Darrell Hill competes at the The Match Europe v USA on Sept. 9, 2019 in Minsk, Belarus.
Most people would not look at Darrell Hill, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs about 315 pounds, and immediately think “corny track nerd.”
But that’s what Hill calls himself. He’s well-versed in the stats for track and field events across the board and learned his own event – the shot put – in an unconventional way.
“I’m the first generation of YouTube babies,” said Hill, 27.
Although he had a track coach in high school in Pennsylvania, Hill didn’t have a coach specializing in the throws.
“I learned the sport searching through YouTube and watching videos of guys like Randy Barnes, Reese Hoffa, Adam Nelson, John Godina and Brian Oldfield,” he said. “They really taught me what the sport was all about.”
Now there are plenty of videos of Hill, who has established himself as one of the Big Three in the sport. The others are Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs, who are also the only two athletes ranking ahead of Hill in the world rankings.
Since 2016, the Big Three have been part of Team USA at every Olympic Games and outdoor world championships and they’ll try to do it again at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track and Field, which start June 18 in Eugene, Oregon.
Crouser is the reigning Olympic champion while Kovacs is the reigning world champion.
Hill knows what it’s like to come out on top, too. He was the 2018 national champion, with Crouser second, Kovacs fifth and Ryan Whiting, a world silver medalist who is now retired and coaching Hill, in fourth place.
After studying results from every men’s event and comparing them to how close they approach their respective world records, Hill has arrived at a conclusion: “We may have the crown right now for most competitive,” he said. “What we’ve got in the men’s shot put is super crazy. I don’t think there are any other events that are competing at as high a level as we are consistently year after year after year – and with the same faces.”
When the pandemic hit, Hill decided it was the right time to make the move to Arizona to train with Whiting, a 2012 Olympian and the 2013 world silver medalist.
With meets cancelled, Hill had no competitive results in 2020, but tried to stay sharp with practice competitions featuring his training partners and some local high school athletes.
Going into this season, he was anxious to validate his hard work. Hill had a sense of what his training indicated, but said, “All athletes have this small sense of insecurity, where it’s like, ‘I need to go to competition and execute before I really believed it.’”
Hill opened his season with a throw of 21.76 meters on April 24 in a small meet in Chula Vista, California. Then at the USATF Golden Games in Walnut, California, on May 9, Hill uncorked a throw of 22.19 on his third attempt and improved to 22.34 (73 feet, 3 ½ inches) on his fourth. That was only 10 centimeters off his personal best of 22.44 from 2017 in Brussels.
“The first 22 meter throw was very emotional for me, just because it’s been a tough road to get back and see the ball go back over 22 meters,” Hill said. “Then to be able to come back on the next attempt and throw even further is a skill that will bode well for me late in the season.”
And yet that mark still was only good for third place on the world list, which makes Hill laugh at how tough his event is.
“I really do love it, because it doesn’t allow a speck of complacency to set in,” said Hill.
On May 22, the Big Three had their first throwdown of the year at the USATF Throws Festival in Tucson.
Crouser won with a heave of 23.01 (75-6) on his fifth throw to come within 11 centimeters of the world and American record set by Barnes in 1990. Ulf Timmermann of East Germany has the second-best throw of all time, 23.06 in 1988, followed by Crouser.
Kovac’s second throw of 22.04 (72-3 ¾) held up for second place. His personal best is 22.91 (fourth all-time).
Hill saved his best for last, staking out third with a throw of 21.88 (71-9 ½) on his sixth and final attempt to hold off Tomas Walsh of New Zealand (21.62/70-11 ¼).
They have a sense of camaraderie at meets, rooting each other on, as well as a keen competitiveness and respect. With such intensity, Hill believes Barnes’ world record will fall “sometime soon.”
“When you have something like the Olympics, where everybody’s invested, and everybody’s putting their five years worth of training toward something like that,” he said, “you can see it provides an opportunity for a performance like that to come.”
Hill said he and Crouser are “like attached at the hip because we came out of high school in 2011 and we were in the same college years.”
Like Kovacs, he was raised in Pennsylvania and attended Penn State, where Whiting was training as a professional.
Hill feels Whiting can help him shoot up the all-time rankings, where he currently sits at 15th -eighth among Americans.