Reese Hoffa is one of the finest throwers of this or any other generation. His love of the sport, his sense of humor, his competitve nature, and his willingness to speak to media are all of part of why he is so popular.
David Hunter wrote this week’s feature on the grand old man of the shot, Reese Hoffa.
The Grand Old Man Of The Shot
Revered Veteran Reese Hoffa Solves Life’s Puzzles
May 15th, 2016
During his college days at the University of Georgia, young shot putter Reese Hoffa was introduced to Rubik’s Cube – that maddening, multi-colored, rotating block. Like virtually everyone who has ever tackled the puzzle, he was immediately stumped. But soon Hoffa transformed his initial frustration into a challenge to conquer the Cube. “In college, it took me about 3 months to learn how to do it,” explains the reigning Olympic shot put bronze medalist who patiently learned how to align all of the colors – and could do so in 39 seconds. “Once you begin to do something consistently, you start learning something new every time you do it. As your knowledge base increases, you just see the task in a more insightful way. I guess that’s what happened. I began to see where the patterns were and where you needed to put the pieces to make it go together pretty quickly.”
The unwavering focus the Georgia native employed to solving a light-hearted parlor pastime nearly two decades ago has proved to be an effective approach that Hoffa employs when confronted with life’s other puzzles. In the field event he has since mastered, accomplished performances were more a product of his consistent training habits than his natural talent. Struggling as a high school junior, Hoffa – finally seeing where you needed to put the pieces to be successful in the shot put – barely qualified for the state meet, but ultimately won the shot put championship that same year with a throw of over 58 feet. His surprise win earned him the nickname, “The Unknown Shot Putter.”
Hoffa’s road to shot put success remained bumpy in college. As his throws progression continued, Hoffa was often in the midst of high level collegiate shot put battles. But he never won a national collegiate championship – with only a senior year SEC outdoor shot put crown as his sole collegiate title. The young man who was adopted at age 3 had come a long way. By the time he left the collegiate ranks, Hoffa, with a good work ethic and an undistracted focus, had molded himself into a very good shot putter – but not yet necessarily a great one.
But Hoffa soldiered on as a fledgling professional. Slowly, the field athlete started to see all of the pieces of professional shot put success and began to put them together. “What got me better was being around other pros,” reveals Hoffa. “At about that time, Adam [Nelson] moved from California to Athens to train with Don [Georgia coach Babbitt]. I started practicing with him and I saw what a professional does in practice,” he explains. “That was about the time the athletic department brought in Brad Snyder – a Canadian who was a multiple time NCAA Champion – and he started training at Georgia also. So I had two really good training partners who pushed me in the weight room and pushed me in the ring. Having these guys here when I was just a guy in the background just trying to learn is what I needed to be a professional.” Suddenly, a pivotal missing piece of the puzzle was in place. “I started catching on – it took me about two years. Then I had a little bit of a breakthrough and made the World Championship team in 2003. Adam and I both made the team together and we went to Paris. It was a great experience and it helped me get me ready for 2004 to make my first Olympic team.” I then went to [the 2004] Worlds and got a silver medal behind Christian [Cantwell].” A taste of global success? Another piece in place. “What allowed me to make this progression was first having Don who showed me what it would take to be a professional and then also to have professional athletes around to actually show me the way. Traveling around Europe with Adam, John [Godina], and Christian, I learned how to be a professional from those guys.” And with a pause Hoffa adds, “Ultimately it made me a better thrower and set me up to have a very successful career.”
And a successful career he has had, indeed. The 3-time Olympian captured the bronze in London – his first Olympic medal. He has won 4 World Championship medals – 2 of them gold. Hoffa has been US-ranked every year since 2000 and world-ranked every year since 2003. And he has enjoyed #1 rankings on both the U.S. and world lists four times [’06. ’07, ’12, and ’14]. His 99 world-ranking points in the shot places him #3 on the all-time list.
Notwithstanding his success over an extended career, Hoffa – who has represented the U.S. on over a dozen global teams – has never taken himself too seriously, instead bringing a refreshing, free-spirited attitude to an often straight-laced sport that could benefit from more light-hearted moments. In his early post-collegiate period as a struggling professional, Hoffa – who now represents the New York Athletic Club and Nike – reprised his high school days and once competed as a masked athlete under the title of “The Unknown Shot Putter.” When he won the national outdoor shot put title in 2007, Hoffa capped his victory with an antic run up and down the homestretch waving a food truck purchased turkey leg before sliding – turkey leg and all – into a prone position at the finish line to pose before a gaggle of photographers.
The revered shot putter has often been chided about the on-again, off-again approach he has brought to his eventual retirement. More than once, Hoffa has coyly hinted that the conclusion of his career is nearing, only to later retract his earlier statements and – like the James Brown Of The Shot Put – throw off the cape and storm back into the ring with more gusto than ever. But Hoffa can offer a cogent explanation. “After 2012, I had the automatic bye to go to the world championships in Moscow. So I thought I would go and compete. And I was hurt that year. I made the final. I did what I normally do [finished 4th]. So I wanted to see what would happen in 2014. In 2014, I said I would compete in 2015, but only if I won the Diamond League. In my mind, I thought it [winning the Diamond League] would be virtually impossible as so many things would have to fall into place for me to win the Diamond League and give me the automatic bye to go the 2015 world championships. By some miracle, I threw 21.88m [71’9Â½”] to win the Diamond League final and win the Diamond League trophy.” And with a shrug and a smile, Hoffa proclaims, “And so, I guess I’m around for ’15!” And he adds, “When I won the Diamond League championships in ’12 and ’14, those wins gave me automatic byes into the world championships the following years. So that’s really why I stuck around.”
And so the veteran throws athlete is teeing it up for one final year and perhaps a curtain call in what would be his 4th Olympic Games – thus joining a very select group of American track & field athletes. “There are not too many Americans that have made it to 4 Olympics in the shot put. It would definitely be rarified air. And it would be an incredible honor for me to have managed a career without having too many major injuries that has put me in a position to make teams.”
Hoffa understands the magnitude of the task before him. And he speaks with candor about his sub-par year in 2015. “2015 was definitely not a good year for me,” admits Hoffa. “I was definitely showing my age more than in any other year. I was too fat. I don’t think I was a dedicated to the sport as much as I am this year.”
After last year’s wake up call, Hoffa has been working hard to address the challenges of 2015, to give himself his best chance to make this year’s Olympic team. “I decided that I really needed to start losing a little bit of weight,” confesses Hoffa. “In our particular event, weight puts a padding on your body and it does work to your advantage to be heavier. The heavier you are, the more mass is behind that ball as you’re pushing it out there. But what I began to notice is that I have a lot of mass behind the ball, but I am not moving very fast into those positions so I am losing distance that way. So it’s not a question of strength or power – it’s there. But I am not able to apply the same degree of force because I am not moving as fast. So losing weight was one of the big things that I really concentrated on this year. My goal is to be around 310 and start competing at that weight. I want to be watching my diet, making sure I am not eating entire sleeves of Oreos,” laughs Hoffa. “I am trying to be smarter.”
Like all successful aging athletes, Hoffa has learned to do all of the little things that many talented younger athletes often overlook – basically to take better care of himself. “I am also trying to be more diligent with massage therapy, making sure I am working with my trainers with smaller injuries making sure they don’t grow into a major injury, and just listening to my body a little bit more,” he explains. If I go into the weight room to bench – say, 500 pounds – and I’m getting up there and 460 is not moving very well, we’ll just stop at 460. We’ll pick it up next week and retry that lift. Those have been the keys to keeping me healthy and keeping me on track and hopefully getting me prepared for this year.”
“Hopefully by the time, I get to the Olympic Trials in July, I am in the best shape of my life and could potentially make that Olympic team. I know that it is going to incredibly difficult – there are a lot of very talented athletes out there.” Hoffa – who has represented the USA on over a dozen global teams – has a plan. “I make it a goal,” he says. “And if don’t [achieve my goal] then my decision to retire after this year is kind of verified and I realize I am no longer competitive in the shot putting world and it might be time for me to step away and let the younger kids take over.” But then his face lights up. “If I’m lucky enough to make that team – which I would be extremely excited about – a trip to Rio to end a career would be pretty awesome.”
Now in the gloaming of his career, the 38-year old thrower has already begun working on another of life’s approaching puzzles: when and how he will step away from the sport and turn his attention in another direction. When pressed about whether he would compete beyond this Olympic year, Hoffa pauses, deflects the question, and – like any good politician – delivers a vague response which leaves a small window open. “It is hard to say ‘never,'” Hoffa declares. “It would be tough. I have been doing this such a long time. The effort required to be great at this sport is so high, I am just not sure I want to do that.” But Hoffa has spent time thinking about the next puzzle he will tackle. “I have my own throws academy so I want to continue to do that. I am going to continue to teach kids how to throw the shot put,” explains Hoffa. “I want to start training kids in sports – how to run; how to sprint. I want to teach clinics – go around the world and teach other people how to throw – not just in the U.S.”
Reese Hoffa pauses to emit an uncharacteristic sigh before reflecting on how he would like to be remembered in the sport he so clearly loves. “I know I’ll never be remembered as the greatest of all time. That’s kind of reserved for people who are pushing closer to world records and have won numerous Olympic championships,” declares Hoffa, the realist. “Hopefully I’ll be remembered by the people who have had the pleasure of watching me compete as an athlete with a great passion for being a shot putter; that I enjoyed every moment of throwing that steel ball and figuring out ways of making it go just a little bit further. I hope I’ll be remembered as a kid with a lot of passion; that when I competed, I competed well; that for the most part, I was always in every meet making people earn it. And hopefully I’ll be remembered as an athlete who made the shot put exciting for the people watching.” With all of the critical puzzle pieces he has put in place, Reese Hoffa will be.