“I don’t have another chance,” said the 34-year-old Hoffa of his third quest for an Olympic medal. “There’s not another four years for me.”
The former Lakeside High and University of Georgia standout thrower in the shot put qualified for his third consecutive Olympics. Hoffa won his second consecutive US Olympic Trials last week in Eugene, Ore., with the longest throw of anyone in the world this season at 72 feet, 2¼ inches.
That throw has his mother, Cathy McManus, of Martinez, so excited she’s traveling out of the country for the first time to see her adopted son throw in London.
“He’s made such strides toward this, he’s going to do good,” said McManus. “I’m believing the third time’s a charm. I’m so positive he’s going to bring home a medal.”
Hoffa knows from experience how hard that is to fulfill. On the biggest and rarest stage in track and field, Hoffa has suffered enough already. This is his chance to redeem the events in Greece and China.
“This is ‘do or die,’ ” he said. “If I want to end my career Olympic-wise with a medal, I’ve got to get after it.”
A self-professed “young pup” in the 2004 Games in the ancient stadium in Olympia, Greece, Hoffa’s inexperience showed as a scratch nullified a qualifying throw and he failed to advance to the medal stage.
“The first Olympics I was just in awe and couldn’t focus myself,” he said. “I was distracted by all the pageantry of the Olympics.”
A reigning world champion and the favorite when he returned to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Hoffa scratched on his final two throws and finished a disappointing seventh.
“I just under-performed,” he said. “No excuse on my performance. It’s the old cliché, I choked at the Olympic Games. Unfortunately that’s a very big stage to have a bad performance. You work so hard to get to the top of the mountain and it takes so little to knock you down. Now it’s a long, even harder road back to the top of that mountain. Once you come to terms with that you can make your way back to success.”
The dejection of not earning a medal he was
certain he would win in China eventually morphed into a new gameplan as he prepared for his final Olympics shot next month in London. Hoffa will be 35 in October, and the same things that worked for him in his 20s wouldn’t work now.
“Putting together a season can take awhile,” he said. “To move forward I had to take a few steps back. I was figuring out what I needed to do as an older thrower.”
To reach this end in London, Hoffa had to rest more and avoid all the distractions that led up to his Beijing effort. He had to learn how to say no to some of the publicity stuff such as his Jay Leno show encounter in 2008 and some of the tempting appearance fees to attend meets around the world that didn’t fit into his schedule.
“The last time was almost too much,” said McManus. “Too much pressure on him. This time he’s not in the limelight so much. He seems to know more what he wants to do and he’s ready for it.”
Said Hoffa: “My approach this year has been to be as selfish as I can for myself. No compromising. It’s a different kind of focus that I’ve not had in previous Olympics. I’ve made the mistakes. In 2008, I never said no to anybody. I felt like I was being pulled in too many directions. Now if a call doesn’t fit into my absolute schedule, I won’t do it. I have a bigger plan – 2012 is my year.”
The results speak for themselves. He started ratcheting up toward the end of 2010 and grew more consistent in 2011, routinely throwing more than 70 feet.
In 2012 he’s steadily improved on his top outdoor throws all season, throwing 71 feet, 2 inches in Kansas in April, 71-6 at the Prefontaine in early June and finally 72-2¼ last week in Oregon.
Now comes London, where Hoffa has thrown so often that he calls it “almost a second home.”
“I’ve created a lot of happy memories being in London,” he said. “I never performed well in Beijing, I had never been to Greece before. But I’ve been to London 10 times and I’m comfortable with the country. Every time I’ve gone back I’ve been able to throw well.”
That doesn’t mean the pressure will be any less when Hoffa steps into the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 3 for the first medal event of men’s track and field.
“I don’t think you ever become less in awe of the Olympic experience,” he said. “It’s unlike anything else you do. I think I have a greater appreciation for it. I’ve done it two times already.”
There will not be another Olympics in Brazil in 2016 for Hoffa. After London, Hoffa plans to wrap up his competitive career within two years. He’ll aim for the 2013 World Championships and shoot for one final World Indoor title in 2014.
Then he’ll settle down into a family routine with his wife, Renata, in Athens, preferably as a high school physical education teacher.
“I’ll stay at home and help other kids live their dreams,” he said. “We’re planning on having kids soon. It’s another transition in my life. My wife is a teacher (at Oconee High School). I’m pretty much open to any job that will allow me to be on the same schedule with my wife.”
Life after the shot put can wait for one last piece of unfinished business. Hoffa does not want to come home again empty handed from the Olympics.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say I would be disappointed because I’ve worked hard to put myself in position to be successful,” he said. “Not getting a medal would put doubt on everything I’ve done.
“It doesn’t have to be gold. I just want a medal.”