You might think beating the reigning world and Olympic champion at an IAAF Diamond League meeting, and setting a personal best at the ripe old age of 35 is reason enough to be pleased with your day’s work. But for Gia Lewis-Smallwood her shock discus victory over Sandra Perkovic at the Sainsbury’s Glasgow Grand Prix on Friday was made so much sweeter simply because it happened in Scotland.
The US champion, who improved her lifetime best by 1.30 metres to hand Perkovic her first Diamond League defeat for two years and only her second in 27 competitions, is a self-confessed ‘Scotto-phile’ who had never before competed in the land where her heart lies.
“I’ve had an unhealthy obsession with Scotland for my entire life,” said the slightly giddy Lewis-Smallwood shortly after throwing 67.59m in the sun-bathed bowl of Hampden Park, just 15cm short of Stephanie Brown-Trafton’s national record and good enough for third place on the 2014 world list.
“To do a PB (personal best) on my first competition here is like all my dreams come true. I cannot think of a more perfect place to do a PB than here in Scotland,” she said.
“For as long as I can remember I’ve always had a thing about Scotland, so to do it here is like a trifecta of things coming right. I am so happy.
“Everyone makes fun of me and my unhealthy love of Scotland. I don’t why but I have always loved Scotland. I love everything about it – the culture, the people, the accent; Jesus the accent! Everything about Scotland rocks.
“When I arrived I stepped off the plane and I was like, ‘I’m here, I’ve arrived.’ I have just been grinning from ear to ear the whole time I’ve been here.
“This is one the greatest things I’ve ever wanted to do, to go to Scotland. So the fact that I’m here and I threw well in a place I love is awesome, very awesome.
“Everything about Scotland is magical to me, and it was a magical competition today.”
It was certainly a great contest for the one-time University of Illinois student who was the last athlete to beat Perkovic, on the Croatian’s home soil in Zagreb last September. She was also the first to finish ahead of her in a Diamond League meeting since former world champion Dani Samuels did so in Paris on 6 July 2012; bringing to an end Perkovic’s a run of 14 straight Diamond League wins.
Perkovic briefly took the lead in round four with 65.63m and managed 66.30m in the last round, but was short of her 70-plus best partly, she explained, due to an old back injury which resurfaced during training on Thursday.
“I couldn’t really control my technique, my body just wasn’t working,” said the hobbling Perkovic afterwards. “I almost couldn’t walk but I still threw 66.30m, so I’m not that disappointed. And I’m still the leader in the Diamond Race.”
Perkovic also had some appreciative words for her victor, a sentiment Lewis-Smallwood was eager to reciprocate when she explained how self-focus and technical adjustments had been the key to her success.
“Sandra’s truly is one of the greatest discus throwers of our time, and she is phenomenal as a competitor, so you’ve got to really stay focused with your own technique, with where you are, and on putting things together,” said the American.
“If you only think about beating her, it just becomes a game of trying too hard and not really working the technical aspects that can give you the distance. I learned early on not to worry about beating her.
“The times that I have beaten her, usually I’ve PB’d too so I’m usually more happy with the PB than anything. I always focus on being the best that I can be.
“I wanted an outcome like this today,” she added. “She is fantastic and a couple of losses doesn’t diminish at all how amazing she is. She’s human. She has off days just like the rest of us and she’s going to come back big.”
Lewis-Smallwood’s rise has been a long time coming.
A former sprinter, she started discus throwing relatively late, at 19 – an age, she points out, when Perkovic was already a European junior champion throwing 66.92m – and she took time out from the sport before returning to it in her late 20s.
The decision then to switch coaches to Michael Turk, head of throws at the University of Illinois, has been crucial to her success, she says, although it’s clear her fascination with the event - perhaps second only to her obsession with Scotland - is a significant part of the picture.
“The technique he has me doing just works really well for me,” she added. “It took me a while to work on it, but every time I find a new piece it’s like finding gold. Every time I put something better together, it’s like ‘Oh yeah, I understand what you’re saying.’
“I love thinking about it, I love playing with it, I love the nuances of it, I love working with it. There are still lots of aspects of the event that I have not mastered at all so I am still working on it constantly.”
All that work is clearly paying dividends for Lewis-Smallwood, who has yet to win a major championship medal and had never won a Diamond League meeting before her Glasgow triumph, as she’s claimed the last two US titles and last year improved from failing to make the final at the 2011 IAAF World Championships and London 2012 Olympic Games to finishing fifth at Moscow 2013.
“The improvements you’re seeing from me are partly because I started late so I still have technical aspects to improve on,” she says. “I didn’t have that huge base that you see others have. I’m a bit of a different athlete.
“I’ve got to train hard. I’ve got to get better technically. There’s a lot that I need to keep working on.
“But, every time I do well, it pushes me that much harder to be better, to really work the technique. If I continue to get better technically my distances will improve.”
As for her long-term goals, Lewis-Smallwood is on a four-year plan to peak for the Rio 2016 Olympics, with a good performance at next year’s World Championships in Beijing a significant staging post on the way.
“Doing well at the Olympics is a combination of putting back-to-back years together so I want to have two good ones in a row. I need that because it helps my confidence.
“I’m a sort of ‘look before you leap’ kind of girl so the better I do in years like this, it really helps my confidence going forwards.
“This is a good path for me to be on. It may not be a path that’s right for everyone but, for who I am, this works well. I am on a great ride.”
At that, she bounds off to bask in a well-earned glow of satisfaction, happy to be in the ‘magical’ land where she is … and to know where she’s going.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF