Every time Ryan Crouser flies for work, he braces for questions. Don’t worry, he tells security: the 5-inch sphere filled with 16 pounds of steel pellets checked into his reinforced luggage is just his shot. That rarely helps. It seems that like most people, employees of the Transportation Security Administration do not know much about the shot put, the track and field event Crouser has come to dominate.
“You can’t really blame them, but our bags get pulled every flight,” said Crouser, who flew to New York for the second time in a month last week to compete in the USA Track & Field indoor championships. There, as usual, he competed with his friend and rival Joe Kovacs.
The two are the reigning Olympic gold and silver medalists in the shot put. For the unfamiliar: That’s the event in which gigantic athletes sheathed in spandex heave palm-size spheres the weight of bowling balls — full of steel, lead or tungsten — as far as they can. Crouser got the best of Kovacs again at the indoor championships Saturday in Staten Island, putting his shot 72 feet 10 3/4 inches to Kovacs’ 70 feet 2 1/2 inches.
Crouser and Kovacs’ domination of shot put is one of the lesser known stories in track and field, a sport that does not have to worry about overexposure. Shot put at the elite level is an often thankless job, with most of the suffering and little of the glory common to other professional sports. The athletes’ work is grueling and doesn’t make them rich. It barely makes them famous, even in their hometowns in Oregon and Pennsylvania.
It has, though, made each of them a friend as they travel the world, someone with whom they can bond over their absurd intake of food, their rare moments in the spotlight and the simplicity of their sport.
“You don’t have to worry about the implement or the elements or even a team,” said Crouser, who is 6 feet 8 inches tall and about 320 pounds. “It almost gets addicting to measure your progress so accurately. All that matters is pure power.”
Crouser and Kovacs are embarking on an 18-month globe-trotting journey that will most likely take them to the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar, and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where they hope to successfully defend their titles — or, in Kovacs’s case, swap places with Crouser on the podium.
Being the best in the United States these days generally means being the best in the world, whether their fellow Americans notice or not. They took first and second place at the Millrose Games this month in Manhattan, before repeating at the national indoor championships last weekend in Staten Island.
So how does one become good at shot put? Start by learning math.
“There’s not much more to throwing a shot than launching a cannon ball,” Kovacs, who has a finance degree from Penn State, explained in a recent interview. “When the ball comes out, the angle and velocity is just a physics problem. If you can put the velocity behind it, you’re going to have a good throw.”
(Shot-putters might be the only athletes in the world who refer to themselves seriously as “human cannons.”)
The athletes keep their eyes wide open as they push the shot forward, and are able to estimate their throw’s distance within a foot. The common “spin” technique uses rotational momentum for power rather than the more traditional and linear “glide” approach. Each release produces a bellow.
A good throw begins in the athletes’ legs. But to deliver the shot, they need arms that are strong — and limber. That’s why professional shot-putters spend every week doing gymnastics. The critical move is a “giant,” in which the men leap up and rotate their 300-pound bodies around the high bar, which bends under the strain. Those workouts supplement hefty weight sessions in which they bench press more than 500 pounds and squat 700. When he wants a challenge, Crouser follows his girlfriend to yoga.
Once they’re done, the work isn’t over. That’s when it is time to eat.
Both men eat so much food — at least five full meals a day, no fewer than 1,000 calories at each — that it becomes a chore.
“I don’t even like food anymore,” Crouser said. “Each one of my meals is half of what a normal person eats in a day. And I do that five times. If I ever feel hungry during the day that means I’m not doing my job. So I eat all the time. Sometimes before another meal I’ll stare at it for a while, like, ‘This again.’”
His girlfriend becomes angry at him for pushing food around on his plate. So he’ll take shortcuts, like eating a large pizza with three meat toppings from Domino’s. He chases every meal with 16 ounces of milk. “It’s an easy way to get calories,” he said. “Now that I think about it, that’s actually a lot of milk.” (Eighty ounces, or more than half a gallon.)
Kovacs, who is 5 feet 11 inches tall but roughly 300 pounds, starts every day with a carton of scrambled eggs. (“When you’re eating a dozen eggs at once, they’ve got to be scrambled,” he explained.) Dinner is no less than 1 pound of meat, measured after cooking.
Looking more like linebackers and lumberjacks than the runners they hang out with can lead to indignities. When shot-putters win, there are no water cooler showers. Instead, after his victory at the Millrose Games, Crouser received a bouquet of white flowers that was smaller than one of his arms. And most teammates are not exactly on the 5,000-calorie regimen.
“Sometimes when we travel, the meals will be catered to runners: salad and a premade plate with half a chicken breast and a quarter cup of rice,” Crouser said. “We tell them, ‘We need like eight of these.’”
So Crouser and Kovacs will head out together for a second dinner. And then sometimes a third.
Weighing more than twice as much as some of their teammates can have its benefits. When traveling, they have to fit on the plane somehow. “My shoulder will hang out the aisle and bang every time the beverage cart comes by,” said Crouser, whose shoulders measure a seat and a half wide in coach. “So I find a seat by a distance runner.” Forget sitting next to each other — picture preteens in car seats.
There are other adjustments to make outside the track. Rare is the menswear brand that outfits a man with a waist-to-thigh ratio of Popeye.
“I have to buy huge pants to fit my quads in them, and then use a belt to cinch it all together,” said Kovacs, whose waist is 38 and whose thighs are, well, enormous. “I’ve blown out the quads of so many pants.”
It’s not all hard work. Crouser discovered one day that he wielded a sledgehammer with a lot of power, too. So he started a video series built around smashing things. That mostly involved a progressive holiday theme featuring canned pumpkin, a Christmas ornament and a snow globe, with an audience engagement strategy of asking viewers to suggest future targets. He called it, “Gettin’ Smashed With Ryan Crouser.” (The title is literal; like Kovacs, Crouser rarely drinks.)
After the Millrose Games, in a booth at a restaurant near the track, they ingested the last of the day’s 5,000-calorie allotment and held court for the tiny but passionate cohort that identifies as fans of shot put. Some sent plastic cups of beer that the athletes politely allowed to pile up on the table. Others approached for autographs of the meet book’s cover, which featured a picture of Kovacs. “Wow, your entire autograph fits over your biceps,” one admirer observed.
It had been a good day: Organizers showcased their event in the center of the track.
“It’s been cool because these days we go to random places and we throw shot, like on a main street or by a monument, and people seem really into it, they connect,” Crouser said. “There are few professional sports events where you can just go hang out with the winners and talk to them after.
“With us, you can.”