2021 Men’s Athlete Of The Year — Ryan Crouser

All eyes were on Crouser when he set the World Record at the Olympic Trials. (RICHARD SEOW)

THE OLYMPIC YEAR, yet again, delivered a dream season to our Men’s Athlete Of The Year, shot putter Ryan Crouser. In a campaign where he competed 14 times, the Texas alum did not just go undefeated — he also went virtually unchallenged.

The hits started with a World Indoor Record 74-10½ (22.82) in Fayetteville on January 24. A week later he equaled the No. 3 undercover throw ever.

In Tucson on May 22, he showed he was ready for the Olympic Trials by hitting a PR 75-6 (23.01), moving to No. 2 on the world all-time list.

Then he made the Olympic team by throwing the biggest bomb ever, a 76-8¼ (23.37) that added 10 inches (25cm) to the World Record. It was the biggest breaking of the shot best since Randy Matson’s last WR 54 years ago. It also made him the first men’s shot putter to be AOY since Matson in ’70. (The all-time list of our AOYs, starting in ’59, can be found here.)

At age 28, Crouser showed he was more than ready to claim his second gold. In Tokyo’s cavernous Olympic Stadium, he churned a stunning series (average 75-½/22.87) that saw him rewrite the Olympic Record thrice, closing with history’s No. 2 blast, 76-5½ (23.30), missing his own WR by less than 3 inches.

His string of post-Olympic wins against his rivals was highlighted by history’s No. 3 effort, 75-11½ (23.15), to win the Prefontaine Classic.

The Texas alum’s shortest meet of the year? An impressive 71-11½ (21.93) that came twice in the early season. The closest anyone got to him was in Zürich when world champion Joe Kovacs finished 14+ inches (0.38) back.

Crouser realized he had broken the WR almost as soon as he had released his shot. (CHARLES SHAFFER)

An even more telling stat: out of all the rounds of finals competition he threw in, some 84 in all, Crouser only found himself behind another competitor for 4 of them. Nick Ponzio led for 2 rounds at Drake. At Chorzów, Tom Walsh led for a round and Kovacs edged ahead for a few minutes. At Zürich, Kovacs got ahead for a full round. The rest of the season, it was always Crouser atop the leader board.

Such is dominance. And after all the celebrations and interviews, when the dust finally settled on the ’21 season, Crouser faced the toughest task of all: hitting reset to start the cycle all over again.

“It’s been a little bit of a challenge,” he admits, “just resetting, and getting back into training because I knew how much work went into this past season, trying to build that bigger foundation in the weight room and continuing to improve technically. It was just a little bit of a rocky start this fall. I kind of feel like I’ve got my feet under me [now].”

A Crouser off-season doesn’t leave much time for fishing and R&R these days, being only a week long. “As I’ve gotten older and it’s just later into my career, it’s difficult for me to take very much time off simply because of the amount of time it takes me to get back into shape. I used to take 4, 6, even 8 weeks off. But then it will take me 12 weeks to get back in the shape I was in toward the end of the season.

“So now I just take one week off and try to transition to a different kind of training. At the end of the season, it’s a lot of plyometrics, dynamic low-rep singles and doubles. Then when I start back again, the reps are high, and the volume’s higher but the intensity’s lower.”

He notes that there is a considerable mental adjustment that accompanies the transition. “The season ends and you take a week off and then you get back into training and it’s like you went from being at your lifetime best — in just one week of backing off on the mental side of training, you let your diet go for a week and then you start heavy lifting — I go from a 23m [c75-5] shot putter to a 20m [c65-5] shot putter in that one week, it feels like, just because now I’m lifting heavy in the weight room and taking a lot more throws. To see how fast it goes away can be frustrating.”

However, he says he’s in a good place as Christmas approaches: “I’ve got back into off-season shape because in-season shape is totally different. In-season, I’m strong on singles, but I do a set of 8 and I can’t hardly walk up stairs. Then trying to throw while your legs are trying to get back under you is always a struggle.

“So I feel I’ve kind of turned the hill now and am right where I want to be. It was definitely a shock because you come off a dream season and transition right into off-season training and it’s as hard as it’s ever been, just as much of a struggle. You don’t expect that. At least in my head, I thought it would be easier, but it’s not.”

Crouser is in a good place in other ways, taking time to talk to us while moving into a new home in the Fayetteville, area and plotting out how he’s going to design a full-size lifting platform “that will function along with the current lifting rack I have, trying to make a hybrid platform.”

That corner of northwest Arkansas has become a perfect training base for the Oregon native. He works as a volunteer assistant for the Razorbacks, a position that’s given him a taste for coaching. He just recently started his own business doing online video review and analysis for other throwers. “I’m excited about it. I like the side of coaching and helping out other athletes.”

And the fishing in Arkansas isn’t bad either, says the noted connoisseur of the hook and reel: “It’s very well-rounded. There’s a world-class trout fishery not too far away, and really consistent bass fishing, as well as stripers, which has been a fun new fish — new to me — that I’ve been figuring out. I’m making the most of it. And Arkansas, out of any place I’ve been, is the best for bass tournaments.”

As Crouser turns 29 — today (December 18), in fact — he looks back on the magical season that was, and where he goes from here.

Crouser let out another mighty roar when he won the Olympic gold. (GIANCARLO COLOMBO/PHOTO RUN)

“I was super happy with how this past year went. It really was a chance to showcase the dedication and perseverance that went through the whole year of COVID. It all goes back to late-March ’20.” Crouser recounts where he was when the pandemic initially shut everything down. He says, “It was kind of improvise and adapt from there, but it was still early. Nobody really knew. Everyone was kind of thinking at the time, “We’ll know a lot more in two weeks, hopefully stuff will open back up again.’

“I was still trying to train as best I could. It was throwing off a sidewalk and lifting in a garage. After two weeks, it was the same thing, ‘We’ll just give it two more weeks.’ One of the worst things for anyone, but especially a professional athlete, is just trying to tread water. I need to have a sense of direction and a goal.

“So I had to commit to something. Meets were dropping off the schedule and at that point I made the call to train like I would have meets in September, because those were the only ones that hadn’t been canceled outright.”

So he hit it hard, getting a much longer off-season block than he normally would have, plus the opportunity to hammer out some technical changes that he had been struggling with for four years. When he returned to competition, he surprised himself by how far the ball was flying. “A lot of that was because of the technical changes that I had finally figured out.”

That was his point of attack for the postponed Olympic campaign, in which absolutely everything seemed to go his way. But what now? Many of the sport’s greatest athletes have struggled with motivation after conquering their biggest goals. Crouser, clearly one the greatest putters in history, says he’s not nearly satisfied yet.

“I still have goals and for me it’s always been trying to compete against myself and trying to better my personal best,” he says. “That hasn’t changed at all. I still want to go out and try to throw farther than I’ve ever thrown.

“That has always been my approach to competing. I can’t control what the other guys do. If they set a World Record, I have no control over that. All I can control is how far I’m throwing. The goal is always to go farther.”

Throws fans may indeed wonder, after reaching to wrap their brains around 76-8¼ (23.37), why Crouser isn’t satisfied with that otherworldly mark. The best comparison may come via another well-known fisherman, albeit the fictional sort. Just as Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab was driven by the pursuit of the great white whale, Moby Dick, that he had tangled with earlier in his career, Crouser had his own fleeting encounter with the big one.

It happened in Marietta, Georgia, on July 19, 2020. He describes it: “There’s always the chance for that massive outlier throw. I’ve had a few in practice and a few in meets. The ones that have happened in meets are when I have not been in fantastic shape. In Marietta, I was hoping to go into it with the goal of throwing 22m [72-2¼].” Instead, his body and mind came together perfectly and the ball flew 75-2 (22.91).

“That was a massive surprise. If I could have had that throw when I was in the kind of shape I was in at the Trials — where I was going in expecting to throw in between 23.20 [76-1½] and 23.50 [77-1¼] — and surprised myself and threw 24.00 [78-9], that would have been a great day.”

He adds, “It’s really hard to put a number on it because every once in a while, you see these massive outlier throws, kind of like the one Joe Kovacs had in Doha. There’s always the potential for that massive performance. And if you can line one of those up when you’re in good shape, expecting to throw far, that’s when I think something especially crazy can happen. So it’s really hard to put a limit on what that could be.”

To put himself in position for when that whale of a throw might happen, Crouser has thought carefully on what he needs to do. “As your career progresses, you figure out what works and — I don’t want to say what doesn’t, but what gets you the most bang for your buck. What is the best thing to focus on?

“For me, it’s to continue to work on technique and try to be strong in the weight room, but that’s not a make-or-break factor for me quite as much as some of the other guys.

“The biggest thing for me is training to my strengths at this point. As a professional athlete, the biggest thing when I transitioned out of college was, ‘I have all this time; I don’t have to go to class.’ So I devoted so much to trying to get rid of what I thought were my weaknesses, like being on the lighter side and not being as strong. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because it helped me build a much more bulletproof foundation.

“Now that I’ve worked on those weaknesses, I need to work on my strengths as I move later in my career.”

Competitively, he is hoping he can finally make it to the World Indoor in March. “Every one I’ve wanted to do, I haven’t been able to. In 2016, I had the NCAA Championships and didn’t get a chance to qualify. In 2018, I had a finger injury. In 2020, I qualified, but it was canceled. Hopefully this will be my year.”

In the long run, Crouser says, he’s not going anywhere. “I’m still enjoying it and I’m going to keep going through 2024 for sure, but I could see myself going through 2028 if it’s still in the cards. That’s still a long ways away, but as long as I’m still enjoying the sport, I mean, it’s a fantastic, fantastic job. It gives me so many opportunities that I’m extremely thankful for just to travel and see the world. Just to get to throw a big heavy ball for a living is not a bad gig for the time being.”

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