Los Angeles — Most people, as might be expected, have never thrown a javelin: a slender, spearlike shaft of metal generally about 8 1/2 feet long. It is not something you find around the house, or hanging on a hook in the garage.
But outlined in flight against a blue-gray sky, this streamlined piece of aluminum can generate all the eye-appeal of a formation of Canadian geese; a thing of beauty really.
Recently Tom Petranoff of the Southern California Striders Track Club set a world record by throwing the javelin 327 feet, 2 inches at the UCLA-Pepsi Invitational. Usually records fall by inches, but this one eclipsed Hungarian Ferenc Paragi's 1980 world mark by an astonishing 9 feet, 10 inches.
The 25-year-old Petranoff at 6 ft. 2 in. and 220 pounds is so wide through the chest and shoulders that a word like champion need not be abbreviated should he ever care to wear it across his jersey. Even in high school he looked like a linebacker who had been rustled out of a herd.
While Tom's hands seem a normal size in relation to the rest of his body, there is a kind of fierce intensity about him that extends even to his Fu Manchu mustache. He is someone you would definitely take along if you ever decided to go bear hunting with a switch.
''This record could be the start of something big in javelin throwing,'' Petranoff told reporters after setting his mark. ''A lot of people will be saying: 'If Tom Petranoff can do it, so can I.' Only I still can't believe I did it. My throw came off so relaxed and smooth and it really soared. But the distance was a surprise, even to me.''
Practically all track and field coaches agree that a javelin, traveling faster than 90 feet per second, develops a lift that exceeds its own weight. The point is if the throw is executed properly, the angle is right and the man throwing it powerful enough, the javelin will soar as if supported by some invisible force.
Javelin throwers like Petranoff prefer that the tools of their trade have narrow tails (which studies show contribute to their lift) and create the feeling of perfect balance.
The start, the follow-through, and the finish all have to blend together, and this technique is rarely achieved until several throws have been made. Yet in this particular instance, Tom got the world record on the second of his six throws.
Originally from Illinois, Petranoff came to California in 1977 to attend Palomar Junior College in San Marcos (slightly north of San Diego) and maybe do some pitching or play the outfield for the school's baseball team. Ironically some of his coaches didn't think his arm was strong enough.
Anyway the sight of javelins flying in a nearby field got him out of double knits and into track shorts, where Palomar track coach Doc Marrin's curiosity turned to admiration after Petranoff's first throw carried 150 feet. Two days later Marrin had Tom competing in a meet against Chaffey College.
Unable to find any track shoes that fit, Petranoff wore baseball spikes and won the event anyway with a throw of 190 feet, 10 inches. Four weeks later Tom added the conference championship to his budding career. Unlike most beginners, who tend to rush their throws by releasing the javelin before their left foot is firmly planted, he arrived with a built-in feel for the sport.
Until Petranoff's record-shattering effort, he was ranked second in the United States behind American record-holder (314-4) Bob Roggy, a close friend with whom Tom roomed for a while a few years ago.
Although both are cut from the same cloth as far as determination is concerned, Petranoff's velocity at the time of release is considered better than Roggy's. Nearly a month after Tom became the first American since 1961 to hold the world javelin mark, he was telling the media that he still hadn't fully comprehended what he had done.
''Actually I hope I never reach the point where I become satisfied with my numbers or my progress,'' Petranoff said. ''I'm still relatively new to this and I still feel I have more to prove.''
Asked what he considered ideal conditions for javelin throwing, Tom replied: ''Well, you always hope for a little headwind, because of how much something like that can contribute to the lift of a javelin. Yet the day I broke the world record, I hardly felt any resistance at all.''