EUGENE, Ore. — Four years ago, Joe Kovacs walked away from Hayward Field with an Olympic dream unfulfilled. A 21.09-meter (69’ 2 ½”) toss on his fourth throw of the afternoon Friday changed all that as he finished second at the U.S. Olympic Trials in shot put to secure his place in Rio de Janeiro.
The 21.09-meter throw was just one centimeter better than his personal best set at the 2012 trials, which left him fourth and watching the Olympics from home.
Three hours before his first throw Friday, his mother, Joanna Kovacs-Royer, rubbed the sweat off her hands on her knees. With one hour to go, she swayed back and forth while chewing gum. “Let’s Get it Started” by the Black Eyed Peas resulted in a little dancing in her seat, but then it was back to the bobbing.
Flights were already booked for Rio de Janeiro for Joanna, her husband Larry and 12 others from the Kovacs watch party in Pennsylvania. It was not until she saw his name in the top three of the results that she knew the trip was happening. Kovacs went into his final throw and still didn’t know he was an Olympian. He left his longest throw for last as he hit 21.95-meters (72’ ¼”) and still the silence from his mother continued.
“She feels everything,” Kovacs says. “She was the one who gave me my first shot put and has been a part of this journey with every throw.”
Joanna remained quiet even as the text messages poured into her phone. “Ugly…but we’ll take it” she replied to everyone—some with the thumbs up emoji.
It’s easy to think the signs of greatness started at the trials in 2012. Kovacs was the lone thrower to throw farther than 22 meters in 2014 and his 22.56-meter launch in Monaco last summer put him eighth best alltime. Just a few weeks later, he competed at his first world championships and won gold, which Joanna watched from her computer in Pennsylvania.
“We missed Beijing and were just yelling and screaming from Pennsylvania,” Joanna says. “We knew for sure we weren’t missing Rio.”
Joanna first coached Joe in the shot put when he was still an all-state football player as a senior in 2006 for Bethlehem Catholic—as Kovacs just used track as a way to stay in shape. She volunteered after watching him and his teammates throw around a shot put for fun. She coached him from 2004 to 2007 with memories of watching him compete in a Team USA uniform for the first time in Puerto Rico at the Caribbean Scholastic Invitational. She did not coach him during his college career at Penn State, where he set the school record of 21.08-meters (69’ 2”), but tried to rarely miss a meet.
She finally let Joe go after the 2012 Olympic Trials, when he decided to move out to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., to train under coach Art Venegas, a renowned coach in the throws since 1976. The move has catapulted him into the gold medal conversation, as well as discussion about the best of all time.
“From the positive energy, the humbleness and ability to get the job done, He’s got the makings of a champion and he gets a lot of that from his mother. He’s right up there with the greats—not just of the athletes that I’ve coached but that I’ve seen,” Venegas says. “He is going to do amazing things in the future.”
Adam Nelson came out of retirement and was introduced as the 2004 Olympic champion before the preliminary round for the first time in his career. Nelson is a strong advocate for anti-doping after receiving his gold medal in front of a McDonald’s in the Atlanta airport after Ukraine’s Yuriy Bilonog was stripped of his gold medal for a positive doping test in the re-examination of doping samples. Amid track and field’s state of despair, with rampant doping, Kovacs is a promising star to potentially add a presumably clean name into the world record books.
American Randy Barnes holds the current record of 75 feet, 10 inches set in 1999. Not too long after setting the record, he was banned for two years by the IAAF for using the anabolic steroid methyltestosterone. He came back to win the 1996 Olympic gold medal before being slapped with a lifetime ban two years later for androstenedione—the same nutritional supplement that powered Mark McGwire’s home runs.
“There’s a lot of records that should not be there by today’s books,” Nelson says. “To single one of them out is probably not fair. More importantly, we have some athletes right now that can break that world record and set a new standard for athletes going for it. I think we’re seeing the beginning of a great career here with Joe Kovacs.”
No record is too big or too small for Kovacs. His mother describes him as a record person. Mark Hartenstein, a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears under the late Buddy Ryan, held one of the Lehigh Valley’s oldest throw records as his 63-foot record stood since 1969, Kovacs recalls. As a high school junior, classmates told him that he had no shot. As a senior, he broke the record with on his final throw of 63’11”.
“Joey makes attainable goals,” Joanna says. “I know one of his goals is to break the world record. He’s seen it at practice. His warm-ups at different meets have been phenomenal—some apparently 75-plus feet. In my heart, I don’t know when or how, it’s going to happen. We’re getting closer.”
As Kovacs walked through the media tent, he was all smiles. He held an American flag, a silver medal and a spot in Rio.
“If you called [Hartenstein] up right now and told him I made the Olympic team, people would be shocked,” Kovacs says. “I was barely a state champion. Nothing special. I never won an NCAA championship. I fell into this and kept pushing and pushing. This is the kind of thing you dream about.”