Berkeley has an impressive Olympic history: over 400 Cal alums and athletes have taken home a total of 223 medals since first competing in the Olympics in 1920. At the last Olympics in Tokyo, 49 athletes from Cal became Olympians, collecting 16 medals combined.

California’s schools in general have long produced Olympians, with hundreds of medals from Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA, and USC. According to Mark Dryeson, a professor at Penn State who specializes in the history of sport, this is because of an intentional strategy by the government, a “Californization” of the Olympics.

This year, this “Californization” is likely to continue, especially from the flagship state university. Less than 100 days out from the opening ceremony in Paris, six Cal athletes (current and alum) are confirmed Olympians so far. In addition to throwers Rogers and Alekna, they include swimmers Lucas Henveaux from Belgium, Hugo Gonzalez ’23 from Spain, and Farida Osman ’17 from Egypt, as well as rower Kara Kohler ’14 of the US.

But Jonathan Okanes, the assistant athletic director for communications, said that the “overwhelming majority of our Olympians are still to be determined.”

While many other countries hand select their athletes, the US conducts team trials for sports like swimming and track and field. Swimming, a sport that Cal dominates, is one where Okanes expects many Bears representing the US..

Right now, over thirty Cal swimmers are headed to the US Olympic trials, and Okanes listed thirteen of them as having a big chance of making the team: for men, they include Jack Alexy ’25, Gabriel Jett ’25, and Destin Lasco ’24; for women, Abbey Weitzeil ’20, Rachel Klinker ’23, and Isabelle Stadden ’24.

There are a few other international swimmers who also still have a shot to qualify, like Israel’s Leah Polonsky ’25.

He also expects more Olympians from water polo, rowing, soccer, and other sports. 

In men’s water polo, Adrian Weinberg ’23, Johnny Hooper ’19, and Luca Cupido ’18 have all team-qualified for the US and should make the roster. On the women’s side, the Netherlands’ Kitty Lynn Joustra ’22 and Canada’s Emma Write and Kindred Paul ’18 have qualified, but the official team roster has not yet been named.

Men’s rowing has men from Denmark to New Zealand who have all qualified for their country’s respective trials. They include Joachim Sutton ’19, Jack Cleary ’20, and Ollie Maclean ’22 among about a dozen standouts.

For men’s golf, Max Homa ’13 and Collin Morikawa ’19, both of whom were high on the leaderboard recently at the Masters, are favored to qualify, as is Celtics star Jaylen Brown ’19 in men’s basketball.

In addition to athletes, Cal often sends a handful of coaches who are named to the staffs of different teams. Those announcements will come out at a later date.

There are likely other athletes too, who we didn’t mention here. As usual, it’s an embarrassment of riches for Cal.

Maybe this year, the Bears will bring home more medals than that school down in Palo Alto.

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