A Look Back At Doha, Part 3: Joe’s Odyssey

The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem, tells the story of Odysseus, a Greek noble who proves himself the greatest of all warriors during the conquest of Troy, but then for ten years is prevented from returning to his homeland, Ithaca, by the god Poseidon. It is a long, humbling journey, but in the end he finds salvation in the unbreakable fortitude of his wife, Penelope.

The Odyssey of Joe Kovacs began late in the summer of 2017, after a three-year run during which he’d established himself as one of the great shot putters of all time. He was twenty-eight years old, had tossed a PB of 22.57m earlier that season and appeared, outwardly at least, to be at the top of his game.

But there were gravitational forces at work behind the scenes in the sport and in Joe’s life, forces as powerful as the invisible hand of Poseidon. They would make the next two years the most challenging of Joe’s career. 

Some of those forces were exerted by Joe’s planet-sized rival, Ryan Crouser, whose record-setting performance in Rio seemed to confirm suspicions that once a really big dude (Crouser is listed as 6’7”) figured out the rotational technique, the shot putting landscape would be irrevocably altered.

John Smith predicted such a moment in an article titled “Working the Earth” published in the old Long and Strong Thrower’s Journal in October of 2003. The article was inspired by Smith’s efforts to make the 6’6”, 330-pound Dan Taylor into a successful rotational putter. In it, he muses on the whole glide versus spin battle, details his training methods with Taylor, then concludes by writing…

Even though the rotational technique in the past has been a great equalizer for the smaller man to compete with the bigger man, I believe the evolution of the event is going to favor bigger men…if they can develop a move with good ground contact and leg action and learn to stay back and contained, I can envision the same throwing that we saw during the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. The long throws will happen, there is no doubt in my mind.

Art Venegas, arguably the best and most influential rotational shot coach the sport has produced, was also attuned at that time to the possibilities of a very large man mastering the spin. In a conversation I had with him this past October, Art recalled his impressions of the young and very large (6’10”) Carl Myerscough who he first came across in the late ‘90’s while coaching at UCLA and still describes as “the best young putter” he’s ever seen. “I never recruited foreigners,” Art remembered, “but I made an exception with Myerscough because I wanted the world to see what was possible.”

Myerscough did become a rotational putter, but he ended up throwing at Nebraska, where he won indoor and outdoor NCAA titles during a career marred by injuries and doping violations. He retired with a PB of 21.92m, but Art believes that Myerscough had possessed the raw potential to throw eighty feet clean. 

Art left UCLA in 2009 without having the chance to unleash a giant spinner on the unsuspecting shot put world, but in 2013 he began what would turn out to be a remarkably successful partnership with the more conventionally-sized (6’0″, 295lbs) Joe Kovacs.

Joe took up residence at the Chula Vista training center and quickly flourished under Art’s tutelage. In 2014, he broke twenty-two meters and won his first national title. In 2015, he upped his PB to 22.56m at a Diamond League meet in Monaco and then won the World title in Beijing.

Joe remained the best thrower on the planet for most of the summer of 2016, winning Diamond League meets with twenty-two-meter-plus throws in May (the Prefontaine), June (Oslo) and July (London). 

His 21.95m at the Olympic Trials easily put him on the team for Rio, but it was at those Trials that  Crouser, who’d had an unremarkable season to that point, hit his stride throwing 22.11m for the win.

Then came Rio, where Crouser’s 22.52m took out the previous Olympic record of 22.47m set by Ulf Timmerman–a product of the East German state doping program–in 1988. Thus did Venegas and Smith’s premonitions about a giant-sized rotational putter finally come to fruition. 

Crouser was only twenty-three years old at the time, and it seemed possible that he was about to take shot putting to a whole new level. Joe finished second behind Crouser at the Olympics with a put of 21.78m–a distance that would have won every Games from 1992-2008. In Rio, did not get him to within two feet of the gold.

Venegas, who had seen Crouser up close during practice sessions in Chula Vista, described him as “the most intelligent, coordinated, focused thrower I’ve ever seen.” Not that he was unbeatable. Crouser demonstrated in the 2017 Worlds (where he finished sixth) that he was capable of having a bad day. But watching him ease his way through the ring in Chula Vista and repeatedly drop practice throws on the twenty-two meter line, it was easy for Art to picture a not-so-distant future where it might take twenty-three meters to win a major championship.

That prospect gave Joe and Art a lot to think about in the summer of 2017. For the past two decades, the rotational technique had served as, to use Smith’s words, “the great equalizer,” allowing Joe and other throwers his size to successfully compete against 6’7” gliders. But now, here was a 6’7” dude who seemed to have mastered the spin.

How could Joe counter? 

It turns out that the 2017 Worlds provided a clue. Joe defeated Crouser in London, taking silver with a toss of 21.66m. But the winner that night was Tom Walsh of New Zealand—another compactly-built spinner—who, in concert with his coach Dale Stevenson, may have shown a way forward for the stubby folk.

Tom joined the twenty-two meter club in 2016 when he was twenty-four years old. He finished third in Rio behind Crouser and Joe. In London, he threw a season’s best 22.14m in the prelims before taking the gold with a sixth-round 22.03m in the final.

Those fine performances in high pressure situations announced Tom as a force to be reckoned with, and his gregarious personality made him easy to root for. But what was most intriguing about Tom was his technique. He and Dale had modified what might be called “standard” rotational form by having Tom set up for the throw with his left foot at twelve o’clock and his right foot staggered back about half way between the edge and the center point of the circle. Tom began his throws by sweeping his left arm open aggressively then whipping his right leg around from that stepped-back position.  The super long path of that right leg allowed Tom to generate tremendous speed as he yanked it back in to the center of circle. When successfully transferred to the shot, that speed created the potential for massive throws.

Tom’s victory in London raised the possibility that he and Dale had figured out a way to restore the rotational advantage to those compact and nimble enough to make a similar adjustment.

The question Joe and Art faced was whether to stay the course with Joe–he had, after all won a world title just two years earlier–or embark on an experimental path that might give him the means to defeat Crouser going forward.

They chose to experiment, and decided to have Joe start his throws from a position that Joe’s wife and current coach, Ashley, describes as “facing a full ninety degrees to the right” of a normal setup. 

Art described their approach as “looking at what Walsh did but taking it a step further.”

He was convinced that if Joe could get comfortable with this adjustment and then “catch it just right” one day, he might well throw eighty feet. “It adds more distance to the movement,” Art explained. “Like the regular spin gives you more range than the glide.”

Even under the best of circumstances though, altering Joe’s technique (which had been ingrained by many thousands of throws over many years) was a risky gambit. 

When we spoke this fall, I mentioned to Art that David Storl–who glided his way to two World titles and an Olympic silver medal–had in 2018 considered changing to the rotational technique. Art acknowledged the difficulty of a world class thrower making that change in the span of a single off-season. “You can’t just try it,” he cautioned. “A guy like that has to be taught for six to eight months, and he can’t even see a toeboard.  He’s got to be given drills and do turns with a barbell and never even pick up a shot for a while.”

The challenge that Joe faced in altering his starting position may not have been as daunting as that faced by a veteran glider switching to the spin, but there was still no way of predicting how long it would take him to get to the point where he could regularly “catch it just right.”

And as a man who makes his living throwing the shot, Joe did not have the option of taking the 2018 season off to concentrate on perfecting his new technique.

But with no Worlds or Olympics in 2018, they felt like they had a window leading up to the 2019 Worlds in which to implement the changes. Joe would still compete in 2018, but his emphasis would be on mastering his new approach.

At that point, however, another gravitational force intervened, this time exerted by the planet Life.

Joe and Ashley (at the time Ashley Muffet) had for some time been involved in a serious relationship, and with Ashley settled in as the immensely successful throws coach at Ohio State University, it became clear that it was time for Joe to relocate to Columbus.  

Joe made the move that winter, with the idea that Art would coach him remotely. Ashley says that “at the time when he came here, we never talked about me coaching him. I would watch his practices, but I didn’t have a whole lot to add to it because what they were doing with the new technique was truly an experiment. It was nothing I had ever seen before, so I didn’t feel comfortable weighing in.”

Joe did not compete during the 2018 indoor season. He lived and trained in Columbus with occasional trips to work with Art in person. As the outdoor campaign began, he wasn’t comfortable enough with his new technique to use it in competition, so he continued working on it in practice while occasionally switching back to his “normal” technique for meets. 

Complications ensued.

He tore a groin muscle working on the new setup early in the outdoor season, then switched back to his old technique ten days prior to the 2018 Prefontaine Classic, where he finished eighth with a throw of 20.36m.

Joe and Ashley then traveled to Los Angeles the week before the 2018 US Championships so he and Art could resume work on the new technique. Joe finished fifth at those Championships, using his old technique to produce a best of 20.74m.

The experiment continued that winter until finally, in December of 2018, they all agreed that it would be best for Joe to return full time to his old style of throwing.

Art says that he realized that it was unfair to Ashley and Joe to ask them to continue with the experiment when it became apparent that “it couldn’t work fast enough.” 

They all decided that Joe should go back to basics, to hitting the positions that had helped Joe become World champion in the first place. This was an approach in which Ashley felt much more comfortable taking an active roll. “Besides,” she said later, “the way he was throwing at that point, I didn’t think I could make things any worse.”

It turned out, though, that switching back to his old technique was not an easy thing for Joe to do. He struggled to find his rhythm, opening in January with a 20.77m toss at a meet in New York, followed by a 20.86m mark at the Millrose Games and then a humiliating 19.52m at a meet in Columbus on February 15th.

He rebounded to finish second at the Indoor Nationals with a throw of 21.40m, but Crouser’s winning toss of 22.22m was a stark reminder of how far Joe still had to go to get back into the upper echelon of the sport.

According to Ashley, the struggle to regain his form was at times so discouraging that Joe questioned if he should continue competing. 

He now had a house, a wife, an “adult life he hadn’t had before.” Maybe it was time to move on.

Had Joe fallen in love with anyone else, his career may well have ended last winter. But, like Penelope, Ashley turned out to be a woman of great strength. It also helped that she was a world class throws coach.

Art had met Ashley when she did a coaching internship at Chula Vista, and what he saw convinced him that she was going to become one of the best in the business and “change the landscape for women coaches.”

With Joe fighting to salvage his career, Ashley proved Art correct.

Her first priority was to get Joe to forget about the past, forget about the future, forget about everything except the things he could do to get a little bit better every day. “It was hard to see Joe miserable,” she recalled later. “But, I tell my Ohio State kids that if they are upset about how they’re doing, they need to fix it. I ask them why they think they deserve to throw far if they hit terrible positions or their rhythm is terrible. Stop complaining and fix it. That’s not an easy thing to say to your husband, by the way.”

 “But, I told Joe that he had to forget about what Ryan or Darrell Hill were throwing. He had to pretend like he wasn’t even in the mix. Everyone thought he was washed up, and he hated that because one of the things he likes the most about throwing is the competing aspect. He loves to put on a show and do things people don’t think he can do.”

“I told him, ‘Yes, you’ve thrown 22.50m, but right now you’re throwing twenty meters in practice. You have to accept that and build yourself up from there.’” 

In spite of opening outdoors with four consecutive meets under twenty-one meters (including a 19.77m clunker in Stockholm) Joe listened and persevered.

And as the season wore on, there were hopeful signs. Ashley recalls “a lot of meets where there were twenty-two meter fouls or warm-ups, so we knew it was there.” One of those meets was the 2019 Prefontaine Classic where Joe finished fifth with a throw of 21.39m but said afterwards that seeing the ball travel twenty-two meters even in warm-ups gave him hope that a breakthrough was coming.

It came three weeks later at the US Championships in Des Moines where his first three throws traveled 21.99m, 22.00m, and 22.31m.

This, according to Ashley, was the “turning point.” 

“We were happy,” she recalls. “But we knew he had at least another fifty centimeters in him.”

Joe finished second to Crouser’s 22.62m at USA’s, but a month later hit 22.11m in Paris.

His last meet before Worlds was the Diamond League Final in Brussels where he suffered a major setback, finishing eighth with a best of 20.60m. Ashley says that “he didn’t like that a bit, but I kept telling him ‘it doesn’t matter. Stay focused.’”

Before Joe left for Doha, Art reminded him that “he has a better history of winning medals in big meets than any of those guys.” 

Still, Crouser had extended his PB to 22.74m earlier in the summer. Walsh had broken twenty-two meters on six different occasions. Darlan Romani had set a new Diamond League record of 22.61m at the Pre. And Hill, Joe’s old teammate at Chula Vista, had gone 22.35m in September at the Europe v. USA match in Belarus. 

Ashley, who had “learned something about horses” while going to school at Kentucky, had been advising Joe all season to “put blinders on,” but one has to imagine that even a blind horse could sense his competitors thundering past as Joe’s rivals seemed poised to do in Doha.

With Ashley serving as throws coach for Team USA, she and Joe arrived at Worlds ten days before the prelims and were forced to train each night in heat and humidity so oppressive that it was sometimes difficult for Joe to keep the shot from falling out of his hand as he ran the ring. It was one more challenge in a season full of them.

When the men’s shot prelims finally rolled around, he looked solid, surpassing the automatic qualification mark with 20.92m on his first attempt.

He looked solid again while warming up for the final. Ashley says that people with a clear view told her that some of Joe’s warm-up throws were “really far,” but she couldn’t see exactly where they landed.

Crouser was up first in the final, and wasted no time in knocking another ’80’s glider out of the record books. Werner Gunthor’s Championship mark of 22.23m had stood since 1987. Crouser relieved him of it with a toss of 22.36m.

Joe opened with 20.90m and Ashley thought that his tempo was “really slow” and “a little too passive.”

Walsh ended the first round with a monstrous PB and new Championship record of 22.90m.

Venegas says that in any other throwing event, a toss like that in the first round would have effectively ended the competition because everyone would have tightened up and lost their timing. But the shot is an “emotional event” where competitors can feed off of each other’s excitement. Romani illustrated this by crushing a 22.53m with his second toss.

Joe guaranteed himself a full six throws with a second-round 21.63m and followed that up with 21.24m in the third. As the fourth round began, he sat in fifth place behind Walsh, Romani, Crouser, and Hill, who had hit 21.65m in round three.

Joe’s 21.95m in round four moved him into fourth place, but a spot on the medal stand was still a long way off as Crouser hit 22.71m to knock Romani into third.

Ashley was still concerned about Joe’s tempo. “He didn’t have any fouls,” she recalled, “which is unusual.”  After the 21.95m, she told him, “It doesn’t matter. Anything less than 22.50-22.60m might as well be a foul. It’s either a PR or a foul. We’ve got nothing to lose, so keep swinging.”

He reached 21.94m in round five, still in fourth behind Romani’s 22.53m.

At the end of Homer’s epic, Odysseus returns to Ithaca only to find his house occupied by murderous rivals bent on dividing his estate and erasing his legacy. He disguises himself as a beggar and approaches his palace just in time to see his favorite dog, who has loyally pined for him for twenty years, expire on a pile of dung. His enemies do not recognize him, but just for grins one of them picks up a foot stool and smacks him with it. It was an immensely frustrating situation for an immensely proud man. This close to redemption, but still likely to lose everything he had strived for.

And so it must have felt for Joe. Over the past two years he had been supplanted in the shot put rankings by Crouser, Walsh, Romani, Hill and–truth be told–many lesser throwers as well. He wasn’t exactly forgotten, but many assumed that his days of contending for gold medals were behind him.

Then, he fights his way back to the twenty-two-meter level only to find that it now took more than 22.50m to contend for a medal.

When Joe stepped into the ring for his final throw, I was at a park playing with my grandson. A few minutes later, I received a text that read, “Three guys over 75 feet!! Unbelievable!!”

I assumed the three had been Crouser, Walsh, and either Romani or Hill. Imagine my surprise when, later that afternoon, I sat down and watched a replay of the webcast.

Joe’s throw of 22.91m was one of the great performances in the history of the sport, made greater still when Crouser answered with his own PB of 22.90m, which knocked Walsh into third on the countback. 

All three over seventy-five feet. Unbelievable, indeed.

Ashley says that speed made the difference on Joe’s winning toss. “I think he was more aggressive from the beginning of that throw,” she explained. “Technically, all day he looked pretty good, but because he brought more velocity into that throw I think he caught the ball back a little farther. He stayed connected to it, and the ball stayed on his hand for a long time, all from the speed he brought to it.”

Like Joe, Odysseus conquered his rivals. Only he used a sword, which is how manly men settled things in those days. His odyssey over, he and his wife settled in to enjoy the leisurely life of the landed nobility. Homer did not write a sequel, so we’ll never know if Odysseus ever sallied forth on further adventures.

In Joe’s case, the sequel is about to begin. He will open his Olympic campaign against Crouser at the Millrose Games in February. A summer of rematches with Hill, Romani, Walsh and the rest is not far off.

It should be one hell of a voyage.

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