Joe Kovacs

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.”

MORE: Usain Bolt becomes a father, Jamaican Prime Minister announces

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Joe Kovacs roars with world shot put title by one centimeter

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Before his final throw, U.S. shot putter Joe Kovacs found his coach in the crowd at the world championships Doha. That coach also happened to be his wife, Ashley, who in the last year helped convince Kovacs not to retire.

She reminded him of the goal going into the competition — set a personal best and get onto the podium. Kovacs went back to the circle, lifted the 16-pound ball and prepared to heave.

“I took a big breath,” he said. “But when I put that ball in the neck, I felt everything line up.”

Kovacs recorded that personal best. He moved from fourth place to first. He had launched the joint-fourth-best throw in history — 22.91 meters, or 75 feet, 2 inches — and the farthest in 29 years.

Kovacs, the 2015 World champion who earned silver at the Rio Olympics and 2017 World Championships, beat the reigning Olympic champion Ryan Crouser and reigning world champion Tom Walsh of New Zealand each by one centimeter. All threw farther than the previous world championships record in what was the greatest shot put competition in history.

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Kovacs, taught the shot put by his mom in a Pennsylvania school parking lot, re-emerged as the world’s best after a rough couple of years. In 2018, he was fifth at the USATF Outdoor Championships. He lost his Nike sponsorship. He wasn’t getting invited to Diamond League meets.

“I was hearing everybody kept trying to tell me that I should be done,” the 30-year-old said. “And I honestly thought maybe I should kind of hang it up.”

He spoke to his wife, a former thrower at Kentucky who has two master’s degrees and now coaches Kovacs and others at Ohio State. They wed last November.

“We said, you know, our goal is through Tokyo,” he said. “Let’s put it all together and let’s go full speed ahead.”

This season, Kovacs was sixth, third, fourth and fifth in Diamond Leagues before placing second at nationals. He was relieved simply to make the world championships team. Crouser, who on April 20 launched the world’s best throw since 1990, and Walsh were still a class above. It was still that way going into the final round on Saturday night. Then Kovacs launched the throw of his life and let out roar after roar before the distance was recorded.

“I’m just proud that I was able to stay in my own head and not watch Ryan and Tom throw so far and get tight,” he said.

In other events Saturday, the U.S. men ended a 12-year gold-medal drought in the 4x100m with an American record. The U.S. women earned bronze. More on the relays here.

Sifan Hassan, who fled from Ethiopia for the Netherlands at age 16 as a refugee, became the first runner to sweep the 10,000m and 1500m at a world championships.

Hassan led after each lap and ran away to win in 3:51.95, the sixth-fastest 1500m ever. She did it days after her coach, Alberto Salazar, was banned four years in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency case.

An emotional Hassan was vehement that she’s a clean athlete and believes in Salazar. Hassan noted that she was atop the world rankings in the 1500m as far back as 2014, two years before she joined Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project. She also said she knew Salazar was under investigation when she joined the group, but she never saw proof of wrongdoing.

“It was a very hard week for me. I was just so angry. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I just ran all out,” she said on the BBC. “I’ve been so good athlete since 2014. Now people just start talking all (expletive).”

Hassan relegated reigning Olympic and world champion and new mom Faith Kipyegon to silver in a Kenyan record and Gudaf Tsegay to bronze in a time that made her the second-fastest Ethiopian in history.

American Shelby Houlihan took a bittersweet fourth in 3:54.99, smashing Shannon Rowbury‘s American record by 1.3 seconds.

“I wanted a medal. I wanted to win,” Houlihan told Lewis Johnson on Olympic Channel. “But, if I can get an American record, you can kind of walk away happy with that.”

Jenny Simpson, the 2011 World champion and Olympic bronze medalist, was eighth in 3:58.42, her fastest time in three years.

Hellen Obiri repeated as world champion in the 5000m, where Hassan would have been the favorite had she entered. Obiri clocked 14:26.72, leading a Kenyan one-two with Margaret Kipkemboi.

Three Olympic champions were eliminated in qualifying for Sunday finals — Americans Brianna McNeal (100m hurdles) and Brittney Reese (by one centimeter in the long jump) and German Thomas Röhler (javelin).

Both U.S. 4x400m teams won heats to advance to Sunday finals.

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report from Doha.

MORE: Brianna McNeal DQed from 100m hurdles in first round

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Noah Lyles bests Bolt’s meet record in Paris Diamond League meet

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Noah Lyles set a meet record of 19.65 seconds to win the 200m with ease at Saturday’s Diamond League meet in Paris.

The previous record of 19.73 belonged to Usain Bolt.

Running out of lane 6, Lyles quickly made up the stagger on France’s Christophe Lemaitre and remained several meters ahead of world champion Ramil Guliyev of Turkey, who finished in 20.01.

Lyles’ time was especially impressive because several early races saw relatively slow times despite the elite fields in  the final Diamond League meet before the season-long circuit’s finals, which will be split between two meets Aug. 29 in Zurich and Sept. 6 in Brussels. The meet opened on the new track at Stade Charlety with temperatures in the upper 80s.

“I barely remember any of the race, to be honest,” Lyles said. “I was going around the track and before I knew it I was at the finish line. I was like, ‘Hold up — this happened too fast!'”

READ: Lyles overcomes 2017 heartbreak to reach first world championship

Meanwhile, several meet records fell in the field events, capped by a back-and-forth contest between U.S. triple jump rivals Christian Taylor and Will Claye, who have finished 1-2 in the last two Olympics and the 2017 world championships.

Taylor also won the world title in 2011 and 2015, and his personal best of 18.21m is the second-best of all time. Claye, who also has a long jump bronze medal from 2012 and two more world championship medals, is third on the all-time list at 18.14.

Through three rounds, Claye led by 1cm, 17.39 to 17.38. Taylor took the lead in the fourth, jumping 17.49. Claye responded with a jump of 17.71, just off the meet record.

Taylor broke that record in the fifth round, going 17.82. Claye immediately reclaimed the lead and took the record with a jump of 18.06. Taylor had a strong jump in the sixth round but had taken off just a bit over the line.

“This is the farthest I’ve ever jumped overseas, so it’s a great day,” Claye said.

Omar Craddock made it a U.S. sweep, jumping 17.28. Craddock joins Taylor, Claye and Donald Scott in the U.S. contingent for the Diamond League final.

Though Taylor has taken top honors in the big competitions, Claye has kept it close in the all-time head-to-head matchups between the two former Florida Gators, winning 23 of their 49 meetings.

READ: Taylor, Claye go 1-2 in second straight Olympics

A showdown between U.S. rivals and recent collegians Daniel Roberts and Grant Holloway failed to materialize in the men’s 110m hurdles.

Holloway had broken a 40-year old NCAA record in June, finishing in 12.98 to edge Roberts, who tied the old record in 13.00. Roberts then beat Holloway to win the USATF Championship in July.

Roberts held up his end Saturday, winning in 13.08, but Holloway lost his form late to finish sixth.

“It hasn’t been too hard for me to stay at a high level this long after NCAAs,” Roberts said. “A lot of people tell me after long seasons they feel it a little bit more but my body feels great, everything feels good and I’m just thankful to be here.”

Freddie Crittenden finished third with a personal-best 13.17 to take the last spot in the Diamond League final. Roberts also clinched a berth with his win, his first in Diamond League competition. Holloway was making his Diamond League debut and wouldn’t have made the final even with a win.

READ: Holloway beats Renaldo Nehemiah’s NCAA record in 2019 final

Olympic shot put champion Tomas Walsh of New Zealand beat his own meet record of 22.00m four times, winning with a throw of 22.44 in a contest with eight athletes throwing beyond the 21-meter mark for the first time.

American Joe Kovacs also beat the old meet record, finishing second at 22.11. Kovacs won the 2015 world title and was second to Crouser in the 2016 Olympics, then second to Walsh in the 2017 world championships. 

Ryan Crouser, whose 22.74 heave in April was the best result in the event since Randy Barnes set the world record in 1990, did not compete in Paris. Kovacs, Crouser and Darrell Hill will give the U.S. three of the eight slots in the final.

READ: Crouser passed up NFL shot, now aims at world record

U.S. pole vaulter Sam Kendricks also entered the meet record book, tying the previous mark with a clearance of 6.00m in an event with no Diamond League points.

The meet was the last chance for athletes to claim spots in the Diamond League finals, and some Americans qualified with clutch performances.

Hanna Green won the women’s 800m in 1:58.39 with a late surge to take the last spot in the final. Green’s win gives U.S. three runners in the event alongside Ajee Wilson and Raevyn Rogers, who went out quickly with the pace-setter Saturday and led through the 700-meter mark before fading to sixth.

U.S. high jump champion Jeron Robinson cleared 2.26m to tie for fourth and clinch his spot.

U.S. triple jumper Keturah Orji jumped a personal-best of 14.72m to take third place and secure a spot in the final. Orji’s jump is the second best in U.S. history. Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas, the reigning world champion, won at 15.05.

In the women’s pole vault, world leader Jenn Suhr did not clear the first height she attempted but held on to a spot in the final. Canadian Alysha Newman upset the top two finishers in the last Olympic and world championship competitions Katerina Stefanidi of Greece and U.S. champion Sandi Morris. Suhr, Morris and Katie Nageotte will be in the final.

READ: Jenn Suhr ends retirement in 2018

In the women’s 100m, Olympic champion Elaine Thompson put a slight bit of daylight between herself and a tightly bunched group, finishing in 10.98. Thompson shares the world lead of 10.73 with fellow Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.

The next five finishers were separated by 0.04 seconds. Marie-Josee Ta Lou of the Ivory Coast took second in 11.13, followed by the Netherlands’ Dafne Schippers, U.S. champion Teahna Daniels and Aleia Hobbs

Hobbs, who did not qualify for the world championships after finishing sixth in the U.S. meet, will be the only American in the Diamond League final. 

READ: Hobbs upsets Thompson to win senior international debut

In the women’s 400m, Kendall Ellis was the only American to qualify for the final, finishing second behind Jamaica’s Stephenie Ann McPherson. Two U.S. runners followed  Shakima Wimbley and Phyllis Francis, who finished 10th in the Diamond League standings.

In the men’s 400m hurdles, world champion Karsten Warholm of Norway ran away from the field to win in 47.26, just shy of his world-leading time of 47.12. Americans TJ Holmes and David Kendziera finished fifth and sixth to secure places in the final along with Rai Benjamin, who didn’t race in Paris but has the second-fastest time in the world this year at 47.16. Ireland’s Thomas Barr finished atop the Diamond League standings despite finishing last in Paris.

In the women’s discus, Valarie Allman took fifth to ensure a U.S. representative in the final.

Neither of the U.S. runners in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase earned enough points to qualify, though Hillary Bor already had enough points to qualify.

John Gregorek hung on to the last spot in the men’s 1,500m despite not competing Saturday.

Canada’s Brandon McBride won the 800m, which didn’t count toward Diamond League standings, with U.S. runner Clayton Murphy fifth.

France’s Kevin Mayer won the triathlon, which combined the shot put, long jump and 110m hurdles. U.S. athlete Devon Williams tied for fourth.

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