By its very nature, track and field is a sport which comes down to fractions of inches or seconds.
Shot putter Bradley Szypka was on the losing end by a matter of inches twice in 2013. The disappointment of his near misses has motivated him ever since.
During the indoor season, he finished about four inches short of qualifying for the NCAA Championships. Come the outdoor season, he made the National Championships, but ended up three inches from the final.
The motivation of being so close so many times with so little to show for all that work apparently translated into more driven training, which culminated in a fifth-place performance at last weekend's NCAA Championships.
"That was such a short distance and such a big difference in outcome," Szypka said of his near misses in 2013. "Maybe it was one extra rep in the weight room or something. This offseason my motivation was that I don't want that to happen again. I'm certainly never going to miss it by a matter of inches again."
This past indoor season, which concluded at last weekend's NCAA Championships, he didn't. Szypka was the lone scorer for the Kentucky men's team at the 2014 Championships, the culmination of a stronger focus built from hours -- if not days -- of contemplation about what could have been.
"I think the important thing people forget sometimes is the attention to detail," UK throws coach Andrew Ninow said. "The attention to details can make large differences. Obviously he missed nationals by something around four inches indoors, and he missed scoring outdoors by about four inches. I think it has made him more focused on all of the details of his training. That's been a big help to us making a big breakthrough this year."
Indeed the 2014 NCAA Championships signaled a sort of arrival for Szypka, who also became Kentucky's first SEC shot put champion in 10 years at the conference meet.
Yet his emergence as one of the nation's best throwers was not the result of a journey devoid of ups and downs.Breaking out
Head coach Edrick Floreal took over the program prior to Szypka's sophomore season in the summer of 2012. A decorated high school thrower, Szypka struggled his freshman year and the new start under Floreal's staff, notably throws assistant coach Andrew Ninow, proved to be just what the doctor ordered.
"The way his body moves in the ring works well with what I want to happen in the shot put," Ninow said. "There are different theories out there, but I think he's very much an aggressive thrower at the front of the ring. The technique that we teach is very much more of an aggressive-type movement. I think that sort of fit his mentality well."
Szypka wasted little time making his presence known to the rest of the nation as the 2012-13 season began, winning his first shot put competition of the season in December with a personal-best shot put mark, which ranked No. 1 in the NCAA going into the new year.
Szypka continued to improve under Ninow's direction in 2013, reaching a real threshold at the SEC Championships where he placed fourth. His PR mark from SECs finished the season short of the national top-16 list, which determines the NCAA Indoor Championships field by a margin of those difficult-to-stomach three inches.
Having placed high at the SEC Championships, emerged as a contender to qualify for NCAA Championships and built a solid rapport with his coach, Szypka entered the 2013 outdoor season optimistic.
Yet while he didn't quite struggle outdoors, he also didn't improve at the rate he had come to expect.
The low point came at the SEC Outdoor Championships.
Having placed fourth indoors, Szypka failed to make the final of the SEC outdoor shot put competition. He was at a crossroads.
Unlike the indoor season where regular-season marks qualify for the NCAA Championships, during the outdoor season the top-16 from the East and West Regionals Championships respectively make the NCAA Outdoor Championship Final Meet.
The regional meet provided Szypka with an opportunity for a measure of redemption. Szypka took his chance.
He produced a season-best performance to make NCAAs in the shot put, improving on all three of his throws in the final eventually hitting 18.33m/60-1.75.
And at NCAAs, Szypka improved his regional qualifying mark by nearly a foot, but again came agonizingly short of the major goal.
He hit 18.57 meters / 60-feet 11.25-inches, good for a 10th-place finish, one spot and three inches behind Michigan's Cody Riffle for the final place in the nine-thrower final.
Despite earning All-America honors for the first time (second team), Szypka was understandably disappointed.
Missing his NCAA Championship goal by so little once again was a last straw for Szypka, as he vowed to do whatever it took to avoid being so disappointed in the future.2014 consistency
While 2013 was a breakout year that never quite materialized into tangible results at the highest levels, in 2014 Szypka learned the benefits of consistency.
"The goal was to hit it big early, and be able to focus on improving up to the Championship meets," Szypka said in reflection on his 2014 indoor season. "I worked all offseason to focus on being able to get a qualifying mark during those first two home meets to get a mark that would get me in so I wouldn't have to worry."
And Szypka did exactly that the second weekend of the season at the home Rod McCravy Memorial Meet with a PR mark nearly three feet better than his previous best. Szypka remained consistent throughout the season, which included winning the shot put at the prestigious Tyson Invitational, one of the most competitive field-event meets of the year.
Szypka continued getting better throughout the year and entering the NCAA Championships he had won four-of-five competitions he had entered during the year, including the SEC Championship.
His head coach had taken notice.
"With Brad we just wanted him to find a way to score some points at the NCAA Championships," Floreal said. "He went in ranked No. 11 and only the top-eight score so it was maybe a bit of an upset, but he had been so consistent the whole season so we were optimistic. We weren't asking to finish runner-up or do something way outside his body, we just wanted him to finally get some points at the national meet.
"When you go to the NCAA meet you experience emotions that you've never experienced before. Now he has been to two and achieved scoring so as a junior he has three more NCAA championship meets where he can learn to calm himself down and compete to his fullest potential. He has a lot of room for improvement, but he also reached an important goal." Satisfaction ... or lack thereof
Szypka did meet his coaches' goals at the 2014 NCAA Championships.
Szypka's first two throws were well below his potential and he sat in ninth place on the bubble of making the final going into his third attempt. With the pressure on, Szypka connected for a personal-best mark, 19.51m/64-0.25, which was his best of the meet and earned him his first points at a NCAA Championship.
In playing on Floreal's original goal for Szypka -- learning to control the emotions of such a high-pressure atmosphere -- Szypka met expectations. He proved he could come up with nearly a one-foot PR when he needed it just to make the final.
"It was great," Szypka said. "I went into the meet thinking that I had a shot to go top five just by how consistent I had been all year. Looking at the past marks, of all the other years it always took around 19.50 meters to be top five. Coach and I talked all week that if I could hit a PR around that on the first three throws I would be in the top-5, which eventually happened."
Yet even with the strong result, Szypka was slightly disappointed that he failed to get a fair throw in the final.
"I never hit my big throw, which was kind of disappointing for how good I felt, but it definitely leads me to feel like I have a lot more in the tank for outdoors," Szypka, who earned First-Team All-America honors with the fifth-place finish, said. "There I will have higher expectations. I'm going to be shooting for top three, just because I know there's a lot more. I have always thrown better outdoors, with last season as an exception (because of the better footing in outdoor rings), hopefully I can transition well to pick up a few more feet."
So Szypka's strong indoor season afforded him a measure of advantage -- or at least an opportunity to catch up -- in the mostly friendly rivalry that has developed amongst Kentucky's elite throwers.
Entering the 2014 indoor season discus thrower Andrew Evans (the 2012 SEC Champion, 2013 NCAA Bronze Medalist and two-time First Team All-American) and javelin specialist Raymond Dykstra (a two-time SEC Runner-Up and two-time First Team All-American had a leg up on Szypka, a meager one-time Second Team All-American.
With his SEC Championship and First Team All-America status, Szypka now has some bragging rights on Dykstra, one of the team's most vocal leaders.
"Just the other night I saw Ray in the hallway and I was bugging him a little bit because Ray has gotten second (in the javelin throw) twice now at the SEC Championship whereas Brad has now won a conference title," Ninow said. "He is getting his (SEC Championship) ring here pretty soon, so I was kind of bugging Ray like, 'Hey man, are you going to get that ring or is Brad the only one who's going to get the ring this year?'
"He was like, 'Oh, I'm getting the ring this year Coach. I'm getting two rings, conference and NCAA,' so there's definitely an inter-team competition. Who can acquire the most All-Americans, who can score the most points? There's definitely a competition amongst the throwers to see who can be the overall winner when this is all said and done."
Entering the outdoor season where the discus and javelin are part of the track and field competition program the UK throwers will have plenty of opportunities to one-up each other. The more they do, the better off the team is likely to be.