Simsbury's Maddi Nicholson Learns To Throw Shot Put With Her Off Hand

 Maddi Nicholson of Simsbury

Shot-putter Maddi Nicholson of Simsbury had surgery on her right hand, so she started throwing with her left with success. (Lori Riley, Hartford Courant / February 16, 2013)

NEW HAVEN — Simsbury senior Maddi Nicholson is a righthander. Last spring, she won the State Open discus title. As a righty.

Since then, Nicholson has been forced to become ambidextrous. A blow from an opponent's field hockey stick during a late fall scrimmage broke the middle finger on her right hand. After surgery, she went to the first indoor track practice in late November, not really sure what she was going to do, but figuring that she would try the shot put again (there is no discus in indoor track).

She would just do it with her left hand.

"Well, she wasn't [ambidextrous], if you saw her initially throwing with her left hand," Simsbury indoor track coach Mike Cohen said. "She's an excellent athlete, an extremely hard worker. And she's got a little bit of bulldog in her so if she didn't succeed at first, that didn't dissuade her. She kept working."

Nicholson threw it 20 feet, then 26, then 28. Cohen wanted her to switch from the glide method of throwing, in which the athlete shuffles across the circle, to a rotation, in which the athlete spins in the circle before heaving the shot. She uses the rotational throw with the discus, but stuck with the glide with the shot outdoors. The rotation is harder to learn, but the athlete can generally put the shot farther after getting the hang of it.

Nicholson kept working on it but didn't fully embrace it. Then at the CCC championship meet, she uncorked a throw of 33 feet, her best this indoor season, using the rotation. Her best last year — right-handed — was 36-9.

With that, she qualified for the Class LL championships, where she finished tied for eighth Saturday. It was not a great day for her; her best put was 29-7 ½, and she fouled twice.

But she was pleased overall.

"My best indoor was 36-9 last year," she said. "I did really bad outdoors. I was around 31 the whole time. Which is why I got a kick out of this season."

Cohen said he never heard of an ambidextrous shot putter. Neither had Glastonbury coach Brian Collins. Nor had retired Manchester coach Mike Bendzinski. Or Eric Blake, the Central Connecticut cross country and track coach who was scouting athletes at the meet Saturday. They've all been around track a long time.

"I have not heard of any other athlete who throws with one hand and then for any number of possible reasons, switches to the other hand," Cohen said. "Not only did she switch, she qualified for the state meet."

Nicholson's finger was so badly broken, she had pins in it for eight weeks, and it's still not 100 percent healed. Nicholson kept playing field hockey through the state tournament (before her surgery), asking her doctor for a cast that would allow her to grip her field hockey stick.

She figured she'd be back for outdoor track season but never thought of skipping the indoor season. She could have run (she ran the 300 last year and long jumped, only picking up the shot at the end of the season when Cohen told her they needed points). But she figured she would try the shot again.

And Cohen thought if he taught her a different method, maybe it would help with the awkwardness of throwing with the opposite hand.

"According to the experts, unless you're a really tall person, the rotational form can give you a further throw vs. the glide," Cohen said.

"For a while, she was doing both. We practiced the rotation during the week. We'd come to a meet and she'd glide. She would throw one spin and if she wasn't happy, she'd go back to the glide. I finally said to her, 'You know, you really got to make a commitment. It's like dating a guy. At some point you got to make a commitment.'"

Nicholson, who will play field hockey and compete in track at Williams next year, is definitely sticking with her right hand for the discus in the spring. But the shot put? She might keep trying to do it with her left hand. "There's a 40-60 chance," she said.

And she chose to look on the bright side, even after not advancing to the finals Saturday.

"I was really humbled by this injury," she said. "It really taught me patience. It brought me back to the basics of why I love track. I think I got injured at the perfect time. It was the end of field hockey. Indoor is training for outdoor. It could have been much worse."

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