Fighting the patriarchy one throw and one post at a time

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Janine Tessarzik prepares to throw a nine-pound stone during the stone-throw at the 2021 Capital District Scottish Games, held at the Altamont fairgrounds.


Janine Tessarzik is proud of being a powerful woman.

At age 40, she was named world champion at the Scottish Masters Athletics International World Championships held last month in Moncton, New Brunswick in Canada.

Tessarzik is using her fame to help strong women feel good about themselves — through social media. At the same time that she is controlling the image of at least one woman in sports, she is also earning money from her posts that allow her to travel to far-flung competitions — and to support her as an athlete.

Tessarzik, who now lives in Ohio, grew up in Guilderland and remembers playing football, basketball, and pond hockey with “a bunch of boys” in the neighborhood.

Being tall and strong, she said, “I definitely didn’t get picked last, that’s for sure.”

Every year, her family would go to the Capital District Scottish Games, held at the Altamont fairgrounds. This year, she’ll be competing in those games on Labor Day weekend.

When she was 8 years old, her mother, who had both Scottish and Irish heritage, asked if she’d like to learn to dance in one of those traditions.

“I picked the Scottish dancing,” Tessarzik said, describing it as “very competitive.”

But when she reached eighth grade at Farnsworth Middle School, she wanted to pursue a sport people had heard of.

She chose discus and shot put. Not a stand-out at first, she began training intensely, year-round, in high school. She praised Coach Dan Penna for doing “a really good job,” noting Penna still coaches at the school.

Tessarzik stresses that she was “intrinsically motivated” to push herself and train all year. “My parents didn’t push me,” she said.

Tessarzik, who has been involved in coaching and administration in sports, believes it is a misstep for parents to push their kids to play club sports year-round.

“When it comes from the kids themselves … that’s fantastic,” she says in this week’s Enterprise podcast. But early specialization driven by parents she says is “not good for the kids.”

Some coaches, she said, will even have players “ride the bench” if they’re not playing year-round. “It’s really sad because it comes from people who are focused on short-term gains and don’t really have the kids’ long-term best interests at heart.”

Competing for Guilderland, Tessarzik was a state champion for shotput and discus and still holds the school records for those sports. She improved Guilderland’s record by more than six feet, she recalled.

After graduating from Guilderland, Tessarzik set a school record for the hammer throw at the University of Tennessee, and then, as a graduate student at Ashland University, was an All American in the discus throw.

She sees both a positive side and a sad side to what has driven her over the years. On the positive side, she said, “I like throwing stuff … I like performing.” 

In addition to dancing, she also played the flute and the violin and sang in choir. She quips that competitors at Highland Games are half athletes and half performers.

She notes that, at the Altamont fairgrounds, the throwing contests are held just after lunch, next to the beer tent and the bleachers are “absolutely packed.”

People are impressed, she said, that “you’re taking a tree trunk, you’re picking it up, you’re running down the field and you’re able to, like, even try to flip it,” she said, adding, “You make it look easy when you’re good at it.”

On the sadder side, Tessarzik said, “I was really trying to find my identity in performance, whether it was in school or in athletics … Throwing was a place where I stood out.”

In her senior year of high school, Tessarzik would get “really, really nervous at athletic competitions,” she recalled. “Because so much of my identity was tied to my performance … I was worried that people weren’t going to like me if I wasn’t a good athlete, if I didn’t throw far.”

Last year, Tessarzik was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and she thinks now that each good throw gave her “a little bit of a dopamine hit.” That made her want to keep working “to capture that feel again of having another good throw … It’s fun to win,” she said.

At the same time, in high school, she threw farther than most of the boys on the Guilderland team. The boys and girls on the indoor track team practiced together.

She was mocked by some of the boys on the team who called her “Sheneneh.”

“I didn’t know where it was coming from, but I knew it didn’t feel good. I knew it wasn’t like a friendly name,” she said.

Her family didn’t have cable television so it wasn’t until she got to college that she realized Sheneneh was the name of a character in the Fox sitcom “Martin,” named for comedian Martin Lawrence who played the title role and several other characters, including Sheneneh.

The character was a parody of a “ghetto girl,” tall and thick, portrayed by Lawrence in a raunchy way. “It was a man in drag and it was like a caricature of a Black woman,” said Tessarzik, noting she was bullied in school because of her very curly hair, which made people sometimes assume she was biracial.

When she got to college, Tessarzik realized, “They were making fun of me — with some transphobia and probably some racism in there as well — because I was a good thrower.

A lot of heavy athletes, she said “feel kind of like outsiders, black sheep … not to say we’re abnormal.”

With the Scottish Games, she said, “We found this community of misfits and people that we connect with … We go lift heavy weights and we go put on kilts and throw rocks and sticks … it’s a really neat community to have together.”

At an earlier try for the world championship, Tessarzik said, she felt nervous, “almost like a flashback to high school,” when she wasn’t doing well, rather than like her jovial, loose relaxed self.

“I’ve had this tendency to assume that past performance is predictive of how somebody is going to perform on the day of the competition, both for other athletes and also for myself,” she said. “So there have been times where I’ve written myself off because I’m throwing against somebody who historically has performed better than me.”

Tessarzik said, “The mental side of sports is absolutely huge.”

So, when she competed in New Brunswick in June, she went into the competition believing in herself to do the absolute best she could. “And whatever happens, happens.”

She started off winning two of the eight events. But then in the third event, the heavyweight for distance, even though she had in the past thrown a record-breaking 60 feet, the most she could throw was 47 — so she came in third, behind women who had thrown 48 and 49 feet.

“They absolutely earned their position in that event,” said Tessarzik. “But in my head, if I had had the same mindset that I had had in the previous championship, that would have absolutely crushed me.”

She stayed calm, and was herself, she said, and carried on. She ended up coming in first in the final five events — and won the championship.

“I was able to have fun and be myself and stay loose and entertain the crowd and support the other athletes out there on the field,” she said.

Tessarzik went on, philosophically, “Records are meant to be broken … But forever and ever, I’m going to be the 2022 Masters World Champion … no one can take that away.”

Long before being named a world champion, Tessarzik started posting about her sport on social media. In 2018, she created an athlete page on Facebook and then got on TikTok during the pandemic.

Her first video that went viral — of her throwing the hammer in the Highland Games — garnered 850,000 views. She had put it to bagpipe music and noted on the screen that the results under #HighlandGames are of men. The next screen showed that women compete.

“It blew up,” she said.

For the next year-and-a-half, Tessarzik experienced strong, quick growth in part she thinks because women throwing was a novelty; traffic has since slowed on her TikTok account as other athletes have posted similar videos.

But, through trial and error, Tessarzik said, her video editing skills have improved and her content is more sophisticated. TikTok is different from Facebook and Instagram, she said, because on those venues, posters are largely communicating with people they know. “TikTok is more like YouTube,” she said, a way to get content out to a larger audience.

Tessarzik now realizes that, with all forms of social media, the platform’s goal is to make money. It’s not altruistic, helping people connect with each other, she said. “They’re there to hold people’s attention so that they can market that to advertisers,” she said.

So she prefers to connect with people in real life rather than through Facebook.

In January, she got invited to do Facebook Reels, which she describes as “Facebook’s version of trying to do TikTok.”

“I started posting a reel a day and the first month made like four figures,” she said, earning more in a month than she had in a year-and-a-half before. TikTok had paid two or three cents per thousand views, she said, while the Facebook payout was $1.30 per 1,000 views.

Tessarzik now has multiple videos with over a million views and, among the different platforms she is on — @Janine Throws — she has over 150,000 followers.

She has two main goals in her posts: increasing visibility of her niche sport, and raising awareness about the worth of women athletes.

More broadly,” she said, “fighting the patriarchy and, you know, stereotypical gender norms.”

She posts pictures of herself in no make-up in work-out clothes and she also posts pictures where she is dressed up for a formal dance. She has a friend who makes similar posts.

 “You can be an athlete; you don’t have to be all one thing or all another … We are just ourselves … We're really strong women and we’re really strong athletes and we’re confident and we speak our minds and we’re not going to take nonsense from people who want to give us a hard time about being that way,” she said.

Being a self-supporting professional athlete is a dream Tessarzik said she has had since high school.

“There are not a lot of women in all the different levels within sports, in the video production and directing …,” said Tessarzik. “Often female athletes are reduced down to one of a few tropes,” she said, such as being a male athlete’s sister or mother or daughter, or being “the girl next door,” or “or just talking about their gender identity or sexual identity.”

She said it blows her mind that people think women’s sports aren’t entertaining. “A lot of it comes down to how they’re edited, how they’re produced, the quality and the type of the color commentary,” she said of coverage of women’s sports.

In response to her posts of video showing her, with a buzz cut, doing a traditionally male sport, Tessarzik said, “I’ve gotten transphobic, misogynistic, sexist comments.” She’s often “accused of being a man or being on drugs or being a trans man or being a trans woman,” she said.

Sometimes she deletes those comments but other times she responds, noting, “My audience is the other women who have heard those comments their whole life, who have been told there’s something wrong with them because they don’t fit stereotypical gender norms — whether it’s because they’re an athlete or because they just happen to be tall or because they happen to have short hair.”

Such comments, she says, have “real-world implications and real-world impact on women, the lives of women and girls, men as well … It affects all of us.”

Tessarzik has gotten support from many women she will never meet. Some women tell her they’ve watched her videos with their young daughters.

“They see somebody like me who is unashamed of being strong and working hard at something that is not mainstream … I’m throwing heavy stuff and throwing tree trunks and I’m yelling and I’m loud. I’m doing this traditionally male, male thing.”

One woman commented that a friend’s daughter was getting started in powerlifting and the mother was hesitant. She was worried her daughter was going to get pushback for being too masculine.

“And this woman showed her friend some of my videos … the mom had a change of heart and she was excited to support her daughter in this new powerlifting career.”


More Guilderland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.