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June 21, 2012

Throwing away all reservations

By: Jimmy Robertson

Alexander Ziegler wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life after finishing high school in Germany, but eventually decided to come to Virginia Tech and the results have been golden

Unlike a lot of the bigger cities in Germany, the small town of Dischingen, a tiny hamlet in the southern part of the country, offers little in the way of daily entertainment. So most kids join a club team and participate in a sport, whether it’s soccer, or track and field, or gymnastics, or whatever.

Alexander Ziegler was no different. In his hometown of about 4,000 people, he joined a track and field club team – in Germany, club teams, not the schools, compete against each other – and he started participating in the running and jumping events in hopes of finding his calling.

That calling eventually came in the world of throws, and it came about because of the simplest of reasons.

“I was kind of average in the other events,” he said, smiling. “It [throwing] was something I could beat my friends in, and I was happy about that.”

He is anything but average in the throwing events these days. Ziegler secured his second national championship and Tech’s 12th overall in track and field when he took home gold in the hammer throw at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships held June 6-9 in Des Moines, Iowa. His winning throw of 248 feet, 7 inches, was a personal record and enabled him to win by more than 20 feet.

Ziegler won the national championship in the hammer throw last year as well, besting teammate Marcel Lomnicky on his final throw. He had been on the cusp of multiple national championships since arriving at Tech in 2009, with four top-three finishes to go with his two national titles. He claimed third in the weight throw at the 2010 Indoor Track and Field Championships, second in the weight throw at the 2011 national indoor meet and third in the weight throw at this year’s indoor meet. In the hammer throw, he finished second in 2010 before taking home gold the past two years.

In other words, he easily could have six national championships under his belt.

“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Obviously, I’m not going there to get second or third. That’s not what I want. But the competitors are the best in the nation, and it’s always a hard competition. It’s always so close.

“I enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun. It’s better than being far out [in front] or far back. If you’re in the mix, then crazy things can happen.”

“Crazy” best describes how he got to this point in his life. Ziegler – who, at 24 years old (he turns 25 in July), stands as one of Virginia Tech’s oldest student-athletes – actually graduated from high school in Germany in 2007 and then spent a year fulfilling Germany’s service requirement for all young men. Given the option of either military service or civil service (the German government eliminated both in 2011), he chose the civil service option and worked with disabled kids at a local school.

After that year ended, Ziegler still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. So he took a job working for the track and field federation in his particular state. He helped organize track and field events and worked with younger kids to get them involved in the sport. That position basically turned out to be a one-year appointment.

In the meantime, Ziegler kept training in the throwing events, working out at the Olympic training center in Stuttgart, Germany. While there, he became acquainted with a former Virginia Tech thrower named Sven Hahn, who departed Tech in 2006 after an accomplished career throwing the shot put and discus. Hahn still kept in contact with Tech throws coach Greg Jack, and he forwarded Ziegler’s name to Jack.

“He [Hahn] had the connection with Coach Jack, and Coach Jack had already read about me,” Ziegler said. “I gave him [Hahn] my email address, and he gave it to Coach Jack. We started to talk to each other, but it took a couple of years [after he graduated from high school] before I actually came here because I was afraid to go to the U.S.

“But Coach Jack was really persistent. He offered me a recruiting visit, and once I was here, it was clear that I would like to come. It’s a great place. All the facilities … I was shocked at how much Virginia Tech does for athletes here. I was proud I got the [scholarship] offer.”

Ziegler ended up deciding to come to the U.S. and to Tech. And as with most international student-athletes, he dealt with culture shock before finally adapting.

Most international student-athletes struggle with the language, but Ziegler took English throughout elementary and high school, so he knew it. It just took some time to learn the slang in America and to parse through the various dialects spoken by Tech students from differing regions throughout this country.

“The understanding part and the reading part was fine, but the conversations were tiring because you hear something and then you’ve got to translate it, and then you’ve got to figure out how to answer,” Ziegler said. “It was a process, but after a couple of weeks, you get used to it. Matthias Treff [a Tech javelin thrower from Germany] was already here, and he helped me a lot, along with the other throwers. It was good to have people who had gone through the same process.

“My first semester here was a little rough. It takes a little time before you realize the people you can rely on. It tricked me at first because the people in the U.S. are really outgoing and welcoming. I wasn’t used to that. People in Germany are more reserved and laidback. They want to see first what is going on, and then they get out of their shell. It took me a while to figure it out. It was a little bit of culture shock, but as soon as we started competing, I was into it and enjoyed it a lot.”

Of course, giving up wasn’t an option. In fact, he never contemplated it.

“My parents wouldn’t have liked that or supported that either,” he said. “Since I was a kid, they always said, ‘If you start something, you’ve got to pull through it. You’ve got to stick with it.’”

In addition to having a few teammates from Europe, it also helped that Ziegler’s sister, Patrizia, came and visited him over Christmas break during his freshman year. She relayed a good report back to their parents, and then the summer after Ziegler’s freshman year, Hubert and Anita Ziegler came to the U.S. for the first time to see one of Hubert’s friends and also to check in on their son. Seeing how much Alexander enjoyed Blacksburg eased their minds, especially that of the skittish Anita, who didn’t really want him to come to the U.S. at the time.

Since then, Ziegler has made plenty of friends, and like most students, regardless of nationality, he’s come to enjoy Saturday afternoons at Lane Stadium. The concept of tailgating before football games intrigues him – so much so that he invited his sister to come back last fall to witness the hours-long outdoor party that leads up to a football game. She and her boyfriend came to the U.S. and got to witness firsthand Ziegler’s descriptions of the festivities.

“Everyone is here to have a party,” Ziegler said in semi-disbelief. “There are going to be grandparents and kids who are older who are there. There could be four generations of people here, and they’re here meeting and having a party before a football game. That’s really interesting. It’s definitely nice.”

Relaxed in his new surroundings, Ziegler flourished on the track. Last year, he won his first national title, throwing the hammer 238 feet, 6 inches (72.69 meters) to beat Lomnicky. It marked his best toss of the season.

His victory made for a bit of an awkward setting, though. The event was Lomnicky’s last outdoor competition as a Hokie (he did have one indoor season left at the time), and it was Lomnicky’s favorite event, and Ziegler knew Lomnicky felt distraught over the loss. The two actually had competed against each other in international competitions before coming to Tech, so they knew each other well and respected each other.

Yet there was a muted celebration by Ziegler.

“The celebration, it wasn’t really that outgoing because I knew he was upset about it,” Ziegler said. “It was nice to get 18 points for Tech, first of all, but … it’s hard to explain. It was a weird situation.”

Lomnicky, though, ended his career at Tech in grand fashion, claiming the national championship in the weight throw at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in March – an event which Lomnicky admittedly doesn’t like.

“I like it – and I’m upset he won indoors and I didn’t,” Ziegler said, laughing.

It’s hard to be upset with a career that now includes two national championships and six All-America honors. Amazingly, there’s another year left for Ziegler to add to his impressive haul.

First, though, he plans on flying back to Germany and trying to qualify for the European Championships held in Helsinki, Finland, on June 27-July 1. He ranks as one of Germany’s top three throwers, but he also admits that qualifying for the Summer Olympics is a long shot.

“We need to have the ‘A’ standard [automatic], no matter what,” Ziegler said. “Our federation doesn’t consider you if you don’t have the ‘A’ standard, and I’m quite a bit off from that. Hopefully, I can throw a good mark [at the Germany national championships] and qualify for the European Championships. That would be a goal for this year.”

Long term, he isn’t sure of his future. He actually graduates this summer with a degree in business management, and he received acceptance into Virginia Tech’s prestigious MBA program for this fall. He plans on getting his master’s degree in two years.

He’ll continue to train in hopes of progressing enough perhaps to make a run at an Olympic team spot for Germany in 2016. He’d love to follow in the footsteps of his idols, Karsten Kobs (a German hammer thrower who won the 1999 World Championships and a three-time Olympian) and Markus Esser (a German hammer thrower and three-time Olympian). But he’s realistic.

“I’ll be here for another two years, and then, it depends,” Ziegler said. “It depends on how throwing goes, and it depends on school. I’ll probably go toward the professional world.”

Whatever the future holds, rest assured he’ll throw his best at it. That philosophy has turned out to be rather golden for him so far.