2022 USATF Outdoor Champs Recap: Jess Woodard and Josh Awotunde

Jess Woodard picked a great day for a breakthrough.

Finally

After taking third place at the 2022 USATF Indoor Championships with a toss of 18.70m this February, shot putter Jessica Woodard told me that she was “close” to some 19 meter throws. 

Ahhh, but the best laid plans. 

After hitting 18.77m in Walnut, California, in April, Jess traveled to Brazil for two meets. Unfortunately, when she arrived in Miami her connecting flight had been canceled. She got out the next day, but arrived in Brazil at 12:30am and then had to compete that evening. Exhausted, she went 17.98m and 17.94m in two meets in São Paulo, then returned home with a case of Covid.

Her best mark during May was 18.54m. In her final competition prior to the US Championships, she threw 17.65m. That was at a meet in Canada on June 8th.

Jess knew she’d have to find a way to get past the 19 meter mark at USAs to have any chance of making the team for the World Championships but felt stuck, she says, “in a little bit of a funk. It felt like everything was hard. Usually that time of year things fall into place and the ball starts going far, but the ball wasn’t going far and I felt like I was drowning a little bit going into the championship season.”

With the support of her coach, Ryan Whiting, and boyfriend/training partner Darrell Hill, Jess finally found some rhythm a week before the US Outdoor Championships, but then in her final squat workout a few days before the comp she “tweaked her back pretty good.”

She flew to Eugene shortly after, and was able to get physical therapy there while gutting her way through her final practices. 

With Maggie Ewen holding a wildcard as defending Diamond League champion, Jess needed to finish among the top three throwers without the last name Ewen in order to make the Worlds team.

That did not turn out to be easy.

She had her best opener ever, 18.79m, then fouled her next two attempts as Chase Ealey (20.51m), Adelaide Aquilla (19.45m), and Raven Saunders (18.95m) passed her. That’s a formidable trio, and in the past Jess might have wilted. “I had always struggled,”she says,” to move into that top group.”

A ten-minute break between rounds three and four seemed to last “forever,” and when the comp resumed she tossed another 18.79m.

A week earlier in practice Jess realized that most of her missed throws were the result of her not being aggressive enough, so she decided to “push it” a bit in round five. 

The result was a 19.40m PB. 

Some anxious moments ensued, as Raven–the Olympic silver medalist–still had two more whacks at overtaking her. But Raven went foul, 18.72m, and Jess was on the team.

How did that feel? 

“I kind of blacked out on that throw,” she says, “but afterwards, I felt joy. And relief!” 

A “rest the pec” strategy paid off for Josh Awotunde.

Back on the attack

Shot putter Joshua Awotunde finished fifth at the 2022 World Indoor Championships, opened his outdoor campaign with a 21.63m toss at Mt. SAC, then essentially disappeared from competition.

A strained pec was the culprit. 

It came during an April training session when he tried to “go for it” on his last attempt of the day. It turned out to be a serious strain, and when he resumed throwing after two weeks of rest and rehab, Josh had to content himself with using a 12-pound shot. It took him four weeks to work up to the 14, and he did not attempt a full throw with a 16 until early June. 

Josh missed two Diamond League comps during that span, which is not ideal if you are trying to eke out a living as a shot putter, but he did not want to risk aggravating the pec and possibly having to shut down for the season.

Two days before the Champs in Eugene, Josh threw a practice PB of 23.40m with the 14, an indication that he had not lost his pop, but two months without a competition left him wondering if he’d be able to find his rhythm in the heat of battle.

“I just wanted to throw 70 feet again,” he says. “ I just wanted to execute my technique.”

A 21.50m warmup throw made him think he might be in better shape than he’d thought, and a 21.24m opener put him in the hunt for the Worlds team. The situation for the dudes was the same as it had been for the ladies. One thrower–in this case Joe Kovacs–had a bye, so the US would be allowed to send four competitors to Worlds. That turned out to be a good thing, as Joe, playing with house money, opened with a 22.87m bomb.

Josh went 20.68m in round two, which left him in fourth behind Joe, Ryan Crouser, and Tripp Piperi. 

That was not a comfortable place to be, considering that Roger Steen, Jordan Geist, and Darrell Hill all looked capable of jumping ahead of him.

Josh needed to shake off the rust, pronto. He took a minute to confer with Crouser before taking his third attempt.

“I’m slow today,” Josh told him.

“Yeah,” Crouser replied. “You’re not attacking like you did indoors.”

Josh’s coach, Mike Sergent, agreed, so Josh entered the ring for round three with one thought in mind–push harder out of the back.

It worked. He went 21.51m, nowhere near his PB of 22.00m, but a satisfying result after not competing for two months, and good enough to move him into third. 

And there he stayed, in spite of a great day by Piperi (six throws over 21.00m) and Steen (a 21.14m PB). 

Meanwhile, Crouser and Joe waged a titanic battle for the title. Some have speculated that the way to beat a healthy Crouser is to throw a haymaker early to knock him off his rhythm. Joe did that and more when he hit 22.87m again in round two. 

But it didn’t matter. Crouser wasn’t able to extend his World Record of 23.37m, but check out this series: 22.42m, F, 23.12m, 23.01m, 23.11m, 22.98m.

Apparently, he can take a punch.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Darrell Hill situation. “Nightmare” might be more accurate. “Recurring nightmare,” actually, because a similar scenario unfolded at the US Indoor Champs. In both comps, Darrell got called for a questionable foul on a throw that might have put him on the podium. In both comps, he protested and was allowed to throw in the finals while the protest was being adjudicated. In both comps, his protest was denied and he was removed from the final. 

Friday’s situation contained a bizarre twist. Darrell was originally told that he’d fouled his first attempt by brushing the top of the toeboard on his reverse. After reviewing the video, though, the officials changed their mind. They agreed with Darrell that he had not touched the top of the toeboard, but claimed instead that he had fouled at the back of the ring.

The whole thing devolved into a huge mess with Darrell maintaining a running debate with the officials while also trying to remain composed enough to get off a solid throw. Afterwards, he posted an Instagram video in which he explained all the crazy and frustrating details. It’s worth watching.

I am told that he’s not going to let the matter drop and is intent on forcing USATF to find a more consistent way to determine fouls. If he succeeds, Darrell will have done the sport a great service. In the meantime, it looks like he will not make the squad for Worlds.

In his absence, the US will still send a formidable crew of putters. Crouser and Kovacs will likely resume their Godzilla v. Destoroyah battle, and Josh believes he can improve on his World Indoor finish.

“I know I need to work on reversing and confidently getting through the shot,” he says. “But my experience at Indoor Worlds will help me. And it will be great to have home court advantage. I know we are going to want to put on a show. I asked my coach, ‘Can we sweep?” and he said, ‘Yeah.’ We’ve got some work to do, but it would be fun to make history.” 

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