NOW THAT WAS THE WAY to wrap a Diamond League season. Joe Kovacs won the DL Final shot with a momentous heave past the 76-foot and 23-meter barriers. In the center stage setting of Zürich’s Sechseläutenplatz square beside that city’s shimmering lake, he whirled his ball out to 76-2¾ (23.23) for a second straight win over OG/WC champ and World Record holder Ryan Crouser.
Nobody not named Crouser had ever thrown so far.
Kovacs exulted. Who wouldn’t? “It feels good to finally click the box and be a 23-meter [75-5½] shot putter,” he declared.
Yet his consistency this year — notably 11 meets at or beyond 22m (72-2¼) — is the achievement that truly makes Kovacs smile.
His wife/coach Ashley, now the throws mentor at Vanderbilt, honors consistency with identical fervor. “With her collegiate kids,” Kovacs says, “we kind of preach about it.
“I don’t ever care about the top-end throw, that one-time PR throw; everybody gets caught up in that. We care about raising that minimum level as much as we can. And well, heck, I think I had four or five meets at like 22.87, 22.88, 22.89.”
That Kovacs did: five at or longer than 75ft and the slightly longer metric measure of 22.87 (75-½). Besides Kovacs’ and Crouser’s, only the entries on the all-time list of three other putters, all dating from the 1980s, are 75-foot-plus throws.
“So, I mean, I was kind of practicing what I was preaching,” Kovacs says, “but there was a point where I was just like, ‘OK, I’m ready. I’m ready to finally bust through that 23-meter barrier cuz I have so many throws in the bank at a high level.’ So I was glad to do it at the end of the season at the Diamond League.”
In something of a coda, Kovacs added 72-1 (21.97) and 72-9¾ (22.19) meets in Zagreb and Bellinzona before heading home to his home base in Tennessee.
Headed home, that is, more full of anticipation than reflection. As he explains, speaking by phone in mid-October, “My wife is in probably the last couple days, maybe week or two, of the pregnancy with our twins.”
“Yeah, we’re having twins pretty soon here, a boy and a girl,” says Kovacs. “So that’s why every day has been a little bit more up in the air and going to doctor’s appointments and triages and all the checkups.
“Everything’s really good. But we have a bag packed and I’m ready to run to the hospital. I took my training bag out of the car and replaced it with the hospital bag.”
[Ed: Two days after we posted this article, per Ashley Kovacs on Instagram, “we received the greatest blessing of our lives,” the birth of twins Kaari and Kannon. Congratulations, Team Kovacs!]
Kovacs admits, “You can’t beat that. And of course that was a little motivation for me this whole year knowing what we had ahead. And obviously with my wife being a collegiate coach and my coach as well, everything’s kind of come together, to be honest. It’s a really good time of the year for this to happen cuz I just gotta stay strong and stay healthy and I’m able to take a little bit of time off to recover.
“I’m definitely gonna have a few nights that I wish I had a little more sleep in the future. So I’m trying to get as much as I can right now.”
The prospect of babes in arms to care for, raise and support plays right into Kovacs’ motivation as a thrower and that yearning for consistency.
“You can’t really do the sport as a professional by being a one-hit wonder anymore,” he says. “Even 10 years ago when I first came out of college and I had a small contract to start and I was 4th at the Olympic Trials, I threw 21m [68-10¾], which was a bigger deal back then than it is now. But there was at least a chance.
“Now I kind of view the sport as, ‘If I’m going to be able to do this for a living and provide for the family, that level can never drop.’
“We used to say 1, 2 or 3, and honestly nowadays it’s more like 1 or 2. You gotta be 1 or 2 to be in the mix in order to kinda justify this as being a profession instead of a hobby.
“That’s how I view everything I do because, you know, very quickly there’s a big drop-off. In 2018 I purposely took some time off, but I saw the reality of that. The year before I got a World Championships silver medal and I couldn’t get in a Diamond League meet the next year. I saw with that drop-off how you’re treated.
“So I never want to get back to that point and that’s why I focus on making sure I’m at least 1 or 2 and always fighting to put on a good show at a meet.”
In that Kovacs succeeded spectacularly this season. In an epic USATF dual, he pressured Crouser with a pair of 75-footers in the first two rounds, leaving the outcome in doubt until the end.
Said Crouser, lauding Kovacs, “He’s a really dangerous competitor, and without him, I definitely wouldn’t have had the performance that I did.”
In Eugene again 3 weeks later for Worlds, Kovacs threw 75-1¼ (22.89) in round 5 to take the lead, lifting the battle to a level to rival the nigh on unbelievably close Doha ‘19 comp, which Kovacs had won.
In the end this time Crouser earned the gold. The show, though, was what mattered most along with the U.S. medal sweep including Josh Awotunde in the bronze spot.
“[Ryan and I] were both expecting to come home with a medal,” Kovacs says. “I’m not saying that we weren’t happy about that, but that’s kind of doing our job. But for Tunde to come out and to throw over 22m multiple times to get the medal, to finally be able to have the U.S. men’s shot put sweep — I mean, honestly, I think we should do it every single time, but to be able to pull it off for the first time [by any nation], I’m glad that I was part of that.”
Team Kovacs’ leadup to Joe’s best overall season to date featured a fair bit of chaos: Ashley’s job change from Ohio State to Vanderbilt, 2 months living in a hotel. And once they found a home, it had no basement for a home gym.
“In Tennessee there’s no basements because the bedrock is so strong,” Kovacs explains. “So we had to take our 3-car garage and turn it into my gym.”
At last, “By January we started to hit the stride. February, got a little bit cleaned up, felt better. I had COVID in January, so I actually skipped the indoor season, which I don’t regret cuz I had a little bit more time to kind of get the groove in training.”
Then the evening before his first meet, at Vanderbilt in late April, Kovacs received a chalky surprise — humorous in retrospect, a face-palmer at the time.
“The grounds crew people messed up the lines for the jav and the shot, the hammer and the disc. So I was out there painting sector lines and setting up the field and then undoing everything that they did wrong. I spent the whole night redoing four sectors before the meet which definitely wasn’t ideal.
“You know, it’s not that hard to paint the lines, but you’re just bending down, moving in weird positions, so you’re just a little more beat up than you would want to be when you’re thinking, ‘I’m ready to open up my season.’
“But honestly I think it was really good for me cuz it took my mind off of it and I just kind of went into the meet like, ‘Hey, you know, I need to start somewhere.’”
Kovacs reached 73-8¼ (22.46) in that opener and his season of “the 22s” was launched.
At 33, Kovacs foresees as many more seasons as his body will allow.
In outdoor World Champs and Olympic comps since ’15, when he won the first of his two WC golds, Kovacs is an unmatched 6 for 6 in the medals count.
“None of them have been worse than the silver,” he points out. “So I’d like to keep that going, especially going into Budapest and then Paris and the year after.”
LA ’28? Bring it on!
“I think the shot can go 24m [78-9], so why not?,” Kovacs asks. “Why not just try to do that? I think I haven’t been really focused on trying to throw far since 2015. I honestly haven’t.
“I think a lot of it for me had to do with contracts and not having the incentive to do it. But now I have the incentive to throw far again.”
Kovacs signed a deal with Nike over the summer, a return to the shoe and apparel giant after several seasons away. “And,” he declares, “I’m not just looking to get the medal and go home. I’m looking to put on a show and break some records.”