Rice Lake Man Throws Everything Into Achieving Olympic Dreams

By Joel Waldinger | December 17, 2015


“It’s kind of funny because my mom is 5’5”, my dad’s 5’7”. My brother is 5’9” and I’m 6’5”.  I came out of nowhere. I’m a freak of nature. I was made for this”, said Michael Lihrman. He’s talking about the weight throw, a not so well-known sport, where Lihrman has achieved “freakish feats” in just a few short years. Lihrman describes the sport this way, “The weight throw is thirty-five pounds. Basically, you spin in a circle to build up your max speed, and release it as high as you can to get the furthest distance. “

To understand his meteoric rise in the sport you have to understand that Lihrman didn’t even go out for track and field until his junior year of high school. His Dad Carl Lihrman remembers those early days, “He started accelerating at shot put and discus at the high school level, and he just missed out on the state meet.” But there would be bigger things ahead for Lihrman as a walk-on at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He continued to throw discus and shot put but also added the hammer throw and weight throw. Then came a decision for Lihrman, “My sophomore year I dropped everything except hammer and weight throw. I just knew right away that that was going to be my thing.” As a freshman Lihrman was named “Rookie of the Year” finishing 17th in the outdoor NCAA Division 3 hammer throw.  In 2012, he moved up to fourth.  His dad remembers one thing about the way Michael would throw. “He came around with the hammer and he was the only one there where I could actually hear the hammer whistling thru the air.”

Later his sophomore year at the indoor national championship Lihrman finished 11th in the weight throw and the University of Wisconsin took notice. Dave Astrauskas, is an assistant track coach at the UW in charge of the track and field throwers. Astrauskas described his new recruit like this, “Michael is a physical specimen 6’5, 265 pounds. He just has an engine like no other. The engine combined with the long levers produces big throws.” Michael’s mom Virginia began to wonder what might be, “I just kept thinking, he’s like any other kid- yeah, he’s good at a sport, but lots of kids are. And when Madison took the opportunity to recruit him, I guess you could say, then I kind of thought he might go someplace with this?”  Carl Lihrman also had a hunch, “I knew he was destined for bigger things at that point.”

There were big dreams for this big kid from tiny Rice Lake, Wisconsin with a population just over 8,400. It’s the tiny town where Lihrman grew-up and where his home was a motel his parents owned. Lihrman said, “Our house was attached to the motel office. So that was pretty interesting. I grew up there for eighteen years. It was a very small house. I slept in a twin sized bed. My feet hung off.” Rice Lake is a pretty laid back tourist town, where the most popular thing for dad and son to throw around here is a fishing line

Now when he returns to Rice Lake he’s a bit of a celebrity.  “Whenever I go back home, whenever I go to church, you can tell everyone, knows who I am and everyone’s telling me, “Keep it up, keep it up. I don’t even know who they are. But everyone knows who I am, so it’s pretty awesome”, Lihrman said.  Who would have thought that someday that kid from Rice Lake could be an Olympic thrower. He still has a ways to go but Michael Lihrman believes and he’s done his homework. “I decided to look up former Olympians. I was pretty shocked when I figured out that Olympic hammer throwers are throwing less than me in their college years. Right then and there, I knew, I’m meant for something so much bigger,” said Lihrman. Leave it to the economics major to figure out the math.

Lihrman believes you have to be a student of the sport and he studies other throwers and techniques trying to get an arm up on the competition. He uses his UW throws coach for advice.  Lihrman said, “It’s great to have Dave here for the eyes and to give me those little cues. Because when I was at Stout I was really self-taught.” The move to Madison proved to be a good thing and Lihrman practices 4-5 times per week and on top of that lifts weights twice a week. With that intense practice regimen came huge improvements. Lihrman said, “In the hammer throw, I’ve gone up about twenty feet every single year.”

But there was just one big problem that weighed on Lihrman. His dad Carl can described it best, “He’d get in these big meets and he’d choke. I’m sitting there just barely able to breathe half the time. With your head in your hand going, don’t scratch, don’t scratch. Please don’t scratch. You know or don’t get hurt.”

In his first indoor season with the Wisconsin Badgers Lihrman would be put to the test. He was preparing for his first Big 10 Championship and in a warmup meet the week prior Lihrman says he felt pretty good, “The plan was to just take a throw and throw big, and then after that just call it quits because going into Big Tens we were trying to kind of psych people out.” Psych people out would be an understatement. Lihrman approached the throwers circle, whipped the weight throw around and launched a massive throw.  He said, “It just felt so easy and I threw really far. I didn’t even go a hundred percent on that throw.”  Lihrman didn’t even go 100-percent and yet threw the 35 pound weight ten feet farther than he had ever thrown before.  Lihrman said, “It was awesome because it was such a huge improvement.” But there was more.  Lihrman was sitting on the bleachers after his throw and thinking about his toss. All of a sudden a bell went off in his head, “

I’m like, seventy-nine feet. And it just kind of hit me.” It seemed pretty unbelievable at the time so Lihrman went over to Coach Astrauskas, “I asked him. I’m like, “Did I just break the Division I record?” and he’s like, “Yeah!” And I was just like, “Okay,” and just walked away.  I had nothing to say. My mind was blown.”

Despite setting the record the thrill wouldn’t last long. One week later Lihrman competed in his first Big 10 Conference Championship as the odds on favorite. All eyes were on Lihrman as the announcer said, “We are set to begin in the men’s weight throw.” Lihrman didn’t want to let his nerves get the best of him, “That was my first really big meet. I’ve made it to nationals at UW-Stout but I always seemed to choke at those big meets. At Big Tens we have the top four or five guys in the nation. I felt a lot of pressure at Big Tens, I kept telling myself I didn’t, but inside I knew I was fairly nervous.” Lihrman kept telling himself he’s had thousands of throws under his belt, and broken countless records but would he be able to muster that kind of record-setting toss when it really counts. Even with all that weight on his shoulders, Lihrman soared… capturing his first Big 10 Title.

Just two weeks later the pressure would increase again, ratchetting up another notch at the National Indoor Championships. His parents could feel the pressure and the nerves. His Mom Virginia said, “When I am in the stands, I couldn’t be any more nervous or excited at the same time.  A lot of times, I’m just sitting there with butterflies in my stomach and I don’t know if I’m going to be sick or not. Sometimes I’m looking away, and I’m like, to my husband, ‘I don’t know if I can watch this – give me the play by play.”  Lihrman’s Dad Carl describes it like this, “It’s nerve-wracking. You’re sitting there and I don’t know if he’s more nervous or his mom and I are more nervous, because we’ll be sitting there watching it and your heart is pounding and you’re going God please don’t scratch. Please don’t scratch.” Coach Astrauskas was not immune to the intensity either, “Whenever you have a guy who is not only supposed to win but supposed dominate, a lot of pressure.” Everyone was nervous as Lihrman stepped into to the ring. Except perhaps Lihrman himself, “When I got to nationals, I had already won Big Tens. I had already beat the guys that were top in the nation, so to me, nationals was pretty laid back.” And with that attitude Lihrman could relax when he heard the announcer say, “Here, in the weight throw, is your leader, Michael Lihrman, of Wisconsin.” On this day Lihrman conquered his nerves and his competition by delivering Wisconsin its first indoor national championship in a field event in 43 years. 

And even Lihrman has a hard time putting his meteoric rise into perspective, “I’m throwing the furthest in the world this year. You know? It’s crazy. The world record is eighty-four feet in the weight throw. Every year I’ve gone up about ten feet. So, next year, if I’m able to go up even five feet, that’s past the world record.  That’s my goal.”  Eighty-four feet and a world-record did Lihrman have it in him?

Ten months after winning the national championship and surpassing 79 feet Lihrman opened the 2015 indoor season.  Lihrman set the expectations low, “I’m not expecting to throw huge, but you never know. It just happens.”  And in his own words, “it just happened”. Lihrman’s senior season started with a bang. The UW Shell Track and Field Complex was abuzz when the weight throw began. The announcer set the stage like this, “Throwing in 7th position, your defending N-C-A-A champion and all time Division I record holder from Wisconsin, Senior Michael Lihrman.” Lihrman took the weight throw by the proverbial horns and let it rip. As the 35 pound weight whizzed through the air his Dad made the call, “Woa! There’s a launch.” And the announcer confirmed what the crowd had hope for, “Michael Lihrman 80 feet, and 3 inches. On his first attempt in men’s weight-throw. That’s a new NCAA record!  That breaks his NCCA Division I all-time record.” And then his dad could only say, “That NCAA record. That right there was like Wow, this is … this is crazy. I knew I should have taped that one on my phone!” And your winner with a throw of 80 feet 3 1/2 inches from Wisconsin, Michael Lihrman.

A month later, Lihrman would be the star attraction in a premiere event at the University of Wisconsin. The Red and White Open Invitational Track Meet would be another warm-up event for the Big 10 Championships. The same event where one year earlier Lihrman stunned with a record toss of 79 feet. This time he would do even better toss with a new record of 81 feet eight and three quarters of an inch. It was a good start to defending his Big 10 Title.

If there was pressure at the 2015 championship Lihrman didn’t show it. The memories of choking at the big meets was gone, confidence now ruled the ring. Lihrman won the weight throw at the Big Ten Championship in late February earning his second-straight Big Ten title and smashed the collegiate record along with a new NCAA Division I record with a massive heave of 83 feet, eleven and one quarter inch. With his record-breaking throw on his second attempt, Lihrman demolished his competition. Lihrman has now recorded nine of the top-10 throws in collegiate history, all of which are farther than 80 feet. The weight throw is more of a European sport, even so Lihrman sits at number three all-time in the world, just 11 inches behind world record holder Lance Deal of the United States who set the record in 1995

In 2015, Lihrman went on to also win a second straight national championship in the weight throw.  Carl Lihrman believes there’s more to come, “He’s getting pretty close to the indoor world record so I’m to the point where I hate to even miss one meet.” His Mom Virginia now believes her son isn’t just another kid who’s good at a sport, “I realized that he really could be… come to the Olympics or be a national winner- who knows what the road will be for him. Oh, my gosh! I couldn’t be any more proud of Michael. I always think back to how far he’s come.”  Indeed, how far he’s come… from that late blooming track athlete in Rice Lake to become two time national champion.

Of his track career at Wisconsin Lihrman said, “It feels great. But for some reason it never sinks in and I don’t think it will until I’m gone from here. I just improved so fast–everything’s just going by so fast. That nothing really sets in. It’s just, like, jump, jump,  jump. I keep moving up in the ranks and never have time to really settle on it and enjoy it.”

“Good person, very good hearted, down to earth with all the success. He’s still Michael Lihrman,” said Coach Dave Astrauskas.  But Lihrman’s Dad probably sums it up best, “It’s a fun ride and it’s not over.

Michael Lihrman has dreams of becoming an Olympic hammer thrower. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 2014 Lihrman decided to stay around Madison to train for the Olympics. He will compete in the outdoor version of the weight throw, which is the hammer throw. This time it’s a 16 pound metal ball on a three and four foot long chain. Lihrman compared the two, “It takes longer to build up your speed, but you have to have a lot better technique because of that, so, you need more strength for weight throw than hammer throw. I’d like to throw seventy-two meters this year because that would kind of put me on track to hit an Olympic mark coming down the road here.”  At the outdoor Big 10 Championships Lihrman finished second but hit his goal of 72.03 meters, or 236 feet four inches.

But to earn a spot on the Olympic team Lihrman must improve some more, “I think seventy-four would be the B-standard for an Olympic qualification mark. So I’m hoping if I throw seventy-two, you know, two years down the road I should be able to pick up two more meters.” His Mom Virginia had this to say about Lihrman’s Olympic dream, “I don’t know if I could take it, honestly, I really don’t. It’ll be so exciting. I just hope I’ll be able to watch with both eyes open. It will be exciting and we have our fingers crossed for him- We’ll see what happens.”

We’ll all be watching to see what happens to that self-proclaimed “freak of nature” from Rice Lake, Wisconsin who went on to obliterate his collegiate competition while rewriting the record books.

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 
2018-01-19T17:52:43-06:00Tags: , , , |

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