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How a Soviet hammer throw champ pushed Dylan Armstrong to the top

Canada's Dylan Armstrong competes in Men's Shot Put qualifying during the World Athletics Championships in Berlin on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009

Associated Press

In 1972, Anatoly Bondarchuk won the gold medal in hammer throw for the Soviet Union at the Munich Olympics.

Four years later, in Montreal, he took home a bronze while coaching the gold medalist.

And now, at age 72, he returns to the Olympics here in London yet again, this time as Canadian shot putter Dylan Armstrong's coach.

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A legend in his field, Bondarchuk is regarded as one of the top throwing coaches of all time and for years travelled the world training Olympic champion hammer throwers.

So when he applied for a job as a lowly assistant track and field coach in Kamloops, B.C., back in 2004, officials there were stunned to even receive the application.

"They thought it might have been a joke or a different Anatoliy Bondarchuk," said Alex Gardiner, Athletics Canada head coach. "But it was him. They said 'It's the Russian master who wants to come to Kamloops.' "

Then coaching in the Middle East, Bondarchuk had a daughter in nearby Calgary and had heard about Kamloops mainly because of a 6-foot-4, 310-pound hammer thrower named Dylan Armstrong, who was struggling to go from a top junior into the elite senior level.

Despite his limited English, Bondarchuk wanted to be closer to his family and work with Armstrong, and the small city's track club found a way to bring him over.

After only a few weeks together, Bondarchuk – who is known as "Dr. B" in the track world given he has a PhD in pedagogical science – told Armstrong he was in the wrong sport.

So his student started throwing shot put.

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Only three years later, Armstrong finished fourth at the Olympics in Beijing with a national record 21.04 metre throw.

Another four years after that, he is routinely throwing beyond 21.5 metres and is one of the favourites going into Friday morning's men's shot put event here in London.

Both Armstrong and Gardiner credit Bondarchuk for helping him get there, a process that has revolved around his unique training methods more than anything.

"The first time I saw him train, I was absolutely glued to the session," Gardiner said. "For two reasons. First of all, how intense it was. And secondly the communication between Dylan and Dr. Bondarchuk. It was a series of hand movements and looks and single-syllable words. And everything seemed to work out. It was a code they were using, there's no doubt."

One of Bondarchuk's exercises has Armstrong throw weight plates as far as he can.

Others are even more difficult – and unique.

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"He's rigged up a heavy medicine ball on a rope suspended from the ceiling," Gardiner said. "Dylan will rock the ball against the wall, it will come flying back at him and he'll stop and start again. He catches that ball the way a baseball player would catch a baseball and drives it again. In real rapid succession.

"It's quite remarkable. There are things I don't even know about that they don't talk about quite frankly. It really is innovative."

Because of Bondarchuk's presence, in 2009, Kamloops established a National Throws Training Centre, which now attracts athletes from around the country.

Three current Olympians (Armstrong, Sultana Frizell and Justin Rodhe) are all his pupils, and the centre receives requests for new additions to the program every few weeks.

"As much as he looks intimidating, he's super friendly," Frizell said. "I think I went to him when I threw 67 metres and now I throw 75 metres. Two Olympic teams, one world team, Commonwealth gold medal, Pan American silver medal – that's all him.

"I didn't actually think I was going to make the Beijing team, and he increased my performance that year enough to make the team, which was remarkable."

In his 70s and showing the wear and tear of being an elite thrower for years, those around him say while he is slowing down physically, Bondarchuk has had a major impact in Canadian track circles, even beyond the throwing sports.

According to Gardiner, other coaches are now using some of his training methods and ideas in their own programs.

Bondarchuk's English, meanwhile, has improved to the point he can give presentations to the group, a resource Athletics Canada is only too happy to have.

"The fact he came to Kamloops is marvellous for all of us," Gardiner said. "He'll share with anybody at any time. And each one of us, when we spend time with him, says boy, this guy knows what he's doing. He's so far ahead in his thinking."

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