Nick Vena is “probably the most dominant track and field athlete in New Jersey history,” according to Jim Lambert of the
. “He has taken (the shot put) to another level that people never thought would happen. He has set the bar very high for the whole country.
“He stepped into the circle as a freshman and dominated. He has thrown 70 feet 43 times. He’s going through his whole life being compared to himself. His technique is so refined, so beyond his years. He just eats and drinks throwing. The sky is the limit.”
The 6-foot-4 ½, 270-pound rising senior at Morristown (Morristown, N.J.) already holds national indoor and outdoor shot put records for a freshman, sophomore and junior.
What makes his achievements even more incredible is the way his father, Vic Vena, deliberately has slowed his progress since he began throwing the shot as a third grader at Whippany (Whippany, N.J.).
Vic, who threw the 12-pound shot 49-11 ¾ as a 6-1, 205-pounder at West Essex (North Caldwell, N.J.), guided his only child into track and field after brief flirtations with soccer and basketball because his wife, Michelle, told him early-on, “I don’t want him to play football.”
Nick admits that during his early shot put training, “I was a little fidgety. I didn’t enjoy it as much and thought it was boring. I liked team sports and being with my friends. My dad introduced it to me in pieces. By fifth grade he introduced the glide and in sixth grade I started to go to the spin. I grew to really like it.”
Vic listened to a friend who wisely told him to “keep it fun. We would do five or six throws on a hot, muggy day and then go for a milkshake. We always held him back. When he broke the USATF bantam age-group record (as a fourth grader) we didn’t let him go to the nationals. We let him swim in the town pool, because we always wanted him to be a kid.”
Vic also made another wise move when Nick was still in elementary school by convincing Rutgers University track coach Anthony Naclerio to work with him until he reached high school. At that point, Nick could only attend Rutgers clinics due to NCAA restrictions concerning recruiting.
“He’s been a big part of this,” Nick said of Naclerio’s contributions to his record-smashing career.
Over the years, the Venas have turned down many big meets so their son doesn’t get overscheduled.
“There is plenty of time for him to tromp all over the country,” Vic reasons.
Their caution even goes into weight training where they monitor the amount of weight he lifts to avoid possible injury.
He never has been injured, but he still vividly recalls the day his ball rolled into a patch of flowers at a Memorial Day party and he emerged with a severe case of poison ivy.
It’s one step at a time because he won’t turn 18 until April 16, 2011.
Nick’s legend probably was launched when his Whippany eighth grade team had a meet at Morristown. One of his efforts hit a tree branch which hung over the throwing area, causing officials to promise the branch would be cut down by the time he transferred as a freshman.
An instant star at Morristown, Nick set a national freshman record by winning the National Scholastic Indoor Championship with a toss of 66-7 1/4 at the Armory in New York City.
“That was fantastic,” Nick said. “I was the youngest kid there.”
He later set the national freshman outdoor record by firing the 12-pound ball 67-10 1/4.
“I had some big technical changes,” Nick said of his freshman campaign. “When I threw in middle school, there weren’t many people around me. There was a lot more activity at high school meets. It was a lot more distracting with other events nearby. At first it was a little overwhelming, but I was slowly able to get comfortable.”
As a sophomore he again set national class records for both indoors and outdoors. He fired the iron ball 70-5 indoors at the Armory and that also was a New Jersey record. Outdoors he set the record at 72-8 in the New Jersey Meet of Champions.
Continuing his goal of “just improving on my best from the previous year,” Nick set a junior-class indoor record of 71-5 during the Randolph (Randolph, N.J.) Shot Put Invitational. He later set the junior-class outdoors record with a prodigious 72-10 ½ heave (his career best) during the North Jersey Athletic Conference meet.
He also has started to get more serious about throwing the discus “because my body is able to handle it better.”
At this year’s Meet of Champions, the left-handed Vena fired his discus so hard that it hit the cage on a foul throw with such force that an inner piece of the discus shattered.
“People who’ve been around the sport forever (said they) had never seen anything like that," Vic said.
Nick’s most recent accomplishment was throwing the 6K (13.2-pound) shot 66-1 to win the U.S. Junior Nationals at Drake University. It is the No. 2 throw in USA history for ages 19-and-under and came during his first competition with that weight. That qualified him for the World Junior Championships later this summer in Moncton, Canada.
“He’s never lost in the last year and probably won’t lose (a high school meet) again until college,” Jim Lambert said. “His favorite line always is, ‘Yeah, that was pretty good, but I can do better.’ He’s never satisfied. It wouldn’t surprise me if he represents the U.S. in the Olympics in the not-too-distant future.”
Meanwhile, Nick will be in his garage trying to get better. He counts nine different items that he uses to improve his efforts.
“We haven’t had a car in there for many years,” Nick said. “They stay outside. So my mom never gets a warm car in the morning (to drive to work on winter days).”
July 1 was a big day in the Vena household because that was the first time college recruiters could talk to Nick. He has received interest from over 100 colleges and the world is his oyster not only due to immense athletic talent but also because of his outstanding 3.94 GPA.
He wants to major in physical education and coach high school track.
“We’ve heard from everybody,” Vic says of the top colleges recruiting his son. “I often say to my best friends, ‘Pinch me.’ His grades are through the roof.”
Ironically, some of the top colleges – such as Rutgers, UCLA and Florida State, for example – do not offer a physical education major, Vic said. Thus Nick, who is non-committal about his choice, can’t consider those schools.
Because his season runs non-stop from December through June, Nick doesn’t have much spare time. He does belong to the National Honor Society and as a senior will be a peer-group counselor.
So, what must he do in his final prep year to have a shot at the senior-class and overall national record of 81-3 ½ by Michael Carter of Jefferson (Dallas, Texas) in 1979?
“My technique needs some work,” Nick noted. “My finish needs most of the work. I definitely do need to gain more strength. My main focus is front and back squats, power cleans and snatches.
“Hopefully, I won’t grow any taller. I have a size 15 shoe. Finding shoes is like watching paint crack. It’s boring. I can never find a pair that I like.”
Nick calls Carter’s mammoth throw “a great record. I don’t know if I can do that. I’m not going to change anything I do and not focus on records. I’m going to try to improve my weaknesses and see where it takes me.”
Vic is quick to point out, “One thing people fail to realize is that – for the distances he’s thrown – he’s not very strong. What he does have is the best pull of any shot putter out there. He just pulls on the ball (stretches) farther than anybody else. Like a rubber band. Adam Nelson, the Olympian, has it.
“Pieces of his technique need to be tweaked. I think he’s got a lot of strength coming. The development of Nick Vena is one hurdle at a time. He can’t get to the finish line without crossing each hurdle. It’s a real maturation process.”
Jack Shepard, the veteran prep track expert from Track & Field News, sees a big future for Vena.
"By the end of his senior year, he should be one of the 3-4 best shotputters ever," Shepard said. "As a junior he is fifth on the all-time list, but fourth is two feet further and Nick only improved a few inches so far this year – 72-8 to 72-10 ½.
“However, neither he nor anyone else is going to break Carter’s record. In my humble estimation, carter’s 81-plus is the greatest single performance in high school history and also one of the most dramatic, coming on his final put ever with the 12-pound ball at the Golden West Invitational.”
Vic, who has become an expert on the event, is philosophical about his son’s chance to erase Carter’s seemingly untouchable record.
He says, “To hit 81 feet, the stars would have to align. The Good Lord would have to bless you on that day. Does he have a shot? I guess (his chance) is about as good as anybody.”