New Jersey's Vena makes history with fourth straight shot put win at Penn Relays

Posted: April 30, 2011

As great as he is at heaving metal balls, that's how unspectacular Nick Vena mostly is when it comes time to dispense snappy comments.

His favorite flavor of ice cream must be vanilla. But, hey, that's no problem because winding up in the black is much more important.

Take yesterday . . .

Maybe 15 minutes after he'd captured the Penn Relays scholastic shot put for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year, and had broken his own meet record on each of his final two throws, the Virginia-bound Vena, a 6-4, 270-pound lefty from Morristown High, about 20 miles northwest of Newark, N.J., mentioned something in passing.

Well, what he thought would be passing, judging by the lack of emotion in his voice.

"I just came off an injury," Vena said. "My rib popped out of place."

Say what?!

"It happened last week [in a meet]," he added. "Thankfully, my chiropractor got it back into place . . . [Injuries] come with the territory. I understand that."

In the Penn Relays' long (117 years) and glorious history, Vena is only the fourth high school competitor to win an individual event for that same amount of years.

After first sloughing off the magnitude by saying, "They all feel the same; each one is as special as the other one," Vena, eventually, appeared to understand the significance.

That happened around the same time a meet official mentioned to Vena he could opt to walk over to Franklin Field - the throwing events are held right off the west side of the Schuylkill Expressway - and have his fourth watch presented in front of the large crowd gathered inside.

Somewhat nonchalantly, he agreed to add that special touch.

"I never thought of winning four times," Vena said. "In middle school, I heard of this meet and I wanted to win at least once. Coming here and getting four, that's something I never would have thought of.

"I knew it would be very hard, but I accomplished it and I'm very happy. Very honored."

Unlike most meets, the Penn Relays puts the top seeds in the first flight, so those who qualify for the finals have time to kill as the second-flighters do their thing.

Vena was constantly in motion under skies that remained cloudy throughout the competition. Walking here. Pacing there. Taking a peak at the Center City skyline. Sitting down to stretch. Doing a light jog back and forth.

He emerged from the trials with the best throw, at 69 feet. 11 3/4 inches, then ripped off efforts of 68-7, 72-8 1/4 and 72-9 1/4 in the finals.

His previous meet record (72-2 1/2) came in 2009. He won with 63-6 3/4 in '08 and with 70-5 3/4 in '10. His personal record is 72-10 1/2.

Of his perpetual-motion ways, Vena said, "I like to stay warm, maintain the momentum and clear my thoughts at the same time. I get fidgety."

After Vena's next-to-last toss was followed by sounds of "ooooh" from maybe 200 spectators, and meet officials realized he'd broken a record, they made sure to confirm the distance with a metal tape measure (as opposed to the regular nylon, which can get slightly twisted). That process was repeated after his final throw, when an official quickly told colleagues, "This one's farther!"

Also, after the next-to-last toss, officials had made sure to weigh the ball.

At the point of release, on throws that turn out to be special, can Vena tell?

"Sometimes you can. Sometimes you can't," he said. "Sometimes it feels like nothing. Sometimes it feels as though you have put extra effort into it."

How about the last two throws?

"In between," he said, smiling. "I didn't really know."

There's no doubt on this issue: In February 2008, after setting a national indoor record (yes, as a freshman), Vena appeared in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd." And this past winter, ESPN Rise published an illustration portraying Vena as a puffed-up, video-game character called Mr. Atlas.

His response?

"I never thought I'd be an action figure."

Ditto for being a four-time Penn Relays kingpin. *

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