Domestic Bliss, Weaponized
In the documentary film The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson, lead singer of the band “The Band,” describes touring as, “a goddamned impossible way of life.” The constant travel. The weird hours. The unfamiliar food. The ache of loneliness that wells up when the arena goes silent.
Professional track athletes know that scene. To make a living in the sport, they have to ply the European circuit for much of the summer while also managing trips to far-flung locales like Doha and Rabat.
And while traveling for a living might sound glamorous to those of us who make the same commute to the same office every day, think of this: When it goes badly at work, we still get to go home at the end of the day and sit on the couch with our spouse and share a glass of wine and watch a few episodes of “Friends” or “Shark Tank” and feel their warmth next to us all night before we have to get up and face the world again. But that’s not the way it works on the road. Not usually.
Russ Winger, formerly a world class shot and discus thrower and currently the coach and husband of Kara Winger, says that “when things are not going well in Europe, it’s the worst. You’re away from home, not competing well, not getting anything good out of the sport. That makes a lot of athletes decide they don’t want to continue.”
Kara experienced those feelings during the summer of 2021, when she struggled to find her rhythm while competing overseas. Looking ahead to 2022, which she had announced would be her final season, Kara realized that her last lap around the circuit would be much more enjoyable if Russ came with her. So, she asked him to be her coach.
It’s easy to imagine an arrangement like that going badly. Most of us do not like getting advice from our spouse on mundane matters such as driving directions or how best to fold a t-shirt, let alone having them remind us day after day to keep our javelin back.
But Russ and Kara made it work.
“I’ve loved being her coach,” he said recently. “It’s been fun because we know each other very well. I’ve seen her at her best and worst, and she has seen me at my best and worst, and that’s a perspective you can’t get from other folks.”
Bottom line, having Russ with her every day, especially on trips overseas, made Kara happy, and according to her longtime friend and strength coach Jamie Meyers, Kara “always does well when she’s happy.”
Her performance this summer would seem to support that assertion. In June, she won her ninth national title with a throw of 64.26m. A month later, she took her first-ever World Championships medal with a sixth-round toss of 64.05m. Two weeks after that, she won the Diamond League meeting in Brussels. The 68.11m she threw there was her first PB in twelve years. It was also the best throw in the world this year and is now the American record. She then finished her season by winning the Diamond League title for the first time.
As that meet in a sold-out Letzigrund Stadium concluded, the event winners were feted with a parade and fireworks and a mini-concert. After that, she made her way through the media gauntlet with her usual aplomb, providing thoughtful answers to mundane questions, making sure every reporter got what they needed. When there were no more queries, she looked around and smiled. “And now,” she announced, “I get to see Russ!”
A Long Time Coming
Had Joe Kovacs walked away from the sport during the winter of 2019, as it looked like he might, he’d have retired with the kind of resumé (a World Championship gold and silver, an Olympic silver, a 22.57m PB) that would have placed him among the top ten putters of all time. Not bad for a guy who finished fourth at the NCAA Championships in 2012, his senior year at Penn State, and wasn’t even sure he wanted to try competing as a professional. When I spoke with him after that NCAA final, his main goal in athletics seemed to be surpassing 500 pounds in the bench press. And they say shot putters are meatheads.
But later that summer, Joe hit a big PB–21.08m–at the Olympic Trials, which got him within twenty centimeters of making the team, which got him an invite to live and train in Chula Vista under the guidance of Art Venegas, which put him on the path to building a remarkable career.
He established himself as the best shot putter on the planet in 2015 by blasting a PB of 22.56m in July and then winning the World Championships later that summer in Beijing. And based on some titanic warmup throws (including a reputed 24-meter bomb at Triton in 2014) it looked like Joe might be on the way to taking down Randy Barnes’ world record of 23.12m and making a case for himself as the best putter of all time.
Then, Ryan Crouser happened.
Many people were surprised when Crouser, after flying under the radar all winter and spring, blasted 22.11m to win the Olympic Trials in 2016, but Joe and Art were not surprised. Ryan had been training in Chula Vista prior to the Trials, so they’d gotten a closeup view of his capabilities.
Joe threw 21.78m in Rio, a distance that would have won five of the previous six Games, but when Crouser bombed an Olympic record 22.52m for the gold, it was clear that a new era had dawned in the men’s shot.
Joe upped his PB to 22.57m the following year, and finished ahead of Crouser while taking silver at the London Worlds, but it still seemed likely that at some point Crouser would use his 6’7″ frame and silky smooth rhythm to dominate the event.
To counter that looming threat, Art and Joe began experimenting with technical modifications, which they hoped might turn Joe’s more compact build into an advantage. My understanding is that Joe began setting up in the ring much like the discus thrower you can see in this video. He and Art believed that this new starting position would give him a longer path of acceleration on the ball, which would ultimately translate to farther throws. It was also an approach that a larger thrower like Crouser probably could not employ within the confines of a shot put ring, so if Joe could make it work it would give him a leg up on his main rival.
Ideally, a thrower attempting a major technical change would take a year away from competition to perfect their new style, but that’s hard to do when you make your living as a shot putter, so Joe spent 2018 working on his new approach in practice while using his “old” technique in meets. Understandably, he struggled. He also got injured.
The following winter, newly married to the former Ashley Muffet and living in Columbus, Ohio, where Ashley worked as the throws coach at Ohio State, Joe found himself at a crossroads. He made occasional trips to California to train with Art, but the transition to the new technique did not seem to be working. Meanwhile, he had lost his feel for his “old” style of throwing and was struggling to hit 20 meters. At the same time, being married to Ashley made him realize that he could have a full and happy life outside of the ring, and he began to wonder if he should retire.
Luckily for the sport, Joe decided to stick with it for the 2019 season. Ashley took over as his coach and guided him to a World title in Doha in what will long be remembered as the greatest shot competition ever. It was a remarkable end to a remarkable season, which I wrote about in detail here.
It turns out that Joe and Art were correct in their assessment of Crouser’s potential. He broke the world record in 2021 with a toss of 23.37m, and has surpassed the 23-meter mark in six different comps. But with Ashley’s guidance, Joe has kept pace, taking silver at the Tokyo Games and at this summer’s Worlds with throws of 22.65m and 22.89m respectively.
After Worlds in July, Joe put together a sensational string of performances in Europe including 22.89m at the Gyulai István Memorial in Hungary, 22.65m at the Athletissima in Lausanne, and 22.61m at the Memorial Van Damme in Brussels.
And then, at the Diamond League final in Zurich, he finally breached the 23-meter line with a second-round blast of 23.23m, which put him ahead of Barnes on the all-time list. (You can view Joe’s post-meet comments here.)
Joe and Ashley moved to Nashville two years ago after she accepted a position at Vanderbilt, and they are expecting twins this fall. Will wrangling two babies prove more challenging than keeping up with Crouser? Likely.
But this golden Kovacs v. Crouser era is not going to end just yet. Joe believes that at 33, he is young enough to extend his new PB, and Crouser–who put 22.74m in Zurich despite having been sick for a month when a case of Covid morphed into a sinus infection–is not going anywhere.
However things play out, those gents now occupy the top two spots on the all-time performance list. As they should.