PREPARE FOR LAUNCH. The U.S. men’s shot crew is ready. Though the Trials and Olympics sit locked down by a year, Uncle Sam’s men of the iron ball are primed and powdered, ready to blast with firepower rarely seen in such concentration.
Their OT summit next June as they vie for Tokyo spots promises to be a contest you surely want to follow. Joe Kovacs and Ryan Crouser, knotted atop the U.S. all-time list with their 75-2 (22.91) PRs set in the last 10 months hold pride of place 11 months out from the OT, and Darrell Hill (73-7½/22.44 PR) also whirls with the shot from a top 10 spot (No. 8) on the U.S. ATL.
As a power trio they presented a striking show of force globally in ’19: places 1st, 2nd & 5th at the World Championships, positions No. 1, 4 & 5 in the World Rankings and spots 1, 2 & 5 on the yearly world list.
The depth behind them is equally remarkable. Six Americans were 70-footers in ’19 and 11 threw beyond 21.00 (68-10¾), unprecedented in recent seasons (see sidebar).
The Awesome Threesome
Some might argue for twosome. Crouser is the Olympic champion and OG recordholder. Kovacs has two World Champs golds, including the most recent one, and silver from the Games in Rio and the ’17 Worlds. But think of this in a formchart sense. Since 2013 when Ryan Whiting won the national title only three men have been USATF champion: Crouser ’16, ’17 and ’19; Kovacs ’14 and ’15; Hill ’18. Each has also made Team USA for the last three majors, Rio, London and Doha.
Experience is invaluable and coming out of this COVID year this trio present for the rest formidable targets to knock off, operating as they do at their best above 73-0 (22.25). Crouser’s résumé includes 20 meets past that Imperial barrier. Kovacs has 6 such and Hill 3. A caveat to consider, though, is, again, the rarity of that kind of throwing. Crouser won the ’16 Trials with 72-6½ (22.11), a PR at the time and the OT Record, as Kovacs hit 72-¼ (21.95) and Hill 70-11¾ (21.63), a personal best for him as well, to make the Rio team. PRs in a Trials shot final are uncommon currency, though all three Olympic qualifiers at the 2000 edition hit the longest throws of their careers to that point led by soon-to-become Sydney medalist Adam Nelson’s 72-7 (22.12).
We also offer separate features on four more notables:
Payton Otterdahl, 24 years old, 6-4/305 (1.93/138), the man who broke Crouser’s Collegiate Indoor Record as a North Dakota State senior last year and U.S. Ranked No. 4.
Jon Jones, 29, 6-0/320 (1.83/145), 4th-placer at Nationals last year.
Nick Ponzio, 25, 6-0/315 (1.83/143). While the USC alum outright skipped the USATF Champs last year to throw elsewhere he’s on fire in ’20. 2nd to Crouser at the USATF Indoor and past the 69-, 70- and 71-foot barriers since January coached by 2-time world indoor titlist Ryan Whiting.
Tripp Piperi, 21, 6-1/300 (1.85/136). The Texas junior is the cream of the collegiate crop as the ’19 NCAA winner. He’s also the American Junior Record holder at 72-4½ (22.06) with the U20 implement. (Continued below)
Others To Watch
Josh Awotunde, 25, 6-2/300 (1.88/136). No. 6 U.S. Ranker the past two seasons, he placed 2nd at the ’18 NCAA as a South Carolina senior. Since college graduation he threw to 5th-place finishes at USATF last year and the USATF Indoor over the winter. His longest put to date, 69-11¾ (21.33) knocking on the 70-foot door, came with the indoor ball as he earned the ’18 SEC indoor crown.
Curt Jensen, 29, 6-4/287 (1.93/130). The ’14 Illinois State grad has U.S. Ranked the past 3 years, high of No. 4 in ’18 after placing 3rd that season in the USATF Champs and scoring a PR, 70-11¾ (21.63) two weeks later. 7th at USATF in ’19.
David Pless, 29, 6-3¼/240 (1.91/109). A 3-time NCAA Div. III winner for Bates (2 outdoor crowns, 1 in), he has come a long way from his 61-¼ (18.60) best with the indoor shot in college. Last year he threw 69-4 (21.13), placed 8th in the USATF final and U.S. Ranked No. 8 for his second rating in a row. Also placed 8th this winter in the USATF Indoor.
Jordan Geist, 22, 6-2/270 (1.88/122). He captured 3rd at the NCAA in ’19 as an Arizona soph yet superlatives stretch back to his prep days. In ’16 and ’17 he rated as the shot’s top HS All-America above Piperi, the opponent who lifted what had been Geist’s AJR, 72-3 (22.02), with the U20 ball. He holds the No. 3 spot on the HS shot list at 76-10½ (23.16) and also lofted the 16-pounder (indoor variety) 68-4 (20.82). His PR is a formidable 70-10 (21.59), longest among current collegians.
Ryan Whiting, 33, 6-3¼/295) (1.91/134). OK, we don’t necessarily expect to see the owner of two World Indoor golds back in the ring, although he had no comment for us on the topic. He’s got a full plate coaching Hill, Ponzio, Chase Ealey (7th in the WC women’s shot) and others. On the other hand, he’s got international major experience back to ’11 including an outdoor Worlds silver in ’13. With a 73-1¼ (22.28) best from ’13, for goodness sakes, he garnered Worlds 7ths out and in just 3 and 2 seasons ago.
Girding For The Contest
The match among American putters to claim Tokyo team berths projects to be unique. “The U.S. kind of has an unusual system,” says Crouser, “in that no other country in the world has 3 people with the standard, which is 21.10. New Zealand has 2 with Tom [Walsh] and Jacko Gill, and Poland has 2, but the U.S., we’ve had as many as 10 in 2016. So we’re such a powerhouse in the shot that what we’ve always had for the last 20 years now is the Big 3 is the 3 who consistently make the teams. And then whoever can break into that and make teams can kind of continue to throw. So it’s always a struggle between the three guys who were kind of entrenched and have been competing at that level and have the experience and everything.”
Throwing in such a hothouse is “always a struggle a little bit just to stay up and stay afloat,” he admits. “You gotta make sure you’re throwing far enough to make those teams. In the U.S. right now it’s well over 70-feet to make the teams and it’s almost getting close to that it might be 22-meters here in the next few years. So those younger guys are always knocking on the door and, and hungry to break into the Big 3.”
World champion Kovacs offers a pearl of simple advice to the hungry challengers: “Everybody who’s asked me questions since Doha last year, they want to hear something crazy about why I went far in that last round. And it’s actually the opposite.
“I don’t think about that throw, I think about everything beforehand. That’s really the groundwork, that’s the base layer. And hopefully this [time] right now, it’s putting the base layer for next year. What happens now is, I would sometimes argue, more important than what happened to me the day before a meet, because that’s what gives you the real confidence.”
The present, all would agree, is no picnic. Says Crouser in conclusion, “It’s definitely challenging times right now, I think for just everyone, regardless of if you’re an athlete or not. So I’m really just looking forward to next year, doing what I can right now to be smart and be safe and lay a good foundation to get back to competing. And hopefully I’m really looking forward to the 2021 Olympics.
“I think not only for me as an athlete, but just for everyone throughout the world, having the Olympics and hopefully having a healthy, successful Olympics will really signal to everyone that we’ve kind of pulled through this really trying time. I’m hoping to see some really good performances there. I know all the athletes will be very driven and really wanting to compete and show what they can do.
“In the classic sense, you don’t know what you got until it’s gone. And I think a lot of athletes have really been taking competing and training freely for granted. I know I have, so I’m really missing it right now, but looking forward to 2021, and hopefully the world has pulled through the whole pandemic at that point and we can kind of come together and celebrate the sport. I’m really looking forward to that.”