2022 USATF Outdoor Championships Preview: Roger Steen

Roger was a two-time DIII national champion at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire.

In February, Roger Steen achieved a major career breakthrough by placing third at the USATF Indoor Championships.

If he can match that finish at this week’s Outdoor Championships, he will make the US squad for the upcoming Worlds–quite an achievement for a former DIII athlete in this country’s most hellaciously competitive event.

I checked in with Roger last week to talk about his career and his preparation for this Friday’s shot competition.

Staying in the game

There are no million-dollar signing bonuses for shot putters when they turn pro, so even the most accomplished collegiate throwers have to figure out a way to support themselves as they continue training and competing. To pay the bills, Roger manages an assisted living facility in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He has worked there since his college days and says his employer is understanding about the need to occasionally take time off to travel to meets–an important consideration for an itinerant shot putter.

Navigating the pandemic

During “normal” times, finding a way to support yourself while training and competing is tough enough. Throw in a pandemic that shut down practice facilities and basically wiped out the 2020 season, and someone in Roger’s shoes could not be blamed for calling it a career. Several factors helped him stay the course. The assisted living facility where he works stayed open, so his income was not affected. He and his long time training partner Curt Jensen (21.63m PB) were already lifting in a garage, so they did not miss any strength sessions. Of the throwing events, the shot put is the easiest when it comes to improvising a place to chuck. Perhaps most importantly, Roger and Curt developed some serious camaraderie with a couple of fellow throwers who they invited to share their garage weight room. Fellow putter Adam Strouf (currently of the University of Indiana) and UW Stout hammer thrower, Jacob Bugella trained there regularly. Between those four, there was “always someone at the facility, always someone ready to throw.”

Roger recalls that “in 2020, as soon as we found out there would be no Olympic Trials, all of us started on a heavy training cycle. We suffered together, and that got us through.”

Qualifying for Worlds

To satisfy the requirements set forth by World Athletics, Roger has to either hit the qualifying standard of 21.10m, or climb into the top 32 in the World Rankings.

He is currently ranked at number 33 and has a PB of 21.07m, so he’s close on both counts.

The tougher challenge will be placing high enough at the US Championships to make the team. Joe Kovacs earned a bye into the 2022 Worlds by winning in 2019, and the US will be allowed to send three putters in addition to Joe, so that will help.

But he’ll still have to battle guys like Ryan Crouser, Darrell Hill, Payton Otterdahl, Josh Awotunde, Adrian Piperi, and Jordan Geist for one of those three spots.

That might sound like a tall order for a former University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire Blugold, but–as evidenced by his showing this winter in Spokane–Roger has gotten to the point where he throws his best against the best.

“I’ve competed against all those guys,” he told me. “I was at last year’s Trials when Ryan threw the World Record. He beat me by almost three meters, but I had my best series ever to that point. So, it’s not about what the other guys do. It all depends on if my training is right. Curt always tells me it’s best to be ‘strong like bull and smart like tractor.’ In other words, don’t waste time thinking about ifs or buts. Just get in there and do what you have to do.”

“Also, I like all the guys I’ll be throwing against. We’re all friends, and it’s fun trying to beat your friends.” 

A quick side note regarding World Championship byes. Crouser actually qualified for one as well by winning last year’s Diamond League final, but each country is only allowed to use one bye per event, and I’m told that the USATF has chosen to honor Joe’s.

So, to review, Joe goes to Worlds no matter what. Everyone else will fight for three spots as the US will be allowed to send four putters.

Roger and his training partner Curt Jensen at the 2021 Olympic Trials.

Don’t go changing

I asked Roger if qualifying for Worlds would have a big effect on his career. “Honestly,” he says, “it would be an awesome accomplishment, but I’ll still take things one year at a time. I’m just focused on seeing how far I can throw the shot put, and that won’t change no matter what happens at the Trials. Kurt and I both agree that we won’t ever not lift heavy. We like the pain and the sense of accomplishment of lifting and throwing, so whatever happens next week I’ll just go back to my job and back to training.”

Time to peak

I spoke to Roger on Friday, June 17th, and at that point he was one week into a tapering phase meant to prepare him for the Trials. That night he planned to do a practice competition during which he’d take 8-10 hard throws with the 16lb implement. On Saturday, he planned to do a lift featuring “top end” squats and bench in which he’d have help from bands during the concentric part of those lifts. That would be his last lifting session before competing on the 24th. 

He intended to throw both heavy and light shots on Sunday, with a 2-1 ratio of heavy to light implements, then take Monday off. 

A light throwing practice on Tuesday morning will be followed by travel to Eugene where he will do one final throwing session of 4-6 hard fulls in the competition ring. 

He will rest on Thursday before “showtime” on Friday.

With Curt’s help, Roger has been carefully tracking the way that different types of lifting and throwing workouts have prepared him for competition, and he is confident that he knows when and how to take his foot off the pedal in training without disrupting his routine. He’s feeling good right now, a “lot more responsive in the ring,” and ready to belt some big throws.

Adrenaline: frenemy of throwers

Under the right circumstances, the adrenaline that comes from throwing in a big comp can help produce huge throws. But adrenaline is a little like nitroglycerine or a pet bobcat. Handled incorrectly, it can wreck your day.

Roger says he likes the adrenaline rush he feels when competing against the best, and is confident that he can handle it.

He recalls that when he was younger he used to get tight and worry about letting people down, but now, he says he feels like “everyone” is behind him. 

He’s confident in his training, and knows that whatever happens in any given competition, he will still have his day job. 

“However I throw on Friday,” he says, “it won’t make or break me. I’m not doing this to put bread on the table. I’m doing this because I love throwing the shot.”

The men’s shot comp will take place at 6:42pm Pacific Time on Friday.

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