Some people make the Olympic team on guts and faith. Kevin McMahon might make this year's U.S. hammer-throwing roster on serendipity and muscle memory.
"Providence, too," McMahon said the other day, offering another possible explanation for how he could end up in Beijing instead of taking his regular August vacation to Tahoe with his wife.
You've heard about sports stories that are too good to be true. This one is too good not to be true. Here is how it came down:
McMahon, a teacher and coach at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose and at Stanford University, was long retired from his competitive life as a two-time U.S. Olympic hammer thrower. But he lost a whimsical bet to his Bellarmine pupils. The whimsical bet required the 36-year-old McMahon to try to qualify for one more Olympic team, eight years after he made his last one for the Sydney Games.
So. Five weeks ago at a Modesto meet, McMahon gave it the old what-the-heck try. And he had a holy-cow-can-you-believe-it result. He discovered that he's still throwing the hammer farther than all but one or two other U.S. competitors.
In other words, if he performs well at the Olympic trials in three weeks in Oregon, McMahon has a real shot at representing the United States again. No one is more stunned than McMahon himself.
One more chance
"This wasn't like a vision quest or a big comeback or anything," he said. "It's like the universe is giving me one more chance to go out on my terms." In pursuit of that chance, McMahon again hauled his 16-pound hammer out to Moffett Field on Sunday morning, for another of his random training sessions. The local throwing community - as always, inspired by Olympic legend Ed Burke of Los Gatos - has built a makeshift ring that's tucked between two softball fields and Highway 101.
"I like to think of the traffic noise as Olympic crowd noise," McMahon said. "People honk when they drive by and everything."
If only those honkers knew. Maybe we should tell them, by starting at the beginning of McMahon's unlikely adventure.
Hammer throwing is one of those unique Olympic specialties. It requires a person to spin the body around like crazy while holding a large ball of metal at the end of a chain - and then launching the entire ball and chain into the air with a violent heave.
For more than a decade, McMahon launched and heaved well enough to become a two-time national hammer-throwing champion and a participant in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. However, all this puts major stress on a man's body parts. And back in 2004 as McMahon attempted to make one more U.S. team, he was feeling the entire menu.
"You name it - my hip, my back, my shoulder, everything was hurting," he said. "My hands and fingers were so swollen, they started to look like cartoon hands with big blown-up fingers . . . I was competing because it was what I thought I had to do, but it became a bit of drudgery. A lot of the joy had been lost."
Thus, after failing to qualify for Athens, his decision to retire came very easily.
"I was done," he said.
McMahon returned to Bellarmine, his alma mater, and put his Georgetown degree to good use. He taught English and computer graphics. He also coached weight events for the school's track team. However, hammer throwing isn't a high school event. He seldom touched his old equipment.
Then, last spring, four of McMahon's discus throwers issued a challenge. The four - Andrew Estko, Stephen Powell, Alex Power and Matt Ramos - made McMahon promise that if they all improved their throws by 10 feet or more, he would have to try out for one more Olympic team.
"It was kind of a tongue-in-cheek bet, I thought," McMahon said. "But they all did improve that much. So they kept after me. Those guys were exactly what I needed to teach me how throwing can be fun again."
Out for a spin
Six months ago, McMahon also accepted the position of Stanford's throws coach, which left him even less time to train. But he managed to squeeze in hammer sessions here and there. And his body, no longer hurting, responded much better than he thought.
On May 10, McMahon took a few of his Stanford athletes to the California Relays in Modesto. He also entered the hammer throw, his first true competition in almost four years.
"I had ripped my hand wide open that week," McMahon said. "I figured I might throw 70 meters, which would qualify me for the U.S. trials. But when I let go, I didn't think it was a very good throw. After I released it, I yelled, 'Oh, no!' "
Then the judges measured. McMahon's distance was 75.08 meters. It was the second-best throw by an American this year. And farther than he'd thrown in either of his Olympic appearances.
"Part of me thought, 'That's laughable,' " McMahon said. "But all of those throws I made over the years, I guess you don't forget. It wasn't my first rodeo."
McMahon can make the U.S. team if he wins the Olympic trials in Eugene or if he finishes in the top three and throws the hammer at least 78.5 meters to meet the "A" Olympic qualifying standard.
Tough? Yes. But hardly impossible. McMahon's lifetime best is 79.26 meters. All it takes is one throw.
"I have promised myself that no one is going to have more fun at the trials than I am," McMahon said. "And that doesn't have to mean I make the team. It's just going to be nice to have a peaceful closure on my career, whatever happens."
Honk if you believe in muscle memory. And serendipity. And providence.