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NCAA Quest Begins for Iceland Native

Hilmar Jonsson
Hilmar Jonsson

May 24, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- As long as the thermometer reads at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit, Hilmar Jonsson sees no need to train indoors, even if his mentor at the University of Virginia might feel otherwise.

"He wants to go outdoors and throw," said Martin Maric, a two-time Olympian in the discus for Croatia who's an assistant coach on the UVA track & field team.

"With Hilmar, I don't have to motivate him. I have to tell him, `OK, this is enough for today.' So I have to put a brake on, because he's so driven. Very, very competitive."

In his native Iceland, Jonsson said, he's practiced outside when the temperature was minus-15 degrees Celsius (5 Fahrenheit).

"That's pretty cold," he said, smiling, and his environment influenced his training style. One throw follows another and then another, in rapid succession. That helps him stay warm.

"It's pretty fast-paced, because that's how I grew up doing it," said Jonsson, who's from Iceland's capital, Reykjavik.

 

 

Martin is not as impervious to cold as Jonsson, but he's willing to bundle up for winter workouts. Those training sessions have paid impressive dividends. In Jonsson, the Cavaliers have one of the nation's premier hammer throwers.

In Coral Gables, Fla., this month, the 6-0, 250-pound junior won the ACC title in that event for the third straight year. He placed fourth in the hammer throw at last year's NCAA outdoor championships in Eugene, Ore.

At UVA, Jonsson holds the school record in the hammer throw (72.38 meters/237 feet, 6 inches) and ranks second in the weight throw (21.37m/70-1.5), an event that's contested during the indoor season. He won the Icelandic national title in hammer throw and competed at the world championships in London last year.

"If he stays healthy, I think he can be one of the top 10 throwers in the world in his career," Maric said.

Jonsson's immediate goal is to qualify again for Eugene. His chance to do so comes this week in Tampa, Florida, site of the NCAA East Preliminary Rounds. The hammer throw competition starts Thursday morning.

Jonsson will be one of five throwers from UVA competing in Tampa, along with men's teammates Oghenakpobo Efekoro (shot put) and Nace Plesko (shot put and discus) and, on the women's side, Carter Green (discus) and Brittany Jones (shot put).

"Nothing's ever guaranteed," said Jonsson, who speaks flawless English in addition to his native Icelandic. "I've learned to expect the worst and prepare for the best. I'm in great shape now, but it's just a matter of happenstance almost if my breakthrough comes through that day. But that's definitely what we work on. That's what we plan to do."

So, how did Jonsson end up in Charlottesville?

"It was serendipity," Maric said, laughing.

In 2015, Maric was looking for a place to train Filip Mihaljevic, a Croatian thrower who was then a UVA undergraduate, for the European Under-23 championships, which were to be held in Estonia that summer. One of Maric's friends suggested Iceland, whose climate is similar to that of Estonia.

"So we came there and we saw Hilmar throwing," Maric recalled. "I'd heard about him, obviously, but I thought he was going to either Florida State or Virginia Tech. I thought it was a done deal.

"But he and Filip, they got to know each other at practice, and Filip said, `Coach, maye you should look into him. He's throwing very far.' So I talked to [Jonsson's] coach, who was like, `Yeah, he's still undecided.' "

Jonsson had already visited FSU and Virginia Tech and was planning to become a Hokie. After meeting Maric, however, he decided to visit UVA, "and I just fell in love when I came here," Jonsson said.

That Mihaljevic, who would leave UVA in 2017 as a three-time NCAA champion, was already in head coach Bryan Fetzer's program made the school that much more attractive to Jonsson. They knew each other from meets in Europe "and had similar desires and similar work ethics," Jonsson said.

"Filip was and is a model athlete, so I figured if I can learn from this guy, I won't come back empty-handed, that's for sure."

Jonsson enrolled at the University in January 2016. Almost immediately, he encountered obstacles of his own making.

"I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into, mostly in terms of academics," Jonsson said. "I wanted too big of a piece of a pie at that point."

He's now a fixture on the Dean's List at UVA, where he has a double major (English and Women, Gender and Sexuality). But Jonsson ended his first semester on academic probation.

"I tried to do too much," he said.

His academic advisor, Dan Jacobs, had recommended a less demanding schedule of courses, to no avail.

"I remember I kind of ignored his suggestions at first," Jonsson said. "I thought I knew better."

He smiled. "I've learned to listen to the people around me here," Jonsson said.

Initially, he focused on mathematics and computer science, subjects in which he'd done well in high school. After two semesters at Virginia, though, Jonsson realized that he "enjoying reading and writing and learning literature [more]. So I decided to dive into English."

In Iceland, his club was Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar -- commonly referred to as FH -- whose athletes compete in soccer, handball, track & field, and fencing.

Had he stayed in Iceland, where track & field is more popular than in the United States, Jonsson said, he probably would have gone to a trade school while continuing to train.

"I'm really glad I took this step," he said, "because I needed that extra few years to slowly come from juniors and enter the seniors, and college in the U.S. was the absolute best way to do that.

"I'm really lucky, actually, that I chose Virginia. I've absolutely loved it here."

Coming from a nation with a population of approximately 335,000, Jonsson still marvels at many aspects of life in the U.S.

"I'm always amazed by the skylines and the huge building in these cities like Atlanta," he said. "It's absolutely amazing, the scale of it. It's so big. I don't think I'll ever get used to it."

In 2016, Iceland became the talk of the soccer world with its run in the European championships. Its national team qualified for this year's World Cup in Russia, and Jonsson is excited to see how Iceland, which is in Group D with Croatia, Argentina and Nigeria, fares.

It was unforgettable in 2016, Jonsson said, to watch the national soccer team "rise up and start to put Iceland on the map as a contender in athletics."

Jonsson, who turned 22 this month, has lofty goals in the hammer throw. Reaching them, he knows, will require patience. His event is one in which athletes usually don't start hitting their primes until they're in their late 20s.

At the 2016 Olympics, for example, Tajikistan's Dilshod Nazarov was 34 when he won the gold medal. The silver medalist, Ivan Tsikhan of Belarus, was 40.

"Strength is a big component of it," Maric said, "and usually the peak is 28 and further along."

Jonsson said: "It's easy to get frustrated. I've been improving a little bit and learning a lot [at UVA], but there hasn't been that breakthrough yet, but I'm really aware that this will take time, and even in the next five years I'll be struggling to improve and struggling to get into meets. There's no guarantee I'll throw in the next Olympics or next world championships or anything like that. I'll keep doing what I can to improve, and I will eventually. If it takes 10 years, if it takes 20 years, it doesn't matter."

His dream is to compete professionally, "but I still feel like the education is important," Jonsson said. "I don't know where it will take me, but I'm sure it will take me good places."

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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.

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