Olympic shot putter Joe Kovacs poses for a photo with his mother, Joanna Kovacs.
At 6 feet tall and almost 300 pounds, you would be hard pressed to find someone who would call Olympic shot putter Joe Kovacs “little.” But not true said his mom, Joanna Kovacs, who served as her son’s throwing coach all throughout high school.
“People in my hometown still call him ‘little Joey,’” she said about the boy who was named Joseph after his father, Joe.
But when “little Joey” was still little, his dad passed away after a battle with colon cancer when the 2016 Olympic silver medalist was only eight years old. The next day, Joanna’s mom (Joey’s maternal grandmother) died suddenly of heart failure. Those two tragic events resulted in Joe growing up fast, and his mom and him growing extremely close.
Joanna recalled one of her most vivid memories of the now 31-year-old around that time, “Joey was only eight when his dad passed, and he would do everything he could to make things better for me. If a door handle was loose, he would try to fix it,” she remembered about the boy she lovingly refers to as Joey.
One day when she had come in with groceries, she asked for her son’s help putting them away. He quickly agreed, and started getting to work. Later when she opened the pantry she realized “he had put the potatoes away wherever there was a spot on the shelf, so like 10 potatoes all throughout the pantry,” she laughed.
That is who her son is: “he’s just such a compassionate, caring person. That’s what I admire most in him.”
The admiration is mutual. Joe listed “everything” as his favorite thing about his mom, a former track athlete who first showed him his potential in the sport he has competed professionally at for almost 10 years.
My Mom Is My Coach
Growing up following his father’s death, Joe said his mother filled a lot of roles in his life. In addition to being mom — and all the responsibilities that came along with it — her son’s throwing coach was added to her resume after she watched him incorrectly attempt a sport she had played in high school. Shot put was only meant as a way for Joe to stay in shape for football season. He was an all-state lineman.
“I went to a small Catholic school in Pennsylvania and we didn’t have a track, we didn’t have a facility, and we definitely didn’t have a throws coach. So one day picking me up, she saw me practicing with one of the other kids who I looked up to — he was a senior, I was a freshman — and we both weren’t doing anything correctly,” he said about his early days throwing from a circle drawn with chalk.
His mom, herself a standout athlete and 12-time district throwing champion in the shot, discus and javelin, “got out of the car and showed us some things.” After that she became the unofficial coach, before the school eventually made it official.
“She always found a way to be there for me. Before coaching, she was a public school teacher about 40 minutes away from where I went to high school. She did a lot of commuting,” Joe said. But she didn’t let that long drive stop her from making every football game. “She was always finding the time for me, and I think that really helped shape me.”
And when Joe’s throws started surpassing the school’s parking lot to land in the road, his mom found a throwing expert in a nearby town and drove him there every Sunday.
Mom’s Early Lessons
For many years growing up, it was just Joe and his mom — before his mom married again in 2015. “So for more than 15 years, it was just the two of us. I felt very fortunate and lucky,” he reminisced about that time.
Most of it was spent on the field perfecting Joe’s throw, by the one person who knew him best: “I got lucky having my mom in my corner. It wasn’t just any coach — it was somebody who knew me and knew my tendencies. She was able to identify some of those things to really make me rise to the occasion.”
One of her favorite ways to do that was to put Joe in a pressure situation. “Even if it was playing basketball outside our house growing up — just her and I — she always wanted to put pressure on. And I’m glad she did that at a young age, because now when the pressure is on — obviously it still gets your heart beating and you feel the pressure — but you don’t feel as tense because it’s so practiced,” he said.
Changing hats between mom and coach was something Joanna said was difficult at times. Her advice to other parents is to “stay focused on what matters — not the actual competition.” Because in the end, “despite what accolades they get, you have to remember they’re doing their best and they really do want to please you. But you want them to enjoy what they’re doing,” she said.
That was a hard lesson for her, a self-described competitive person, who won 11 gold medals throwing for her high school’s track team, and was named “Ideal Female Athlete.”
“I think Joe and I are both competitors. I was an athlete, so I have that competitive edge. It used to bother Joey,” laughed the woman who competed in field hockey, basketball, softball and track in high school. “But I think he has that edge because I do.”
That competitiveness even made its way onto the family’s basketball court. “We would do free throws in the driveway and I have a shot that is dead on. Over the years Joey kept challenging me and I would tell him, you won’t beat me,” she said. “I remember in eighth grade he was like, ‘I’m ready.’ And I made 9 out of 10, and he made 6. I told him, ‘Keep trying!’”
She admitted this is probably why her family jokes that she shouldn’t be allowed to play backyard games. “I take it way too serious. I want to play, and I want to play hard.”
But it doesn’t stop Joe from still trying to challenge her. “I try to take her down, but still, I can’t,” he revealed. “When she gets on a mission to do something, there’s no stopping her. And I think that’s how I can be sometimes. There’s a switch that I flip. And now with these Olympic trials coming up, once you flip the switch — there’s no going back.”