In 2014 Gia Lewis-Smallwood enjoyed the finest season of her career. The US discus thrower tells SPIKES how her dogged pursuit of technical mastery  and no small amount of patience  has taken her to new heights.

The sight of Gia Lewis-Smallwood, high on emotion and unable to hold back the tears in a sun-bathed Hampden Park, was a standout moment of last season. The 35-year-old had just thrown a 1kg discus 67.59m, smashing her lifetime best and ending World and Olympic champion Sandra Perković’s two-year, 14-competition unbeaten run in the Diamond League.

“Finally after all that work, sweat and tears I had thrown 67,” Lewis-Smallwood says.

“I didn't even realise I was leading Perković – it didn't even register. I was just so happy that my work had finally paid off in a tangible way. It was a huge moment for me.”

A huge moment that had been a long time coming.

Hailing from Champaign, Illinois, Lewis-Smallwood achieved success as a schoolgirl sprinter, recording 12.0 for the 100m and 25.7 for the 200m aged 15. During her first year at the University of Illinois she focused on basketball and harboured ambitions of playing in the WNBA.

But recognising she might be too short to make it to top as a ball player (she is still a lofty 6ft), her track coach at the time persuaded her to give discus a go. 

Gia Lewis-Smallwood ()

“I knew it would take at least ten years before anything remarkable was possible”

She had shown a glimpse of talent in her youth, having hurled a discus 138ft (about 42m) at high school. That aside, her experience was limited. She admits that at her first college training session she couldn’t “remember how to hold a discus”.

“Because I didn't have the experience, I knew to be really good it would take at least ten years before anything remarkable was possible,” she explains. “I had to put in the time and prepare to be patient.”

She enjoyed some success at collegiate level, finishing fifth at the 2001 NCAA Championships. After graduating – largely thanks to generous financial support from her parents – she underwent several seasons chasing competition in the US, albeit with little impact.

Between 2005 and 2007 she all but disappeared from the competitive scene. She took up a full-time job running a gym and focused on fixing her body for the demands of discus.

“I largely did a lot of intensive rehab work on my back,” she says of that three-year period. “I wanted to build a foundation and make sure my body and core were functioning properly, and then build slowly back to throwing.” 

Gia Lewis-Smallwood ()

Lewis-Smallwood spent her time away from competition fine-tuning her physique for the discus

In 2008 she linked up with Michael Turk, head coach at the University of Illinois, who set about remodelling her rudimentary technique.

“I finally started to understand the many different ways to throw the discus and I had to get better technically in a way that worked for me,” she explains.

The same year, Lewis-Smallwood added more than two metres to her lifetime best with a 59.96m effort. In 2009 she cracked 60m. Then in 2010 she hurled a 65.58m.

At the age of 32 she made her first major championship appearance, placing 15th at the 2011 Daegu World Championships. The following year she finished 16th at the London Olympics. These were underwhelming experiences, but they left Lewis-Smallwood knowing what she needed to do to step up her game. 

Gia Lewis-Smallwood ()

After underwhelming performances in the Daegu World Champs and London Olympics, Lewis-Smallwood turned the spotlight on her technique

“Every top discus thrower in history had used the sweep [a throwing technique where the right foot sweeps past the left side of the body and leads the throw] and I had reached the point where I needed to focus on mastering it,” she says.

“It wasn’t natural to me. As soon as I got back from London I cleared out the furniture in my living room and practised it over and over and over for hours and hours and hours.”

Getting shot of the furniture worked: 2013 was her best year to date. She secured a maiden US title, registered a 66.29m PB, claimed four podium spots in the Diamond League and wound up fifth at the Moscow World Championships – just 0.73m shy of a medal position.

This marvellous run was a “huge confidence booster” and she finished the season “super-inspired”. Continuing to work tirelessly on her technique (note: she now practises from the garage), 2014 proved better still.

In the last five years Lewis-Smallwood has added nearly 10m to her PB

She retained her US crown, secured victory in the Continental Cup, claimed six Diamond League podiums – including that tear-stained Glasgow day – before setting a US record of 69.17m at the DécaNation meet in Angers. This throw advanced her to number two on the women’s discus rankings for the 21st century.

“It was an incredible season,” she reflects. “It really gave me more confidence moving forward.”

For 2015 she has set herself the target of her first global medal at the Beijing World Championships, though it’s definitely not something she will be taking for granted.

“My big goal in 2015 is to remember that it will not just happen because it did in 2014,” she says sagely. “To be in a perfect position to medal I need to get better technically and then the distances will follow.”

It looks like they already are.