All sports have their dominant figures.
Basketball has LeBron James. Baseball has Mike Trout.
Horseshoes has Alan Francis.
Francis, of Defiance, Ohio, won his 20th National Horseshoe Pitchers Association World Tournament Championship on Saturday, defeating Brian Simmons 42-20 in the tournament’s finale at the Kansas Expocentre.
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Francis won his first championship in 1989, when he was just 19. And now, at 45, he has won 20 of the sport’s last 26 titles.
There’s no more room in his house to display the trophies, he says. He stows the majority of them in his attic, but they remain in decent condition.
Does the constant feeling of winning ever wear off?
“It’s a very hard sport,” Francis said. “It takes a lot of hard work, effort, time and dedication.”
This past weekend is the pinnacle for Francis, the motivation behind the hours he spends with a pair of horseshoes in hand and pieces of metal sticking out of the ground.
“This is what it’s all about,” Francis said. “Right here.”
Francis took after his dad by getting involved in competitive horseshoes. Growing up on a farm about 100 miles north of Kansas City in Blythedale, Mo., it was his form of recreation.
His aunts, uncles and cousins, who he went with to Royals games as a kid, drove to Topeka on Saturday morning to cheer him on.
“It was cool having them here,” he said.
Wearing a red Nike T-shirt and white cargo shorts, Francis is a combination of Tiger Woods in his prime on Sundays and an average dad.
The fact that Francis is at the top of his sport is non-debatable.
If Francis is pitching well heading into a tournament, his expectation is simple and virtually guaranteed — a win.
“If I pitch as good as I’m gonna pitch,” he said, “chances are, I’m gonna win.”
Francis has a repetitive routine inherent in every toss. His left arm rests at his side, and his right arm swings back and forth three times, hinged at the elbow. He then steps forward with his left foot and lets it fly.
More often than not, the horseshoe rotates 180 degrees during its flight path and collides perfectly with the stake, connecting for a ringer.
To put Francis’ success into perspective, Bill Russell and Michael Jordan won a combined 17 NBA titles, still three shy of Francis’ mark.
“That’s the goal. To be on top,” Francis said. “Any sport, no matter what it is, you’re goal is to win and be on top. To be the best.”
But the top comes with its challenges. In the last 19 years, Francis has lost the world championships just three times, in each instance to Simmons.
“When you are (the best), you put a target on your back,” Francis said. “People are gunning for you.”
Still, Francis has won 12 of the last 13 championships, and Saturday’s performance secured his fourth consecutive title.
For those who criticize horseshoes’ validity as a sport, Francis has a clear message:
“I would tell them to try it (and) see how hard it is, see how hard it is to be good at it,” he said.