McCullough, who turned 17 on Jan. 31, smashed the 86-5.5 set at last year’s event by Walter Henning, a Kings Park, N.Y. native who is now at the University of North Carolina.
“They thought it would never be beaten,” said Paddy McGrath, a Bronx schoolteacher who represented Ireland in hammer throwing at the 2000 Olympic Games.
“The guy is really on his way,” McGrath said. “It’s the start of a great career.”
The Chaminade of West Hills junior is following in a family and ethnic-group tradition. His father, County Louth native Conor McCullough Sr., a close friend of McGrath’s, represented Ireland in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games. And young McCullough is excelling in a sport that was dominated for several decades by Irish-born athletes, several of whom represented the United States.
McCullough seems set to wear American colors at the World Junior Championships in Athletics in Poland this July. Henning, who is almost exactly two years his senior, is likely to go to Poland and unless some other competitor shows dramatic progress at the national championships in June, McCullough is expected to join him.
“His dad has done a great job with the kid. It’s in the genes, I guess,” said McGrath. (The young athlete’s parents met at Boston University where his mother was a heptathlete.)
“He’s relaxed — very nice, very well-mannered,” McGrath said. “He’s a very talented kid.”
McCullough, who is still a junior, told the Echo that he would like to study math or sciences in university
“I can’t throw forever,” he said with a laugh. “I’m looking around.” But there are rules governing who can talk to him at this stage.
When it’s time to make a decision, he’ll have at least one high-powered advisor to consult with. He described Harold Connolly, an Irish-American thrower who won gold in 1956 and the last U.S. winner in the discipline, as a “mentor.”
McGrath suggested that with his record-smashing third throw at the recent New York meet, his first competition indoors, the young thrower will have his pick of the best colleges.
“Basically he can go anywhere he wants on a full scholarship. He’s good academically,” McGrath said.
The weight-throw is a 25-pound competition, in contrast to the 12 pounds usually thrown at high school and the 16 pounds at adult level.
“It’s shorter than the regular hammer,” said McCullough, who also holds the national freshman and sophomore class hammer-throw records.
“Basically it’s an East Coast thing,” he added about the weight throw.
Hammer throwing has its modern roots in Scottish highland games, but it was the Irish who had a near monopoly on gold in the first third of the 20th century. John Flanagan, a Limerick man who represented the United States, was the first Olympic gold medalist in the sport in 1900 and won again in 1904 and 1908. Tipperary-born NYPD officer Matt McGrath won in 1912, while another Tipperary man, Pat Ryan, got gold for the U.S. at the next Olympics in 1920.
American Fred Tootell was the first non-Irishman to win the event, but was quickly followed by Pat O’Callaghan’s gold medals won for Ireland at the 1928 Amsterdam and 1932 Los Angeles games.
Is a young Irish-American from Los Angeles destined to win Olympic gold in the 21st century? McGrath doesn’t see why not, believing that the young McCullough might even be ready to compete in the London Olympics in 2012.
“If not 2012, then definitely later,” the Dublin-born McGrath said, adding that a hammer thrower usually peaks at age 32 or 33.