On his 26th birthday Sunday, Joe Kovacs will step into a 7-foot diameter circle, position a 16-pound ball against his neck behind his right ear, spin twice inside that circle and launch that ball, likely propelled by a yell, some 70 feet before it thuds to the earth at Oregon’s Hayward Field.
Then the 6-foot, 275-pound Pennsylvanian will celebrate by pumping his arms or slapping his hands, if the last year is any harbinger of what to expect at the USA Track and Field Championships men’s shot put competition in Eugene on Sunday.
Kovacs’ routine lasts a few seconds, but his ascent to become the world’s best shot putter, as with most Olympic hopefuls, took years, and didn’t always go according to plan.
An only child to school teachers, he began throwing in a parking lot in high school, with his mom as his coach.
At the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, in his last meet wearing a Penn State jersey, Kovacs stood in third place in the standings, the final qualifying position for the London Games, after his third of six throws.
The next competitor, 2009 World champion Christian Cantwell, jumped ahead of Kovacs, who would finish in fourth place, one spot shy of becoming the youngest American to make the Olympics in the event in 20 years. Still, Kovacs had thrown a personal best at the biggest meet of his life, coming in with no expectations of cracking the top three.
“I remember being in the team sign-up room, and I got fourth, and I didn’t make the team, but I was by far the happiest person in the room,” Kovacs said.
Kovacs tossed everything into a Jeep Grand Cherokee six months later. He moved from Pennsylvania, where he was born and raised, to the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif., to begin in earnest a professional career under venerable throws coach Art Venegas.
Kovacs’ trip, highlighted by a night through a snowstorm along a guard rail-less rim of the Grand Canyon, included one passenger to share the driving — his former coach, mother Joanna Kovacs.
“It’s been the two of us for many, many years,” Joanna said. “We have this bond that you really can’t separate.”
Joanna was a 12-time district throwing champion (shot put, discus, javelin) who also played field hockey and basketball at Pennsylvania’s Nazareth High School.
“I was the ideal female athlete,” she said, not boasting. She earned the school’s Ideal Female Athlete award in 1983.
She focused on academics at East Stroudsburg University, 25 miles north of Nazareth via route 33, graduated in three and a half years and married another East Stroudsburg graduate, Joseph Kovacs, in December 1985.
Eleven years later, the family was stunned to learn Joseph was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 33, and in great health. He underwent one surgery, then learned the cancer had already spread further. He was given fewer than six months to live, Kovacs said. The family’s savings went toward an alternative treatment available only in Mexico or Germany.
Joanna partially came from a Bavarian background, so they chose Germany, bringing along her son, age 7, near the end of his school year.
“We would go to mass every day before we went to the hospital, spend time with the German priests,” Joanna said. “Joey was a part of it all.”
Joseph Kovacs died July 14, 1997, after spending two months in a coma.
“I had a little bit of time to realize something’s going to happen here,” Kovacs said. “Being a little kid, you thought he was going to come out of it, but you could also see it coming.”
The next day, before Joanna and Joe boarded a plane to head back to the U.S., Joanna received word that her mother passed away from complications following an earlier heart attack.
“A priest was with her 20 minutes before she passed away and said he had no idea she wasn’t doing well,” said Kovacs, whose maternal grandmother had been his babysitter. “It was definitely another sudden thing.”
Joanna was not interested in remarrying, or even looking for a new life partner.
“I chose to focus just on Joey, and I put him around wonderful role models, because I felt a boy especially needs to have a male person in their life,” she said, noting the contributions of her three brothers, men from their church and future throws coach Glenn Thompson, who took her son fishing and to football games. “I was very selective who he would go with. I wanted good role models.”
Kovacs had the option of wearing a golf shirt to Bethlehem Catholic High School, but he chose a tie every day instead, his mom said. Joanna recalled the one time he was sent to the office to be disciplined while at Bethlehem Catholic.
“A sister said to him that the button on his collar was unbuttoned,” Joanna said. “He had to sit there and sew it in. … We joke about it to this day. They told him, ‘You sit down because you need to learn how to sew, not your mom.'”
A football lineman, Kovacs had always sprinted to complement his training, but as a high school JV freshman was asked by coaches to give throwing a try.
At the time, Bethlehem Catholic had football history — alum Dan Kendra Jr., who played quarterback at West Virginia for Bobby Bowden, was one of Kovacs’ teachers — but no throwing circle and no track.
“So he threw in the parking lot,” with a spray-painted circle, Joanna said, “but it got to the point where we were hitting the road” throwing the discus 150 feet. So Joanna started befriending officials from schools with facilities, or, worst case, they snuck into tracks.
And the school didn’t have a throws coach. So Joanna took the role.
“She had the mentality that if you’re going to do this, you’re going to do this right,” Kovacs said. “You’re not going to just have a good time. You’re going to look to win.”
Kovacs was a quick study and had posters of U.S. Olympic medalists Adam Nelson and Christian Cantwell in his bedrooms, plus a Nelson image was once the background of his computer.
He was inspired to switch from a glide-step throwing technique to the spin move by 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Reese Hoffa while at a high school camp.
“He had these giant huge calves,” Kovacs said of Hoffa, “so he looked like he knew what he was doing. He said, ‘You’re way too short to be gliding. You’ve got to start spinning.'”
Joanna saves her son’s newspaper clippings and competition prizes, but she most treasures four blue ribbons from the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science.
“I thought he represented Pennsylvania really well,” she said. “All-state in football, all-state in track and four blue ribbons in science competition from the Pennsylvania science fair.
“He would stand with the judges, and a lot of people would say, ‘Did this kid do this project on his own?’ Joey would do the entire thing on his own.”
It didn’t surprise her. Kovacs grew up watching The History Channel and National Geographic. Once, while in Spokane, Wash., for a high school throwing camp, Kovacs made arrangements to tour a Boeing facility on the way back to the airport.
“I really think some day he’s going to be a pilot,” Joanna said.
When Kovacs threw collegiately, Joanna traveled to every meet she could afford on a teacher’s salary. Once, she said she dropped $1,300 on roundtrip travel to Texas for a meet, a last-minute booking after she sensed Kovacs was poised for a great throw by the tone of his voice on a phone call the week before.
“To this day he doesn’t know this,” said Joanna, who has taught in the Stroudsburg School District for 27 years. “He would never have let me come. He’s always watched after me.”
Kovacs’ throws she flew to see in Texas were “normal, nothing great,” she said. “But I didn’t want to miss a big throw.”
Kovacs said he was oblivious to the world of professional track and field before the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials despite training with Ryan Whiting, who would finish second at trials to make it to London.
“All I knew was he had a good house, and he was throwing a ball for a living,” Kovacs said.
Kovacs was engulfed shortly after finishing fourth.
“There was an agent nearby, Nike got him as he walked off,” Joanna said. “A whole different world that we were not really expecting.”
Two weeks later, Kovacs competed outside the U.S. for the first time in Paris. Then Madrid. Then the Czech Republic. He threw in London two weeks before the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony and visited the Olympic venues before the Olympians would arrive.
He watched the London Olympic shot put competition on a giant projection screen at home.
“I realized that it wasn’t that far off,” Kovacs said.
From 2009 through 2012, Kovacs had improved his personal-best throw every year.
That streak snapped in 2013, which could be described as a rebuilding year after he moved in December 2012 to Chula Vista to train under Venegas, whose past students included three-time World champion John Godina and two-time Olympic heptathlon champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Kovacs sought a coach in late 2012 after he spent most of his senior season at Penn State outlining his own training while picking up a second degree in petroleum and natural gas engineering. Penn State’s throws coach had left for his dream job at the University of Washington in November 2011.
The well-known Venegas was one of the first coaches Kovacs considered.
“I read a lot of things going in that Art can be an a–hole, a cookie-cutter coach, maybe a dictator of your program, all this stuff, but that, for me, doing everything for myself the last year, I thought that sounded great,” Kovacs said. “Once I got there, he wasn’t cookie cutter at all. He knows what he wants. He’s going to make you do it, no matter what it takes.”
Venegas has coached since 1976 but has yet to guide an athlete to an Olympic gold medal in a throws event. Watch some of Kovacs’ best throws on YouTube, and you’ll see him and Venegas bear-hugging in celebration.
“Once I started working with him, I thought he had the potential to throw further than all the ones I coached before,” Venegas said. “Most of my athletes are 6-4, 6-5. This is a rarity, a guy 5-11 and a half, to have so much power, so much potential. You can’t measure him vertically. He’s so much thicker and faster than most people. He carries 300 pounds very comfortably, and, again, it’s his ability to generate tremendous amounts of power in a very, very short period of time. He’s so explosive that my job is to make sure he has great technique and is very economical with his movement.”
One of Venegas’ methods the last two winters was sending Kovacs to train on gymnastics equipment, doing high bar swings and front and back handsprings.
Kovacs broke the 22-meter mark for the first time to win the 2014 U.S. Championship on the California State Capitol grounds in Sacramento. He was the only thrower in the world last year to reach 22 meters.
He improved to 22.35 this year and is again the only thrower in the world at 22 meters, which he’s done at three meets.
Kovacs now ranks 12th in the world all time and will prove his coach a prophet if he can up his personal best by seven more inches to surpass John Brenner as Venegas’ farthest-throwing pupil.
Kovacs, an habitual Starbucks drinker, only needs to finish in the top three at the U.S. Championships on Sunday to secure a berth on his first World Championships team. If he does this, he will likely go to Beijing’s Bird’s Nest favored to win a medal, likely the gold, on Aug. 23.
Two months later, Joanna will remarry in Italy.
“Things change in a moment,” Joanna said. “We learned that early on in life.”