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As Tom Petranoff of the Southern California Striders bounded down the crumbling Tartan javelin approach at the UCLA-Pepsi Invitational Track Meet Sunday, his spear held lightly aloft in his right hand, Olympic javelin thrower Karin Smith stood nearby, explaining the basics of the event to a curious spectator. "Watch this throw of Tom's," she said, "and I'll point out his mistakes to you and what happens because of them."
They watched. He threw. And Smith was silent. The javelin vibrated slightly as it left Petranoff's hand and then became stable, heading down the right side of the sector. "He hit it right through the point," said Smith finally. "Look at it!"
It sailed and sailed, turning point down as it struck the turf three good strides beyond the world-record line. The crowd on hand at this early stage of the meet, some 10,000, had moaned at the loveliness of the flight, but did not erupt in cheers. The markers must be wrong, many onlookers apparently thought. But Petranoff had indeed thrown 327'2", breaking the 1980 world record of Hungary's Ferenc Paragi by an astounding nine feet and 10 inches.
At 25 Petranoff is a rather rotund 6'2" 217-pounder, with curly locks and a Fu Manchu mustache, and a most astonishingly casual manner for a new world-record holder. "It felt easy," he said. "That's the way with the javelin. When you throw far, it's through the point [that is, with the force all going in the direction the spear is aimed] and smooth. To do well you've got to relax."
Petranoff seemed the man for that, mildly peeling an orange on the infield as cameramen and press swarmed around him. Until recently he was a wholesale grocery distributor in Los Angeles, working the night shift. Now he has taken a job with a brewery. He is originally from Illinois, but threw no javelins there. "I came to California in 1977 when I was 18," he said. He attended Palomar J.C. in San Marcos, and one day tried out for the baseball team as a pitcher and outfielder. The coaches didn't seem impressed by his arm, but on a nearby field he saw people throwing spears. "I said, 'Can I try?' "
Within four weeks he had reached 252'1". By last season he was ranked second in the U.S. behind American-record holder (314'4") Bob Roggy, with whom Petranoff roomed in an L.A. suburb in 1980. His best before Sunday was 297'0", but he had had throws of 305' and 308' at throwing clinics. Quietly confident, he had predicted a world record the night before to Canadian thrower Phil Olsen.
Petranoff was quick to credit javelin designer Dick Held for his success. "Dick tries to tailor a javelin to the technique of each thrower," Petranoff said. Held, standing alongside, explained that when traveling faster than 90 feet per second, a javelin develops a lift that exceeds its own weight, so it will soar as if borne by an invisible swan. Petranoff's velocity at release, he guessed, was at least 120 feet per second. "The greater the angle of attack through the air, the greater the lift," he said. "But to get that greater angle the javelin must be thrown with more power, which Tom obviously has."
But wait. The balance of the implement, the point shape and the diameter are all specified by the rules. So how do you tailor a javelin? "By working on the tail," said Held. "The narrower it is, the higher the javelin floats."
"It's like an airplane taking off," said Petranoff. "You want a little head wind—which it didn't feel like I had on that throw."
"But you shattered the world record!" cried a man with a microphone.