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Growing up in northern Greece, Gophers hammer thrower Kostas Zaltos often dribbled a basketball through his small village of Pedino, pretending to be one of his Greek hoops idols, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.

"I fell in love with basketball," said Zaltos, a two-time All-America and three-time Big Ten champion in hammer throw. "I was trying to be the next Giannis and Michael Jordan like every kid."

Zaltos had NBA dreams until age 14 when he switched to another sport entirely. His high school physical education teacher recognized raw talent for the hammer throwing event and urged him to give it a try. At first, Zaltos resisted.

"I won my first competition without actually trying and practicing at all," Zaltos said. "And I felt like that actually might be really good for me if I put some effort and changed my sport."

Zaltos, now the NCAA's No. 1-ranked hammer thrower, proved he picked the right one.

Entering this week's NCAA outdoor track and field championships in Austin, Texas, the redshirt junior is one of 10 Gophers men's and women's entries, including fellow U hammer thrower Jake Kubiatowicz. Zaltos is the favorite to win Wednesday afternoon's final.

"A lot of us have grown together from our freshman year until now," said Zaltos, 23. "We've been together for years. We're just pushing each other. It's not just about the throws but about the other events this year. We're not only 'Throwers U' but a track university as well."

Beyond aiming for his first NCAA title, Zaltos has goals of setting the Big Ten's all-time hammer mark (his personal best is second all-time) before focusing on qualifying for next year's Paris Olympics, representing Greece.

Not giving up

Spending 10 months away from the Gophers back home in 2020, Zaltos suffered personal loss and nearly decided to walk away from a bright future in track during the lockdown.

Zaltos hadn't yet competed with the U as a freshman when the NCAA canceled outdoor track due to COVID-19 health and safety concerns.

After leaving Minnesota, he fell out of shape, unable to train and put on 30 pounds. He then became emotionally drained after the loss of his grandfather early during the pandemic.

"At that point I was thinking of dropping everything," Zaltos said. "I was trying to figure out something else to do."

Leaning on the support of his family and the Gophers, Zaltos returned to the United States motivated to start what has turned into a record-setting college career in hammer throw.

Going into his first NCAA outdoor meet two years ago, Zaltos established himself as a Big Ten champion. Joining him at the NCAAs in Eugene, Ore., Virginia Tech's Alexios Prodanas and Tennessee's Georgios Korakidis were also throwers from the Kilikis region in Greece.

That seemed like a sign that Zaltos made the right decision to follow his new dream.

"Just thinking about it years ago," Zaltos said. "If somebody told me I was going to compete in the NCAA Division I finals with guys from my neighborhood, I would say, 'What are you talking about?' That sounds like a movie."

Close to Big Ten record

Zaltos is the only hammer thrower in Big Ten history to have three different marks beyond 244 feet, 2 inches in his career. His best throw of 246-11 is just an inch shy of the Big Ten record held by former Wisconsin standout Michael Lihrman, from 2015.

"I wasn't thinking about the Big Ten record until I knew what it was," he said. "Breaking it, it's going to happen. We're just going to keep working until we get there."

After earning Big Ten freshman of the year honors in 2021, Zaltos won back-to-back Big Ten outdoor titles in hammer throw and finished third twice at the NCAAs. That included his then-personal best throw of 237-10¾ last June.

That distance could have been farther if not for an injury Zaltos suffered at the 2022 Big Ten meet. A wire connecting the handle to his hammer pulled apart, hurting his shoulder. He missed a week of training and wasn't healthy at the NCAA meet a year ago.

"It was dramatic, but he pushed through it and competed," said Gophers throwing coach Peter Miller, who recalled how close Zaltos was to giving up throwing at the U when the virus hit.

"From 5,000 miles away and an eight-hour time difference I just kept reminding him what he's working towards and what he's capable of," Miller added.

This year's NCAA outdoor meet will likely be the last collegiate competition for Zaltos until the 2024-25 season. He plans to redshirt next season and prepare to earn one of three thrower spots for Greece for 2024 Paris Olympics. He currently ranks No. 22 in the world in men's hammer throw.

And like his Greek idol, Antetokounmpo, he intends to keep climbing.