“I WENT INTO THAT DAY I think the most prepared mentally, physically and fresh I’ve ever been,” says shot putter Joe Kovacs. “That day,” as you might guess, was October 5 of last year in Doha, on the evening of which Kovacs PRed at 75-2 (22.91) to win his second WC gold. Perhaps the most momentous shot competition the world has ever seen—may those who disagree please nominate its superior—saw all three medalists breaking the 75-foot (22.86) barrier, topped by Kovacs’ final-round winner.
“Human cannons” is what the 31-year-old Kovacs likes to call the practitioners of his craft, and in that World Champs final round he needed to fire a tooth-rattling blast, within 1½ inches (3cm) of his then-lifetime best 74-¾ (22.57) just to make the podium. He was ready, more reposed mentally in ’19 than in season’s past. In that last stanza Kovacs became the most powerful cannon he has ever been and now stands =No. 2 on the all-time world list.
As he seeks to repeat the journey in next year’s delayed Olympic season, Kovacs and coach/wife Ashley will surely review the ’19 roadmap that worked. It’s a fascinating study, a captivating valley-to-mountaintop yarn as the Penn State alum tells it, and straight-up nonfiction.
In the valley “probably 8 months beforehand, I thought about kind of hanging it up and moving on with a different career at that point,” Kovacs says. After taking World Championships silver in ’17, his 2018 campaign had disappointed, a season of technique-tinkering almost best forgotten but for his November marriage to Ashley—Ohio State’s throws coach—which put a bounce in his step outside the shot circle. (Continued below)
Then “the indoor season was rough in 2019,” Kovacs admits. “I mean, I even got beat by an athlete I was coaching,” China’s Jiaxing Wu, at a home meet in Columbus. Kovacs needed a “kitchen talk” and his mom, step dad and Ashley sat down for one. He needed to go all in or step out, Ashley told him, and Kovacs chose the former: “I really kind of flipped my mental switch to I wanted to keep on doing this and I’m going to refocus the way I used to focus.” In doing so he transferred “the reins,” full coaching responsibility, to Ashley—relieving longtime mentor Art Venegas from his remote-coaching role with guru guide Venegas’s full blessing.
“Most of it was Ashley,” Kovacs says. “I’ve never been that guy that I need to throw to prove something to myself or something like that. I liked throwing and I like winning and I liked the competition, but [in the 2018 no-championship year] I kind of did lose a little bit of that mental focus. I’ve done this for a while, and I had that part [of me that asked], ‘Well, how much longer am I going to keep doing this?’ So I let my mind kind of wander in that off year, which I don’t regret at all because I wanted to explore different options.
“I think it gave me a better perspective to re-buy back in when I did. And when I had that talk with Ashley in the indoor season, we called it ‘the 8 weeks to Doha,’ and that’s actually referring to the Doha Diamond League, not the World Championships. That was probably some of the best training I’ve ever done in my life in terms of focus, in terms of level. I’m not saying every throw was far, every lift was heavy, but everything was done at a very high level and was executed really well.
“She gave me the plan and we talked about things I’ve done in my past that I need to do better and some of the elephants in the room. Sometimes I’ve had success by ignoring some things and getting, I don’t want to call it lucky, but making sure everything else was at a higher level.”
The weekend after their kitchen talk, Kovacs’ 70-2½ (21.40), his longest throw since the ’17 DL Final, earned him 2nd at the USATF Indoor to Ryan Crouser. Kovacs’ first outdoor meet at Virginia, however, marked a turning point even though he chalked a loss to Michigan’s Andrew Liskowitz. Kovacs’s one legal put reached only 66-3¼ (20.20).
“I had warmups about as far as I threw in Doha,” Kovacs remembers. “But I got called on the fouls, I got close to the toe board and I wasn’t ready for going that speed yet. I actually lost to a collegiate kid—that’s nothing a professional or former world champion wants to do—but once that started to happen, being a shot putter, it’s all about making the ball go far. Whether you’re fouling or not, or staying in the ring, it’s just like we’re human cannons. And we gotta make sure the ball goes far, the foremost.
“And then the rest of the season I can figure out how to stay in the ring because that’s just part of the job.” Kovacs internalized that thought: “Once we got to the outdoor season in 2019, a lot of people told me I wasn’t favored to even make the World Championships team in Doha, but I don’t think I felt that way at all. I knew I was training probably better than I ever had in my life. And when we got to USAs in Des Moines, my first throw was, I think, 21.99 [72-1¾], which was one of my farthest first throws ever. So I knew I was in shape, but I wasn’t maybe as refined as I have been in the past for that speed.” His 73-2½ (22.31) third throw, good for 2nd, wasn’t chopped liver either.
In a sense Kovacs had to channel the old Jimmy Buffett album title, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. “I think a lot of it came down to I’m in Ohio now,” he says. “And part of it was that when I was at the [Chula Vista, California] Training Center, especially working with Coach Venegas, I guess it was like every practice kind of had that meet mentality of a lot of putting on the show and the aggression.
“Being at the Training Center, if I’m throwing next to Ryan Crouser or Darrell Hill, there’s a level of expectation, an extra gear that comes out of you even when you’re not trying. When I got here to Ohio, no offense to throwing with collegiate kids, but it’s just not the same level as throwing with Ryan or Darrell Hill, you know?
“So I had to learn a way to throw far when it counted, but, B, change my mentality at practice. You know, if I went to a practice last summer trying to go crazy and have this really far throw, it was so fake. It wasn’t helpful in the point that I needed so much stimulus just to make that happen. I got a lot more benefit this past year just kind of focusing on the technique and then waiting for the competition to kind of bring that next gear out.”
One of the “elephants in the room” Team Kovacs talked about was warmup throws, which are less freely available at major championships.
“I’ve never had a problem not having enough warmups,” Kovacs says, “but it’s always been in the back of my mind thinking I needed them. I do think there was a point in my career, especially when I started with Coach Venegas, I needed them to have confidence. You know, I came to Coach Venegas with a bunch of big throws that were fouls in college and I never won an NCAA championship because I was kind of all over the place and sloppy because I had all this power. Art kind of helped me use the warmup as a way to get confidence.
But I also think because of that it became my crutch that I needed to see something happening in warmups for that confidence. So I don’t disagree with what he did. I think it was the smartest thing in the world, but as my career went on I would show up to a competition and always be worried that I needed to have those. That’s something I talked to my wife about: whatever’s on your mind is probably your fear so we should just address that.”
At the World Championships they addressed it head-on. “Just so you know, probably the boldest thing I ever did,” Kovacs says, “was when I was in Doha for the qualifying round, I didn’t take any warmups outside the stadium for the first time in my life at any major competition.”
Kovacs contrasts that choice with his approach at the Rio Olympics, which he came into as world champion off his win in Beijing a year earlier. “Ask anybody about how many warmups I took outside of the stadium in Rio,” he says. “It was way too many and maybe even hurt me in the competition. I have no regrets because I came away with a silver medal, but I was known as the guy who would take thousands of throws. Not a thousand, but to be honest, it’d be 40–50 throws that really pretty much wore me down.
“In Doha in that qualifying round, I’ll tell you, I think Ashley probably had more fear than me. She was in the stands hoping that this plan that she’s a part of now works out well. And then I took my first throw and it was 20.92 [68-7¾]. So I got the automatic standard on the first throw. After that it doesn’t matter, you’re done taking [Q round] throws.
“People talk about the Doha World Championship. I think about those moments more than I think about the big throw at the end.” Kovacs fairly floated into the final two nights later.
He says, “I remember waking up that Friday morning and I told Ashley, ‘I don’t even feel like there’s a competition today.’ I slept great. I didn’t tap in or wear myself out with physical or mental stress to do that. But I think that was a big turning point in my career to be able to have the confidence to say, ‘Hey, I’m ready with no warmups, I’m good to go.’”
Good enough on his last throw to jump up from 4th to 1st ahead of titan Tom Walsh’s first-round PR—and Crouser’s answer, which, too, landed a quarter-inch too short.
“Obviously it came down to 1 centimeter. Just being that much more fresh, who knows?” Kovacs asks, not knowing the answer. “I mean, there’s no saying how it goes down and there’s so many factors involved, but I went into that day, I think, the most prepared mentally, physically and fresh that I’ve ever been. It probably didn’t look pretty because my first throw wasn’t great, I kind of built up after that.
“But every throw I took I feel like I was checking off a box of everything we wanted to do. And by the time we got to the finals, I was sitting in 4th place. I talked to Ashley and she told me probably the thing that gave me the most confidence. She said, ‘You’re already here, you’ve already done what people said you couldn’t do. No safe throws.’
“She said, ‘I just want to see far throws. I don’t care if you foul it, I don’t care if it’s not in the ring, make the ball go far.’ And to be honest, that just gave me even more confidence just to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go down swinging.’ And that’s the best feeling in the world. I knew the second I took that throw in the sixth round that the ball was going to go far. But what I didn’t know was whether my right foot landed inside the ring. That’s when I knew it was something special.”
What’s special for the future, Kovacs knows, are the lessons learned in ’19, the guide ropes he will follow in the coming Olympic season.
Here in the awful pandemic period that is 2020, July has arrived and prospects for even a short quasi-normal season are thin. Kovacs is sanguine about the athletics aspect. “Those first two weeks of quarantine were probably the hardest ’cause I was trying to lift and throw in a parking lot,” he says. “But once they made the decision to postpone the Games that took a little bit of the stress off, for sure.”
If the parking lot reference rings a bell, you probably recall Kovacs got his start as a prep putter coached by his mother in a Pennsylvania high school parking lot. “I’m always about just find a way,” he says. “In high school we found a way in the parking lot. In this quarantine we had to go back to a parking lot and to a middle school to throw. That’s better than some people have around the world. So I’m not going to let that part phase me.”