Chase Ealey went from a favorite to qualify for the Tokyo Games at the start of 2020, to after the postponement missing the Olympics in 2021 to winning a world championship in 2022.
In those two and a half years, Ealey probably would have retired if not for a Scottish steeplechaser. She also met the Englishman whom she called her shot put savior. She got engaged.
At the venue of her lowest moment as an athlete in 2021, Ealey experienced her greatest success in 2022. She does not dwell on that poetic story arc.
“I always say, in sports, you’ve got to be a goldfish,” she said, channeling Ted Lasso. “You’ve got to forget the bad and the good.”
Ealey is a headliner at the USA Track and Field Indoor Championships (airing Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock). They are in Albuquerque, about 75 miles south of her hometown of Los Alamos.
She didn’t consider missing this meet while slowed by a rib muscle injury this winter.
“Hell or high water, I’m going to go and see my family and let them watch me throw,” she said. “I can have a broken leg, and I’m going to go.”
As a New Mexico high schooler, Ealey swept state titles in the 100m, javelin and shot put her junior and senior years. Her throws were complementary to her sprinting (and a venue for her to spend more time with her older sister).
Some recruiters wanted her to become a heptathlete, but she came to prefer the shot. “Why run and puke when you can throw and eat?” is advice she remembered years later. She chose to do it at Oklahoma State.
After her last NCAA season, she placed seventh at the 2016 Olympic Trials. Ealey continued on, but didn’t make the 2017 World Championships team and by 2018 was ready to retire. She might have if not for 2012 Olympic shot putter Ryan Whiting, who offered to coach her if she switched her throwing technique from gliding in the ring to spinning. Historically, the world’s top women glided.
Ealey believes that the 2018 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships was her first meet as a spinner. She fouled all three throws, including one that hit a marker outside of the sector.
The transition took time. She went six months before her next meet in January 2019. Ealey won the U.S. indoor and outdoor titles that year, then was seventh at the world championships in Doha. For the year, she had the world’s second-best throw. Ealey was primed to make her first Olympic team in 2020, and to be a medal contender until the Games were postponed by one year.
Ealey contracted COVID twice in 2020. The second bout, which lasted from late 2020 into early 2021, had severe, lasting consequences. A doctor told her that her senses of smell and taste, which she temporarily lost, healed incorrectly.
She began throwing up every meal. Fluids went down fine, “so I was living off the shakes that elderly people eat,” she said. The prognosis: It will correct itself, but it may take three to six months. Ealey lost 40 pounds.
She likened it to being stuck in a sinking boat with a life jacket.
“I was trying to lose weight already, but this was too much too fast,” she said. “I couldn’t keep up with my body changing. So I didn’t really know how to work with the body I had for months. I think it killed my confidence. My mentality was just gone after that.”
Ealey routinely threw 19 meters in 2019. In 2021, she cracked 18.4 meters in just one of her first eight meets. She entered Olympic Trials ranked seventh in the nation for the year.
She remembers walking into Oregon’s Hayward Field for trials with, in retrospect, a false confidence.
She had improved physically, “but then it was about trying to get back in the little amount of time I had. The overall mental effect is what really held me down the most,” she said. “I was trying to fake it ’til I make it, but the problem is shot put in the U.S. is what it is. It’s competitive as hell.”
She finished fifth, missing the Olympic team by two spots. She sat with fourth-place finisher Maggie Ewen, who in 2019 ranked second behind Ealey in the U.S.
“We both just kind of started crying,” Ealey said. “It was probably the lowest I’ve ever felt as an athlete, I think because I knew my potential was great.”
Three weeks later, Ealey competed at a small meet in California and launched a throw that would have put her on the Olympic team at trials.
“That kind of sucked,” she said. “But, in the U.S., if you have a bad day at trials, it doesn’t matter [what you do afterward].”
Ealey credited sports psychologist Lennie Waite with helping her through 2021. Waite, a 2016 Olympic steeplechaser from Scotland, “got me out of a hole, and I think without her I probably would have retired,” she said.
Then came another Brit before the start of the 2022 season.
Paul Wilson, a part-time throws coach, full-time sales manager for a windows and doors company and Leeds United season-ticket holder, approached Ealey while she threw at a training camp in Loughborough. He asked if he could offer a technique tip, and it eventually led to Ealey moving overseas to join his training group.
“We worked hard on getting her to use her legs and to use the hip because the hip wasn’t coming through for the release of the ball,” said Wilson, who stopped throwing in his teens after tearing a knee ligament in a rugby scrum. “For [the first] two or three days, she was walking like John Wayne just because she hasn’t used her hips before.”
Ealey exploded. At last March’s world indoor championships, she tied the American record and won the silver medal. Outdoors, she upped her personal best at four consecutive meets across four countries on two continents over 27 days.
The last one, the second-best outdoor throw in American history, came at nationals at Hayward Field. She prevailed at the same place where she had missed the Olympic team the year before.
Three weeks later, she became the first U.S. woman to win a world title in the shot put, also at Hayward. Ealey was in tears.
“All I could think was I really want to validate myself and show what I know I was capable of from the beginning,” she said. “It all kind of culminated in that moment. I said, ‘This is me. I’m not out. I was down, but I’m not gone.'”
As soon as the competition ended, Ealey became a runner again, rushing to the stands to hug her boyfriend (now fiancé). Then she embraced Wilson, who in that moment reminded her that he told her she could do it. It is believed that Ealey is the first woman to win an Olympic or world shot put title as a spinner, not a glider, said Daniel McQuaid of Mcthrows.com.
“Paul is probably my savior as an athlete,” she said, adding that she’s still close with Whiting. “He keeps me really grounded and calm. Paul has a lot to do with where my mentality was, which, in my opinion, 95% of competing is mental.”
Ealey has an appointment with her tattoo artist in California to commemorate the world title, though she is keeping the design a secret. Of her many tattoos, a favorite is a leg sleeve dedicated to her favorite director Tim Burton‘s films.
In the meantime, she now competes carrying not only an 8.8-pound ball, but also sometimes feeling the weight of being a world champion. So she’s adopting the goldfish mentality.
Wilson echoed what longtime throws coach Don Babbitt told him.
“The easy part is getting to be world champion,” he said. “The hardest part is everyone wants a piece of you.”
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