Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Commentator 1: Just get one on the board. Get one-- Yes, she does. That's nice. There's a bit on this, too. There's a nice bit on this. That's excellent work. I don't think we've seen anything like that yet, to be honest.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The hammer throw. It rarely makes primetime Summer Olympics coverage, but there is a pretty memorable hammer throw tune in the new Matilda the Musical on Netflix.
Speaker 3: [singing] If you want to throw the hammer for your country, you have to stay inside the circle all the time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Feeling inspired? Well, I've recently sat down with a far kinder and pretty astonishingly talented world-class hammer thrower.
Janee' Kassanavoid: Janee' Kassanavoid, professional track and field athlete, member of Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, and a Women's hammer thrower for Team USA.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Last summer, at the World Athletics Track and Field Championship in Oregon, Janee'' made history as the first Native American woman to medal in this sport.
Commentator 2: World Athletic Championships, the hammer throw final. It is Andersen, Rogers, Kassanavoid for the history books.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The century's old sport of hammer throwing requires a combination of strength, precision, speed, and force.
Janee': The origin of the hammer throw was originated from the Ireland, Scotland, and England games, very long time ago. Essentially, they had a metal chariot ball placed on an axle, which then was replaced to a wooden stick, and to now, we have a metal ball attached to a wire. A circle you rotate around really fast, one to three rotations, I do four rotations, and you release it, and let it go into an open field, and whoever throws it the farthest is the goal of the hammer.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When she says they rotate around really fast, she means really fast. These athletes whip their bodies around at speeds of at least 60 miles per hour. Look, it does sound like a Scottish 14th-century athletic or something, right? How is it when we think about all the changes that have happened in the Olympics over time, how is it that the hammer throw has stayed?
Janee': That is a good question. I honestly didn't know it existed or was an event of track and field until my freshman year of college. I was recruited for the shot put and the discus, very powerful Olympic games events. Then when I was introduced to the hammer, I didn't know what it looked like, and I didn't know how you even through it, so it was a learning experience for me. Now, going on years 9 and 10, it's my entire life, and it's how I make a living, and it's very fun and challenging.
Something that I think just having a very strong athletic background, and being involved in multiple sports has allowed me to very quickly learn this and become very good, one of the best in the world. Crazy journey, but here we are.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It is amazing to discover that you are one of the best in the world at something that previously you didn't even know existed. How did you come to it in those early years in college?
Janee': My first passion was culinary arts. After having an entire life filled with athletics and being involved in athletics with my family, I was going to give up the shoes in high school, but with a change in plans for that career, a track and field scholarship opened up with a culinary program at the same college. I went that route and essentially, some other living situations came about, but I was recruited through my current coach now at Kansas State University. As a sophomore through my fifth year, I was under him and dropped all other events, and was strictly a hammer thrower.
I trained all year round specific to hammer throwing and just learned that, and developed very fast. When the post-collegiate route came about, we decided to give it a go and became a professional track and field athlete. Now, 2021, I signed with Nike and part of the N7 team as well. It really was a career I never expected to happen, but I love it more than anything, for sure.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Last summer, you became the first Native American woman to medal at the World Athletics Track and Field Championships. Was there something, not only about being an extraordinary athlete, but being an extraordinary athlete representing that particular breakthrough, that meant something to you?
Janee': Oh, absolutely. Not only was it a huge as historical moment that I didn't even really consider going into the meet, it wasn't even on my mind, but I knew it was possible. Just because growing up, I didn't have a role model or a person I looked up to in this sport to be like, "They're native, they're strong, they can do it." Like, "I want to do that too." I didn't have that person in my life. For me, I knew I could be that for someone.
This moment was all of those things that it meant to me to be native, a moment of pure strength, beauty, resilience, and everything how I choose to represent myself in this sport, and at the elite international global world level. It was just a moment to commemorate all the years of hard work and to be able to create this new space and pave the way for generations of native athletes to come. Super powerful moment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love that you use that language of super-powerful because you do look a bit like a superhero when you're doing a hammer throw, that spin, the intensity. I hear you talking about representation of native women and native women in sport. Do you feel a bit like a superhero? Again, you look a little bit like a superhero in that intensity moment.
Janee': Yes, I have gotten that before. Then just because I think it's something that not a lot of us, even myself at one point are so unfamiliar about. When you think of the event in such a short amount of time, it can be just a huge momentum, strength, power, and precision, the technique is so intense. It has to be right to get the most perfect and beautiful throw. In all of those seconds, it can change your life.
I don't ever think of throwing as that poetic or beautiful, but really, with the years that I've experienced it, it truly is the moment you step in the ring and in the circle, and get the chance to throw, and make history, and possibly be an impact to someone's life in athletics or being a woman. It's a lot and I'm super proud to have this opportunity because it does mean a lot. Yes, it's definitely something that's moved me more than I could have ever imagined.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're taking a quick break here and we'll be back with more hammer throwing in a minute. It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. I'm back now with Janee' Kassanavoid, a professional track and field athlete, member of the Comanche Nation, and a Women's hammer thrower for Team USA. Last year, Janee' was invited to Comanche Nation Fair in Lawton, Oklahoma as a celebrity guest, and she talked to me about just how special that was for her.
Janee': With COVID, this was the first year, this fall in September that the Comanche Nation Fair was put back on. Essentially, it's just a time to bring people together to honor our nation's traditions and ceremonies. It's really just to have a community and to have a sense of culture because, with our American history, we've lost so much with assimilation and things of that nature. As much as I'm sure, it was amazing to have me as a celebrity, it was more beneficial for me to be a part of that because I wasn't raised near family or in Oklahoma where my dad was from.
I was essentially brought with my siblings to have a better life and we were raised in Lawson, Missouri. We didn't have a sense of community or family, and with my father passing at a young age, I didn't have the chance to learn my culture and traditions. From a young age, I didn't learn my language as some people I have met have had that chance to. Being able to attend this ceremony was super honoring and super humbling just to get a chance to learn from my elders, and to meet family members, and to be a part of something much bigger than myself.
It was super diverse, rich, and beautiful to learn of the Comanche Nation, and what it means to be native just going forward in my career to have that, so that I could someday pass down to my children.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of going forward in your career, can we go back for a second to the culinary school part? Is that in your future as well?
Janee': Oh, absolutely. I love food, I love trying new foods, cooking foods. Also, being an elite athlete, you have to have sports nutrition, you have to have a balanced diet to fuel yourself as you train, and as you compete, and things of that nature. It's something I still get the opportunity to be hands-on experiencing. Of course, early on in my career, I had to have a part-time job even sometimes close to a full-time job to support myself and that was always in the food service industry or in hospitality.
I really do love getting any chance I have to work with food. I do cook a lot, I do my own meal prep. Then my education background also is a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and Health and Nutrition. Of course, if I had all the time in the world, I could do it now. With my main focus being on athletics while I'm young, happy, and healthy, at the moment, culinary arts, the school part is on the back burner for the time being.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have in my mind this new reality show that it's like Best Baker in America from Track and Field, like some kind of connection of all those things together.
Janee': Oh, that would be awesome. I used to grow up watching all the cooking shows and make my family eat everything, not so great. I would say great in the kitchen that I would create, so I know they don't like me for it, but they had fun with it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is next for you in the athletic career? I hear you saying while I'm young, while this is here and while you have still so much passion for it, what are you doing next?
Janee': Well, we're training for sure back to it after a very long and successful season this year. My birthday is coming up and I'm getting closer to 30. I would say I'm old, it's crazy, I'm reaching 30. What I imagine at a younger age where a different point in my life that I would be, family with kids, settle down in a career, I'm not and I'm so thankful because I do love what I do. I also imagined the track and field world and the experience or the knowledge that I had was Olympics and that's the goal and to medal.
There's so much more to track and field that is challenging and you can find success in your own personal growth and intrinsic motivation where I know I have a lot more in me to grow and to throw farther and to become stronger. Again, it's not just the medals, it's not just the performances, it's my impact overall. Two, I can inspire in the bigger journey than just being an athlete, being a woman, and being native. Really, no end goal as far as performance or meet that I want to attend. Of course, Paris 2024 is on the horizon falling just the couple of inches short from the 2021 Olympic trials.
Of course, it's disheartening but they say and hammer specifically from my coach, if you have the years to give, you can be very, very successful. The world's record holder, she threw that at 32, 33 years old and I'm not even 30 yet so I do know I can accomplish a lot of great things. Olympics is no question apart of my journey but I just think, right now, it's just day by day and working towards the season's goal ahead.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We are going to love watching you in these next parts of your journey. Janee' Kassanavoid, professional track and field athlete and maybe someday we'll get to eat your extraordinary culinary delights as well, Women's hammer thrower for Team USA. Thanks for joining us on The Takeaway.
Janee': Yes, thank you so much.
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