Two-time Olympian and six-time U.S. javelin champion Tom Pukstys brought his talent and knowledge to Valparaiso University. Shortly after he enrolled in the sport administration master’s program in 2015, Coach Pukstys committed to coaching track and field, making a substantial impact on student–athletes and colleagues alike.
As a young boy, Coach Pukstys never imagined he would someday be throwing javelins abroad instead of rocks on the lakeshore of the Indiana Dunes. Spending youthful summers at his cousin’s farm in Chesterton, Ind., Coach Pukstys recalls the ingenious excitement of digging in the sand for the very best rocks and tossing them into the distant Lake Michigan.
By the time Coach Pukstys turned 11, his brother Andrew removed the rocks from his seasoned right hand and replaced it with a javelin from Lithuania, a much less familiar implement than the baseballs and footballs his peers were throwing. The javelin is an 8-foot spear used in a throw event in track and field, a popular event in the European nations like Russia and Lithuania, where Coach Pukstys’ parents emigrated from in 1949. Though they found a new life in the United States, the Lithuanian culture was never forgotten at home.
Life changed for Coach Pukstys after his encounter with javelin. The distant waters turned to yards of grass and the childhood hobby of throwing mindlessly for hours became a passion for young Coach Pukstys.
“I loved throwing. That’s how I developed my arm as a little kid, just throwing everything I could find,” Coach Pukstys says. “People used to ask me how I could throw so many javelins during practice, and I would just respond that I’ve thrown all my life. It’s normal for me.”
His passion thrived through adolescence with both inherited and acquired talent.
“My talent was acquired by circumstance. I grew up modest, and my talent was there. My ability to get out and improve was brought upon by opportunity. It was a personal challenge,” Coach Pukstys says. He advanced and threw for the University of Florida, leaving a lasting impression as he still holds many facility records throughout the United States.
“When we threw at the University of Tennessee at the Sea Ray Relays, Coach Pukstys’ name was on our heat sheets for the track record in 1992,” says NCAA Regional qualifying Valpo thrower and alumnus Jeremy Getz ’15. “It was really cool to walk around in Valpo gear and have the pro-guys asking if he was my coach.”
Coach Pukstys graduated college and continued to train and coach, focusing on the 1996 Olympics, where he qualified and took the reins of javelin in the United States, breaking his own record more than five times.
“I had specific goals of being the very best I could be. When you have an opportunity for the Olympic games, you don’t really need more motivation,” Coach Pukstys says. “I had this extreme natural energy that was really extraordinary. I loved it. I really loved throwing javelin.”
After his Olympic career concluded, Coach Pukstys moved home to Palos Heights, Ill. He married Texas-native Ann Bass, and they adopted three boys from Lithuania. Coach Pukstys continued to foster the American javelin legacy he created and coached in the neighboring suburbs of Chicago for many athletes, a majority of them going on to collegiate athletics. Among those many athletes was Valpo basketball player Jubril Adekoya ’17.
“Coach Tom coached me during middle school with all sorts of strength and conditioning,” Jubril says. “He was the first coach I ever had who really pushed me. I couldn’t just show up. He taught me how to work hard and push myself. I didn’t do that until I had him as a coach.”
The two were able to reconnect at Valpo in the Athletics–Recreation Center. Now whenever Coach Pukstys coaches on the indoor track, he waves down to Jubril on the basketball court. “I’m glad I got to see Coach Tom again,” Jubril says.
To Coach Pukstys, leaving a lasting and memorable impression on his athletes is what he strives for as a coach. “Our legacy is the ability to coach the next generation,” he says.
Soon after enrolling in the sports administration program, Coach Pukstys became involved with the Valpo track and field team as a graduate assistant coach for a group of javelin throwers.
“My first few months here, I started to notice how passionate the coaches were. I have fun coaching, and I want my athletes to have fun with me. That’s the real reward of coaching at a school like Valpo,” Coach Pukstys says.
Valpo Athletics has a specific mission to not only improve student-athletes in sport but in life as well. Athletic Director Mark LaBarbera sees great strength in fostering a setting where athletes can prepare for the next steps in life.
When track and field head coach Ryan Moore proposed adding Coach Pukstys to the coaching staff, Director LaBarbera was impressed with not only his credentials, but also his attitude.
“After hearing Coach Pukstys’ intentions, I thought he was a really nice fit,” Director LaBarbera says. “We want to make sure student-athletes have a good experience, and that’s where people like Coach Pukstys come in. That’s the importance of finding the right people to be a part of our mission.”
As a former track and field athlete himself, Director LaBarbera sees the work ethic and efforts it takes to be successful. “He’s not what you would expect, personality-wise from someone that has competed the way he has. His humility and the way he presents himself made him a great fit,” Director LaBarbera says.
The track and field javelin group is a reflection of Coach Pukstys’ impact on Valparaiso University. Growing up throwing rocks on the beach of the Indiana Dunes, just 10 miles from campus, was more than coincidental.
“I always feel like I need to be offering humanity something back for all the world has given me,” Coach Pukstys says. “I can’t just consume; I have to provide something worthy for mankind. I’m sure that through coaching kids and offering my skills I can provide something positive.”
The mark Valparaiso University has left on Coach Pukstys and vice versa is worth more than championship titles, and it goes further than international competition — the significance is seen in the attitudes and composure of the student-athletes and colleagues who are surrounded by Coach Pukstys’ enduring presence.