She trains in her coach's backyard and nearly quit at the end of last year. Yet 2014 has brought unheralded success for Sultana Frizell, the hammer thrower with probably the best name in the business. We caught up with the kookie Canadian looking to cap her season with Commonwealth gold.
There is an elephant in the room; one issue SPIKES is not prepared to dodge. So we hit her with it, straight between the eyes.
The name – Sultana Frizell – just what is the story?
The Canadian lets rip with a trademark laugh before answering: “Okay, it’s a long one.”
As it turns out, it’s not particularly long. Frizell’s parents went to see friends in France and visited a vineyard called Sultanna. Her mother liked the name, dropped an N, and so Sultana was born.
Sultana is a name you won’t forget in a hurry, and she has the personality to match. Vivacious and quick-witted, her conversation is peppered with sarcasm. And as big a personality as she is off the track, Frizell is enjoying rising status on the field.
The 2010 Commonwealth champion has found world-class consistency this season. She sits fourth on the world lists and equalled the North American record with a 75.73m effort in Tucson in May.
“I didn’t know if I had enough strength to keep going”
But she nearly walked away from the sport following a tough 2013, disheartened after failing to reach the final of the Moscow World Championships. In addition, her mother had suffered a brain aneurism and her dad was ill with Lyme’s disease.
“I considered stopping,” she admits. “I didn’t know if I had enough strength to keep going. I’m an only child, so I want to be there for my parents. The question I faced was: ‘Do I live my life, too?’”
Former teammate and fellow Canadian hammer rival Jennifer Joyce, a 2006 Commonwealth silver medallist, helped her to answer that question.
“I was packing my car up to go back home to Ontario [from her training base in Kamloops, British Columbia] when Jennifer said returning to Ontario would probably be the worst thing I could do.
“She was definitely the one who changed my decision. You gotta love teammates!”
She unloaded the car and stayed put in Kamloops. With Derek Evely, her new coach, she has been able to find the form that had eluded her in the past.
Idyllic, with the occasional unexpected visitor: Frizell's training base in Kamloops
Frizell’s introduction to the hammer came in high school. She was first attracted to its “controlled chaos”, she says.
“For some reason in my sick little mind I looked at the hammer and thought, that is me in a nutshell. I looked at the handle and little ball and thought I’m either a few seconds away from destroying something or executing something brilliant. It looked crazy.”
A formally trained figure skater, she easily adapted to the spinning element of the throw. She won Canadian junior titles before heading south to study and train at the University of Georgia, where she placed sixth at the 2005 NCAA Championships.
She linked up with fabled coach Dr Anatoliy Bondarchuk – the former coach to world record holder Yuriy Sedykh – in Kamloops in 2007, and began making ripples on the international stage.
Yet Frizell never really kicked on. In 2008 she set a Canadian record, threw over 70m for the first time, and qualified for the Beijing Olympics. Yet the following year she placed only 10th at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin.
A year later she was celebrating a Commonwealth gold in Delhi after throwing 68.57. Then, in 2012, she hurled a Canadian record of 75.04m but followed this up with a disappointing 25th at the London Olympics.
Gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games was a high point in Frizell's career so far
A lackluster 2013 saw her teetering on the edge, until Joyce’s words persuaded her otherwise. She linked up with Evely in October last year, and the partnership has seen Frizell’s form flourish.
Not that their training facilities are particularly salubrious.
“We have our red neck throw group which includes teammate Megann Rodhe, Derek, his dog and his quad bike,” jokes Frizell.
“It’s not your typical IAAF throws centre. He has a weight room in his garage and two hammer circles in his backyard. I’m also throwing slightly uphill which Derek, of course, gives me no leniency for.”
The group are also blessed with the occasional visitor.
“Derek was sitting with his iPad during one training session before he said, ‘Holy cow, my neighbour has just posted that there’s a cougar in their backyard.’ When I asked which neighbour, he said, ‘That one over there behind the bush’. I said, ‘Okay how about we finish practise.’”
Dodging big cats apart, how does she explain her fine form?
“We are bringing a real focus to every competition,” she explains. “I’m not competing as much and when I do, it is for a very specific reason. The Commonwealths this year are a big deal for me. I don’t want to be tired and jet-lagged competing.”
Winter Wonderland - Not quite an IAAF throwing base, but it's a great scenery
Frizell jokingly says the coach-athlete relationship is still in its “honeymoon period”, but the early signs are positive.
She has found consistency, not dipping below a best of 73m in any of her four competitions so far this year.
She returns to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games with happy memories. Back in 2007 she landed the Scottish Championships there in one of her first competitions outside North America. She adds there’ll be “Scottish cheering group” waiting for her at Hampden Park.
And beyond the Commonwealths, she believes she can compete with the very best European and Chinese throwers. “I’m looking forward to challenging those girls,” she explains.
“There’s always so much love in the hammer community, lots of handshakes and hugs after the competition. Mind,” she adds, “after equaling the North American record I know there’ll be a big bunch of throwers gunning for my backside next time!”
At this, Frizell emits another of her hearty laughs. Clearly, she welcomes the challenge.