Photos By Kyle Huegel
The opening line to The Beatles’ seminal tune “The Long and Winding Road” begins as follows:
“The long and winding road / That leads to your door / Will never disappear”
That song was released in May of 1970 some 28 years before Brendan Artley was born. Yet, the opening line is the perfect summary of the redshirt freshman’s career at North Dakota State. It has been a long and winding road, full of trials and difficulties, but still, it leads back to the “door”. For Brendan Artley, that door opens to the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Austin, Texas, next week.
While Artley’s hometown is officially listed as North Vancouver, British Columbia, he was born in the United Kingdom. The Artley family moved to Vancouver when Brendan was 10 because his father found a better, higher-paying job. Because of this, Artley holds citizenship in both Canada and the United Kingdom. Throughout his prep career at Collingwood High School, Artley became one of the most dominant javelin throwers in recent memory. He captured a Canadian junior national title in 2016 and also won a provincial javelin title during his senior season. Artley was also a wildly successful basketball and tennis player at Collingwood.
However, it was the javelin that guided him to North Dakota State in the fall of 2016. Eager to compete with top-level collegiate throwers, Artley was also able to learn and train with one of the best to ever do it in Fargo. Fellow Englishman Matti Mortimore still holds the school’s record in the javelin throw and was a three-time All-American in the event.
Artley’s true freshman season ended abruptly, though. In his first collegiate meet, Artley threw a personal best 219-7 (66.93m) and placed third in the event. He also placed himself in the top ten in North Dakota State history in the javelin. Yet, Artley was feeling some soreness on the flight home from the meet. What he believed to be routine soreness, turned out to be something far more serious.
“That was my first collegiate meet and I got three throws. I was kind of sore in my elbow, but I just thought it was general tightness from throwing. It was a bit sore to throw, but I went through the meet thinking nothing of it,” Artley said. “Threw three throws and then I was all locked up in my forearm. On the flight back, it was stuck at 90 degrees. I just thought I was sore from throwing but got an MRI two weeks later that said a fully torn UCL.”
The Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) helps connect the upper arm bone to the forearm bone and is one of two major ligaments in the elbow. Artley completely tore it. After the high of throwing a personal record at the previous meet, Artley was quickly brought back to Earth with the notion of not competing for at least a year. “I wasn’t very happy. I mean, I threw a PR at that meet and that was the only positive I could take from it,” he said. “I just got back to training, rehab and moved on because everyone’s got injuries. I just got to work through it.”
Artley was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his elbow. The procedure is widely associated with baseball pitchers and can sometimes take up to a year and a half to fully heal. In some cases, it can mar an athlete’s performance for the rest of their career. Rehab is long and arduous on the athlete and it relies heavily on re-strengthening the arm.
“The main thing is extension and flexion to get the range of motion back and then shoulder stabilization to get the rest of your body healthy so you can put less stress on your elbow,” Artley said about the rehab after surgery. “I still do rehab stuff today to keep it healthy. I mean, I still have problems with it, it still gets sore and stuff and I have to watch that. The rehab thing is shoulder stabilization, forearm, bicep and tricep strength.”
It took almost six months for Artley to start lifting and throwing again. While the weights were light and throws were not full speed, it was a gradual process. According to Artley, the healing time for elbow injuries is different for everyone. It took him a year and a half to get back to 100 percent.
“It was after about six months that I started doing Olympic lifts again because I got my range of motion back. Throwing wise, probably six months in I started doing light throws and building up speed. I went from 50 to 60 to 70 to 80 over a long period of time,” he said. “It’s just based on how you feel, it takes some people one year to start throwing, it took me maybe 18 months just to come back to full throwing. It’s really different for everyone.”
Despite not being able to compete, Artley was not deterred from his goals. While some athletes may question retirement after such a serious injury, Artley pinned his hopes on the back of his first collegiate performance. He figured if he could succeed with a torn elbow, what could he do at full strength. “To be honest, after hitting a decent throw that first meet, I kind of got a taste of throwing a decent distance. It was nowhere that I wanted to be, but I got a taste for it,” he said. “I sat down with Justin [St. Clair] and he asked me what I wanted to do and I said ‘I want to keep throwing’. I love the sport and I want to keep doing it. There are low points where you’re like ‘dang, I wish I was competing’ but that just motivates me more to go out and train and get better.”
This season, Artley has returned to the javelin stronger than ever. In his first meet back since March of 2017, Artley finished seventh at the Baldy Castillo Invitational, the same meet he injured himself in two years prior. Artley continued to dazzle as the year has progressed, taking top honors at the Husker Spring Invitational and the Summit League Outdoor Championships. He threw a 226 (68.89m) at the conference meet, a new personal best and he was now a Summit League champion. The Bison men went on to win their 10th consecutive team title.
Brendan Artley then placed 12th at the NCAA West Preliminary Rounds in Sacramento this past weekend. The finish qualified him for the NCAA Championships in Austin. Two years removed from an injury that could have ended his throwing career, Artley is basking in his success this season. “It’s definitely a cherry on top,” he said of his Summit League title performance and qualifying for nationals. “I’m just so excited to be back throwing and I’m grateful to be throwing again because I took two years off from competing. Coming back and hitting an even further distance and continuing to build, that’s all I can ask for, that’s why we do it.”
His humility is evident as Artley notes he is not expecting himself to finish high in Austin. Yet, crazier things have happened in collegiate track & field. Ultimately, Artley wants to relish the experience and remain healthy. “My main goals have been to come out with no big injuries and I want to be healthy, I’m just enjoying it,” he said. “Going to Austin, I’m not ranked very high, so I’m not really expecting to place that in the top eight or anything, but if I do, that’s great. I’m going to do my best and throw as far as I can. I do think I can do it, but we’ll see what happens when I get there.”
The NCAA Championships bolster some of the best javelin throwers in recent memory. Mississippi State holds the top three marks in the event this year with the nation’s top mark coming from Bulldog sophomore Anderson Peters. Peters’ top throw this year was 282-4 (86.07m) which is third all-time in NCAA history. The second-ranked thrower, teammate Tyriq Horsford, is nearly eight meters behind Peters.
With that stellar level of competition, Artley is excited to throw his best and see the nation’s best throw too. “We’ve had a couple meets here and there where there have been some good throws. It’s nice to watch, but I haven’t actually seen any of the three throw and I’m really excited to do that,” Artley said of Mississippi State’s javelin trio. “Hopefully, it will motivate me a little bit more just to catch up to them in the next few years. It’s a long ways off, but why not?”
With three years of eligibility remaining, Artley will no doubt continue to evolve as a thrower. While he has big goals on his docket, he sees one of his goals every day inside the Shelly Ellig Indoor Track & Field Facility. “There are a lot of things I want to do, that I could say, but I don’t know if I’ll necessarily meet that. Every day we train, we get to see the record list and I see Matti’s 77.47 or whatever and I really want to hit that,” Artley said of passing Mortimore’s school record. “Also, placing quite high at the national meet would be sweet, maybe a national title, we’ll see. That’s going to take a lot more, so we’ll see what happens.”
Whatever Brendan Artley does in Austin and beyond, he will already be shattering expectations. After a torn elbow and nearly two years of no competition, many could have written him off. Yet, the most remarkable thing about Artley is his belief in himself and that’s all he really needs in the end.
Brendan Artley’s long and winding road has seen its share of hills and valleys. However, as The Beatles indicate, that road always leads to the door. Artley’s door opens to a world of success in the javelin at North Dakota State.