EUGENE, Ore. -- Ryan Whiting once viewed the top shot putters in the United States as an impenetrable wall keeping him on the outside.
“This year I finally felt like I was one of those guys that was the wall,” said Whiting, 25, who made his first Olympic team less than four months after capturing his first major title at the World Indoor Championships, held in March in Istanbul.
The United States has a rock solid shot put team going to London made up of Whiting and two veterans.
Reese Hoffa, 34, the 2007 world champion, won his second straight U.S. Olympic Trials Sunday with a throw of 72 feet, 2 ¼ inches to earn his third Olympic berth. Whiting was next at 71-0 ¾, followed by Christian Cantwell, 31, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist and 2009 world champion, with a heave of 69-9 3/4. All qualifiers are subject to approval by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“I knew this was going to be my last chance to make the Olympic team,” Hoffa said. “This is ‘do or die.’ If I want to end my career Olympic-wise with a medal, I’ve got to get after it.”
Although Cantwell said his back is no longer giving him problems, he has had difficulty finding his rhythm during meets. Cantwell’s third-place finish might be a good thing in London, as his coach told him, “You’re sneaking in; they won’t see you coming.”
One familiar American face will be missing in the shot put circle at the Games. Adam Nelson, 36, a two-time Olympic silver medalist who won medals in four of his six World Championships appearances, struggled in the relentless rain at Hayward Field. He did not make the final, ending his streak of Olympic teams at three.
“We have such great depth in the shot put, there’s always somebody very good left home,” said Nelson, who has been hampered by injuries. “It just so happens that this year we’ve got a young guy, Ryan Whiting, that’s come up and represented us really strongly over the last couple of years, so it’s becoming even more and more difficult to make the team.”
Dan Taylor, a close fourth at the 2008 Olympic Trials where Whiting placed a respectable sixth, also did not qualify for the final.
So far this year, Hoffa has the top three performances on the world list. His throw at the Trials is the longest outdoors in the world this year and matches Whiting’s winning toss at the World Indoors. Next on the list is Cantwell, followed by Whiting, Olympic champion Tomas Majewski of Poland, Nelson, Whiting again, Dylan Armstrong of Canada and Hoffa for a fourth time. Reigning world champion David Storl of Germany is way down the list at No. 23.
Yet no matter how strong the U.S. appears on paper, the shot putters are all too aware that Team USA crumbled at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, prompting the rallying cry “Remember Daegu!” before the World Indoors.
“We had four Americans who made the final, pretty much half the field, and we didn’t get a medal,” says Hoffa, who finished fifth in Daegu, with Cantwell fourth, Whiting seventh and Nelson eighth.
They are determined to make up that lost ground in London.
“Even if we get a bronze, we’ve got to get an Olympic medal just to show we’re pretty good in the shot,” Hoffa said.
The United States used to own the event, winning 14 of the 16 gold medals from 1896 to 1968. An American didn’t win again until Mike Stulce in 1992. Randy Barnes won the gold in 1996, then it has been all silver from there, twice by Nelson in 2000 and 2004 and then Cantwell in 2008.
“We have a strong team every year and sometimes we show up and sometimes we don’t,” Cantwell said, “so it’s important that we show up this time and get it done. And I hope that’s me. If not, I hope one of those guys do it.”
A sweep, though, is “almost impossible,” Hoffa said. “To get three guys to be ready to throw… we used to be pretty much the most dominant country in the world when it comes to shot put, but the Europeans are showing that they are exceptionally good. And you cannot take that for granted.”
Hoffa said he expected Storl to “come into the Olympic Games on fire.”
“The German are masters at getting their athletes ready to throw far,” Hoffa said. “I’m anticipating Storl and Majewski throwing 22 meters (72 2 ½), so it means I’ve got to be just a little bit better than 22 to win.”
Nelson believes he can do it, saying, “I think that this year is Reese’s year.”
Although both Hoffa and Cantwell can foresee retiring in the next few years, Whiting, of Port Matilda, Pa., hasn’t yet reached his prime. “He’s the guy that I know I’m leaving the shot put in the capable hands of a monster shot putter,” Hoffa said.
The first time Hoffa saw Whiting was at the 2006 national indoor championships.
“It was amazing to see somebody so young competing with the big boys,” Hoffa said. “Throughout his career, I’ve always had my eye on what Ryan has done.”
“Do you remember what I wore?” asked Whiting, who was seated beside Hoffa at the post-event news conference.
“A plaid sweater vest,” said Hoffa, who once threw while wearing a wrestling mask as “The Unknown Shot Putter.”
Hoffa also recalled a meet in Berlin last year, which was Whiting’s first year as a pro. Hoffa said he was leading most of the event when Whiting uncorked a throw to break the meet record. “At that moment,” Hoffa said, “I thought, ‘This kid’s the real deal.’ ”
However, neither Hoffa, Nelson nor Cantwell are ready to step aside for the next generation.
Nelson, who attended the shot put finals with his wife and two children, said he is undecided about retirement. Nelson and Hoffa train together in Athens, Ga., and Hoffa said he was surprised when Nelson didn’t advance to the final.
“He wanted it so bad,” Hoffa said. “I know if I was in that position, I would be very sad, very upset, but he came out here with his family, he watched the final and he put on a proud face and that just speaks to who Adam is. He’s a class act and I don’t think the sport would be where it is without having him contribute the medals that he has throughout his career.
“I loved having him as a training partner and I hope he continues to throw because it’s nice to have someone push you.”
Hoffa said he plans to compete next year, when the World Championships will be held in Moscow, and then finish out his career at the World Indoor Championships would like to cap his career with one more. He has not won a world indoor title since 2006.
“I’ve got to go in with a strategy that I have to attack the first throw,” Hoffa said. “I’ve been very tentative in my first throws at major championships, and it’s gotten me absolutely nowhere. I need to go in there and just throw for broke.
“It doesn’t matter that I threw 22 meters here. It doesn’t matter if I go to London and I throw the world record. If I don’t win the Olympic Games, no one’s going to care what I’ve done now.”
Cantwell, of Columbia, Mo., said he will try to fine tune his throwing in the next five weeks, which he calls a quick turnaround.
“I’m going to do my best or I’ll die trying,” he said. “To be honest, I would be happy with just any color (medal), but I really do want the gold.
“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I haven’t got many years left, so I’m going to give it a shot and this is going to be it — these (Olympic Games) or the next one and I’d rather do it this one.”
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSAorg. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.