• Image about Alan Francis
Alan Francis prepares to pitch.
Doug Benz/the new york times

The world’s most dominant athlete is the greatest thing in horseshoes since Secretariat.

ON the professional horseshoe-pitching circuit, it’s easy to imagine that competitors harbor just one fervent wish for uberchampion Alan Francis: an early, unFavre-like retirement.

And who could blame them? In the obscure world of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA), the 41-year-old resident of Defiance, Ohio, is Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and the 1957–’69 Boston Celtics all rolled into one.

With eight consecutive NHPA World Tournament championships from 2003 to 2010 under his belt, 16 titles overall out of 26 appearances and the highest percentage of ringers (occurring when a horseshoe is tossed so that it lands and encircles a metal stake in the ground) ever recorded in the 19-game, world-championship format — 90.26 percent, notched in 2009 when he nailed ringers on 917 out of 1,016 tosses — Francis arguably is one of the most dominant athletes you’ve never heard of in any sport.

Get a Grip and Throw Like a Pro Here’s how Alan Francis does it:
  • With the mouth facing left, grip the shoe’s bottom “leg” somewhat loosely, with your hand closer to the mouth than to the middle of the “U.” Put the most pressure on your thumb, which should rest atop the leg.
  • Assume a balanced stance, with knees barely bent and feet together but your left foot slightly forward.
  • Bring the shoe up to face level, so your line of sight to the stake is through the shoe.
  • Start a slow, deliberate downswing.
  • Take one big step forward with your left foot.
  • Let go of the shoe and finish with a high follow-through.

Millions of people play horseshoes recreationally, but Francis is an outlier of astonishing proportions. His ringer percentage in tournament play, calculated by averaging a player’s best three tournament percentages during the previous 12 months, consistently hovers just below 90 percent. And his 2005 record of 64 consecutive ringers vividly attests to his uncanny hand-eye coordination, unerring concentration and unflinching cool under pressure.

“You kind of get locked into this mental zone … a complete sense of focus and awareness of what you’re doing, but at the same time almost unaware,” says the clean-cut, soft-spoken, skinny-as-a-stake Francis as he struggles to articulate what it’s like to be in the proverbial zone. “It borders on an out-of-body experience. You’re not really thinking about what you’re doing because it’s all being done by feel, not thinking about the mechanics.

“After you’ve gone through it, you look back and say, ‘How on earth did I ever do that?’ ”