Connolly, Harold V. ("Hal")

views updated

CONNOLLY, Harold V. ("Hal")

(b. 1 August 1931 in Somerville, Massachusetts), hammer thrower who was an Olympic champion and six-time world record holder.

Connolly was born large, weighing in at 13 pounds, and because of his size, his delivery was complicated by shoulder obstruction and trauma to his left shoulder and arm. He spent much of his childhood wearing shoulder braces and undergoing physical therapy. In spite of the therapy, his left arm remained weak and stunted, three inches shorter than his right arm, and his left hand was only two-thirds the size of his right. As a young man Connolly broke the arm several times while wrestling and playing football.

As a student at Boston College, Connolly discovered the hammer throw when he worked for the track team retrieving thrown hammers from the field. Intrigued by the sport, he took it up with the hope that it would strengthen his weak arm, never suspecting that he would become a world champion and record-holder. Apart from his arm, however, Connolly seemed made for the sport. Six feet tall and weighing 235 pounds, he had the strongly muscular build typical of top athletes in the throwing events. Still, he could not raise his left arm over his head, straighten it, close his fist, or extend his fingers on that side. Because hammer throwers use two hands on the handle of the hammer, this was a huge disadvantage, but Connolly overcame it through determined practice and strength training.

A year after graduation, Connolly traveled to Germany in 1954 to study the throwing technique of Sepp Christman, a hammer champion, and in 1955 Connolly threw the hammer 201 feet, 5 inches, becoming the first American ever to throw past 200 feet in the event. Connolly was Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) champion from that year through 1961, and in 1964 and 1965.

Connolly first broke the world record on 2 November 1956 with a throw of 224 feet, 10 inches at Los Angeles, three weeks before the Melbourne Olympics, making him the favorite for the gold medal. At the Olympics, he went up against his Soviet rival, the former world record—holder Mikail Krivonosov. Krivonosov led early in the finals, but on his final throw Connolly won the gold medal by setting a new Olympic record of 207 feet, 3.5 inches.

He also won the heart of Olga Fikotova, a Czechoslovakian athlete who was awarded the gold medal in women's discus. Fikotova had to return to Czechoslovakia, but Connolly followed her. At the time, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites were engaged in a cold war with the United States. As a result, the Czechoslovakian government opposed Fikotova's attempt to emigrate to the West in order to marry Connolly. The couple had to fight mountains of Czechoslovakian red tape. They were determined to marry, however, and made a personal plea to the president of Czechoslovakia for permission. Permission was granted after many weeks of bureaucratic silence, and Connolly married Fikotova in Prague on 27 March 1957. Their best man was Emil Zatopek, the famed Czechoslovakian long-distance runner. Although the location of the wedding was supposedly secret, it leaked out, and 50,000 Czechoslovakians showed up to cheer the couple.

The two went home to California after the wedding, and Connolly became a teacher and administrator when he was not competing. Fikotova, who became a U.S. citizen, went on to compete for the United States in the Olympics of 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972. She never won any more medals, although she did throw a personal best of 175 feet, 5 inches in 1969. She later developed a career as a writer.

Connolly and Fikotova had four children, one of whom, Jim, became a talented competitor in the decathlon at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); he won the National Collegiate Athletic Association decathlon in 1987. The couple divorced in 1975, and Connolly later married Pat Winslow, a three-time Olympic athlete who had competed in the pentathlon in 1960, 1964, and 1968. At the time of their marriage, Winslow was a track and field coach at UCLA. Their son Adam was ranked number one among high school hammer throwers.

Connolly beat his own world record on 29 May 1958 at Ceres, California, with a throw of 225 feet, 4 inches. In the following year he was the Pan-American hammer champion. He was favored to win in the 1960 Olympics because he had set a new world record of 230 feet, 9 inches shortly before the Games. However, he came in eighth with a disappointing throw of 208 feet, 6 inches. At the same Olympics, the Soviet athlete Vasily Rudenkov beat Connolly's 1956 Olympic record with a toss of 220 feet, 2.25 inches.

On 21 July 1962 Connolly set yet another world record with a toss of 231 feet, 10 inches. However, he came in sixth at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo with a best throw of 218 feet, 8 inches.

At the 1965 Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) championship, Connolly threw 232 feet, 2 inches, and topped his own world record in that same year with a throw of 233 feet, 9 inches. With this throw, Connolly had made seven of the eight longest throws ever made by any athlete in the sport.

Although Connolly made the team for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, he did not make the finals. He attended the trials for the 1972 Olympic team, but did not make the team because he came in fifth and was not among the top three athletes.

Connolly became a teacher and worked as head of the Washington, D.C., Special Olympics program for many years. He also worked as a volunteer coach for Georgetown University. His wife became a track and field coach at Radford University in Virginia in 1997, and in 1999 Connolly retired from the Special Olympics to join her at Radford to work as a volunteer assistant coach.

Connolly once said of the rotational moves inherent to hammer throwing, "You insert yourself into harmonious orbit with the universe in a way you never do without the hammer. You become close to that orbiting universe. The idea is to get the two orbits, yours and the universe, in harmony, in sync. Then you get a good throw."

The California Governor's Committee for Employment of Disabled Americans established the Hal Connolly Scholar-Athlete Awards in 1985, which provides financial assistance for college freshmen with disabilities who have participated in varsity athletics.

In addition to being an Olympic champion and six-time world record—holder, Connolly was ranked number one in the world twice, number two six times, and number three, three times. He won the AAU hammer championship in nine separate years. All these accomplishments would be outstanding for any athlete, and they are even more impressive in light of Connolly's disability.

Connolly and Fikotova's romance is discussed in Norman Giller, The 1984 Olympic Handbook (1983). Connolly's thoughts on the mystical aspects of hammer throwing, as well as information on his arm injury, appeared in William Gildea, "For Georgetown's McMahon, It's Hammer Time," Washington Post (31 May 1995). For information on Connolly's coaching career, see RU (Radford University) Magazine (May 1999).

Kelly Winters