The best U.S. javelin thrower in history delights in throwing people off their guard. "Hey, man, I toss a stick for a living," says Breaux Greer in the disarming drawl of his native Louisiana. "Gotta spice up that deal, y'know. Gotta stand out."
Greer has turned up on the track with the words WHO'S YOUR DADDY written on his arms and with war paint on his sweating face. He has competed shirtless, and in a T-shirt reading NO, I DON'T TAKE STEROIDS, BUT THANKS FOR ASKING. Once, when asked to list all his surgeries, Greer deadpanned, "Shoulder, elbow, penile reduction." So what if a mystified Japanese reporter printed it as fact?
Greer can be forgiven his occasional outrageousness. It helps soften the disappointments he has absorbed in an otherwise stellar career. Consider the 2004 Olympics, where despite a torn left ACL, he threw 286' 3"--the longest javelin toss of the Athens Games. Unfortunately it came in the qualifying round. "Without a [healthy] ACL, I only had a few throws in me," he says. In the finals the next day Greer's knee gave out. He finished 12th for the second straight Olympics.
This season a sore shoulder has limited Greer, 28, to three meets, but his throw of 287' 7", in Walnut, Calif., on April 17, is the second-longest in the world this year. His knee notwithstanding, Greer had five of the world's 10 longest throws in '04. After a U.S. drought of 33 years without an Olympic javelin medal and 53 without a gold, Greer has launched a one-man campaign to boost American fortunes in his event. He'll have two big chances in the coming months: at the U.S. Outdoor Track & Field Championships June 23--26 in Carson, Calif., where he'll try to win his sixth national title; and in Helsinki in August at the world championships, where no American has medaled since Tom Petranoff won silver in '83.
Greer was an accomplished pitcher at Ouachita Parish High in Monroe, La. (he would later get looks from the Montreal Expos and the Kansas City Royals) when he first grabbed a javelin on a practice field. "I could always throw stuff," Greer says, "starting with tantrums."
UCLA and other schools came calling, but he preferred the small-town familiarity of Northeast Louisiana University. As a 19-year-old sophomore he earned a spot in the '96 Olympic trials, where he placed third but failed to qualify for the Atlanta Games because he fell two centimeters short of the 80-meter Olympic standard. Says Greer, "That wound is still open."
Physical wounds followed, some of them owing to the 6' 2", 215-pound Greer's pitching background. "I throw the javelin like a baseball, which is asking for trouble," he says. "We're supposed to have our elbows above our shoulders when we throw. Otherwise the vibration of the javelin goes right to both places."
Greer had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 1998 and labrum surgery in '03. He's had his shoulder scoped twice. He tore his ACL during a meet in Bergen, Norway, two months before the Athens Games but didn't think it would affect his Olympic prospects. "I was walking around [ Bergen] that night, and it felt like my leg was going to fold backward," he says, "but I thought I could be comfortable being uncomfortable."
After the failure in Athens, he avoided contact in the Olympic village by letting his long hair hang over his face. "That was the smallest I've ever felt," he said. "It was my chance to make a mark, and I blew it."
Following the 2004 season Greer returned to the house he then shared with shot-putter Adam Nelson in Athens, Ga., and spent the next few months unwinding by playing gigs with his band, Ifelter Red Letter. "We're terrible, really," says Greer, who sings and plays rhythm guitar, "but it's a release."