When Joe Kovacs entered the Bird’s Nest Stadium last night, shortly before winning his first world title in the men’s shot put, his mind couldn’t help but wander to the past.
It had been a long journey to get to the IAAF World Championships, Bejing 2015 and before he entered the arena for the biggest night of his life, he took stock of the path he’d travelled.
Alhough Kovacs is as American as the proverbial apple pie, his family’s roots are Hungarian, and those closest to him were foremost in his mind last night.
“I thought back on everything,” he said. “My dad passing away when I was seven, growing up with my mom, getting started in shot putting in high school, and I kept it rolling from there. It’s always nice to look back.”
Back home in Pennsylvania, his mother Joanna – who had decided against travelling to Beijing to avoid being a distraction – was also on his mind.
“She knew this was my first World Championships,” he said. “She knew I have such a good bond with my coach and any little stress or worry about where she’s at, if she got tickets, might affect me, so she decided to stay home.
“Growing up, it was just mom and I the whole way through. She threw a bit in high school and was a coach of basketball, field hockey and track; that helped me the whole way.”
The Art of shot putting
Midway through last night’s competition, Kovacs needed all the help he could get after a below-par opening three efforts saw him placed third behind German rival David Storl and Jamaica's Pan American Games champion O’Dayne Richards.
But was he worried?
“You’re always worried,” he said. “I warmed up outside really well, and threw really big throws. If I have time, I’m going to do big throws at any meet, because it’s always going to settle down.”
Kovacs regularly walked to the stands last night to consult with coach Art Venegas, whose words of wisdom proved crucial in the end. “I listen to everything he says,” said Kovacs.
“Having a coach like Art who’s been in that situation before is great. He said different things; sometimes it was technical, sometimes mental, and he was always keeping me in the game. A little bit of a kick in the ass is always helpful.”
On his fifth attempt, Kovacs walked to the circle knowing he needed a big throw to overtake Richards and Storl and sure enough, he came up with the goods, launching the shot out to 21.93m.
“That’s actually the throw I tried the least on," said Kovacs. "That’s the annoying thing about throwing, but when you’re in shape that’s how it works. You’ve just got to get out and hold your positions.”
In the end, it proved to be the winning throw for the 26-year-old, giving him victory by 19 centimetres over Storl.
Given he led the world list with a monstrous 22.56m throw in Monaco, the best in the world for 12 years, Kovacs beating Storl to victory came as little surprise to the US champion for the past two years.
“It was supposed to happen," he said. "I just had to make it happen. Being a US shot putter, you’ve got to expect you’ll be at the top. This is huge, especially next year ahead of (the Olympic Games in) Rio, we can plan a little bit better going in.”
On Sunday night, though, Kovacs’ immediate plans concerned finding Venegas and taking him out to dinner, a small gesture of thanks for how the San Diego-based coach has transformed him into a world beater since he moved to Chula Vista to train under him in 2013.
Part of his training involves an activity most wouldn’t usually associate with a 133kg thrower. “I do a ton of gymnastics in the off-season,” says Kovacs. “I do the high vault. I’m the shortest guy out there, so I’ve got to rely a lot more on other things to succeed.”
Small but strong
Standing almost exactly at six feet, in metric measurement 1.83m, Kovacs is certainly one of the world’s shortest elite shot putters, but he enjoys being viewed as the underdog.
“It’s always good to be the small guy,” he said. “The worst bit is when you’re in the line-up, though, and the camera guy goes at you. They go way up for David Storl, then he has to go down, take three steps in and zoom in for you."
After taking victory last night, one of the first people to congratulate Kovacs was his agent John Nubani, who took great pride in explaining how easy it was to work with the newly crowned world champion.
“He’s a fun guy, really down to earth, and a great character,” said Nubani. “Everybody on the circuit likes him.”
Apparently, the Penn State graduate’s talents are not just limited to the shot put circle. “He’s an entrepreneur,” said Nubani. “In college he started putting motors in bikes and selling them on campus. In San Diego he loves going to craft marts and flea markets and then selling stuff – he’s very good at doing something to make a buck.”
With victory last night, he picked up $60,000 in prize money, by far the biggest payday in Kovacs’ career to date.
It’s likely there will be many more to come.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF