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One golden goal for Joe Kovacs at Olympics

U.S. Olympic track and field trials

Joe Kovacs celebrates his second-place finish after the finals of men's shot put at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials Friday, June 18, 2021, in Eugene, Ore. AP

Joe Kovacs knows how narrow the margins between the greatest glory track and field can offer and just being a “very good” shot putter can be.

So as he prepared for the Olympic shot put competition in Tokyo, the Bethlehem Catholic graduate and Nazareth native wanted to make sure he was doing everything he could to be at his best.

“Throwing is a 24/7 process,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s all about decision making, doing things that are going to help you for tomorrow, or are they hurting you for tomorrow? You have to treat the event, the shot put, with the reverence it deserves. If you don’t make the right decisions when not on the clock, the session in the ring is not as worthwhile. The little extra aspects make all the difference. I won the 2019 world championship by one centimeter. Trying to improve by a small percentage mat sounds like tiny things, but it all helps because the margins can be so small. We try to perfect everything we can perfect.”

Kovacs’ dedication to perfection will be tested in Tokyo starting at 6:15 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday when the men’s shot put preliminary round will be contested.

The procedure to advance to Thursday’s (Japan time; Wednesday 8 p.m. Eastern time) final is somewhat complex. Each of the expected 35 or so entries will get three throws in the qualifying round, trying to better the “qualifying distance” for the final; the distance will be set immediately prior to the competition. In 2016, that distance was 20.65 meters (67 feet, 9 inches). The top 12 who throw that distance (or, if there are less than 12 who do, the top 12 overall) advance to the final .

In the final, all 12 throwers get an initial three throws. Then, the eight throwers with the top throwers can throw three more times.

One of world’s best

It’s highly likely Kovacs will be among those elite final-eight throwers. He has the No. 2 throw in the world this season (22.72 meters [74-6½ in May), finished second at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June at 22.34m (73-3½), and has an all-time personal-best of 22.91 (75-2), thrown at the 2019 world meet in Qatar.

The only thrower to regularly top Kovacs is American teammate Ryan Crouser, who set the world record at the Olympic trials at 23.37 (76-8¼). Only two other athletes --- New Zealand’s Tomas Welch and Poland’s Michał Haratyk -- have thrown over 22 meters this season.

Tokyo offers Kovacs a chance to achieve the one goal that has eluded him. He’s won two world titles (2015 and 2019) and won a silver medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Only Olympic gold remains.

“The first goal as a U.S. shot putter is to come back with hardware; ideally, we (himself, Crouser and third qualifier Peyton Otterdahl) come back 1-2-3,” Kovacs said. “I think I am in good shape to medal, but I am going to Japan to win a gold medal. I am ready to compete. I have to open up and let my training take over. I have made the right decisions, have a lot more strength built up and feel like I am more balanced in the throwing ring.”

In talking to the always-cheery and friendly Kovacs this time, though, you can perhaps sense a little urgency in his voice. As he admits, at 32, he is “something of a veteran” in the sport, and he is the only thrower born before 1990 in the 2021 world top-25. While success in the throws can, and has, come to older athletes, Kovacs will be 35 for the 2024 Games in Paris. Tokyo may well be his best chance to grab that gold.

“When you make your first Olympics, that’s when you prove to everybody that you deserve it,” Kovacs said. “It’s easier to make the second Olympics than the first, because you’re able to take experiences away from the first.”

Tokyo, though, offers a very different Olympic experience than Rio -- a pandemic Games.

“A complete lockdown,” Kovacs said. “You can go to the village, the training area, the stadium. Three places. You can’t leave those places because they track on your cell phone. You get within six feet of somebody, there’;s contact tracing. No spectators (a let-down for Kovacs’ family, who had planned to attend), an empty stadium, it will definitely be weird. At least those of us who have been to two Olympics have had different experiences; I feel sad for those who this will be the first and only time they make the Olympics. It’s not the same feeling, and it’s sad not to have families there.”

Back to the parking lot

Of course, the whole last 16 months or so have not been the same feeling for Kovacs, whose training base is Ohio State where his wife, Ashley, is an assistant track and field coach in the throws for the Buckeyes.

“Ohio was one of the first states to shut down (for the COVID-19 pandemic),” Kovacs said. “We were stuck at home while a lot of my competitors were in places like California or Arkansas, where it was warm and had no restrictions. We wound up going to a bank and throwing in the parking lot, like I did at Becahi.”

And remember, these Olympics were supposed to be in 2020; given his training restrictions, their postponement was not the worst thing to happen to Kovacs.

“I was definitely relieved when there was some clarity about the Olympics; some of the other competitors (would have had) a heck of an advantage,” Kovacs said. “Once the Games were canceled, I took a breath. I kept my strength levels up, but took it easy on my body and I did enjoy some time away. I played some golf and I enjoyed being able to spend some time at home with my wife.”

This spring, with the Olympics all set and the track world coming back to life, Kovacs wound up spending a solid stretch in U.S. track and field’s current epicenter.

“I was in Eugene, Oregon for three weeks straight, for the NCAA championships and the Olympic Trials and that was a big advantage for me to get acclimated there.”

Success in Oregon

Kovacs delighted in watching one of his wife’s athletes, Adelaide Aquilla, win the NCAA outdoor shot put.

“Adelaide didn’t have very good marks in high school, like 43 feet, but she walked on at Ohio State and is a three-time NCAA champion,” Kovacs said. “She qualified for the Olympics. I am super-proud of her, and seeing her win NCAAs was a nice preview for me, to get ready for the trials in the new stadium there in my mind.”

Kovacs said he was pleased with his Olympic Trials meet.

“My planning was good and I don’t think I fouled once,” he said. “The thing was to punch your ticket for Tokyo, and then you could get really aggressive, swing for the fences, go for the big throws. With the depth of the U.S. in the shot put -- fifth place at the trials threw further than I did to win silver in Rio -- the goal wasn’t to throw the world record, it was just to make sure I was prepared, to get by and qualify.”

Once Tokyo is past, Kovacs may spend some time working on his golf game and pursuing a perhaps more practical hobby.

“I have my private pilot’s license, and I am going to get my instrument rating as a pilot,” he said. “If track didn’t come along I’d have pursued a career in aviation. It’s a seven-hour drive (from Columbus) to Allentown, in a plane it’s 1 hour, 20 minutes. It’s a fun thing for me, not taxing on my body at all. My dream plane would be a Cirrus SR-22 -- maybe if I throw well enough, I can buy one.”

Now that would really be flying high for Joe Kovacs -- and a fitting reward for Olympic gold.

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Brad Wilson may be reached at bwilson@lehighvalleylive.com.