This past weekend, shot putter Josh Awotunde opened his outdoor season with a solid 21.63m toss to take second place behind Darrell Hill at the Mt. SAC relays. Seeing Josh back in action reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about a conversation I had with him following his stellar performance at the Indoor World Championships in March, so here goes.
Even for throwers who have thrived at high stakes comps like the NCAA Championships or Olympic Trials, a World Championships or Olympic Games presents a special set of challenges. This is especially true for an athlete competing at an international championships for the first time. That was the case with Josh at Indoor Worlds, but he somehow managed to finish fifth in a loaded field where it took 22.31m to get on the awards stand. A few days afterwards, he was kind enough to explain how he did it.
The first thing that Josh had to figure out after qualifying for the Indoor Worlds squad with a toss of 21.74m at the USATF Championships in Spokane in February, was how to manage the travel from his home in South Carolina to Belgrade,Serbia–site of the Indoor Worlds–with as little disruption to his normal training schedule as possible.
Josh trains at his alma mater, the University of South Carolina, with Mike Sergent, his college coach, and he normally throws three sessions per week, two a little easier and one with high intensity. Mondays he focuses on technique, Wednesdays on rhythm, and Fridays on distance.
As it turned out, that schedule matched up well with the demands of traveling to Belgrade for a Saturday competition. Josh was able to do his normal technique day at home that Monday, travel on Tuesday, do his rhythm session while recovering from the flight on Wednesday, then delay his Friday distance session to Saturday, where instead of throwing full out in a practice, he’d be doing so in the actual competition.
Josh’s ability to maintain a fairly normal routine made it a lot easier to feel comfortable that week in spite of the rigors of travel and the inevitable jet lag.
The next challenge Josh had to navigate involved implements.
At the Indoor Worlds (and at all indoor meets in Europe), the putters actually use the outdoor shot. That would not generally pose a problem for someone who trains in South Carolina where the weather is conducive to throwing outdoors during the winter months. It’s not like Josh had to scramble to find somewhere to throw the outdoor implement during the three weeks between the US and World Championships. But at competitions like the Indoor Worlds there is a catch–the meet organizers provide the implements.
A putter is allowed to throw his or her own shot only if it is of a brand that the organizers do not provide, and I’m told that this is rarely the case.
No big deal, right? Shots are shots. But the implements provided to the athletes are typically brand new with their nice, slick coat of paint unblemished by wear. And having, in the middle of the biggest competition of your life, to figure out how to get comfortable gripping an implement with an odd feel to it is no easy task. Can you imagine someone handing Tiger Woods a brand new driver as he walked to the first tee at the Masters and telling him he was required to use that club? Me either. Luckily, Josh kept his cool and was able to manage with the shot they provided.
Another tricky aspect of competing at meets like Indoor Worlds is the pre-competition procedure, which tends to be quite different from that followed at other meets. At the USATF Indoor Championships, for example, the putters were taken to the competition ring about thirty minutes before the action started. I was there in the arena watching, and I made note of the number of throws guys like Josh, Ryan Crouser, Payton Otterdahl, and Darrell Hill took prior to the comp. Most got in eight. Then, after a pause of maybe ten minutes for introductions, round one commenced.
The situation at Indoor Worlds was very different. According to Josh, on the night of the men’s shot comp, the putters were given an hour to take throws at a ring away from the main venue. They were then deposited in a call room where they sat for thirty or forty minutes. After that, they were taken into the oval where each thrower was allowed no more than three warmup throws in the competition ring. Then, there was a ten-minute delay for introductions. All this stopping and starting can make it difficult to find your rhythm. If you need eight throws to feel ready, you obviously have to take several during the early warmup period. But then you’d be sitting around for at least half an hour before completing your throws. And if you start burning energy two hours prior to the comp, you might run out of gas when the throws actually count.
Luckily for Josh, Ryan Crouser was also throwing in Belgrade and he’d been through this drill many times. After talking to Ryan, Josh decided not to take any throws in the early warmup period, and to make due with the three he’d get in the competition ring.
“It was the fewest warmup throws I’ve ever had for a meet,” he says, “so I went straight to fulls.”
This is something I saw Val Allman experiment with at the US Outdoor Championships in Des Moines in 2019. Her flight of the women’s discus was given an extremely long warmup period, something like forty minutes, but Val just sat back and relaxed for most of it. Then, a few minutes before the competition began, she stepped in and took two full throws. Afterwards, she explained that this was a routine she’d developed to prepare for championship meets where you can’t count on more than a couple warmup attempts.
The Indoor Worlds was Josh’s first experience with that approach to warming up, but he went in knowing what to expect and didn’t let the relative strangeness of it bother him.
Which was a good thing, since the odd rhythm of competing at Indoor Worlds did not end once the comp began. There were eighteen men’s putters in Belgrade, and they were all lumped into one flight. For Josh, who was twelfth in the order, that meant a thirty-minute delay between his final warmup throw and first competition throw, and an unusually long wait between attempts during the first three rounds due to the size of the field. Luckily, Josh was prepared for this as well.
He explained that, “During the competition I’d relax until there were six throws left before I was up, then I’d do some drills. When I was three throws away, I’d take off my warmups and tell myself, ‘Allright, it is time to go!’”
The plan allowed Josh to keep his chill, avoid the dreaded opening-round foul (he opened with 20.74m and followed that with 21.41m), and nearly equal his indoor PB with that 21.70m in round three.
That put him in fourth, well behind Darlan Romani (22.53m), Crouser (22.44m) and Tom Walsh (22.29m) but safely in the final. At that point, most observers–myself included–probably thought, “Okay, Josh, good job. Now you can relax, because there is no way you are breaking into that top three.”
But, that’s not what Josh was thinking, and his attitude may explain why–in addition to his considerable talent and the friendly advice from Crouser that helped him prepare–he was able to throw so well in his first Worlds. As the final three rounds began and the rest of the shot putting community was getting ready to enjoy a fight to the finish between Romani, Crouser, and Walsh, Josh was sitting there thinking, “I could win this.”
“I haven’t seen any throws over 22.50m in practice,” he recounted later, “but I watched Auriol Dongmo win on her last throw in the women’s comp, and my motto in practice has always been ‘last throw/best throw’, so I tried to get as pumped up as I could and just see what would happen.”
He fouled his fourth and fifth attempts, then entered the ring for his final throw “pissed off” and determined to unleash a big one.
“I tried to speed up out of the back a little bit. Of course, I have to be patient with my upper body at the start and the initial movement out to ninety degrees has to be easy, but once I move out wide around my left and get into position, it is time to go.”
The result was a throw that landed past the twenty-two meter line, but…was called a foul by an official who determined that Josh had just barely stepped on the ring to the right of the toeboard on his reverse.
Josh immediately protested, and the ever-helpful Crouser stepped up and reminded him to walk out the back of the ring, so they couldn’t nick him on that.
Unfortunately, there was no video available from an angle that would have provided a clear view of the spot where Josh might have fouled, so his protest was disallowed.
Most would agree that fifth place at your first World Championships is a successful outing for an up-and-coming thrower, but Josh’s takeaway was that he should have thrown farther.
Of the big foul, he says that “the finish was too short and quick. I did a lot of non-reverse throws in practice getting ready for the Worlds, and that usually helps me, but now I think I should have focused more on my reverse a couple of days before the comp. My reverse in the meet ended up being super quick and short, so I didn’t get everything out of the finish. When I’m at my best, I’m out over the toeboard, but in Belgrade it looked like I was doing a discus reverse. If I had really extended over the toeboard, that last throw would have been crazy.”
With guys like Romani, Walsh, Crouser, Hill, Joe Kovacs, and Zane Weir (who had a huge foul of his own in Belgrade–reportedly in the 22.70m range) lining up to do battle at this summer’s Outdoor Worlds, shot put fans can expect a lot of crazy in the near future.
And with the experience he gained in Serbia combined with his phenomenal physical talent, it will be no surprise to see Josh battling for a spot on the podium again in July.