Never Quit

Rutgers–Camden hammer thrower’s commitment to overcoming challenges with a Zen-like approach results in a 2021 national championship

Jude Misko won the NCAA Division III hammer throw championship in May 2021. Photos courtesy of d3photography.com. Video by Ronald Downes.

By Sam Starnes

When the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 track and field season, Jude Misko, a Rutgers–Camden standout in the obscure and ancient sport known as the hammer throw, didn’t miss a beat in his training. “I kept telling myself that eventually it’s going to be over, and I’ll have a season at some point,” said Misko, a graduate student in criminal justice who earned his bachelor’s degree at Rutgers–Camden in 2020. Misko continued practicing and working out four days a week, keeping a countdown in his room that ultimately marked 500 days until the NCAA Division III 2021 championship meet. He persevered through lone practice sessions in freezing cold, darkness, rain, and heat. “I told myself that nobody else is doing this. People are going to be home, playing video games, relaxing. Nobody is going to spend their days training for the hammer for a season that may or may not happen.”

Except Misko, who knows how to overcome challenges. Standing five-foot-nine, or “five-ten on a good day,” he is shorter than almost all the other accomplished hammer throwers who tower over six feet. It was a detail he contemplated in May 2021 after he threw the 16-pound ball, which is connected to a four-foot wire with a handle, more than 60 meters—longer than two NBA-length basketball courts put together—to win the NCAA Division III national championship. “Before we got onto the podium, I was looking around and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m the shortest guy here.’ I take pride in that, being the shortest guy. Everybody is taller than me, and I beat them all.”

Misko, third from left on the NCAA Division III championship awards podium, bested much-taller hammer throwers. 

Misko also has overcome serious injury challenges. In 2017, after he won the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division III championship while a student at Rowan College in Gloucester County, he suffered a bulging disk in his lower back. “When I originally got hurt, I went to a doctor who told me I’m not good enough and should quit and give up on my dreams. That added fuel to the fire to get back into training.”

After a few months of physical therapy, he was back in the hammer throw circle with a new appreciation for stretching and managing practices to take care of his body. “People doubting me—that motivates me to keep training,” Misko said.

Succeeding in a Sport with Ancient Roots

The hammer throw is a sport with ancient origins, which, according to Celtic legend, dates back approximately 4,000 years in Ireland. After gaining popularity in Great Britain in the 1800s, it became an Olympic sport in 1900. It remains somewhat obscure in the United States and is not offered at high school track and field events in most states, including New Jersey.

Misko, who visited the British Isles on a Rutgers–Camden Learning Abroad trip, said the hammer throw is more popular in Europe. “They know what it is there,” he said, adding that he visited a store in England to buy a pair of shoes specifically made for hammer throwers. “Here, you tell somebody you throw the hammer and they have not a clue what you are talking about.”

Misko, who was a high school standout at throwing the shot put, picked up the hammer for the first time after graduating from Cherry Hill East High School in 2015. He took to it quickly, winning the NJCAA championship two years later. He enrolled in Rutgers–Camden as an undergraduate in 2018, intent on going on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice. His mother, Pauline Misko, is an alumna, who earned a psychology degree in 2007. His long-term goal is to work for a federal law enforcement agency.

A Zen-like Approach: ‘Listen to the Ball’

While proving his doubters wrong is one of Misko’s motivations for the sport, he also has a Zen-like relationship to the act of throwing the hammer. It is not simply a contest of strength, but of technique that begins with two “winds,” which is a circular motion of twirling the ball high on the wire around and above one’s head to build momentum, and then four fast “turns”—in which Misko spins around completely and very fast—before releasing the ball and its wire and handle into the air. “It is like a dance, almost,” he said. “There’s a rhythm and a timing to it. The better you get at that, the farther it goes.”

Misko’s farthest throw in competition measured 61.19 meters, or almost 201 feet, and won him first place at the Philadelphia Metropolitan Collegiate Invitational held at Franklin Field in April 2021.

Misko in Greensboro, North Carolina, celebrates winning the NCCA Division III championship, which is the fourth in Rutgers–Camden history.

What does he think about when throwing the hammer? “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If you think about stuff, your mind is doing too much. I kind of just get into the circle and clear my head and then just let the hammer do its thing and feel it. You might think about a certain cue, but otherwise it’s a clear head and go for the ride.”

He said his best throws come when he and the hammer work as one. “The hammer has its own sort of life. People who don’t do it won’t understand, but you’ve got to listen to the ball. Let the ball try to teach you what it’s trying to do. You work with gravity, so it goes into an orbit. If it’s too one-sided to the left or right, you are doing something wrong. You have to listen and let the ball teach you.”

What does a fantastic hammer throw feel like once it has left his hands? “Super easy. When you have the perfect throw where things line up, the body feels easy, it doesn’t feel like you’ve even tried. It feels like you could throw farther than it went. That’s how easy it should feel. It’s weird. As easy as it is when you are doing it, it’s not easy to get to that point. It takes a lot of training.”

Although he has practiced on Rutgers–Camden fields, the act of slinging a ball akin to a cannonball about 200 feet on a busy urban campus can be dangerous. Most of his practices are at Winslow Township High School in Atco, New Jersey, where he has permission to practice and there is plenty of space. It’s also not too far from his home in Pine Hill.

Often there is not anyone around, which Misko enjoys. “I’d much rather train for three years than compete in a track meet. I like being out here by myself in the heat or the cold and just training.”

He said although he was happy to win the national championship, the recognition for it sometimes makes him uncomfortable. “I hate to be the center of attention,” he said. “I don’t even celebrate my birthday.”

Misko has another year of graduate school and another year of eligibility thanks to NCAA rules that granted an extra year to students who missed a season due to the pandemic. He said he hopes to defend his championship in 2022, and will train diligently through the 2021-2022 season. Misko’s 2021 championship is Rutgers–Camden’s fourth national championship in its history: Tim Van Liew CCAS’12 won NCAA Division III championships in the javelin in 2012 and 2013, and the softball team won the 2006 championship.

In the long term, Misko, who is 24, said he doesn’t know what his plans in the sport will be. His throws now, although tops in Division III, are far from Olympic length. He said in four years, he wouldn’t rule out trying to make the Olympic team if he keeps getting better and his throws are far enough to give him a chance. He pointed out that in the 2016 Olympics, the gold medalist was 34 years old and the silver medalist was 40, making it a sport older men with excellent technique can still win.

But defending his championship or going to the Olympics is not what’s on his mind after a lengthy interview and video session that included him making throws. “I’ll throw one more for my own fun,” he says, picking up the hammer by the handle. He pauses, concentrates, and then winds the heavy ball twice around and above his head, and then spins fast four times, launching it all the way across the field and near a stand of trees at the edge.

It’s not a surprise to learn that his motto, which is tattooed on his back with an image of a hammer thrower in action, is “Never quit.”

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