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Joe Kovacs revisits epic shot put title, months after career intervention

Joe Kovacs joins Leigh Diffey to look back on one of the greatest shot put competitions of all time, where Kovacs narrowly claimed the shot put world title at the 2019 Track & Field World Championships.

Eight months before Joe Kovacs became a world champion again, he was at the center of a career intervention in a kitchen.

It was February 2019. Kovacs, the 2015 World champion and 2016 Olympic silver medalist in the shot put, had dipped down into a college-level meet and lost to an athlete that he coached.

Kovacs threw 19.52 meters, nearly 10 feet shy of his personal best. He failed to break 20 meters at a meet for the first time in four and a half years.

In the kitchen that evening, the two most important women in his life (and his career) voiced openings for him to consider retirement, according to Spikes. They were his mom, Joanna, a youth throwing champion herself who taught her son the shot put in a high school parking lot. And his wife of four months, Ashley, an All-American thrower at Kentucky who had become his latest coach.

“If you want to quit you can, I’m going to support you either way,” Ashley said, according to Kovacs’ essay in Spikes. “But, I don’t really understand why you think you can’t throw far anymore. Either way, this half-in, half-out stuff has to go. I’m tired of looking at it.”

Kovacs, a 5-foot-11, 300-pound licensed pilot, picked himself up. He made the world championships team by placing second at nationals. Still, he went to Doha last autumn ranked sixth in the world for the year.

In the world championships final, New Zealand’s Tom Walsh opened with a 22.90-meter throw, six inches farther than any man in the field had ever recorded. As Kovacs went into the sixth and last round, he was in fourth place but confident.

Kovacs had a pep talk with his coach. “No safe throws. She doesn’t want to see anything that’s not far,” he recounted to NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey recently. “She doesn’t care if it’s a foul. She wants to see a far throw happen.”

Kovacs committed. He spun one and a half times around the ring and let loose like never before. He roared. Not uncommon for him. The mark: 22.91 meters -- one centimeter better than Walsh, a personal best by more than a foot and the world’s best throw in 29 years.

“I left with a PR, which about probably eight months before that, I never thought I would,” he said. "[I thought in February] maybe give up competing. Never even PR ever again.”

Kovacs then found his coach. “I love you,” he told Ashley. “We did it.”

“I had a lot of knowledge about the shot put. I won a world championship and an Olympic medal before this, but I really thought about being done the year before,” he told Diffey. “I made a transition. I moved [from California] to Ohio. I made some changes in my technique that didn’t work out that well, so she really got me back on track when I started to work with her. I didn’t move to her for her to be my coach, but I moved to her because I wanted to marry her and I loved her. But it evolved because she’s a great college coach. She’s had a lot of national championships, and she was watching me every day kind of go downhill.”

Because of what happened in 2019, Kovacs believes he benefits from the Olympic postponement to 2021 compared to other athletes.

“Mentally, I’m probably doing better than most athletes because I’ve been around and I’ve been at a low in my career and I’ve come back from it,” he said. “So I’m not afraid to kind of rebuild things and take some time off.”

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