Friday, July 1, 2016

Changing of the Guard - Men's Shot Put

The United States men’s shot put entered a new era today. With only one major meet medalist among today’s Olympic team qualifiers, the podium took on a surprisingly youthful look.

Darrell Hill served notice that he would come into a meet as underdog for the last time when he led after the first round with his 20.93m/68’ 8’. Heretofore, Hill’s highest major meet finish was 2nd at the 2015 NCAA Championships. Hill crashed the 70’ barrier for the first time with a massive second-round PR of 21.63/70’ 11 ¾”, and demolished his previous best by over one and a half feet.

Not to be outdone, Ryan Crouser - native Oregonian and member of the legendary throwing family - stepped up next and showed that youth would indeed be served. His explosive 22.11m/72’ 6 ½” PR would stand to win the meet.

Neither Crouser nor Hill has a senior level international major meet medal. Hill is 22 and his best NCAA finish was 2nd in 2015. Crouser is 23 and was two-time outdoor and one-time indoor NCAA champ.

Which leaves 2015 World champion Joe Kovacs, who languished in 3rd for much of the competition. He pulled out a stellar 21.95m/ 72’ ¼” last-round throw to grab second place from Hill and make his first US Olympic team. The elder statesman of the group, Kovacs turned 27 on Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, throwing maven Art Venegas has been coaching Hill. “I always knew I was physically capable of doing something like this, and I’ve been working with Coach Art Venegas and training with Joe Kovacs at the Olympic Training Center,” said Hill.

“We fine-tuned some technique and I’m just glad to see the hard work pay off… this is something I always dreamed of, something I’ve always been working for.”

Said Kovacs, “I’m proud of him and I’m proud to have a training partner going down to Rio. I told the guy to come out and work with Coach Venegas and he almost took my spot today!
He wasn’t the guy that popped out of nowhere for me because I’ve seen the way he’s been training. Maybe other people were not expecting him to make this team, but I definitely was.”

Kovacs felt tight during the competition and didn’t loosen up until his final throw. He was feeling the pressure of “other external factors coming into it,” including the pressure of having 13 family members who already have bought tickets to Rio!

“It’s not only you going down to Rio; it’s you, your family, the fans, your coach,” he said. To help alleviate the pressure, Kovacs put his mother – well-known for being his first shot put coach – in charge of family travel arrangements.

Today’s competition clearly was a learning experience for Kovacs.

“I don’t like playing defense, and that’s what I did today… I’ve just got to take a breath and get it done. Sometimes I make it more complicated than it needs to be.”

On a day when the Olympics bade farewell to legends Adam Nelson (40, 7th, '04 gold) and Reese Hoffa (38, 5th, '12 bronze), Crouser, Kovacs, and Hill made it clear that the United States hasn’t lost a step in this event.

All three medalists agree that a Rio medal sweep is possible.

“For all three of us there’s more in the tank,” said Crouser – words that should strike fear in the hearts of throwers worldwide.

“All of us can throw well over 22.00m (72 2¼”) come Rio.”

At the same time, he takes to heart advice given him by 1976 Olympic discus gold medalist, Mac Wilkins. “Not everything’s going to be perfect. You can’t go in throwing monster PRs – you can go in expecting to compete… We’ve got three great competitors here and I think we’re a team that the rest of the world’s going to be watching.”

“If you can be top three in the US, you can come back with a medal,” Kovacs said. “We are so good in the shot put in the US, every year, year in and year out.”

“Nobody here is thinking about second place,” said Hill. “Anything is possible when you have that mindset.”

In honor of those who inspire him, Ryan Crouser said, “I wanted to be able to say that once in my life I threw with Adam Nelson.”
Today he did just that.

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