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.
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.
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