GVSU alum Thornton nearly qualifies for finals at Olympic Trials

Darien Thornton practices his shot put on Feb. 4 in Allendale, MI.

Kasey Garvelink

Darien Thornton practices his shot put on Feb. 4 in Allendale, MI.

Jacob Arvidson

Tenth best hammer-thrower in the United States of America.

That’s the title former Grand Valley State track and field standout Darien Thornton can now add to his resume after placing tenth out of a 24-man field at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials on July 6.

Thornton’s toss of 68.49 meters (224 feet, 8 inches) put him fifth on the leaderboard after the first round.

“It was a solid first throw,” he said. “It was probably a lifetime top-10 throw for me.”

But the reigning NCAA Division II national champion couldn’t surpass his mark on the next two throws. Thornton would finish less than 2 feet short of a berth in the event finals, for which only the top nine qualified. The finals would have given him three more chances to extend his distance.

“I feel like on a good day I’d be right there in the mix,” he said. “I felt like I was on the same level as those guys, but it just wasn’t there for me this time.

“I wanted more, but I just have to keep what’s in the past back there and keep moving forward.”

Thornton will move forward from the Trials quickly. The 21-year-old turns professional this week and will head to Canada to compete in his first hammer throw competition as a pro.

Life as a professional will be difficult, but Thornton believes he can make a return trip to the Olympic Trials in 2020.

“It’s going to take hard work, effort and the perfect situation,” he said. “I’m going to need a job that allows me to be flexible with competition and training, but it’s something that can be done. I’d love to be back in four years.”

Thornton will not be alone in his training. GVSU throwing coach Sean Denard helped the former Laker star prepare in the weeks leading up to the Trials and will continue to do so.

“He was up here at GVSU lifting and throwing just like normal,” Denard said.

Denard went along with Thornton to Eugene, Ore. for the Trials.

“I traveled with him and various throwing people were there as well,” Denard said. “We are kind of like a traveling circus family going around the country.”

That traveling circus fit right in at Eugene. The nickname “Track Town USA” fulfilled every bit of its hype for Thornton.

“It was very different from any other place I’ve been,” he said. “The town just loves track. I’ve never seen so many track and field fans in my life. You walk down the street and everyone is talking about track. You can approach someone about track and they actually know what you’re talking about.”

The realization of Eugene’s love for track and field truly set in for Thornton during his participation in the hammer throw.

“The hammer throw is a lesser known event and so there are normally less people watching,” he said. “But when we were throwing, there were at least 5,000 people watching and cheering us on. It was really cool.”

Thornton was one of three former Lakers competing at the Trials. Betsy Graney competed in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase and Kristen Hixon pushed toward the Rio Games in the women’s pole vault.