You wouldn’t know it from talking to her – or from watching her compete – but Chase Ealey often gets extremely nervous in competitions.
It’s understandable, given that she is still very much a newcomer to the international scene. The 25-year-old US shot putter showed no signs of nerves when winning in Shanghai earlier this year on her IAAF Diamond League debut, throwing 19.58m to defeat world champion Gong Lijiao and world indoor champion Anita Marton.
But even after earning her place among the world’s elite, Ealey – like many elite athletes – still gets the occasional bout of nerves.
“Whenever I’m really upset or nervous, my Mom usually tells me to breathe,” says Ealey, who has the word tattooed on her hand. “I look down at my tattoo before I throw if I'm feeling too nervous.”
With each competitive appearance this year, Ealey has felt more at ease on the international circuit and the results speak for themselves. Six weeks after winning the US indoor title, Ealey smashed through the 19-metre barrier for the first time, throwing 19.67m in Tempe. It kick-started a string of 19-metre-plus performances that included victories in Shanghai and Turku, where she sprained her ankle and ended the competition in a wheelchair.
“I was being a little dramatic there,” she says, laughing. “I just didn't want to walk because it was two miles to the pick-up point, so I was just like, 'wheel me away!'”
Even a sixth-place finish in Lausanne didn’t dampen her spirits.
“Lausanne was my first hiccup, but that was the first trip where I've had jetlag and bad sleep. I've just been riding this wave of adrenalin and throwing well, so it's been a crazy ride. But Lausanne is where it all caught up with me.
“I wasn’t mad, though. Anything I do this year I'm really happy with.”
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Ealey rebounded by taking the US title in July with 19.56m and finishing second at the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich last month, setting a PB of 19.68m.
She says there’s still more to come, though.
“I was happy with the PB in Zurich, but I know I can throw a lot farther,” she says. “I'm still waiting for my training distances to translate into my meets.
“I don't have a lot of experience in these big meets, so that's what I'm having a problem with. In training I can shift mentally and just start banging them out and it feels so good, but so far in these big meets I can't quite shift; it's just a little off. When there's nothing to lose, you can switch gears a lot easier.
“It’s really frustrating, but I’m still new to it and I know that I'll balance out eventually.”
From sprinting to shot putting, from gliding to rotation
Ealey hasn’t always been a shot putter.
She started out as a sprinter, clocking a 100m PB of 12.27 as a 15-year-old in 2010, and then took home five gold medals from the New Mexico State Championships in 2011 after winning the 100m, shot put, javelin, 4x100m and 4x200m.
She assumed heptathlon would be the next logical step, but she managed to side-step a foray into combined events.
“When I was getting recruited for colleges, there was a lot of heptathlon talk,” she says. “I was training for lots of events and it was tiring, but then I spoke to the Oklahoma State coach. He told me I could just throw and not do all the other crazy stuff and to me that sounded great.
“I didn't like the shot put in high school, but it was the first event I became good at in college, so I stuck with it and grew to like it.”
Ealey impressed in her first year at college, throwing a PB of 16.01m to rank sixth on the world U20 list that season. She finished second at the US U20 Championships and third at the Pan-American U20 Championships in Medellin, Colombia – her first overseas competition.
Her collegiate career gained momentum in the years that followed and it culminated in a runner-up finish at the 2016 NCAA Championships. One month later at the US Olympic Trials, the biggest competition of her life up to that point, Ealey set PBs of 18.10m in the qualifying round and 18.46m in the final. Although it was only good enough for seventh place, it hinted at Ealey’s big-time temperament.
Ealey had a couple of solid if unspectacular seasons in 2017 and 2018. But after recording three no-throws at the 2018 US Championships, a meeting with two-time world indoor champion Ryan Whiting changed the course of her career.
“I met Ryan in July 2018,” recalls Ealey, who up until that point had used the glide technique. “He suggested I use the rotational technique at two meets. He then officially started coaching me in September.”
It was as much a learning experience for Whiting as it was for Ealey. While Ealey was getting to grips with a new throwing technique, Whiting was making the leap from international athlete to coach. Based in Phoenix, Arizona, Whiting set up his ‘Desert High Performance’ club in late 2018 and Ealey was one of his first recruits.
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“When I switched to the rotational technique, I kind of got that newness back, which felt really good,” says Ealey. “I was like, 'ooh, I like this thing'.
“I kind of came out of nowhere with the rotational and it's all been really good,” she adds. “I had confidence going into this season and I've been riding that wave. I'm now just trying to keep it that way.”
Ealey started the year with a PB of 18.46m, set using the glide technique in 2016. In this year alone, she has thrown beyond that mark a total of 32 times across 16 competitions.
She is now just 32 centimetres shy of becoming the fourth US member of the 20-metre club. She is in no rush, though, as she knows she is capable of it. And she is hopeful that bigger throws will come at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.
“I've thrown it (20 metres) in training so I know it's there,” she says. “I feel like I just need to catch up with where my training is at. I just don't have the experience yet.
“I trust Ryan to have me peak at the right time,” adds Ealey. “I feel like I'm not peaking for the Diamond League meetings, but he'll have me peak perfectly (for the World Championships). That's what happened indoors – he told me to trust him and that I'll peak at the right time, and I did.”
Once she has mastered the rotation technique and started to produce her best throws in the competition circle, Ealey has big goals for her future in the sport.
“I want to be a world champion and an Olympic champion,” she says. “I want to break the American record and the world record. I have to take it one step at a time, though.”
The opportunity to accomplish at least one of those targets will arise in Doha when the women’s shot put final takes place on 3 October. Ealey will head to the Qatari capital with realistic ambitions of winning a medal as she is second on the 2019 world list and is the only woman this year to defeat defending world champion Gong Lijiao.
Ealey isn’t aiming for just any old medal, though.
“A lot of people set their targets at simply making the team. Not only do I want to make the team, and I don't even want to set my goal at simply making it on to the podium; I want to win,” she says. “You need to go in wanting to win and thinking you're going to win. I fully want to win.”
The topic of winning a major title seems to ignite a spark within Ealey and she talks with a smile that belies a fierce competitive intensity. All it takes to achieve her goal is one good rotation – and one deep breath.
“I can win, so that's what I want to do,” she continues. “I'm not going there for anything else.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF