The adopted child given a second chance in life 30 years ago by the Hoffa family made the most of his third chance in the Olympics.
Reese Hoffa, the former Lakeside High and University of Georgia star, won the bronze medal in shot put at the London Olympics on Friday. The pinnacle fulfillment of his athletic career had the 34-year-old Hoffa taking stock of his life the morning after.
“You do a lot of reflecting when you achieve a lot,” said Hoffa in a phone interview from London on Saturday. “So it’s been a lot of reflection and a lot of just happiness.”
The biggest reflection Hoffa made was of the turn his life took when he was adopted from a Louisville, Ky., orphanage when he was 5 years old. That moment set in motion the course of his Olympic destiny.
“Adoption is definitely about second chances and I took advantage of that opportunity,” he said. “I was in what you would consider a middle class family and we never really wanted for anything. The only request my parents gave is if you’re going to do something, work as hard as you possibly can for it and never give up.”
Hoffa didn’t give up after two disappointing Olympic performances in Greece and China. And he kept pushing through all six throws on Friday despite struggling with his trajectory in the cool London evening.
The frustration that showed on his face as he walked away from the ring unable to hit the throws needed to overtake the leaders was gone by the time he was draped in an American flag, hugging his wife, Renata, and mother after finally earning an Olympics medal.
“It means absolutely everything,” Hoffa said immediately after. “I can’t tell you how hard it is to dedicate four years to just this one moment. I’ve had three wonderful opportunities and to finally get it done here in London was pretty awesome.”
His A-mom (adoptive mother), Cathy McManus, watched from the stands and had no quibbles about the color of honor her son earned.
“That’s a bronze. That’s a medal,” she could be heard saying after Hoffa’s final throw came up short.
Hoffa added to a streak of American medal winners in shot put that extends back to the original modern Olympics in 1896, joining John Godina, Adam Nelson and Christian Cantwell in keeping that streak in tact since John Barnes won the last shot put gold for the U.S. in 1996 in Atlanta.
“The No. 1 thing is the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and realizing that I am officially part of U.S. shot-putting history,” he said. “In the U.S. we’ve had a tradition of getting medals in every single Olympics. … I love being part of that history.”
That his place in the U.S. lineage started on a track in Augusta still amazes Hoffa.
“When I picked up the shot put at Lakeside with (coach) David Machovec, I would have never thought that almost 20 years later that I would be sitting here with an Olympic medal,” he said. “Basically I just wanted to be good enough to make the travel team or be better than the other guy throwing next to me. That’s as far as I thought.”
The path from the orphanage to the Olympic ring seems extraordinary to Hoffa and was filled with other “podium” moments he holds in even higher regard. The biggest one was graduating from the University of Georgia, something he never imagined as a 5-year-old kid who couldn’t read the alphabet or count when he joined his new family.
Hoffa used his Olympic platform to encourage other parents to consider adoption and giving other children a new chance at the life he has.
“There is an incredible future for you once you are adopted,” is the message he often tells. “I tried to spread awareness that there are a lot of great kids out there who are actually extraordinary and all they really need is a home to give them a chance. That’s kind of my story.”
His adoptive mom made her first international trip to see Hoffa’s bronze moment. Her second husband, Gene McManus, recently passed away and she wanted to be there for her son.
“To have her there was huge,” Hoffa said. “I wanted to make sure it counts. I know she would be incredibly proud if I went out there and competed hard and didn’t quite get a medal. But to get a medal with my mom there and to see how happy and proud she was was incredible.”
His father and stepmother, Steve and Vicki Hoffa, followed his performance from home in Harlem. Hoffa calls his stepmother “my publicist and biggest fan” and wishes she was physically up to coordinating the demands he’ll have once he returns home as an Olympic medalist.
“Vicki has cancer and doesn’t move around well now,” he said. “That’s going to the biggest thing I miss through this. If she had her way she’d already have this planned from the moment I got off the plane from London with the media already there waiting. I wish she could still be part of this.”
Hoffa said he often jokes around with his friends about the “power of the medal.” He doesn’t know what that power will reap, but the one thing he plans to do with it is inspire his 13-year-old nephew, Evan Hoffa, with a visit to his Grovetown Middle School class.
“In middle school you kind of struggle to find identity,” Hoffa said. “… I would hope that me doing this small gesture and bringing the Olympic bronze medal to his middle school will give him the confidence to buckle down and be the student that I know he can be.”
As for himself, Hoffa only has one wish he hopes his medal performance might help deliver. He attended the 1997 Masters Tournament practice round with his father, who got tickets through his former employer the Sweetheart Company, and called the experience of walking the course “magical.” His one dream is to have the chance to play the course one time with his father.
“He taught me golf and I still play golf and to be able to share that with my dad would be huge,” he said.
Stating that this would be his final Olympics, Hoffa has been soaking up the experience. He walked in the Opening Ceremonies for the first time. He’ll travel back to Georgia on Monday to begin preparing himself for the remainder of his goals this season.
His plan is to compete through the 2014 World Indoor Championships in Poland, home of the two-time reigning Olympic shot put champion Tomasz Majewski.
“The world indoor championships is where I kind of began my career,” he said. “I got my first medal in 2004 in Budapest, Hungary. To make another world indoor team and have a chance to get another medal would be very special and kind of a capper on my career.”
After that, all he wants is to join his wife as a high school teacher and start his post-competitive life. Renata teaches math at Oconee County High School near Athens.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 15 years old and if ever there was a time for me to start looking for other opportunities to do something else, this might be it,” said Hoffa. “The longer I postpone it, the harder it will be to get away from the sport. If you put an expiration date on it you can kind of start setting yourself up.”
Hoffa is studying to take the Georgia teacher’s certification test.
“If there’s any high school principals looking for an ex-Olympic medalist to help in the P.E. department, possibly strength and conditioning, and who comes with extensive credentials in the shot put – so your throws will be pretty good – call me,” he said.