Humble roots propel Kovacs in shot put

2015 Pre Classic shot put champion Joe Kovacs enters the USATF Outdoor Championships at Hayward Field in TrckTown USA this week as the world leader in the event. (USATF photo)

The man who leads the world in the shot put this year started out so humbly his high school did not have a throwing circle, so his mother took a 3 ½-foot length of string, attached one end to a piece of chalk and drew a circle on the school’s parking lot that adjoined a grass field.

Voila! Instant practice facility.

Joe Kovacs, you’ve come a long way, baby.

How far? His resourceful mother, Joanna Kovacs, was his first throws coach at Bethlehem Catholic High School in Bethlehem, Pa. He’s now coached at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., by the esteemed Art Venegas.

“I trust my coach, Art Venegas. He’s the reason I’m doing so well,’’ Kovacs said of the man who has a history of developing elite throwers and accomplished throws coaches in equal measure.

From that parking lot in Pennsylvania, the 25-year-old Kovacs now steps into smooth, broom-brushed rings around the world to compete with the best the event has to offer.

He won his first U.S. national championship in 2014 with a then-personal best of 72 feet, 3 ½ inches to rank No. 3 in the world by Track & Field News magazine.

In April of this year he improved his PR to 73-4, and at the Prefontaine Classic in late May, he scored a final-throw victory over two-time World Champion David Storl at 72-7 after the German had reached 71-11 on his last attempt.

“It’s always nice to come here,’’ Kovacs said of Hayward Field in TrackTown USA. “The crowd is so knowledgeable. It’s always fun to have that competition. Storl is a good competitor. The goal is to beat the U.S. guys. The next is the Worlds. The difference is a lot of things that happened last year are allowing this to happen. I was able to train through indoors and come out and pick my battles.’’

Kovacs next big battle will be back at Hayward Field this week for the USATF Outdoor Championships (June 25-28), when spots on the U.S. team for the IAAF World Championships in Beijing will be at stake. Kovacs will have as his primary competition at least five men who were ranked in the top 10 in the world a year ago in Reese Hoffa, Ryan Whiting, Christian Cantwell, Kurt Roberts and Ryan Crouser.

“We’re so deep,’’ Kovacs said. “Last year we had 12 guys in the top 20. There’s always somebody who’s going to show up. We’ve got to get through USAs first. Whoever does well at USAs (often) comes back with a medal. You’re probably in the top three in the world.’’

That Kovacs is in the top three in the world is due in part to his mother, who puts the truth in the old saying, “Behind every great man is a great woman.’’ When her husband, Joseph, died of colon cancer in 1997 when her son was 7, Joanna Kovacs became young Joe’s father as well as his mom. When there was no one at Bethlehem Catholic High qualified to coach this budding talent in the shot, mom stepped up.

“I was a thrower myself in high school,’’ she said. “Back then you did every sport. I did field hockey, basketball and track. Back then he was into football but I said, ‘You’ve got to try track to stay in shape for football.’ He started getting really good at it. His freshman year he had success. His coach at Bethlehem didn’t know that much about throwing so I ended up coaching him for two years.’’

Kovacs was a glide thrower as a freshman and sophomore in high school. He didn’t switch to the rotary technique until a speaker at a clinic urged him to do so because of his short physique – none other than Hoffa, who, at 37 is now trying to hold off a rising tide of youngsters led by Kovacs.

“He said, ‘you’re a little short, you should try the rotation,’ ‘’ said Joanna Kovacs, who was so struck by the size of Hoffa’s calves she aimed her video camera at them as much as the throws themselves.

As a junior in high school, Kovacs hooked up with a club coach who knew his way around a throwing circle, so Glenn Thompson, who had also coached Whiting as a prep, refined Kovacs’ spin technique to the point he reached 64-10 ¾ with the 12-pound high school shot. At Penn State a few years later, Kovacs developed into a 69-foot thrower as a senior in 2012.

To advance his post-collegiate career, Kovacs decided Venegas was the best option, so he struck out on a cross-country drive to the Olympic Training Center a couple of days after Christmas 2012.

And who was with him in his Jeep Grand Cherokee? Mom, of course.

“Over Christmas break he said, ‘I’m ready to head out there,’ and I said, ‘I’m coming with you,’ ‘’ Joanna Kovacs said. “We jumped in the SUV and made it a road trip.’’

They left Pennsylvania in a snowstorm and arrived days later at the Grand Canyon in a snowstorm, diverted from the North Rim to the South Rim because of inclement weather.

“It was the most terrifying moment of my life,’’ Joanna Kovacs said. “You can’t even see the road. I was never so scared for my life. We were literally going five miles per hour.’’

They made it to the South Rim just as the sun was rising, a grand metaphor for the dawn of Kovacs’ promising career. A day later, it was New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas. The next day, they rolled into the OTC.

“It was an unbelievable experience,’’ she said. “Joey and I are so close. It’s a bond you can’t break.’’

Now in his third year working under Venegas, Kovacs is all about earning a spot on Team USA for the Worlds in Beijing. Physically, he’s built along the lines of Hoffa – a shorter thrower who must generate velocity in the ring to propel the shot as opposed to taller athletes whose throws tend to be higher-arcing.

“It’s important to get in there with the guys who are always there in big meets,’’ Kovacs said. “If you’re part of it, you carry a little something extra on your shoulders. You want to represent the USA. It’s all about USAs.’’

When Kovacs returns to Hayward Field for the men’s shot put final on Saturday at the USATF Outdoor Championships, his biggest fan will be there in his corner, as she always has been.

The story of Joe Kovacs can’t be written without that piece of chalk she wielded so long ago.

Previous TTUSA stories by John Crumpacker:

Hunger drives Rodgers on and off track

Felix lays groundwork for Olympic year

Jager hopes to lower U.S. record in steeplechase

Best still to come for U.S. triple jumper

Olympian inspired by motherhood

John Crumpacker was a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades. In that time he won seven national writing awards and covered 10 Olympic Games. He was president of the Track & Field Writers of America on two occasions.