When he was 4 years old, Sam Crouser possessed tangible evidence he could throw a javelin.
In his grandfather's backyard lay a brick with a painted number 4 on it, representing not only where the spear landed but also the age at which the toss occurred.
For the next three years, a brick painted 5, 6 and 7 commemorated each flight progression as Sam pushed the boundary of his grandfather's backyard. There is no rectangular memento for age 8 Sam outgrew the backyard.
When Ryan Crouser, Sam's younger cousin by a year, was in eighth grade, he, too, explored the confines of his grandfather's backyard. Ryan's implement of choice was a shot, but a frustrating afternoon putting in the low 50s demanded constructive criticism. After a suggestion from his grandfather, Ryan achieved his goal of at least 60 feet. The final measurement will never be known since the shot tore through the roof of the shed.
For Sam Crouser (Gresham (Ore.) High School, Class of 2010) and Ryan Crouser (Barlow High School in Gresham, Ore., Class of 2011), there's no telling just how far a disc, javelin or shot will travel when one is put in their hands.
The progression the cousins have achieved in each event over the past two years is astonishing, especially with the knowledge that their high school careers aren't over. Sam is the two-time defending Oregon 6A state champion in the javelin (199 feet, 6 inches, 231-01) while Ryan is the two-time defending Oregon 6A state champion in both the shot (60-02, 66-01.25) and disc (178-09, 198-10).
While Sam nonchalantly recalled his 238-11 javelin throw on June 13 at the Concordia Throws Festival (the farthest throw in 21 years and the second-longest toss all-time with the new javelin), Ryan reflected, with a calculated tone, on his national sophomore disc record of 202-06, which was set June 16 at the All Comers Meet at the Mac Wilkins Throws Center.
"My first three throws were 225, 226, 227," Sam said. "The crowd was pumped up. I stuttered into the approach, but I was bouncy and fast. I felt like I crushed it with a lot of power. The distance didn't surprise me at all I thought it was longer. I know there's so much more."
Sam now trails only Tommi Viskari (Amsterdam, N.Y.), who had a 241-11 toss in 1998.
"I'm excited," Sam said. "There's a lot more in the tank. My goal this year is 245. In fact, I have six or seven pieces of paper taped around the house with '245' on it."
When Ryan's 202-06 discus toss registered officially, he not only surpassed Kevin Bookout's former sophomore standard of 201-02, but he also became the first Oregonian high school star to eclipse the 200-foot mark.
"I set my goal back in January 205," Ryan said. "I fell a little short, but I'm still happy."
Next on the agenda is the Oregon state shot put record of 67-11 by S. Eugene's Chris Sprague (1998), of which Ryan is five inches shy of owning, and the national junior disc record of 222-1, which is held by current all-time leader Mason Finley of Colorado.
"I was volunteering at the airport greeting committee for the USATF Outdoor National Championships here in Eugene and I met Mason Finley," Ryan said. "I helped him and his dad get their rental car. His dad told me, 'Please don't break his record.' But I'm hoping for 240 [Finley's all-time mark is 236-06] by the time high school's done."
At 6-4 and 6-6, it's not easy to overlook the Crousers. Mild-mannered and articulate, their attitude changes when the conversation focuses on their favorite pastime: fishing.
"I'm better than him at fishing," Sam said. "We don't have a rivalry on the field because we know who's better in each throw, but there's a fishing rivalry with the number of bass caught; it's almost like a game."
Almost because sometimes games turn strangely competitive.
"We were bass fishing in a cove off the Columbia River," Ryan recalled. "I was in the back. Sam was at the front of the boat. I caught four in a row. Sam said, 'I'm going to cut your line if you catch one more.' I caught another. He said it again. I caught another one. He pulled out scissors and cut my line. Then he caught one, so I got revenge and cut his line."
For Sam and Ryan Crouser, throws are a lifeline connecting three generations, and their light-hearted, competitive nature is déjà vu from a May 30, 1983 Sports Illustrated article entitled "Brother, Are They Armed! The Crousers Dean, Brian and Mitch comprise track and field's first family at throwing things." Author Kenny Moore wrote: "The Crousers are defined by this happy ability to alternate intense concentration with frolic." According to Dean (Sam's father) and Mitch (Ryan's father), this jovial atmosphere still flourishes.
"It's important to be able to turn it on when it matters," Dean said, "and relax in between and have fun as a kid." To which Mitch added, "It's important to keep loose and have fun. It will get serious soon enough."
Larry Crouser, the patriarch (and backyard tactician) of this American throws dynasty, held many of Gresham High School's javelin records in the 1950s and threw the spear 220 feet in the Army. His three sons Mitch (51), Dean (49) and Brian (47) each attained track and field success in their own rights. Mitch earned a scholarship to the University of Idaho after winning the shot and discus at the North West Athletic Association of Community Colleges while attending Mt. Hood CC. His 64-05.75 shot and 195-07 discus still rank third all-time in Vandals history. He placed fourth at the 1984 Olympic Trials.
Dean Crouser earned five-time All-American and four-time Pac-10 honors after claiming the NCAA crown twice for the discus and once for the shot. He still holds University of Oregon records in the shot (69-01.50, 1982) and disc (216-02, 1983). He was inducted into the University of Oregon Hall of Fame in 2003.
Brian Crouser, a 1988 and 1992 Olympian in the javelin, owns an NCAA javelin title with a throw of 281-0 in 1985. The 2001 University of Oregon Hall of Fame inductee is the first Oregon high school male athlete to win the state championship in the javelin, shot and discus in the same year (Gresham, 1981).
Although neither Sam nor Ryan was ever pressured into track and field competition, the draw to it was stronger than a planet's gravitational pull on its moons.
"I hated it in fifth grade," Ryan said. "In the long jump, I was seventh. I cried halfway through the meet and got a purple participation ribbon. Later in fifth grade, I threw the disc 80 feet. In sixth grade I threw it 110 to 115 feet. In eighth grade, at my first middle school meet of the year, there was a metal storage bin for baseball equipment in the sector 150 feet away. The guy in charge asked if anyone can hit it. I said I think I can. My first throw traveled 120 feet. He sort of made fun of me. My second throw went 191 feet with the 1-kilo disc."
"When I was 3 or 4," Sam said, "dad gave me a 4' javelin carved out of wood. He has it on film."
With Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas A&M and UCLA soon to be courting his services, he feels no pressure to follow in his father's footsteps at Oregon.
"At Oregon, you get [6,000-8,000 fans] to watch a home meet and the trials are here in 2012, but I'll go wherever is comfortable for me," Sam said.
Earning a spot on the 2012 Olympic team is a goal for thousands of track and field athletes across the country; yet, if Sam can achieve an 80- to 85-meter (264-280 feet) javelin throw, his ticket nears reality.
Of Ryan's progress, his father Mitch said, "It's coming so fast, we don't know the limits. Getting bigger and stronger will govern his success as will improved technique."
And although the same holds true for Sam, he possesses two secret weapons: New Balance socks and Coke.
"If I don't wear them, something will go wrong. I just started it this year it seems to be working." As for Coke, Ryan explained: "At the first meet of the year, Sam's drinking a Coke. 'It gives me an added boost.' At the state meet, Sam pulls out a bottle of Coke after the fourth throw. 'I forgot my Coke,' he said. His next throw was 231-11 to win the state meet. 'I told you Coke works,' he said. At the state meet, when I'm throwing the javelin, he's chiding me with, 'Coke, Coke, Coke.' I take a sip of Sam's Coke and throw a state record 198-10."
Sam and Ryan are destined for more greatness, but by Dean's account, the one to keep an eye on is Haley, Sam's younger sister and incoming Gresham High freshman. At 5-10 and 120 pounds, she's the state's age-proper pentathlon champion and has thrown the javelin 139-05 feet to qualify for the USATF Junior Nationals. She's long jumped 17-03, high jumped 5-03 and run the 100 hurdles in the high 15s.
While Sam strives for a trip to the Pan Am Games in Trinidad-Tobago from July 31-Aug. 2, Ryan desires to represent the U.S. in the 6th IAAF World Youth Championships in Italy from July 8-12. When they succeed and raise the standards, don't be surprised it's in their blood.