ATHENS, Ga. — The temperature was already approaching triple digits – so hot that an iPhone refused to do anything but allow emergency calls – and Reese Hoffa was just warming up.
“We’re gonna get to 70,” he said matter-of-factly while chalking up his hands and neck after a few standing 40-foot tosses of the 16-pound ball to loosen the muscles.
About a dozen media had gathered under a patch of shade near the shot put ring at the University of Georgia’s Spec Towns Track to watch a couple of Olympians work out.
Taiwan’s Ming-Huang Chang, a two-time Olympic qualifier himself and the 2011 Asian indoor champion, is already well into his daily dose of frustration in the sweltering Georgia heat. For two years Chang has trained in Athens alongside Hoffa and two-time Olympic silver medalist Adam Nelson with throwing coach Don Babbitt. He’s trying hard to reach their level.
As Chang’s throws keep peppering the vicinity of the 20-meter line, his screams of “Come on!” need no translation. When Babbitt instructs Chang to throw only two more, Hoffa steps up the playful banter.
“Ming-Huang, I’m taking the baby gloves off and putting my man gloves on now,” Hoffa said. “No more being nice. ... Impress me, I want to be entertained.”
With each successive throw, Chang grunts more but the shot falls short in the 65-foot range. Hoffa, still early in his practice progression, is clearing his practice partner’s marks handily on every throw.
It’s hardly a fair game the two friends play whenever they’re at home practicing in Athens. Hoffa holds the three top distances in the world this season, setting the latest bar at exactly 22 meters – 72 feet, 2¼ inches – in the U.S. Olympic Trials two weeks ago in the rain in Eugene, Ore. At 34 years old the former Lakeside High and Georgia star is as dialed in as he’s ever been.
He calls it “taking ownership of my throwing and holding myself accountable to throw far every single time I step into the ring.”
Babbitt, who has worked with Hoffa since he first came to Georgia from Lakeside in 1998, sees
nothing unusual in the way his star pupil casually excels even on a sweltering day in front of a half dozen cameras.
“This year has been a very good year for him,” Babbitt said. “He’s been able to hold his training at a very high level all year long. He hasn’t had to worry about finding his rhythm or finding his technique. It’s come pretty easily all year. Part of that is just an accumulation of all the training experiences over the years. He knows what works and doesn’t work for him, choosing how many off days he needs and which days he needs to train hard and things like that.”
Hoffa makes it look so simple. Even in heat that’s unbearable for bystanders, his emotional temperature never rises.
As amiable and down-to-earth as any elite athlete can be, Hoffa is aware that the media who showed up to watch him chalk his neck, spin around and heave a ball want to be entertained as well.
By the time the sun is hitting high noon, Hoffa has stripped off his Georgia T-shirt.
“Here we go,” said Babbitt. “Now we’re getting serious.”
Not all of Hoffa’s throws are clean, but they keep landing well past the 20-meter line in the 70-foot range.
With one more throw left in him as the midday sun beats down, Hoffa reaches a little deeper. The shot put hits beyond the other divots and one-hops into the concrete wall at the far end of the facility. As he wipes off some of the sweat and puts on his T-shirt to get ready for a lineup of interviews, Babbitt breaks out the tape measure.
“Seventy-one, 10-and-a-half,” he announces, nearly a foot longer than the official facility record Hoffa established in competition last August.
It’s not the personal-best 73 feet, 7 inches that Hoffa threw in 2007 in London where the Olympic medal final will be held on Aug. 3, but it’s farther than anyone else in the world has thrown this year.
“It’s never easy being the No. 1 in any sport going into a major tournament or competition,” said Babbitt. “You just kind of have a big target on your back and there’s lots of expectations. But he’s been at a high level so long I think he’s very used to being the No. 1 or No. 2 guy.”
The notion that Hoffa will return without some Olympic hardware this time isn’t much of a concern.
“It would definitely be disappointing,” Hoffa said to an indelicate question about finishing his career without a medal in three Olympics. “But if I go there and execute the way that I know how, I find it very difficult to be disappointed because I feel like I’ve done everything with no excuses and cutting no corners to make sure I’m prepared to throw well at the Olympic Games.”
Babbitt believes it’s not an issue.
“If he throws anywhere near what he can normally do, he should come away with some kind of medal,” he said. “It just depends on what color it is.”