US shot put team hopes to begin with medal sweep

Aug. 12, 2008, 1:56 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) American shot putter Reese Hoffa - all 315 pounds of him - has been dabbling in gymnastics.

Should Hoffa win gold, he just might unveil a routine for the world to see.

Some cartwheels? A backflip perhaps?

"I don't want to spoil the surprise," Hoffa grins.

What's no secret is this: The quirky and charismatic American shot-putting trio of Hoffa, Christian Cantwell and Adam Nelson could very well sweep the Beijing Games' first track and field medals on Friday, the initial day of competition.

Success would set the tone for a U.S. squad hoping to eclipse the 25 medals won four years ago in Athens - a team that dearly wants to shift from headlines about medals taken away by doping scandals to those won in memorable moments.

Don't mention a sweep to Nelson, though. He's heard such talk before, only to see the Americans fall.

"The reality is, it's hard to get a medal," said Nelson, who's won silver at the last two Olympic Games. "You don't always have the performances that live up to the billing."

Heading into the competition, these three have. They account for eight of the top 10 throws in the world this season, topped by Nelson's heave of 72 feet, 7 inches at the Prefontaine Classic.

Americans haven't swept the event since 1960, and Hoffa agrees it won't be easy.

"I'd love to be the class of Olympic athletes to sweep," said Hoffa, voted co-captain of the U.S. track team by his teammates. "But everything's got to fall right. The Europeans aren't going to roll over for us and let us win. We have to go out there and earn it."

Those Europeans include the likes of Andrei Mikhnevich of Belarus, who has the world's third-best throw this season.

While a European may end up beating Hoffa on Friday, few can compete when it comes to wackiness.

Hoffa can solve the Rubik's Cube in 45 seconds, loves to skateboard, and then there's his gymnastics.

After winning the U.S. Olympic trials, he appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," holding his own in the humor department with the host and actor David Duchovny.

"Reese is who he is all the time," Nelson said. "Life is like a video game for him - he's always trying to get the high score."

Hoffa wasn't always all smiles. Growing up in a foster home, he reconnected with his birth mother through an Internet posting 19 years later.

Nelson has balanced training with earning his MBA at the University of Virginia. He worried his studies would hurt his athletic career, but found just the opposite to be true.

"What I've found is that it's extraordinarily rewarding to have something other than throwing," said Nelson, who's just seven classes short of his master's degree. "It's alleviated a lot of the stress and concern about the future."

Nelson tried to keep his shot put career a secret so other students wouldn't treat him differently. No such luck.

"There are about 350 in each class and I'm pretty sure most of them know what I do now," he said.

Nelson realizes he caught a big break making his third Olympic squad. He had a mediocre day at the trials by his own high standards, edging Dan Taylor for the third spot by mere inches.

After winning silver in Sydney and Athens, he's toning down his ambition in Beijing.

"Every time I've been in the Olympics, I've had relatively mediocre days," he said. "My goal for this year isn't to get a medal, but to execute the way I should execute. If I do that and throw well, I'll be satisfied."

Cantwell had a fantastic start to the season, winning the world indoor championship and finishing second at the trials.

He said he's not feeling any added burden in his first Olympics appearance.

"The pressure is only what you do to yourself," Cantwell said.

Hoffa feels the same way. That's why he's simply enjoying the moment - as much as he can at least.

"To become part of that fraternity or sorority of Olympic champions, it's unbelievable," Hoffa said. "It doesn't matter what you do the rest of our life, everyone's gonna remember that you are an Olympic champion."

Especially if you top it off with a backflip or a cartwheel.