Joe Kovacs revisits epic shot put title, months after career intervention

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Eight months before Joe Kovacs became a world champion again, he was at the center of a career intervention in a kitchen.

It was February 2019. Kovacs, the 2015 World champion and 2016 Olympic silver medalist in the shot put, had dipped down into a college-level meet and lost to an athlete that he coached.

Kovacs threw 19.52 meters, nearly 10 feet shy of his personal best. He failed to break 20 meters at a meet for the first time in four and a half years.

In the kitchen that evening, the two most important women in his life (and his career) voiced openings for him to consider retirement, according to Spikes. They were his mom, Joanna, a youth throwing champion herself who taught her son the shot put in a high school parking lot. And his wife of four months, Ashley, an All-American thrower at Kentucky who had become his latest coach.

“If you want to quit you can, I’m going to support you either way,” Ashley said, according to Kovacs’ essay in Spikes. “But, I don’t really understand why you think you can’t throw far anymore. Either way, this half-in, half-out stuff has to go. I’m tired of looking at it.”

Kovacs, a 5-foot-11, 300-pound licensed pilot, picked himself up. He made the world championships team by placing second at nationals. Still, he went to Doha last autumn ranked sixth in the world for the year.

In the world championships final, New Zealand’s Tom Walsh opened with a 22.90-meter throw, six inches farther than any man in the field had ever recorded. As Kovacs went into the sixth and last round, he was in fourth place but confident.

Kovacs had a pep talk with his coach. “No safe throws. She doesn’t want to see anything that’s not far,” he recounted to NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey recently. “She doesn’t care if it’s a foul. She wants to see a far throw happen.”

Kovacs committed. He spun one and a half times around the ring and let loose like never before. He roared. Not uncommon for him. The mark: 22.91 meters — one centimeter better than Walsh, a personal best by more than a foot and the world’s best throw in 29 years.

“I left with a PR, which about probably eight months before that, I never thought I would,” he said. “[I thought in February] maybe give up competing. Never even PR ever again.”

Kovacs then found his coach. “I love you,” he told Ashley. “We did it.”

“I had a lot of knowledge about the shot put. I won a world championship and an Olympic medal before this, but I really thought about being done the year before,” he told Diffey. “I made a transition. I moved [from California] to Ohio. I made some changes in my technique that didn’t work out that well, so she really got me back on track when I started to work with her. I didn’t move to her for her to be my coach, but I moved to her because I wanted to marry her and I loved her. But it evolved because she’s a great college coach. She’s had a lot of national championships, and she was watching me every day kind of go downhill.”

Because of what happened in 2019, Kovacs believes he benefits from the Olympic postponement to 2021 compared to other athletes.

“Mentally, I’m probably doing better than most athletes because I’ve been around and I’ve been at a low in my career and I’ve come back from it,” he said. “So I’m not afraid to kind of rebuild things and take some time off.”

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UCI looks for new host for 2020 World Road Cycling Championships

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The International Cycling Union (UCI) is looking for a new host for the 2020 World Road Cycling Championships due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Switzerland can no longer host the week-long event in late September after a national decision to extend a ban on events with more than 1,000 people through next month.

Amid reports the competition has been canceled, the UCI clarified Wednesday that it still hopes to hold it in some form, perhaps without some of the junior or senior races.

It now seeks an “alternative project,” preferably still in Europe and on the same dates (Sept. 20-27).

Worlds were due to start in Switzerland on the same day that the rescheduled Tour de France ends, though the senior elite men’s races are typically not on the first three days.

The Tour de France is still scheduled to start Aug. 29.

Last year, American Chloe Dygert starred at road worlds, winning the time trial in dominant fashion. Other world champions in Olympic events: Annemiek van Vleuten (road race), Rohan Dennis (time trial) and Mads Pedersen (road race).

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Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

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