Reflections on the Men’s Shot Put Comp at the 2022 USATF Indoor Championships

The Slow Squeeze

I’ve never wrestled an anaconda, but I imagine it’s similar to competing against Ryan Crouser–you go in with very little chance of winning and come out feeling thoroughly pulverized.

And like an anaconda, Crouser takes his time pulping you. With Ryan, it is a very deliberate process that begins during warmups. At the recent USATF Indoor Championships in Spokane, he started with an easy, walking stand throw, followed by a regular non-reverse stand and a half-speed, non-reverse full that plopped down on the twenty-meter line.

He began his next full with a static start, and dropped that one around twenty-one meters. Another full from a static start went 21.50m. He used a longer windup only on his final two warmups. One reached 21.75m, the other 22.00m.

Notice a pattern there? We’ve all seen throwers blast away during warmups, desperate to build confidence by launching bombs. As Olympic champion (twice) and current world record holder, Crouser is long past the confidence-building stage, so he uses warmups to…warm up. In Spokane, he slowly and precisely increased the amount of effort he put into each attempt, staying under control and refusing to be rushed. He seemed assured that the big throws would come if he just maintained his rhythm, and he was right.

Throwing last in the order, Crouser began applying the death squeeze with a toss of 22.03m from a static start. He missfired on his second attempt and walked out the front. Then, sticking with the static start in round three, he went 22.34m, to essentially put the top spot out of reach.

Those, by the way, were the164th and 165th throws over twenty-two meters in Ryan’s career. To put that in perspective, John Godina, a four-time World Champion and the best putter in the business from 1995 to 2005, threw twenty-two meters exactly three times. Ever.

Oh, and Crouser is not yet thirty years old.

One might think that the folks running the meet there in Spokane would have made it a priority to keep the momentum rolling considering they had the world record holder putting on a show center stage, but alas, other, inexplicable considerations took precedence and the shot comp was paused for fifteen minutes.

When festivities resumed, Crouser set about asphyxiating any remaining hopes of an upset.

He later said that after his first three attempts he decided to stop “dancing around” and so began using his full windup. The result was a 22.51m toss, the fifth time in his career that he surpassed seventy-three feet.

He followed that up with 23.39m and a foul.

When it was over, one question remained. Even in this current Golden Age of shot putting, with its proliferation of twenty-two-meter throwers, can Crouser, barring injury, be beaten?

What if, for example, a competitor dropped a monster throw early, and instead of leading by half-a-meter or more from the get go, Crouser had to play catch up? Would that knock him off his game?

Well, at the 2019 Worlds, you may recall that Tom Walsh opened with a meeting record 22.90m, which Joe Kovacs surpassed by a centimeter in round six. Minutes later, Crouser stepped in for his final attempt. The result? A 22.90m PB.

He didn’t win that night, but he showed that he can take a punch and not get rattled.

And he is a significantly better and more consistent shot putter now than he was three years ago in Doha.

Walsh and Kovacs will no doubt be in Eugene this summer for a Worlds rematch. Walsh has reportedly separated from his longtime coach, Dale Stevenson, and it remains to be seen how that will affect his season. Joe, has been holed up in Nashville (his wife and coach, Ashley, works at Vanderbilt), apparently plotting his title defense…

Maggie Ewen, certainly an astute judge of throwing potential, told me back in 2019 that Darrell Hill (more about him below) has as much talent as Crouser or Kovacs. After a difficult, injury-plagued 2021 season, can he get it together and challenge Crouser? Can any of these guys?

Time will tell, but one thing is for sure. There has never been a better moment to be a shot put fan.

Confidence Men

If you are looking for a doable challenge, I’d recommend trying something easy like becoming an astronaut or breaking the world hotdog eating record (seventy-six in ten minutes) before taking a whack at making a US Olympic or Worlds team in the men’s shot.

Right now, nine of the top twenty male putters in the World Athletics rankings throw for the United States, and that does not include defending World Champion and Olympic silver medalist Joe Kovacs, who has yet to compete this season.

Even with the United States likely to be granted four spots in the men’s shot at the 2022 Worlds, at least six of the planet’s best putters who happen to be American will be stuck watching from home when the new World shot put champion is crowned on July 17th.

A quick word on the number of entries for Worlds. In individual events, a nation is allowed to send three athletes who have met the World Athletics entry standards–four if an athlete from that country has received a bye. The defending World champion gets one. That’s Joe. The current Diamond League champion gets one. That’s Crouser. However, even with both of those guys receiving byes, no country can send more than four competitors in an individual event, so the US Championships will basically come down to a battle for the remaining two spots. If somehow Joe or Crouser were to finish out of the top four at those Championships, then…I don’t know what the hell happens because the USATF places a premium on order of finish at the National Championships in selecting the team. Stay tuned.

However you slice it, making the Worlds team for the US will be at least seventy-seven hotdogs hard, which is why few would blame Josh Awotunde for taking advantage of his dual citizenship (US/Nigeria) to avoid the process altogether–especially after a PB toss of 21.84m at last summer’s Olympic Trials left him in fifth place and off the squad for Tokyo.

But, speaking a few days prior to the US indoor Championships last month, Josh said he was determined to represent the US on the world stage.

He called the idea of making the team for Indoor Worlds a “dream come true” and added that he wanted nothing more than to compete in an Olympics or Worlds wearing the “red white and blue.”

He made that dream a reality in Spokane by dropping an indoor PB of 21.74m in round two. That throw held up for second place, and a similar toss in Belgrade might put him in line for his first World Championship medal.

Roger Steen finished four places behind Josh at the Trials, despite producing a PB of 20.41m. Considering that he was twenty-nine years old and finished the season ranked number fifty-two by World Athletics (with sixteen Americans rated ahead of him) the sensible move after last summer would probably have been to take a bow, call it a career, and walk away satisfied with the fact that it was a huge accomplishment for a former DIII athlete to place in the top ten at one of the greatest shot put competitions ever.

But Roger chose to soldier on, and for five rounds in Spokane (19.55m, two fouls around 20.00m, 20.04m, 20.33m) it seemed not to have been such a good decision. He resembled a stubby Don Quixote tilting at windmill-sized competitors like Crouser, Payton Otterdahl, and Darrell Hill.

Then, on his final attempt, Roger Steen, former University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire “Blugold” (don’t ask), joined the world of bigtime shot putters with his first ever twenty-one meter toss.

That throw–21.07m to be exact–didn’t get him on the squad for Indoor Worlds (he finished third in Spokane, and only the top two make the team), and he’ll have to add nearly a meter to it at the Outdoor Championships to give himself a chance to make the podium there, but…Roger Steen believes. When asked after the comp how he plans to get in the mix outdoors, he replied that he just needs to “keep doing what we’re doing.”

Windmills, beware.

Fair is Foul

The rotational technique has revolutionized shot putting, and also made life more complicated for officials. When a glider reverses at the end of a throw, they generally land with their right foot flat on the ground against the toeboard. If they foul, it is usually because they lose their balance and have to step over the toeboard and out of the ring to regain it. Easy to see and easy to call. Rotational putters, on the other hand, typically land high on the ball of the right foot after reversing, then hop around a bit as they struggle to manage the rotational forces they’ve created. As they do, it is not uncommon for the bottom the their right foot to make contact with the toeboard. As long as their foot touches only the side and not the top of the toeboard, a foul should not be called.

Easy to explain, but difficult to discern in real time with the naked eye. And every once in a while, an official–perhaps struggling with the pressure to make an accurate call–will start assessing fouls that appear to exist only in their imagination.

Tom Walsh’s experience during the qualification round in Tokyo comes to mind. The official watching the toeboard flagged him on two of his three attempts, though he clearly had not fouled. Fortunately, throwers are allowed to protest questionable calls, and Tom’s third throw was declared legal after video review. That toss got him into the final, where he finished with the bronze medal.

Darrell Hill had a similar experience in Spokane, minus the happy ending. After finishing fourth at the Trials last summer, he came into Spokane on Sunday looking to re-establish himself as a top contender for Eugene 2022 as Maggie Ewen and Chase Ealey had done in the women’s shot the previous day.

And he looked strong during the first three rounds, approaching twenty-two meters on his second attempt.

Unfortunately, all three of Darrell’s efforts were deemed fouls, with the official apparently dinging him for touching the top of the toeboard with his heel.

Darrell protested after his third throw, but the officials had trouble getting the replay to function.

In the meantime, they granted him an additional attempt, which was measured as 20.93m. Had it counted, that throw would have allowed Darrell to continue in rounds four, five, and six, but a moment later an official informed him that they were finally able to examine the replay of his third attempt and that the foul call would stand.

That had to be extremely disappointing for Darrell, but one thing he can take away from the experience is that he is in twenty-two meter form with several months of training still ahead before the Outdoor Nationals.

I remember covering the Prefontaine Classic in June of 2019, and watching Joe Kovacs launch twenty-two meter throws in warmups (Joe takes a very different approach to warming up than does Crouser).His best toss in the competition was 21.39m, but he told me afterwards that he was encouraged by the capacity he showed in being able to move the ball far with the Doha Worlds still months away.

Things turned out pretty well for Joe that year, and they just might for Darrell this time around.

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