|Joe Kovacs competes in the men's shot put final at the 15th IAAF World Athletics Championships at Beijing National Stadium on Aug. 23, 2015 in Beijing.
The ring spray-painted in a parking lot by Joe Kovacs and his mother was still visible last year when he drove past his high school during a visit home.
It was a reminder that his shot put career literally started from scratch, and also of the tight little circle formed by Kovacs and his mom after his father’s death 18 years ago.
Kovacs, 26, was just a football player looking for extra strength and conditioning when he joined the track team. Due to his size, someone suggested he try the shot put and discus, even though his Pennsylvania high school had no track, much less a throwing circle or a throws coach.
“I didn’t know much about it, but my mom did,” Kovacs said.
Joanna Kovacs was a 12-time district throwing champion in the shot, discus and javelin. She had coached a couple of years earlier at another school and agreed to help her son.
“She knew I loved football,” Kovacs said. “She knew that running and speed work would be the best thing for me, so that’s why she kind of pushed track on me, but she never pushed the shot put or the discus.”
Yet once Joanna knew her son would start throwing, her instincts took over. Mother knew best.
“She was 100 percent all in,” Kovacs said. “She took that same competitive spirit that she had for herself and definitely let me know that whatever you do, you need to be the absolute best at it. That was a big switch, because it went from, ‘Oh, it’s a good way to stay in shape,’ to ‘You’ve got to start performing.’”
On Sunday, Kovacs performed better than anyone else in the world. He won the shot put to become the first U.S. gold medalist at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
Kovacs is the sixth U.S. thrower to win a world title. Team USA has medaled in 11 of the last 12 world championships shot put competitions.
Kovacs took the lead on his first attempt with a throw of 69-8, but O’Dayne Richards of Jamaica overtook him in the third round with a 71-2 mark. After Tomas Walsh of New Zealand moved into second place (70-9 ¾) in the fourth round, Kovacs uncorked a heave of 71 feet, 11 ½ inches to retake the lead in the fifth and held on.
“It was supposed to happen; I just had to make it happen,” said Kovacs, who’s in his third year as a professional.
David Storl, the two-time defending world champion from Germany, also threw his best in the fifth round, but it wasn’t enough and he settled for silver at 71-4.
American Reese Hoffa, the 2007 world champion, was fifth at 68-10¾. Teammate Christian Cantwell , the 2009 world champ, suffered back spasms while leaving the stadium following the qualifying round and was unable to compete in the final.
Kovacs, the leading qualifier in the qualifying round, came into Beijing with four of the top five throws in the world, including the No. 1 toss of 74-0¼, which put him among the top eight all-time in the event.
On Sunday, four of his five legal throws were past 21 meters (68-10¾), a series no other thrower came close to replicating.
Joanna Kovacs was watching from the U.S. During her son’s NBC television interview, Kovacs said that he loved her and thanked her for her support.
Although he now works with renowned throws coach Art Venegas, Kovacs said people ask if his mother still tries to coach him.
“I think she did coach me at Eugene (Oregon, site of the U.S. championships in June), because she sent me a text message saying, ‘Happy birthday, Good luck,’” he said of winning his second straight national title on his 26th birthday. “And that’s the best coaching tip you can give. She knows how fond I am of my coach, Art Venegas. She doesn’t want me to think about anything else except go out and perform and at the end of the day be happy.”
Kovacs was just 7 years old when his life took a tragic turn. His father, Joseph, a schoolteacher who appeared to be in good health, was diagnosed with colon cancer. He and Joanna, also a schoolteacher, used their savings to go to Germany for alternative treatment.
Joseph Kovacs went into a coma and died at age 33. The next day, Joanna’s mother suddenly passed away.
“I came home from Germany with two funerals back to back,” Kovacs said. “The next year, I kind of went through the motions, but I think my mom and I grew close because of it.
“We were like a team, all the way through. My mom didn’t date or do anything until this past year.”
Joanna, who found great male role models for Joe while he was growing up, is getting married in October in Italy – after the track season. “Until this point, it was just us,” Kovacs said. “It’s a great bond that we had and still do have, so I’m super happy for her.”
He and his mom spent many fruitful afternoons in the school parking lot until he threw a rubber discus so far it bounced into a passing mail truck. They realized Kovacs had outgrown the space and asked – or sneaked – their way onto nearby tracks.
“Once we started throwing, then I realized that was my real passion,” he said.
Kovacs attended a small camp in Pennsylvania where Hoffa, a guest athlete, recommended that he ditch the glide and try the spin technique.
“He was this strong guy who had these big calves, and he just said, ‘Man, you’re kind of short, you should try the spin,’” Kovacs said. “Since that day, I tried it. I started taking it a lot seriously and I realized that the technique is a huge part of the throw and can really make the ball go far.”
Had Hoffa not made that suggestion, who knows if Kovacs would be in the winner’s circle today? “We definitely joke about it,” Kovacs said. “He’s a great sport.”
Kovacs had a poster of Cantwell on his bedroom wall while a photo of Adam Nelson, the 2004 Olympic champion and 2005 world champion, is the screen saver on his computer.
“It’s a weird transition, because the same guys you looked up to are the ones you’re hanging out with on a daily basis,” Kovacs said. “One of the best things about the sport is how you can so quickly be part of it and help each other out.”
Kovacs considers himself “kind of a late bloomer,” since he didn’t win Pennsylvania state titles in the shot or discus until his senior year.
At Penn State, which he attended on a track scholarship, turning down football offers at other schools, his highest NCAA finish was third. In 2012, his senior year, he was fourth at the NCAA meet and also at the Olympic Trials, missing the London Olympic team by one spot.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling because you didn’t make the team,” Kovacs said, “but at the same time, I didn’t know I could take the step to the next level. I threw 21 meters for the first time. I was happy to be even in the room with the guys who were going to the Olympics.
“Everybody else in fourth place, they’re crying, they’re upset, they’re down in the dumps, and I was in there smiling and excited to sign up for team processing even though I wasn’t going.
“Definitely this next time around (going into the Rio 2016 Olympic Games), I don’t want to be in that position.”
After college – where Kovacs didn’t have a coach most of his senior year – he knew he wanted “a big-time coach who had had a lot of success.”
He found Venegas at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, and said, “It feels like everything is finally coming together now post-collegiately. Art is the one who broke me down and molded me to this new level.”
While Kovacs is one of the smaller shot putters at 5-11 (“I tell the girls I’m 6-feet”) and about 300 pounds, he is also one of the more explosive.
He works on elasticity and body awareness through gymnastics, which he feels helps him compete with the likes of the 6-4 Cantwell and the 6-6 Storl.
Not only does Kovacs bounce on a trampoline, he also does front and back handsprings.
When Kovacs first began doing giants – 360-degree rotations from a fully extended position – on a high bar set up at the track, he had an audience.
“I am definitely the heaviest,” he said, to do giants. “The first time we went around, there were a lot of people watching just to see if the high bar stayed intact. It bends a lot and starts whipping a lot. But it’s really fun and it feels good. It’s a fun way to stretch, and I think it’s just something new to take your mind off of throwing and all the pressure in the offseason.”
He also has what he calls a “good fallback” if this throwing thing doesn’t work out: Kovacs has two degrees from Penn State. The first is in energy business and finance and the second is in petroleum and natural gas engineering.
Kovacs was interested in science growing up to the extent of building wind tunnels in his house.
His first state titles were even in science. Kovacs won the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science Fair four years in a row.
“My mom was just as supportive – maybe even more supportive – for that than she was in athletics,” Kovacs said, “because she knew how much I loved it and how much it was helpful.
“She always tells me she’s just as proud or more proud of those accomplishments than just throwing the shot put.”
Well, Joanna could change her mind now that he has a world title for throwing the 16-pound ball.
“That,” Kovacs said, “will maybe sway her a little bit.”