Part-time coach, a Jewish cantor, has guided her to the top
By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
It’s official: Sophia Rivera is the best high school female shot-putter in Missouri. Not just among Class 2 schools, as we reported three weeks ago, but in Classes 1, 3 and 4 as well.
How did the sophomore get so good so fast? It turns out that she has a secret weapon, but more on him in a minute.
Rivera won the Class 2 Missouri title for the second year in a row at the state track and field meet in Jefferson City on May 23. Nobody in either Class 1 or Class 2 came close to her throw of 45 feet 8 inches.
But the true test of how she ranks among shot-putters in Missouri came a week later at the state meet for Classes 3 and 4. Larger schools have bigger talent pools – compare Brentwood’s 235 students to the 2,400-plus at Class 4 powerhouses like Jefferson City and Blue Springs – so the athletes usually have better performances.
But not in the girls shot put, not this year. Rivera’s 45-8 beat the Class 4 state champ by 2-1/2 inches and the Class 3 winner by almost two feet. So she’s the best high school shot-putter in Missouri among all 218 schools at the meet. And, for that matter, among the more than 500 high schools that are eligible to compete in track and field.
She won Class 2 in the discus as well, though her throw of 129-11 was the fifth best among all classes. Oh well, you can’t be the best in the universe at everything. Leave some goals for your junior and senior years.
The man in the dark suit
A few weeks ago Rivera was competing in the discus at the sectional meet at Principia High School. Chatting with her between throws was a trim, dapper, middle-aged man in a dark suit and tie and Ray-Ban sunglasses. I later asked Sophia about him. He’s Ron Eichaker, who has been coaching her on and off since she was in the seventh grade. I asked how he has helped her.
“How hasn’t he helped me is really the question,” she replied. “Before he helped me I was just going off Youtube videos.”
Let’s back up a few steps.
Rivera took an interest in the javelin during elementary school in New Jersey and joined a club team. She started competing as a fourth-grader and within a few years her national awards included a second place in the mini-javelin. After the Riveras moved to Brentwood she won two second places in the javelin and a first place in the shot put at national championships.
As much promise as she had, the javelin is not offered as an event for Missouri high schools so javelin coaches are hard to find. Undaunted, Sophia’s parents Edwin Rivera and Michelle Hassemer started looking for one. They found Eichaker, a St. Louisan who years ago had qualified to throw the javelin for the U.S. track team.
The only catch was that Eichaker doesn’t coach. He’s a cantor, a music leader, at the United Hebrew Congregation in Chesterfield. And yet he has helped Sophia become not only a state champ in the shot put and discus, but an outstanding javelin thrower.
In December she so impressed coaches at a javelin clinic in North Carolina, with throws of 130 to 140 feet, that they invited her to join a year-round training program that will include a trip to Finland this summer. The Project Kultan Keihas program’s ultimate goal is to develop throwers for world championships and the Olympics.
After the sectional meet I interviewed Eichaker, the man in the dark suit. Following are his responses.
How did you start coaching Sophia?
After they moved here Michelle Hassemer started Googling “St. Louis javelin” and my bio has me as a former NCAA and international javelin thrower. A coworker of hers belonged to my congregation and Michelle asked them if they’d be willing to help her daughter because there’s nobody who trains the javelin here. So she sent an email to me and after months of evasiveness on my part I met with them at a St. Louis Bread Company in Brentwood. I met them as a family and got a feel for who they were. I said right there, ‘Sophia, I’ve never coached an athlete. I’ve coached coaches, and during my 15 years in Milwaukee I was a throwing consultant. But since coming to St. Louis 14 years ago I’ve been very much invested in building my congregation. I said, “I’m very busy here and have never really worked with an athlete before, but in lieu of you having a coach I’m happy to help.”
How did you train her?
I gave her a training regimen so they were able to train at HammerBodies and I worked with the staff there, showed them what I wanted in specific javelin exercises. I basically stripped her down of all the techniques she’d been using and brought her down to the basics. Her first year of throwing the javelin she didn’t run down the runway, she walked. I said, “You’re going to take things very slowly. You’re going to get the steps, the balance. You’re going to fire the muscles at the correct time and at the right sequence. You’re not going to use one part of your body just because it’s stronger.” Occasionally I’d teach her some of the discus because I was an all-state discus thrower in Illinois back in the 1970s. Also a little in the shot put. These things were wonderful cross-training for her.
What have you tried to instill in her?
The whole theme was, first, have fun. Second of all, be a student of the event. “I want you to have technical goals that you’re going to go after every workout and every track meet. Wins or losses mean absolutely nothing in these competitions right now. It’s achieving technical goals and building towards what your dream would be.” And really, the dream is not about a gold medal any place. The dream is that she maximizes her efforts with what her body has given her. So that’s what she’s been indoctrinated with her whole life, not necessarily winning but working to do better every time.
How has Sophia responded to your coaching?
Basically I see her once a week. I go out to Brentwood or she and her family come out to Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield [near the synagogue]. She’s such an easy person to coach. She’s so centered for a teenager. I mean, whoa, she’s so grounded it’s intimidating. When you talk to her she looks at you with these probing eyes; I think, “I’d better not say the wrong thing.” She processes everything and then immediately applies it to her technique. It’s scary. She’s great. I’m going to miss that kid when she goes off to college.
How did you become a cantor after dedicating so much of your life to track and field?
I was at the prep international invitational in 1974, threw close to 230 feet, got a full scholarship to throw for Northern Illinois University and qualified for the USA track team. But I majored in music and went off to seminary. I loved the javelin. I loved the sport, it was part of who I was but it wasn’t entirely who I am. I’d been tracked ever since I was a teenager to go to seminary and serve congregations. So the javelin was just part of my life that was a great experience. And I really try to teach Sophia that as well, that this is part of who you are but it’s not all of who you are. There will be so many other facets of your life. But if you can apply the lessons of the training, of the rigor, of your expectations, from the training field to the runway to the rings, into the rest of your life, you’ll be a world champion maybe not in these events but you’ll be a world champion at something.