To view original article click here
The Columbus Dispatch
By Tom Reed • Tuesday May 26, 2009 9:09 AM
Patrick Whalen, a member of the Ohio State track team, is still recovering from the psychological effects of the accidental death of a track official four years ago.
The first time Patrick Whalen saw Paul Suzuki it was already too late.
The 13.2-pound shot put had left the right hand of the barrel- chested Buckeye and started on its trajectory into the southern California sky.
No prayers could alter its three-second flight. No shouts of warning could alert the 77-year-old track official.
Long ago, coaches had taught Whalen to be careful throwing track-and-field implements used in ancient times as instruments of war. On this day, he had followed proper etiquette, scanning the V-shaped shot-put sector before launching the metal ball.
What he couldn’t account for, however, was the generosity of a longtime volunteer who picked the worst moment to cross the range to assist a fellow official.
“Nobody blamed me, but all I could think about was this one official, this one voice from behind me yelling, ‘Oh, no, what have you done?’ ” Whalen said.
Four years ago, on a sun-baked afternoon in Carson, Calif., a shot put hurled in a practice session of a junior national track meet changed the lives of two families.
It also reduced a gregarious Ohio State freshman to a fragile 19-year-old haunted by memories and prone to bouts of depression.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had the same thrower who walked in the door here,” Buckeyes track assistant coach Kevin Mannon. “He has done a nice job getting through it the best he can.”
Whalen still sees visions of Suzuki. He sees him in the shot put and discus rings as he prepares for meets; he sees him when his mind is unoccupied; he sees him at night when he closes his eyes.
He has wanted to reach out and contact the Suzukis, but has yet to do so. Whalen often thinks of them and has wondered what they must think of him.
Fateful phone call
Sheila Suzuki had just returned home from teaching school on June 22, 2005, when her mother, Dorothy, called from next door of their West Los Angeles apartments.
There had been a track accident involving Sheila’s father.
Paul Suzuki, a second generation Japanese-American, had devoted decades to volunteering his time to officiating track meets and other sports. A retired landscape maintenance worker, he enjoyed donning his red blazer and working track events throughout southern California.
Suzuki had suffered a heart attack in his 50s and several mini-strokes, but his declining health could not temper his love of community service.
Sheila had understood the inherent dangers of track meets with their airborne javelins and discuses and the organized chaos of hundreds of athletes and officials running from place to place. Nothing, though, prepared Sheila for her mom’s call.
“She told me dad had been hit in the head by a shot put and we had to go to the hospital,” Sheila said.
In the late afternoon, Suzuki was standing in the stadium infield at the Home Depot Center as shot putters were taking practice rounds. As he saw a fellow official in need of assistance, eyewitnesses say, Suzuki walked across the sector just as an Ohio State freshman was throwing a shot.
Spectators, competitors and coaches shouted at Suzuki, who wore a hearing aid. The ball struck him on the left side of the head, knocking him to the ground. He was breathing, but unconscious. Medical staff worked on the elderly man as athletes knelt and prayed, according to a report.
The shot putter immediately ran to Suzuki’s side but was overcome by the grisly sight and ran out of the stadium.
An ambulance transported Suzuki to UCLA Medical Center.
As Sheila drove her mother and teenage son, Tillman, to the hospital, she had hoped the shot put had only grazed her father. Sheila’s parents had spent time in Japanese internment camps during World War II. They were married in 1950 and taught their children to internalize personal hardship.
She kept a brave face as she led her son and mother into the hospital.
“They didn’t take us to see him,” Sheila said. “They took us into a small room and told us that my father had died.”
The following days were a blur. Family members did interviews with local television stations. The funeral home was packed with mourners. Grieving track officials arrived in the red blazers that her father wore proudly.
It was a day, maybe two, after the funeral that Shelia first recalled hearing the name Patrick Whalen.
Minutes after the accident, Whalen was sitting on a curb outside the stadium where his best friend and former Buckeyes thrower, Shelaine Larson, found him. Whalen was ghostly white and appeared to be in shock.
He had been so excited to make his first trip to California and eat at In-N-Out Burger. Instead, he spent his first night in a hotel room talking to a grief counselor.
“I can picture every detail of the throw, but after that I don’t really recall anything,” Whalen said. “I just remember feeling so bad for what happened and thinking about that man and his family.”
Whalen flew to Columbus the next day and his family took him home to West Dundee, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
Within a week, Whalen was on medication to combat anxiety and depression. The pills brought side effects, though, fostering feelings of invincibility and leading to fights and other “deviant acts” he won’t discuss.
As doctors regulated his medication, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound man-child sunk into himself like a building imploding. There were nightmares and bed sweats.
“You could see that he was carrying the accident with him everywhere he went,” said his mother, Elly.
Whalen considered taking a break from school, but his father discouraged it. Broad-shouldered Mike Whalen hadn’t missed a day of work in 25 years as a terminal manager for Marathon Oil, and he bred that resilience in his two sons, Matt and Pat.
Mike Whalen was bitten by a brown recluse spider 14 years ago and watched his swollen elbow turn black. He wouldn’t have sought medical attention, Pat says, except that he later passed out. People die each day, his father told Pat, and he needed to muster the resolve to put the accident behind him and return to Ohio State, where he attended college on a full athletic scholarship.
In Columbus, however, Whalen’s mood swings deepened and were exacerbated by an unrelated misfortune. His apartment caught fire in 2006 while he was cleaning it with ammonia and bleach. He began questioning his faith.
“I reached a point where I didn’t think there was anything out there for me,” he said. “I developed trust issues.”
Whalen struggled academically and athletically. Few knew of the accident and had little context for his random outbursts. He hollered at athletes who weren’t paying attention while competitors hurled shots, javelins, discs and hammers.
“Every emotion was magnified 100 percent in intensity and duration,” OSU men’s track coach Robert Gary said.
In the throes of depression, Whalen sequestered himself in his apartment and wouldn’t answer the phone for a week at a time. Larson had to bang on his front door just to get his attention.
Whalen, now 23, credits several friends for helping him through his darkest days, but it was Larson, 26, who proved indispensable.
He found it easier to share his deepest thoughts with a woman. He cried in her company and revealed how it had become increasingly difficult to keep a steady girlfriend. Sometimes, Whalen and Larson just walked to a movie theater and escaped reality without saying a word.
She nicknamed him “the salmon,” because Whalen is forever swimming against life’s current.
“I’ve always looked at him as a little brother,” said Larson, an assistant building coordinator for St. John Arena. “And you don’t give up on family.”
‘Never blamed him’
Sheila Suzuki said she can’t remember the last time she had thought of Patrick Whalen.
“I don’t think about him because I never blamed him for what happened to my father,” Shelia said. “I never for a moment thought it was his fault.”
She also never found it odd that Whalen had not contacted her family.
“If I were in his place, I would be so scared,” she said. “He’s just a kid.”
Sheila Suzuki misses her dad terribly and he remains a constant topic of conversation. Her brother, Vince, started a memorial youth fund in his father’s honor.
The daughter is buoyed by the fact her dad died doing something he loved.
Shelia has become her mother’s primary caregiver. Not long after the accident, Dorothy began exhibiting signs of dementia.
Each day brings new challenges, but the same haunting questions to her three kids:
Have you seen your father? He hasn’t called. Do you know his number?
“In some ways this is her blessing,” Sheila said. “My father is still not dead to her, he just isn’t home yet.”
For the past decade, Whalen has committed much of his life to throwing weights. Shot puts. Discuses. Metal balls attached to chains called hammers.
How could he have known the most difficult weight to release would be a metaphorical one?
Three weeks ago, Whalen suffered his first bout of depression in six months. It lasted just two days.
“They are less frequent than they used to be, and they don’t last nearly as long,” Larson said. “He is making progress. I think others would have crumpled under what happened to him.”
There are no simple answers, Whalen says, no moments of clarity. He believes maturity, the support of friends, coaches and family, and time have enabled him to be free of antidepressants for a year.
Several months ago, Whalen received a letter from his father outlining the pride he had in his boy. Mike Whalen cried as he watched his son graduate in March with a degree in education.
The track coaches have seen a return to the ebullient athlete who talked so much as a freshman that they made him sit at least five seats behind them on bus trips. Whalen also has demonstrated leadership with a stable of freshmen throwers.
He is applying for a graduate assistant’s opening at the University of Findlay and wants to pursue a master’s degree in environmental sciences.
One reason for breaking his public silence on the accident, he says, is to raise awareness of the potential hazards involving field events. Whalen’s story is unusual, but not unprecedented. In the past decade, there have been at least five deaths and numerous injuries worldwide involving field implements.
“You have to be alert at all times,” Whalen said.
On a recent Friday night, Whalen stood in the shot put ring, a steel ball cradled in his right hand, staring at a dangerous situation only he seemed to recognize.
As competitors stretched and waited for him to throw, Whalen watched as a contestant walked with his back turned to the ring down the left boundary of the sector at Cedarville University.
After the unsuspecting participant cleared the area Whalen hurled the shot about 60 feet down the middle of the sector.
“You could tell Pat was eye-balling the kid,” Buckeyes assistant Kevin Mannon said. “Most guys would have thrown. That kind of stuff makes Pat edgy.”
Notoriously critical of his performances, Whalen has refused to make excuses for why he hadn’t set a personal best in the shot put in two years. There have been injuries, difficulty with medications and the tragedy in 2005.
He hoped to fulfill his promise at his final Big Ten meet in Columbus but said he looked forward to the end of his throwing career.
“I’m ready to leave it behind me and find my new identity,” he said.
Six days before the big contest, Whalen received word from a reporter that Sheila Suzuki had requested his contact information.
Would it be OK to release it?
“Sure,” he said. “Just tell her to wait for a few more weeks until my last meets are over.”
A greater victory
On a crisp Sunday afternoon, Whalen’s friends and family gathered to watch his finest performance as a Buckeye in the Big Ten championships.
A day after a strong third-place finish in the discus, Whalen broke his personal best in the shot put with a throw of 60 feet, 8 inches on his first attempt in the finals.
As the distance was announced, he clapped his hands triumphantly. Twenty minutes later, Whalen’s second attempt traveled 61 feet.
Just as it looked like he would win the title, Minnesota junior Aaron Studt followed with a throw of 61-6. Whalen fouled on his third and final attempt.
As he paced dejectedly, coaches and teammates congratulated him on his second-place finish, his best showing in a conference meet.
“I wanted it so badly,” Whalen told his mother as they walked across the street to accept his silver medal in Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.
The Buckeyes men’s team placed second, its best finish in eight years. Whalen was OSU’s leading scorer in individual events with 14 points.
As the disappointment washed away, Whalen smiled and spoke of perhaps a greater achievement.
“Those last three throws were the first time since the accident that I didn’t once think about the officials out there in the field,” he said.
His mother, best friend, Buckeyes teammates and coaches applauded in the stands as Whalen received his medal in the infield. Officials, meanwhile, were busy setting up hurdles for the women’s 400-meter race.
Whalen stepped down from the podium, congratulated Studt and walked across the track.
He looked both ways before crossing.