Shot (put) heard round the world

Reese Hoffa aims for Olympic gold

Shot (put) heard round the world

Reese Hoffa makes an attempt in the final of the men’s shot put during the World Indoor Championships in Valencia, Spain. He placed second with a throw of 69 feet, 5.5 inches.

Photo by: Thomas Kienzlea

One month later, Hoffa’s training continues at the UGA track. He’s getting more and more attention—an interview with Men’s Health, a photo shoot for ESPN Magazine, interest from the “Today Show”—and today, in fact, a cameraman from NBC affiliate WXIA-TV in Atlanta is taping.

On March 10, Reese Hoffa (BSEd ’02) emerged half-asleep after a 13-hour flight from Valencia, Spain, where he won a silver medal in shot put at the Indoor World Championships. Tired and hungry, he was making his way out of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when he got two phone calls.

The first was from an ESPN crew that wanted to schedule an interview. The second was a call from one of two anti-doping agencies that handle drug testing for the track and field world. At their instruction, Hoffa drove to a hotel and submitted to a drug test before finally heading home to Athens. It was an inconvenience, but Hoffa is philosophical since U.S. track and field is one of the most tested sports around.

“When you’ve built a career like mine, the last thing I want to do is have it tarnished with going out there and cheating,” he says. “There’s too much on the line.”

He’s similarly patient with the ESPN crew and an additional interview a couple of days later. It’s his week off, and he’d rather be golfing, watching movies, playing video games like “Call of Duty” and refining his Rubik’s cube skills. But that’s the price Hoffa pays for being one of the best shot put throwers in the world—especially in an Olympic year.

Two weeks later, Hoffa has resumed his training regimen at UGA’s Spec Towns Track. It’s Tuesday, so he’s throwing, and his preparation is methodical. Entering the ring from the same side, he stands with his feet against the toeboard and looks out over his target area for a long moment. He turns and strides slowly but purposefully to the back of the ring. He swings the 16-pound shot put backward in his left hand, then transfers it to his right palm, holding it high in the air and rotating it slightly in his fingers. Lowering his right hand, he brings his left over to meet it and carefully places the shot against his neck. His left arm extends out to the side. And then the measured pace vanishes as Hoffa whirls 540 degrees and launches the shot.

UGA Assistant Track Coach Don Babbitt watches while shooting video and occasionally reacts with a nod or quiet comment. He signed Hoffa for UGA and coached him through his four-year All-American college career and beyond.

“Reese doesn’t need to learn anything more, really—it’s like teaching Tiger Woods how to play golf,” Babbitt says. “He pretty much knows how to play, but he might look for some guidance on certain elements of his game from an experienced source.”

Hoffa is throwing just over 60 feet—far from his personal record of 73 ft., 7.25 in. at a London meet last August, but not surprising. It’s his second week back in training, and his sore body is still adjusting to the grueling regimen that includes lifting weights and running sprints as well as throwing. He’s also making the adjustment from throwing indoors—on a wood or fabricated surface with a rubber-encased shot—to outdoors—on cement with a steel ball. So at the moment, he’s focused on perfecting his technique.

“Reese is a very hard worker,” Babbitt says. “He’s very diligent.”

His hard work has paid off. Last August Hoffa won the IAAF World Outdoor Championships in Osaka, Japan; he also won last year’s USA Outdoor Championship. This year he’s competed in six meets, placing top three in all. In the past four years, he’s had 24 first-place finishes. He’s one of a small group of American shot putters—including Christian Cantwell, John Godina and former training partner Adam Nelson—who currently dominate the sport. The U.S. will take three shot putters to this summer’s Olympic games in Beijing, China, and Hoffa aims to be one of them.

“Everything I’ve done up to this point has just been leading up to preparing me for the Olympic Games so there’s no surprises,” he says.

Hoffa attributes his success to the volume of throws and the months of training before he steps into the ring.

“I just keep hitting a consistent mark. Even the worst throws that I take usually are good enough to get a medal at any international competition, and that’s what me and Don hang our hat on,” Hoffa says. “We want to ... make our bottom level higher than anybody else in the world.”

He shows similar dedication off the field. He’s a Rubik’s cube devotee, with a best time of 45 seconds. He juggles 8-pound shot puts and flaming torches. And when there’s time, he works with UGA Assistant Gymnastics Coach Doug McAvinn to perfect gymnastics moves that might get used after a particularly big win. It wouldn’t be the first time Hoffa has celebrated in an unconventional manner. After winning the Drake Relays his junior year, he took a victory lap while carrying a turkey leg. That moment was the result of a private joke between coach and thrower—Babbitt had suggested the stunt as a symbolic gesture to throwers and their legendary appetites.

“He’s a quiet showman,” Babbitt says. “There’s people that talk all the time about what they’re going to do and then when it comes down to it, they chicken out. He’s the opposite, where he’s fairly quiet but then he’ll go out and do the outrageous.”

Hoffa accepted an invitation in 2004 to appear at a meet as the Unknown Thrower. After experimenting for a month with different Mexican wrestling masks, he threw a personal best and beat the number one thrower in the world. The Unknown Thrower made another masked, caped appearance prior to the meet in Osaka last year, where he took first place. Undoubtedly, Hoffa practiced in the mask again.

“I’m a very competitive person,” he says. “In everything I do, I want to be the best.”

It’s another sunny, warm March day when the couple sits down to a lunch of sandwiches and fruit. Upstairs is Hoffa’s “man room,” which houses his trophies and Rubik’s cube collection.

Foerst met Hoffa at the UGA track—she threw shot put and hammer—and her first impression was that of a “goofy, kind of fun-loving guy.” A math education major, Foerst teaches at a local high school and coaches volleyball and track and field. Hoffa, who volunteers as scorekeeper and line judge at her meets, mentions that both were shot putters and state champions in high school.

“That’s true,” Foerst confirms.

Then he one-ups his wife: “I pulled out a discus championship,” and they both laugh.

This scene of domestic comfort is a long way from Hoffa’s early years. He was born Maurice Antawn Chism to a single mother who was 15 and already had a two-year-old son. After struggling for several years to raise the two boys on her own, Diana Chism surrendered them to an orphanage in Louisville, Ky. Hoffa was 4.

Adopted by Stephen and Cathy Hoffa—who have since divorced—he acquired three sisters and a brother and chose a new name, Michael Reese. The family moved to Augusta, and Hoffa excelled in sports and began to think about colleges. But he never forgot about his first family and began searching adoption Web sites. During his junior year at UGA, he found a posting that described his circumstances perfectly—it was Diana Chism, looking for him. Hoffa has since gotten to know his birth mother and counts her as part of his family. If he makes the Olympic team, she’ll travel to China to cheer him on.

In the meantime Hoffa continues his training, with occasional breaks. In March, at the request of his former UGA professor Bryan McCullick, Hoffa met with a group of 5th grade boys at Barnett Shoals Elementary School in Athens. He brought a multimedia presentation, showed them his many medals, introduced them to shot put, demonstrated his Rubik’s cube prowess and answered questions.

“This year all the students are African-American, and to see someone who looks like them and is successful makes a difference,” says McCullick. “You could see in their eyes they were impressed.”

When the kids asked which medal was from his favorite meet, Hoffa’s answer was surprising. He told them that he didn’t win a medal at his favorite meet—he placed fifth, but it was his favorite because he beat his own personal record.</p

“Reese is just very, very grounded,” Babbitt says. “I still think that he is completely happy that he’s able to make a living throwing shot—just making a living, just scraping by. He’s happy with what he’s got.”

But Hoffa, as usual, is focused on his training, getting ready for the upcoming Drake Relays.

“This weekend is my first big test,” he says. “That will tell me where I am for the year.”

His last throw is a beauty—almost 71 feet, he estimates afterward. He pulls a tape measure out of his bag to make sure. The WXIA cameraman holds one end, taping as Hoffa walks to the mark. He checks the tape measure: 71 feet, 5 inches.

“It’s finally getting into a territory that’s respectable,” he says.

It’s Hoffa’s usual brand of understatement, but for once his business-like demeanor vanishes—and is replaced by a huge grin.

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Search YouTube for footage of Reese Hoffa throwing shot put.