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U.S. shotputter Adam Nelson tries to wrap his mind around gold

By Diane Pucin, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 27, 2008

Adam Nelson, one of the best shotputters in the world, is lying on a bed in a Long Beach hotel, Room 526. Anyone in Room 528 probably could have heard this:

"Full extension. Express. Thrust, release, follow through. Feel and I'm doing this now. I tap your forehead, it's your turn to throw. Move toward the laser, so lasered, so locked in, so absorbed in the moment and your express word. POWER."

There is also New Age-y tonal music playing. But this is not what it sounds like. It is not about sex but about power.

Shotput power.

Nelson, a two-time Olympic silver medalist who will compete in the U.S. track and field Olympic trials that begin today in Eugene, Ore., is being hypnotized by Pete Siegel, whose voice rises in capital letters: POWER, THRUST, LASER.

Nelson likes his silver medals well enough. But he is tired of second place and he hopes Siegel can help him to GOLD. Nelson is speaking in capital letters too.

On Siegel's website, the hypnotist touts PowerMind, what he describes as a peak performance mental training.

"I've never defined myself by my silver medals," Nelson said. "My initial sensation, both times, was that to walk away from the field with a silver medal" is unsatisfying.

"By the time I was on the podium, my perspective had changed. But the God's honest truth, those medals are in my sock drawer. They only come out when a friend wants to see them, but most of my friends don't ask. Unless they have a loss of sanity."

The top three at the trials go to the Olympics, where Nelson twice had confounding and ultimately demoralizing second-place finishes.
At Sydney in 2000, Nelson was the gold medal favorite but finished second to Arsi Harju, a relatively unknown Finn who trained by throwing telephone poles and who had missed much of the season while tending to the illness of a relative.

Then, at Athens, Nelson and Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine threw the same distance. Bilonog won because his second throw was farthest while Nelson fouled on his other throws, including a final heave that would have been the winner had he not had a toe on the line.

"It was devastating," Nelson said. "I didn't even realize what the rule was."

So now Nelson tries again, embracing original thoughts. He has tested the use of acupuncture and chiropractors, of hot stones and masseuses.

After finishing second (again) at last year's world championships behind a thrower from Belarus who was only weeks off a doping suspension, Nelson began working with strength coach Charles Poliquin in Tempe, Ariz., who introduced Nelson to Siegel.
Nelson said friends and family suggested he was grasping at straws using hypnosis.

"I heard the word charlatan used," Nelson said. "My wife kind of rolled her eyes. So did my mom."

Carrie Lane, Nelson's coach when he works out at Virginia, where he is working toward a graduate degree, said she thought the idea was far-fetched. "But Adam thinks about everything," Lane said.

Siegel said this mental training will be the smartest thing Nelson has ever done. In a sport that has been plagued by doping scandals, Siegel sells hypnosis as better than HGH or steroids.

"It's boneheads using chemicals," Siegel said. "The power of the subconscious is more powerful than drugs and always has been. That's the real point here. To help an athlete generate the fullest expression of athletic power the athlete is capable of. That's what mental training is."

Nelson has always embraced the unconventional. He is 6 feet tall, 265 pounds, was a star football player in high school and a star in school plays. He played football at Dartmouth and also threw the shot. He's 32 now, training still as an elite athlete, yet also doing intern work at local television stations as a sports reporter.

His inner actor came through under hypnosis.

Siegel conducted a 40-minute session in the hotel room on the day before Nelson's first important competition of the Olympic season, at the Home Depot Center in Carson last month. As Nelson relaxed, Siegel popped in the background music. Nelson closed his eyes. Siegel began talking.

"You're in your set position. I'll count from three down to one, tap your forehead. You'll begin your move and when you fully extend, explosive express thrust, release the shot out of your hand, you'll exclaim your key word once.

"All right. Get ready. You're in your set position . . . three, two, one. Now!"

Nelson released a burst of air that seemed to come from his toes. If there had been a 16-pound shot put in his hands, the hotel would have a hole in the wall of Room 526.

At the end of the session, Nelson awoke and said he felt fresh and energized. He said he had incorporated a visual memory of how he wanted to throw the next day.

Nelson finished second at the Carson meet, another silver medal. "That wasn't discouraging at all," he said. "Because I was only 80% physically and mentally. This is a process."

Two weeks later at the Prefontaine meet in Eugene, Nelson threw 72 feet, seven inches, the longest outdoor distance in the world this year. He beat Reese Hoffa, who is expected to be Nelson's biggest challenger at the trials.

Because Nelson lives in Charlottesville, Va., and Siegel works in Santa Monica, the in-person sessions are infrequent. But Siegel gives Nelson weekly phone talks, mental top-ups.

As he heads into the Olympic trials, Nelson said he expected nothing less than first place. "I'm feeling physically and mentally aggressive," he said. "Gosh, I guess ultimately I'm just excited."

He will be a first-time father in September. His parents, Will and Lynne, his older brother Grant and younger sister Sarah-Kate will be in Eugene. Lynne said the emotions of watching Adam win consecutive Olympic silver medals has been uplifting and saddening.

"You're not supposed to even think it because, goodness, second in the world, that's pretty good. But the circumstances of how he finished second were both so unique."

And so, Lynne was asked, is the practice of hypnotism and mental training going to make the difference?

"Well, I don't know about that," she said. "But it's what Adam believes, isn't it?"

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