Joe Kovacs: Shot Put Star Rises from Parking Lot to the Medals Stand

Joe Kovacs became the No. 1 shot putter in the world at the 2015 outdoor World Championships. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

In 2008, a 19-year-old Joe Kovacs sat in front of a TV and watched shot putters such as Reese Hoffa and Tomasz Majewski compete in the Beijing Olympics. Little did Kovacs know that seven years later he’d be in that same stadium competing against Majewski, Hoffa and eight other throwers in the World Championship final, on his way to shot put glory.

Coach Mom

Kovacs was an only child who was raised alone by his mother, Joanna, after his father died when Kovacs was 7.

At Bethlehem High School in Pennsylvania, Kovacs was playing football when the school’s track coaches suggested he try throwing. Although the coaches clearly had a sharp eye for talent, they weren’t throwing instructors. Enter Joanna, a former local prep throwing champion in shot put, discus and javelin, who became her son’s first track and field coach. Because Bethlehem lacked throwing facilities, she began training Joe in the school’s parking lot.

But young Kovacs did receive some professional advice during his high school years, from the man he’d later watch on TV and compete against – Hoffa. Kovacs had been using the glide shot put technique, but at a throwing camp at which Hoffa was instructing, the 2007 World champion told Kovacs he was too short to glide, and needed to learn the rotational technique; Kovacs took his advice.

Later, after graduating from Penn State University, Kovacs moved to Chula Vista, Calif., to train with veteran coach Art Venegas, whose previous pupils included three-time World champion John Godina and two-time Olympic heptathlon gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The World’s Biggest Gymnast?

As Hoffa pointed out, Kovacs is relatively short for a world-class shot putter, even at his adult height of 6 feet. To help overcome Kovacs’ height disadvantage, Venegas has emphasized biomechanical training for his star student, including gymnastics. As a result, the 276-pounder’s training includes front and back handsprings, handstands, gymnastic vaults and swings from the high bar.

Stepping Up the Professional Ladder

As in 2008, Kovacs watched the 2012 Olympics on television. But he came very close to competing in London. Kovacs had his professional coming-out party at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, during which he sat in third place midway through the competition, before having to settle for fourth spot.

“I remember being in the team sign-up room, and I got fourth, and I didn’t make the team, but I was by far the happiest person in the room,” Kovacs said.

Shortly thereafter, Kovacs began training with Venegas. That partnership helped Kovacs enjoy a stellar 2014 season in which he finished third in the U.S. Indoor Championships, won the U.S. Outdoor title, and led the world with a then-personal best throw of 22.03 meters (72 feet, 3¼ inches). In 2015, Kovacs improved his personal best to 22.56/74–0 while winning the Monaco Diamond League meet, and also captured his second U.S. Outdoor crown, to qualify for the Beijing World Championships.

World Champion

Kovacs entered the 2015 World Championship as the season’s leader on paper. But the 26-year-old was far less seasoned than most of his competitors, including Olympic and World champions such as David Storl, Majewski and Hoffa.

Nevertheless, Kovacs started well, topping all qualifiers, and then leading through the first round of the final with an opening throw of 21.23/69-7¾. Kovacs then slowly dropped in the standings, falling to second place after the second round, to third place after round three, and then to fourth by the time it was his turn to throw in round four. Kovacs began his comeback by improving to 21.67/71-1 to move into second place behind Jamaica’s O’Dayne Richards. Kovacs still sat in second place in the fifth round, when he unleashed his winning throw of 21.93/71-11¼, to earn his first professional international title.

Stats

  • Height: 6 feet
  • Weight: 276 pounds
  • Birth date: June 28, 1989
  • Hometown: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
  • Personal best: 22.56 meters (74 feet)

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