Late last year, Mason Finley walked into Theater Lawrence with one goal: He was going to be King Triton.
Auditions were taking place for “The Little Mermaid,” and at 6 foot 6 and 350 pounds, the 25-year-old Finley quickly found all the readings belonging to Ariel’s father. When others showed off their voices for the musical, Finley — he’d never sang before in public — belted out his best version of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”
It wasn’t meant to be. The volunteer acting gig was going require three hours a day and also five days a week.
“I couldn’t justify giving that much time to it,” Finley said.
Never miss a local story.
It turned out to be for the best. Instead of furthering his acting career, the former Kansas thrower devoted his time to the discus, later winning the event at the U.S. Olympic Trials and earning his ticket to Rio.
“I definitely have a shot,” Finley said. “At this point, it’s mostly mental.”
Finley, who was born in Kansas City, is seeded 13th in the event, which has its qualifying rounds Friday.
It will be the continuation of an unlikely comeback story. After spending three years on KU’s track and field team, Finley transferred to Wyoming in 2012 after dealing with some family issues, saying he “just kind of had to get out of this area.”
Following his one year at Wyoming, Finley’s weight ballooned to 437. He lost flexibility and also couldn’t spin as well as he’d hoped.
He decided to change his habits. He educated himself on better foods and also started pool workouts, which were low impact and better for his joints.
In three years, he lost 80 pounds, though the final key to becoming an Olympian was a decision he made a year and a half ago.
Late in 2014, Finley spent a few months at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., receiving a spinal injection for his ailing back. The living arrangements weren’t perfect — he slept on a twin-sized bed — and after visiting his mom in Lawrence in February 2015, Finley decided to stay with her.
He also began to train again with KU throwing coach Andy Kokhanovsky, who threw discus for Ukraine at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
After being told to take it slow following his spinal injection — he didn’t do anything but swim for two months — Finley grabbed a discus inside the throwing ring at Rock Chalk Park in March 2015.
“It was really bad technique,” Finley said, “but it still was going 200 feet.”
Kokhanovsky’s was impressed. “We should go for it,” he told Finley.
The next year, Finley served as a volunteer coach for KU’s track team, worked at GNC part time and continued to train. Wearing a KU shirt in Eugene, Ore., his set a personal record with his 218-foot, 11-inch throw in the qualifying round of the U.S. trials on July 7. The next day, in rainy conditions, his top throw of 208-1 was 6 feet better than any other American.
Finley says it’s tough to know how realistic his chances are at competing for a medal. Some throwers’ best marks come with differing winds and altitude, meaning numbers are tough to compare unless everyone is in the same place.
“We’ve done all the physical work that we can and just staying toned,” Finley said. “Basically it’s a mental game now. I’ve never been in an arena this big.”
Finley promises, in the future, he will pick up acting again. He was in a couple student-directed plays at Wyoming and also a musical, where he was able to throw people around as an orderly at a psychiatric hospital.
Dreams of the smaller stage will wait, though. Finley’s Olympic dream is now within his reach, an idea that seemed improbable 18 months ago.
“I’m excited,” Finley said, “to see what I can do.”