SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The clutch throw.
Olympic champion Ryan Crouser has been practicing it since he was a kid.
His father Mitch, who is still his coach, would put a flag or marker at Ryan’s best throw of the day and say, “This is the last throw in the Olympics. Last throw at U.S. champs. You’ve got to beat that.”
“So I’ve done that about 1,000 times,” said Crouser.
Make that 1,001.
Crouser led through five rounds of the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships on Sunday when Joe Kovacs, the formidable reigning world champion and world leader, popped a throw of 73 feet, 4 inches (22.35 meters) to take the lead and break the 15-year-old meet record.
The last throw of the meet belonged to Crouser. He knew he would have to come close to his personal record of 73-10 ¾ (22.52), which he threw to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
“That’s probably one of the most difficult things in any sport,” said Crouser, “when you’re down and you know you have to do something big at that specific time. To be able to do that, it just takes a lot of practice.”
Wearing a red, white and blue bandana, he stepped into the ring and realized that his mind was completely blank, which was a good sign.
“As soon as it left my hand, I knew that it was a big throw.” said Crouser, who came into the meet with the second, third, fourth and fifth best throws in the world this season, led by his 73-7 ¼ (22.43) to win the Prefontaine Classic. “When it landed, I knew it was a PR, so it was a good time to get one.”
It sure was. He threw 74-3 ¾ (22.65), the third longest throw by an American. He surpassed Kovacs’ personal best of 74-0 ¾ (22.57) at the Tucson Elite Classic in May, which at that time was not only the longest throw in the world this season, but also the best throw in the last 14 years.
Now Crouser has the longest throw since 2003. He also had five throws that exceeded 71-7, and the sixth was a foul.
After he saw the ball land, he jumped up and down, then shook hands with Kovacs before the two embraced.
Kovacs, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist behind Crouser, expected his rival to answer his throw with a giant one of his own. “I’d be mad if he didn’t,” he said. “just as I think he’d be mad if I didn’t put a throw out there at the end.”
Kovacs was satisfied with his second-place finish because he held a wild card into the IAAF World Championships in London in August based on his 2015 world title. That also meant Team USA has four berths at worlds.
“I had the luxury of not having to throw far at this meet,” he said. “Everybody else was probably peaking for this meet, for a big throw, and I’m training right through it.
“The vibe is right, the weather’s great – temperature dropped – you might as well put on a show.”
Ryan Whiting, the 2013 world silver medalist was third (70-8, 21.54) and Darrell Hill, the third member of Team USA in Rio, was fourth (67-7, 20.60).
The national championships are part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.
Kovacs said he and Crouser have one of the best rivalries in the sport, but don’t worry about beating each other at each and every meet.
“We want to throw far when it counts,” Kovacs said, “at the biggest stage, and push each other there.”
Crouser came in as the defending national champion, while Kovacs won the previous two titles and Whiting prevailed in 2013.
“This is probably the strongest team we’ve ever sent to worlds,” said Whiting, who is also a two-time indoor world champion. “Not experience-wise, because I was on that team with Reese (Hoffa) and Adam (Nelson) and Christian (Cantwell), but I would have a hard believing that we don’t all get Top 8.”
Crouser topped Nelson’s meet record of 72-11 (22.22) set in 2002. The world and Olympic record is 75-10 ¼ (23.12), set by Randy Barnes in 1990.
“It’s a new era for track and field,” Crouser said. “To see us closing in on that 23-meter mark is special.”
Kovacs credits “the culture of the U.S. in the shot put” for such a deep crop of throwers the last two decades.
“We’re such a strong event that if you want to make it, you’ve got to take someone’s spot,” he said. “I thank the guys who came before, John Godina, Adam Nelson, Reese Hoffa, Christian Cantwell, all the guys who put the ball out (to the mid 22-meter mark) because those guys could still be throwing today if it wasn’t us taking their spot. They weren’t going to back down and make it easy for anyone.”
And Crouser can thank the culture in his family for making him into the thrower he is today. His father Mitch finished fourth in the discus at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. His uncle, Brian, qualified for the U.S. team in the javelin at the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games. And Crouser’s cousin, Sam, (Brian’s son) son qualified for the javelin at the Rio Olympics, where he finished 34th.
The big sixth throw was ingrained in all of them.
“Usually I try to have my best throw in the sixth round,” Crouser said. “That’s something I pride myself on. It’s a situation that pops up quite often. I definitely enjoyed coming back from behind and winning it.”