Hammer Time: UF's Mardal has quietly nailed his throwing legacy

The Norwegian's journey from Gloppen to Gainesville will end with a lot of school records, and maybe even a trip to the beach.

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
Florida's Thomas Mardal was named SEC Men's Field Athlete of the Week earlier this month.
  • Mardal won NCAA indoor title in the weight throw with two of the longest heaves in college history.
  • If he'd have been born in American, Mardal probably would be performing in a football uniform.
  • Mardal has never had a car in college or even been to the beach.

If a Martian landed on Florida's campus and wanted to become a sports fan, it would be confused by the Earthling known as Thomas Mardal.

He is the best in America at a simple sport, yet he has slipped through life almost unnoticed. Most of the attention goes to other large humans participating in a strangely confusing game in which they seemingly try to destroy each other.

"We always say if he'd been brought up in the United States, we wouldn't be seeing him here," Steve Lemke said. "We'd be seeing him over there."

Lemke is not a Martian. He is Florida's associate head track and field coach, and the "here" he was referring to was Percy Beard Track.

The "there" he pointed to was Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

"If you're 6-2, 250 pounds, can run that fast and are strong as an ox," Lemke said, "he'd be playing football."

Mardal is from Norway, which is not exactly football territory. But the skills Lemke noted have helped make Mardal an NCAA champion in the weight throw and the favorite to win the hammer throw.

He's also personable, a top-notch student and wears stylish horn-rimmed glasses even when he competes. All that would make him attention-worthy material to a Martian who doesn't understand the hierarchy of American sports.

Football rules, then you can quibble over the rest of the rankings. Somewhere way down the list is track and field.

To bring it closer to home, ESPN will devote more attention to Kyle Pitts' draft status in the next 10 minutes than it will to Mardal in the next 100 years.

That's not a knock on sports media, who are just giving the customers what they want.v  And it's not a knock on customers, who are free to have their favorites.

But it is enough to make a Martian scratch its head and feel the Mardals of the world deserve more love. Fortunately, this particular Mardal is fine with being the anonymous Big Man on Campus.

"I don't need attention. I just kind of go out and compete," he said. "As long as I make myself happy, that's all that really matters to me."

To understand why Mardal is so happy of late might require a little track and field primer. They're not throwing actual hammers, though TV executives might prefer that.

The hammer is a 16-pound metal ball attached to a wire with a handle. Competitors enter a 7-foot circle, spin around and throw the implement as far as they can.

The weight throw is the indoor version, where they toss a 35-pound ball with handle but no wire. If they threw the hammer indoors, it would fly into the stands like a cannonball.

Mardal grew up in Gloppen, a rural municipality surrounded by Norwegian splendor. I asked him how mountains and fjords compared to north-central Florida.

"I haven't really been around this area that much," Mardal said.

Nothing against Lake City, but he's spent the past three-plus years concentrating on two things — getting a degree in Business Management and throwing heavy objects.

Mardal's lived in a dorm a walking distance from the track. He's made the SEC's academic honor roll every year. He's never had a car.

"The fact is I haven't been to a beach in Florida in four years," Mardal said.

A guy comes from Norway, spends four years in Florida and doesn't get to the beach at least once?

"I've been spending so many hours here on campus doing my homework, my classes and practicing," Mardal said. "So I have a lot of memories from at least this part of campus."

He does have a girlfriend, and he's sort of become a football fan.

"I've been to The Swamp and watched us play," he said. "It's fun being there live, but sometimes the heat gets the best of me and I have to leave at halftime."

Had he been born in America, Mardal might have been a 5-star recruit. He ran 10.7 in the 100 meters before deciding to concentrate on weight events.

Lemke first spotted Mardal at the European Junior Championship meet and saw a lot of raw potential. With all that spinning, the hammer throw requires as much timing and coordination as it does brute strength.

"You can coach some people to the end of time, and they just don't have the ability to connect the dots," Lemke said.

It took thousands and thousands of spins, but Mardal blossomed when he learned how to whirl four times before releasing the implement. He won the NCAA title in the weight throw, becoming only the second athlete in college history with two throws farther than 80 feet in the same meet.

He set a school record of 249 feet, 11 inches in the hammer throw a couple of weeks ago. All of which has made his weekly calls home to his parents a bit predictable.

"They said 'We don't want to be repetitive, but congratulations again,'" Mardal laughed.

After the NCAA outdoor meet in June, he hopes to make the Norwegian Olympic team. Mardal is going to stay in Gainesville to train, and he has an internship to complete. Then he will head back to Norway.

Mardal didn't come to Florida for attention, he just wanted to compete well and be happy. He's done that, though he admits there's one thing he'd like to do before his Gloppen-to-Gainesville journey ends.

"The beach," he said.

If you spot him this summer, offer to buy him an Uber ride to the coast. After all the high-level spinning Mardal has done, he deserves to relax and dig his toes in the sand before he quietly goes away.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley