Rudy Winkler is a 21-year-old from the small town of Sand Lake, N.Y., who played baseball from a young age. Rudy Winkler is a senior enrolled as an information science major in the College of Engineering, hoping to land a part-time job working with computer software after he graduates.
While this all seems like the makeup of a traditional Cornell student, there is one thing that differentiates Winkler from the rest of the pack: he is an Olympian.
This past August, he had the honor of representing his country in Rio de Janeiro in the 2016 Summer Olympics. A member of Cornell’s track and field team, Winkler donned the red, white and blue and competed for the United States in the hammer throw.
Home on the Range
Long before he had any Olympic aspirations, Winkler spent his time carrying hay on his family farm, a 200-acre farm that produces mainly dairy, meat and hay.
As a child, Winkler played baseball for several years, but in fourth grade, his parents encouraged him to run track in order to get in shape.
“I was pretty overweight so my parents were trying to get me to do stuff to lose weight,” he said. “They thought track would be good for me. I was always the tallest kid in the grade and always pretty stocky. Since I was big, I didn’t really fit into sprinting or the other stuff like high jump either.”
In response, he turned to throwing — the form of competition that eventually became the perfect fit for him. Winkler first threw shotput and discus, but by the eighth grade he had begun to throw different objects and ultimately, he found hammer. He felt he had discovered his calling, and by the end of eighth grade he had developed a real knack for the hammer throw.
Winkler chose not to join his high school track and field team because hammer was not an official high school athletic event in New York. This way he could focus on hammer outside of school and attend competitions.
Freshman year, he qualified for the high school national championship, but struggled to find the success at the event that he had hoped for.
“I went to nationals freshman year and got dead last,” he said. “But my future coach knew I was from the area so he introduced himself to me and we started meeting up after that.”
From the beginning, his coach saw Winkler’s potential, but even Winkler agrees that “neither of us thought I’d be great or anything.” He and his coach have been together ever since.
A Journey 175 Miles Away
Continuing to compete at the highest level, Winkler drew the attention of several major Division I programs. In the end his decision came down to UCLA, Virginia Tech, Stanford and, of course, Cornell. In his quest to combine academics and a strong track and field team, Cornell best fit the bill.
“Cornell definitely fit into the good academics and good athletics category,” Winkler said. “It’s also still pretty close to home. It was the best decision for me for sure.”
Entering Cornell as a freshman, Winkler was already the top hammer thrower on the team, but his first year in red did not go according to plan. He tore his meniscus in his right knee weightlifting, forcing him to miss the entire year. Winkler said the lengthy recovery gave him some additional perspective.
“In high school I was making national teams, but then I hurt myself and went from being at the top to not being able to do anything at all,” he said.
Despite the challenges of this break, Winkler never lost his drive to win and sophomore year he competed as well as ever before. Throwing weight in the winter and hammer in the spring, Winkler was a first team All-American, an Ivy League champion in both events and set a new school record in weight and hammer, among multiple academic awards.
Junior year was no different, as Winkler again won the Ivy League in both events and earned All-American honors.
“It’s been pretty cool at Cornell — I’ve been able to win Heps every time I’ve been in both the weight and the hammer,” he said. “It’s definitely a nice confidence booster.”
“Pinnacle of your sport”
Throughout all of these accolades, competing in the Olympics was becoming an increasingly real possibility. That said, the 2016 Olympics were a bit unrealistic for someone as young as Winkler at the time.
“As a track athlete, it’s the pinnacle of your sport,” he said. “But it was always something that I wanted to do and hoped I could do. Normally you peak at around 30 as a hammer thrower. It’s hard to be a really good hammer thrower when your body is still going through changes in college.”
But one afternoon this past spring changed the course of Winkler’s career.
“I never thought I was going to be able to go to Rio until I threw 75 [meters] at Ivy Heps,” he said.
That throw was the best in the entire NCAA at the time.
This throw launched Winkler’s albeit very complicated qualifying process for the 2016 games. By throwing over 72 meters, Winkler qualified for U.S. Olympic trials in July. And at the trials, he competed against the best the United States had to offer, including several former Olympians.
Winkler was in no way unnerved by this turn of events and went on to set a new personal record and win the entire event by throwing 76.76 meters. However, the Olympic standard was 77 meters — which no one met — so he did not receive an automatic bid. He would now have to be invited in order to go to Rio.
Since only 22 athletes hit the Olympic standard and the IOC accepts 32 total throwers, Winkler remained in contention for one of the final 10 spots. But now it was the International Association of Athletics Federations’ call.
“It was all pretty complicated,” he said. “I was super unsure of whether or not they’d invite me.”
You’ve Got Mail
After a week of stress, Winkler was on his way to a competition in Central America when he received the word.
“I was on my way to a meet in El Salvador and had just landed in Houston when I got an email from [USA Track and Field],” he said. “They just told me that I made it. In addition to winning the trials, that feeling was pretty awesome.”
This news left Winkler with less than a month to prepare for Rio.
“I trained through that [El Salvador] meet and just ramped up my training overall,” he said. “It was definitely a bit rushed though.”
Meanwhile, Rio was getting press for all the wrong reasons. The Zika virus, the polluted water and the rampant crime were all anyone was associating with the upcoming games. For Winkler, this was never a real concern, and upon arriving, he never regretted his decision to compete.
“As soon as you get there you realize everything is blown out of proportion — especially by the American media outlets — and that it’s not nearly as bad as they make it out to be,” Winkler said. “There were guards policing the city 24/7, and I think I saw four mosquitoes the whole trip.”
Rudy in Rio
Winkler arrived in Rio on Aug. 4, but his event was not for another two weeks. He attended the opening ceremony, but after that he spent his days training alongside the rest of Team USA at a U.S. Naval base. Still, he often found himself with nothing to do in the midst of one of the most exciting events of the year.
“No one really preps you for how boring the Olympics can be,” Winkler joked. “And no one believes me when I say it either. I did go see some events and sightsee, but you end up just sitting in the village waiting around a lot of the time.”
Beyond from the mundane moments, Winkler did have memorable experiences in the Olympic village.
“I got to hang out with the previous world champion in the hammer, which was really cool,” Winkler said. “I mean, that’s the only place when you’d just be hanging out with the world champion of your sport in his room.”
Just walking around in the Olympic village alone was a source of amazement for Winkler.
“It was surreal especially since [competing in Rio] wasn’t something I planned for really,” he said. “I’d just be walking around the village and see people like Michael Phelps — it’s definitely inspiring. You’re in this place with all the best athletes in the world, and you realize they’re just normal people — normal people who work really hard. It makes you think that anyone can really do it.”
As the days went on and his event grew nearer, Winkler said he hardly felt nervous at all. He had a goal in mind and felt confident in his ability.
“I wasn’t trying to win… I just wanted to make finals,” Winkler said.
‘A very positive experience’
On the morning of Aug. 17, Winkler, along with 31 others, made his way into the Olympic stadium in front of a boisterous crowd.
“The atmosphere of throwing was amazing. … It’s a really big stadium with great energy,” he said.
When it came time for Winkler to throw, he faulted on two of the three and threw the other 71.89 meters. The distance was good enough for eighth place of his group and 18th overall — about 1.5 meters out of the coveted final spot. Only the eventual winner, Wojciech Nowicki of Poland, threw farther than Winkler had in US qualifiers back in Oregon.
Winkler was initially disappointed in this performance but is now upbeat about the experience.
“I didn’t compete that well but I felt really good, and overall I’m really happy with how I did at my first Olympics and my first senior competition,” he said. “I felt very mentally relaxed and ready to go during the competition, and that 71 meter throw would’ve qualified me for every final in the country.”
Still, Winkler feels that, given one more throw, he would have been able to compete in the finals, considering the relatively low overall scores of his competitors.
“If I even had one decent throw, I probably would’ve made finals,” he said. “But overall it was a very positive experience.”
Turning to Tokyo
As he is still quite young for the sport, Winkler’s future is still wide open. Of the 32 competitors, only two were college-aged, and a majority were over the age of 30.
After leaving Rio, Winkler began his senior year at Cornell, and after a busy final year playing for the Red — and one additional semester of classes — Winkler will resume training full time with his coach with their sights set firmly on Tokyo 2020.
He is considering becoming a coach one day, but in the near future, he would prefer to find a part time job putting his information science degree to work.
“I definitely want to keep up training full time, and some sort of sponsorship would pay for that,” he said. “I’d also like to get a part time job in software to pay for everything else.”
But until he steps back onto the world’s largest stage, Winkler is once again a student just like everyone else.
“I guess I’ll try for Dean’s List too,” he said, with a smile.