We've always wondered what would happen if you found an ordinary bloke with a big throw and gave him a javelin. Watched on by top English thrower Gavin Johnson, ordinary Dave gave it his best go.
I am Dave Backhouse. I am 28. And until this week, I had never thrown a javelin.
Last Saturday, I inadvertently brought an east London park to a standstill by lobbing a Nerf Vortex about 100 metres, over the heads of bemused onlookers.
There were teenage girls fainting and old men crying, possibly.
I felt like an Olympian. A titan of Victoria Park. This was a game of throws, and I was king.
Unfortunately for me, SPIKES spotted the commotion. Within four days, I was en route to my local track after work to throw my first javelin – a guinea pig in their cruel experiment.
How hard could it be?
Arriving at Tooting Bec athletics track I encountered two things for the first time: javelins, and a man mountain named Gavin Johnson.
Muscles on muscles: my kindly coach for the day
Gavin is a former decathlete who finished fifth in the javelin at the 2014 British Championships in June. He went to school with Olympic sprinter Chris Lambert, and is seemingly hewn from granite.
He can throw his implement 67.09m – which is about the same as the distance between the two penalty areas on a football pitch.
Javelins don’t weigh as much as I’d thought, about the same as a large loaf of bread. But they are long, standing more than 8ft tall when you stab them into the ground.
I’d been watching videos of Julius Yego all day, and when my time came to throw the javelin, I was fairly confident it would be the first step on a journey to the Rio Olympics.
I seized the mighty weapon, drew it back, and launched that giant French stick with every ounce of my being.
It went about 10 metres.
“Nice try,” said Gavin.
I wanted to punch him after I watched his effortless standing throw sail into the distance – but I was worried that would hurt my hand.
Dreams of Rio to ruin
What followed was an hour of intense coaching, and there was SO much to take in.
The run-up; the cross-over phase (the transition between running straight to sideways); pulling the javelin back; putting the left leg forward and the right hand goes back; the crossover position – all with the javelin an inch from your face; something else to do with your shoulders and chin… All this and we hadn’t even got to actually throwing it yet.
I tried a different tact.
Me: “Will I be able to throw it further with my left hand?”
Gavin: “Are you left-handed”
Gavin: “Probably not then.”
I felt daft. I was absolutely knackered and getting a very sore shoulder.
"That's not how you grip a Nerf"
As Gavin explained patiently, the technique is nothing like the high-intensity whip-crack motion that brought me so much success in my Nerf Vortex days.
“It is like a plane taking off. It’s all about rythym and pacing. You can’t rush it.”
“To be a good thrower, everything starts with your legs. Your arms guide the power you produce with your hips and your legs.”
Basically, everything I thought I knew about chucking stuff really far is wrong. But I was keen to learn.
Gavin guided me through the javelin step-by-step: from a standing throw to a short run-up and finally, the proper full-on javelin throw.
They let me take my suit off after a while
Every new thing I learnt was like changing the difficultly level of a game I thought I had the hang of. By the end, I was basically doing a Sudoku with about three numbers.
As my new coach put it: “There are six or seven movements all in half a second – and you have to get them in the right order.”
When another of my trusty spears pounded into the turf a few measly metres in front of me, Gavin smiled. “You got the rage,” he says. “Throw it like it doesn’t matter. Throw it like you just don’t care. The best throws feel like nothing.”
I cracked on, and was delighted when my penultimate effort reached 31 metres. I didn’t want to stop. But Gavin had a home to go to so I said goodbye and left feeling a bit empty.
If I were 16 years old, and a girl, I’d be in the top 30 in the country. And that’s consolation enough for me. For now.
With thanks to Gavin Johnson.
Photography by Natalya Paul.