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She Can’t Just Toss Off the Image : Discus Champion DeSnoo Has Overcome Injuries, but Not Her Frustrations

Times Staff Writer

The man on the street was polite. After all, he did say, “Excuse me, sir.”

However, it just so happened that he was addressing Laura DeSnoo (pronounced De-Snow), a 22-year-old shot put and discus thrower from San Diego State. She knew he was talking to her, but it didn’t make her feel any better.

“It’s frustrating that American society has a vision of women that we’re going completely against,” DeSnoo said.

DeSnoo threw the discus so well that last month she won an NCAA championship. What’s more, she was 10th in that event at the 1984 Olympics.

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Her struggle is not with success, but rather with people’s perceptions of those who excel in so-called “unladylike” endeavors.

When DeSnoo was a youngster, it troubled her mother that she went from more demure sports to track and field’s weight events while in junior high school. And her mother, a swimmer and diver, always encouraged participation in athletics.

DeSnoo and her close friend, Ramona Pagel (American women’s record holder with a mark of 62-feet 9 1/2-inches in the shot put) do not fit that image of svelte athletes. They look more like the stereotypic Eastern European throwers.

Even though their achievements are often legendary and their percentage of body fat is low, women throwers with broad shoulders and considerable bulk are given about as much respect as wrestlers. Wrestlers may be popular, but they could hardly be regarded as athletes.

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“The basic person sees me and says, ‘Gosh, she’s huge,’ ” said the 5-foot 10-inch, 210-pound DeSnoo, who recently lost 25 pounds and hopes to reduce her body fat to between 15% and 18%. “I want to lose weight and get leaner.”

Pause.

“Kent (Pagel is her coach) gets mad when I say that,” DeSnoo said.

Kent Pagel is a John Madden look-a-like with a cherubic smile. He considers strength and ability to far outweigh appearance.

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“I could have played football, but I wanted to be a thrower,” Pagel said. “I never worried about what people thought about my athletic abilities.”

DeSnoo believes that many people do not regard her as an athlete.

Once she has been recognized as an athlete, she feels she is branded as a thrower. To indicate the type of esteem granted to throwers, their preliminary events are usually held at high school fields hours before the actual meet is scheduled to begin.

No respect.

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Finally, after years of observation, DeSnoo’s mom has changed her evaluation of the sport in which Laura has became a star.

“Throwing the discus is really graceful,” Nancy Parker said. “The whole body has to be in tune. At first, I saw it as a muscle thing. Now, I see it more like a dance.”

Said DeSnoo: “Throwers need speed, strength, agility and explosiveness.”

Not all throwers are big and they don’t have to be. But in a sport where leg strength is the important asset, it’s difficult for someone with short limbs to be successful. Since the discus is based on laws of physics, limbs work as levers. Longer levers are more efficient.

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“Each thrower is an individual,” Ramona Pagel said. “The stereotype gets a little tiring, but you try to ignore it after a while.”

You also try to counter that stereotype. It’s not a mere coincidence that DeSnoo is letting her short blonde hair grow longer.

You try to joke to help hide the hurt.

“I keep joking that I’m going to run the hurdles in the Red-Black (alumni) meet next year,” DeSnoo said.

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Put in perspective, having a man on the street call you “sir” is only a minor problem compared to the injuries DeSnoo has endured, battled and overcome.

Since she started throwing in the seventh grade, she has broken her arm, ankle and thumb. She has had problems with her knees, has had bone spurs in both shoulders which required three operations, and her right ankle was operated on and reconstructed in September.

“I haven’t figured out why I get injured so much,” DeSnoo said, “but I know I don’t heal real well.”

After her September operation, in which tendons were taken from her lower right leg and woven through her ankle to make artificial ligaments, DeSnoo was depressed.

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She couldn’t compete or work out, and often wondered why she wasn’t getting better faster. With a major in sports medicine and an emphasis in kinesiology, DeSnoo said it was particularly frustrating.

“I know things should be better and they’re not,” she said. “I couldn’t sit still or stay down, and I couldn’t handle it.”

Once she started her comeback, DeSnoo decided to see sports psychologist Dennis Selder, a professor of physical education at San Diego State. Throughout the season, DeSnoo believes she has been only 50% to 75% healthy. But she has managed to do fairly well, and a lot of credit goes to her work with Dr. Selder.

“I was so anxious,” DeSnoo said. “I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and pushing myself too hard, too early. If I try too hard, performance goes down.”

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Through the use of “imaging,” DeSnoo said she learned to take things one day at a time and one throw at a time.

“I would visualize all the things that could go wrong,” DeSnoo said. “I would visualize the external factors that could interfere with performance. Then, I would watch myself entering the stadium.”

Once the competition begins, DeSnoo uses technical imagery before each toss. Then, she tries to work herself into what she refers to as “an optimal arousal level.”

If she performs at 60% to 70% efficiency on her first throw, she is pleased. At the NCAA Championships in Austin, Tex. at the end of May, DeSnoo made two average throws before unleashing her winning toss of 190-6, which was right around the goal set for her by Kent Pagel.

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That was fun.

And as long as throwing is fun, DeSnoo said she will continue competing. DeSnoo has thrown the discus and the shot put for SDSU. She is a scholarship athlete, and until this season, her coach required her to throw both. DeSnoo regards herself as primarily a discus thrower, and because of injuries, has concentrated primarily on that event this season.

DeSnoo has been throwing for seven years, but she still considers herself to be a young thrower. Discus and shot putters generally peak at about 28 or 29, or after spending 8 to 10 years mastering the technical event. DeSnoo’s personal best is 196-4, which is far off Leslie Deniz’s American mark of 213-11.

Athletes, particularly those competing in individual sports, believe that a lot of their success is based on the emotional and financial support they receive.

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In DeSnoo’s case, the two are closely connected. Using the financial backing provided by her mother, DeSnoo bought a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium a mile from the SDSU campus. Her mother, who lives in Fremont, is one of Laura’s best friends and biggest supporters.

Her next closest friends are the Pagels, who share DeSnoo’s condominium.

“Ramona and Kent are great people,” DeSnoo said. “It’s hard to tell people you really appreciate what they’ve done. They are always there, and they don’t bother me. I didn’t talk to them (during her depression following the ankle operation) as much as I should have. Therefore, it has probably taken me longer to deal with my injuries.”

DeSnoo’s relationship with Ramona Pagel has changed over the past year.

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“It’s hard on her this year because I’ve been able to do things she hasn’t,” Ramona said. “She has had to watch a lot.”

From September through January, DeSnoo was unable to pursue her usual weight training and workout schedule. However, once she resumed training with Ramona, the they picked up where they left off. They spur each other on.

“Laura doesn’t like to have to throw so hard in practice against someone so tough,” Kent Pagel said. “That’s why it’s good for her.”

Said Ramona Pagel: “I do something and she does it. She does something, and I have to do it. I don’t think she looks up to me. She’s proven herself. We’re pretty much peers.”

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Off the track, they really don’t have time for much more than school or practice. No question, track is the dominating force in that condominium.

“It makes it easier when you know what your athletes are doing,” Kent Pagel said. “I can tell by the way she’s walking around the house whether she should throw.”

He does not think she should throw until September. Pagel agreed to have her compete in the TAC meet in Indianapolis (eighth-place finish with a 174-4 throw) in mid-June, but that’s it. Or so he hopes.

“She has held together real well for not being real strong or real fit,” Pagel said, “but she has to give her body a chance to do nothing for a while. She won’t improve anymore unless she lets her body recover.”

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DeSnoo gets fidgety at the thought of taking time off.

For an athlete who prides herself on competition, it’s no fun “imaging” a summer of relaxation. She would much rather be busy preparing for the World University Games in Kobe, Japan in September and the World Cup in Australia in October.

And she would undoubtedly prefer to be imaging about the day when she is regarded as one of the top women discus throwers/athletes in the world.

“I think throwers are a lot more athletically inclined than a lot of people give us credit for,” DeSnoo said.

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If only that man on the street had seen DeSnoo throw a discus.


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