RIO DE JANEIRO — Ryan Crouser had seen the throw thousands of times. The exact number escapes him, but the image of the throw is imprinted in his memory.
The throw is East German Ulf Timmermann’s record shot put toss of 22.47 meters on Sept. 23, 1988, four years before Crouser was born. He has watched replays of that shot so many times that he used to base his technique off of it.
Thursday, Crouser broke Timmermann’s Olympic record with a throw of 22.52 meters to win a gold medal in the men’s shot put at Olympic Stadium.
“I’ve watched [Timmermann’s] throw probably 10,000 times,” Crouser said. “I thought that was one of the most beautiful throws I had ever seen. To break that record at the Olympics is truly special.
Crouser’s gold medal is the 18th won by a U.S. men’s shot putter. Combined with Joe Kovacs, who won silver, they’re the first pair of U.S. shot putters to win gold and silver at the same Olympics since Randy Barnes and John Godina at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.
“To see the stands and the atmosphere on the field, it was phenomenal. It was electric,” Crouser said. “Once I got into the ring everything really came together. It’s been a long road, and to get here and have everything go essentially perfectly, words can’t describe how I feel right now.”
Crouser’s first love was basketball, although he comes from a track and field family. His father, Mitch, was an alternate for discus at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. An uncle, Brian, was a javelin thrower at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games and 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games and was a two-time NCAA champion. His cousin, Sam, finished 34th in the qualifying round of men’s javelin at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Crouser focused on basketball through high school and won three Oregon state track and field titles in high school. When he went to the University of Texas, he focused on track and field year-round. He was an eight-time Big 12 shot put champion at Texas, where he also threw discuss. He won four NCAA titles in the shot put, most recently the 2016 NCAA Indoor Championships. He also won the 2016 U.S. championships.
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Crouser won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in July with a personal-best throw of 22.11 meters. Thursday, the first-time Olympian broke that record three times. His gold-medal-winning throw, which broke the record Timmermann set 28 years ago and Crouser watched thousands of times, measured 22.52 meters on his fifth throw.
Kovacs was right behind Crouser. His throw of 21.78 on his first attempt helped him secure a second-place finish.
“You’re never happy to get second,” Kovacs said. “It’s that bittersweet feeling. But it’s setting in. I’m still bringing home a silver medal to the U.S. and the gold’s coming with Ryan. Ryan had some great throws today, and I have to congratulate him on that because he put it together.”
Kovacs played football in high school and joined track and field as a form of strength and conditioning. He started in shot put, added discus and won a Pennsylvania state title in both events. His success continued at Penn State, where he was a runner-up at the 2010 NCAA Indoor Championships and placed third at the 2011 NCAA Outdoor Championships.
In 2014, he won the shot put title at the U.S. outdoor championships. He broke out in 2015 when he captured first place in the shot put at the national championships and world championships, as well as the Diamond League title. He finished the 2015 season ranked as the world No. 1 in shot put.
Darrell Hill, the third U.S. shot putter to make the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, didn’t make it past the morning qualifying round. However, Kovacs knows what Hill is capable of and expects the trio to continue representing the U.S. with podium finishes in the future.
“The depth in the U.S. shot put is strong,” Kovacs said. “We’ll definitely be back.”
Frank Gogola is a student in the Sports Capital Journalism Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.