When Tom Pukstys was a senior at Stagg High School in 1986, he told a harmless fib that ultimately set in motion his career path.
“I really wanted to get into a national championship track meet at York High School,” Pukstys said. “I lied and said I had a big meet when I was in Lithuania so I could compete even though I never did. I knew I had the skills to do well, it was a half hour from my house and that was the biggest meet going on at the time.”
Pukstys not only managed to finagle his way into the meet, but took first place in the javelin.
That day was when thoughts of actually becoming an Olympian crept into his mind for the first time.
“I threw farther than I expected and shocked my brother and my family,” Pukstys said. “I was the No. 1 ranked high school kid in the country. I was only about 25 feet away from what Olympians were throwing so that’s when I first started to find out what it would take to be an Olympian. I dedicated myself to javelin throwing and learning as much about the sport as I could. I caught the bug after that meet.”
Pukstys, who lives in Palos Heights, played four years of golf at Stagg and played baseball his freshman and sophomore seasons before switching to track and field his junior and senior years.
It was Pukstys’ older brother, Andrew, who first piqued his interest in track and field.
Andrew Pukstys graduated from medical school in Lithuania, where their parents moved to the United States from in 1949. He competed in track at Stagg and his roommate in Lithuania was a javelin thrower.
“The major change in sports was because my brother graduated from medical school in the Soviet Union in the summer of my sophomore year, and he always promised to train me for track,” Tom Pukstys said. “He was a shot put and discus thrower at Stagg, and I wanted to follow in my brother’s footsteps.”
Quitting baseball, a sport he shined in, wasn’t easy, but Pukstys’ talents in track and field quickly emerged.
By his senior year at Stagg, he placed third at the Class AA state meet in the shot put and fourth in the discus. High school didn’t have the javelin event in Illinois, so Pukstys practiced on his own with the javelin his brother brought him from Lithuania.
“It’s still an anonymous (event) in this country,” Pukstys said. “I’ve always liked to march to the beat of a different drummer, though. I never succumbed to peer pressure, and I didn’t mind being a little strange. My childhood hero was Lou Ferrigno. I always wanted to be the big guys.”
The 42-year-old Pukstys knows exactly how he developed his world-class throwing ability that helped him become the top U.S. javelin thrower for a decade and two-time Olympian.
“When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time at the beach in Union Pier, Mich.,” Pukstys said. “My dad had a cottage there and I used to love skipping rocks on Lake Michigan. I know that’s how I developed my arm strength. I always had fun throwing whether it was a baseball, football or anything. If you want an ace in a snowball fight, I’m your guy. Throwing has always kind of come natural to me.”
The Proving Ground
While a freshman at the College of DuPage, Pukstys established an American Junior record with a toss of 234 feet, 1 inch in the javelin. After two years at COD, he shined at the University of Florida where he graduated in 1990 before setting his first American record in 1993.
Pukstys was the U.S. record holder from 1994 until 2004 and his personal-best heave was 285-10 in 1997. He ranked fifth in the world in 1993 and 1996.
“One of my coaches told me I had to immerse myself in the sport in order to be the best athlete in the sport,” Pukstys said. “It was a motivator for me and made me look at the history of the sport and all the great javelin throwers, and I wanted to be one of them. The Olympics are the pinnacle of track and field and, if you have any hope of having a future there, you have to be a determined missile.
“My motivation was extraordinary and a lot of that was because of my family background. I never had a lot growing up and the oppression of the Soviet Union (in 1991) was hard. I had a little bit of anger, a little bit of passion and a lot of motivation to succeed. I also doubt that you could find anybody that loved the sport more than I did. I had people tell me I was like the poster boy for track and field because of how much I enjoyed it.”
One person who certainly knows the work ethic Pukstys displayed through the years is Rob Woosley, a former track standout at Louisiana State University.
Pukstys spent four of his prime years in Baton Rouge, La., where he trained with Woosley beginning in 1994 and the two became best friends.
“He was the American record holder at the time and he came to work with my coach,” said Woosley, who still lives in Baton Rouge. “Tom is a very intense person in general and a very competitive person. He was a perfectionist. He went out every day and gave everything he had. Obviously, he was a very talented athlete. God gave him natural ability along with his mom and dad, but that was only part of the reason he had so much success. He was a hard worker and was very intense trying to become one of the best in the world. I was never surprised that he had the success that he did.”
Pukstys’ Olympic dream became a reality after winning the Olympic Trials in 1992 with a throw of 262-5 after placing last in 1988 at the Trials. His first-place performance earned him a spot on the U.S. team for the Games of the XXV Olympiad in Barcelona, Spain.
He went on to place 10th.
“It was an awesome experience,” Pukstys said. “It was more of a spiritual movement at some level and purely a competitive situation where the best gun slingers were all at the table and you had to be at your best. I was more in awe and wasn’t able to deliver. I was a little tentative in the final.”
Pukstys believes he may have fared even better if not for a history-making event going on at the same time as the javelin.
The United States’ 400-meter relay of Carl Lewis, Michael Marsh, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell were in the process of setting a world record with their Gold-medal performance when Pukstys was getting ready to make one of his throws.
“They were going around the bend (in his sight) and wooing the crowd when I was getting ready to throw,” Pukstys said. “I only have 90 seconds to make my throw and they got in my way. I wasn’t prepared for that throw and that one got by me. Then, my third throw slipped through my fingers and I missed the javelin. I didn’t hit it perfectly and it stalled in the air. It just didn’t go my way.”
The 1992 Summer Games were the first Olympics which allowed professional basketball players.
The U.S. formed what would become known as the “Dream Team,” which featured Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and crushed the field en route to winning the Gold medal.
“Meeting the 'Dream Teamers' and all these great athletes was an incredible experience and is hard to put into words,” Pukstys said. “It was an out-of-body experience and just a special feeling. I was fortunate enough to travel the world, meet great people all over the world, including athletes, dignitaries and politicians.”
Pukstys finished second at the U.S. Olympic Trails in 1996 with a throw of 267-8 to secure a spot at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga.
He improved upon his first Olympic performance by placing eighth (274-2).
“My throw would’ve been third in Barcelona,” Pukstys said. “I just happened to get caught in the toughest field in Olympic history. I had a chance to win it. I threw well, but just didn’t have the overwhelming, great performance. I still ended up (ranked) fifth in the world at the end of the year.”
Pukstys took second at the 2000 Olympic Trails, but did not compete in Sydney, Australia, because first-place finisher Breaux Greer did not achieve an 'A' standard.
After a short retirement in 2002, in part because of back problems, rotator-cuff surgery and a torn plantar fascia tendon in his right foot, Pukstys attempted another run at his third Olympics in 2004, but fell just short with a fourth-place finish at the Olympic Trials in Sacramento, Calif.
He retired from competitive throwing shortly after.
“Age and injuries,” Pukstys said as the reason. “I was not nearly as energetic when I got past 30. Your motivation wanes and your mentality changes. The sport is all about energy and you have to have enormous drive. When I hit 30, 31, I still had great skills in practice, but when it came to the meets, it started to become easier to screw up than do well.”
Despite the enormous success Pukstys has enjoyed in the sport, he still wonders what might have been if he had chosen to pursue a baseball career instead.
“The financial power of baseball and the doors that would open if I was even a mediocre player would be astronomical,” Pukstys said. “You can make 10 times more money than I did and I had to be one of the best in the world in my sport. Coaching and different jobs in the major sports are unyielding and there is so much public adulation.”
Pukstys got a tryout with George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees in 1996.
He pitched in intrasquad games at the training facility in Florida and certainly held his own.
“I was far from a polished baseball player, but I had some raw talent,” Pukstys said. “I threw 92 miles per hour off the mound. I had the velocity. I had a dream of coming into a game in the late innings as a relief pitcher. I didn’t find it to be beyond my physical or mental capacity. I thought I could handle it. I competed all over the world against some of the best athletes, so I thought the pressure of being a relief pitcher would be a welcome challenge to me. I might have had a shot at baseball if I devoted a couple years to it.”
Woosley is positive his friend could’ve been a Major League Baseball pitcher.
“I talked to several scouts who saw his tryout and there’s no doubt he could’ve made it in pro ball,” Woosley said. “He was behind because he was older at that point, and he would’ve had to make significant changes. He would have to go from being one of the top five (javelin) throwers in the world to being in the minor leagues at age 28-30. He didn’t want to make that big of a life change.”
Today, Pukstys serves as a consultant to many of the U.S. ranked javelin throwers.
He is the owner and coach of TP Sports Performance in Lockport where programs are designed to improve strength, core power and overall performance for middle school, high school and elite athletes in any sport.
Pukstys found out on Feb. 17 that he was named an assistant coach to the 2012 U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team and will be making his third Olympics appearance, this time in London.
“That will be the pinnacle of my coaching career,” Pukstys said. “I’m looking forward to it.”