"Make a career from loosing, because that's where you learn to win" - JK
Joe Kovacs was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. Pennsylvania, of course, otherwise that could be an introduction for someone of way higher power. To his family, he is known as 'little Joey' because his father was bared the name, Joseph. His father Joseph, passed away from a tough fight against a battle with cancer when Joe was only the age of seven. Another striking blow accompanied this tragedy. The day after his fathers passing, his maternal grandmother passed away as well. Joe states that "it was the worst time in my life, but I had my mom, and she always put me first in her thoughts and actions." Joe then said that “As I got older I realized that my mom went through all that and didn’t have her mom there to be the support that she was to me; my mom is the strongest person I have ever met.”
Joe was active in and attended Holy Family Parish and school growing up. He said he was fortunate to be surrounded by such a great community of family and friends. Then Joe decided to attend Bethlehem Catholic High School, where he found his first love for sports in football. When he recalled his freshman year, Joe said: “I think I was the weakest one in the weight room, I couldn’t even bench the bar and tens!” He then decided to work even harder in the off-season to get in shape and was encouraged to join the Track and field team. He first thought about focusing on the 100m and the jumps to work on his speed for football. He notices that some of the older students he looked up to were going out to the parking lot to throw the heavy ball and plate. Joe decided to follow suit and joined the throws squad. His mother was picking him up from school and saw him throwing the shot put for the first time. She knew a bit about throwing and noticed Joe and his friends were not throwing the implements correctly. Joanna got out of the car and started to help them out. The head coach then asked her if she would become the school's throws coach. From that day onwards, Joanna took another roll in Joe’s life as a coach.
Joe started using the “Glide” technique in the shot put and then when to a summer track clinic. At the clinic, Joe said, “there was this big guy there; he had huge calves, and threw the shot really far.” The big guy said to Joe, “you’re a pretty short kid to try and glide. You should try the spin. I’ll show you.” The big guy turned out to be Reese Hoffa(Link ), who would go on to win a World Championship and an Olympic Medal. Reese showed him some drills to work on. Joe and his mom then decided to seek help from a prominent throws coach in Harrisburg named Glenn Thompson (Link). Glenn coached Ryan Whiting (Link) in high school and had many talented throwers. Joanna and Joe would drive an hour and a half every Sunday to go learn and throw with Glenn. Joe said, “Glenn not only helped me see the next level but took me there as well.” Joe finished his High School career as All-State in football, and a champion the Shot Put & Discus in the PIAA state meet.
Joe then went to attend Penn State and was coached by Danna Wagner during his freshman year. After that year, Dana decided to step away from coaching and was replaced by T.J. Crater(Link). Joe said he was fortunate to have T.J. come in as the group's coach because he meshed very well. Joe was fortunate to have Blake Eaton who was such a great friend and training partner during all of his years at Penn State. Joe said, “In retrospect, I am even more thankful to T.J. because he put up with the chip on my shoulder, that I had for being on a low scholarship, and yet he didn’t really have anything to do with it.” T.J. went to leave Penn State during Joe’s last year of eligibility to be closer to his family. Even though T.J. was not there for Joe’s senior year, Joe attributes the success of his last season to all the work they put in the previous years.
Joe finished Penn State as a four-time All-American, a school record holder, and with a degree in Energy Business and Finance. He considers his collegiate career as just solid but not great. “I wasn’t a great thrower. I had some solid meets, but just didn’t know how to put it all together.” Joe ended his last meet in a Penn State jersey at the 2012 Olympic Trials and places 4th as the Olympic alternate. Joe was the happiest fourth-place finisher, saying “most people are crying with 4th place, I was esthetic because I didn’t know if I would even make the final.”
The week after the trials Joe went to start his professional career at Diamond League in Paris. Joe who had some job interviews lined up for the following week had that decision to make. End his athletic career there and live with the question “what if I only threw 20cm farther and made that team” or let that drive him to find a way to make the next one. Joe chose the latter. He canceled the interview and set out to find someone that would help him take it to the next level. Joe made a list of who he thought were some of the best throwing coaches and notices that a lot of them all went to UCLA and were coached but this guy named Venegas. He spoke to prominent coach Don Babbitt and he recommended to give his coach a call, the legendary Art Venegas.
“I called coach Venegas for the first time. Within 5 minutes on the phone, I was convinced that I should buy a plane ticket to meet him at the Olympic Training Center in California. Then within 5 minutes of meeting him, I was convinced that I needed to move across the country to be coached by him. It was the best decision I have ever made”
On January 1st, 2013, Joe moved in the Chula Vista Olympic training as a full-time resident. He said “it felt a bit like a step back because I had to share a tiny bedroom with twin beds that were smaller than my freshman dorm room. Yet it was a leap forward because everything I needed was there. Food, a weight room, sunny weather, a great training group, massages, and the best shot put coach in the world.” A lot of people told Joe not to work with Venegas, saying he was too much of a dictator, it was his way or the highway, and he would have to adhere to all of his demands. This was music to his ears because he did not have a coach for the previous season and was making all of the decisions on his own. That is exactly what Joe needed, a proven coach that was going to tell him exactly what to do. Joe’s roommate and training partner Eric Werskey played a huge influence on his day to day training. Coach Venegas commuted to the training center every other week for three days. The rest of the time Eric and Joe practiced together. Joe said “Art knew what he wanted me to do, but sometimes I didn’t know what that was. Eric helped me interpret and implement Venegas’ demands”
Through the guidance of Coach Venegas, Joe went on to win the Gold Medal at 2015 IAAF World Championships, 2015 Diamond League Championship, 2016 Olympic Silver Medal, the Silver Medal 2017 IAAF World Championships and increase his PR from 69 feet to 74 feet. Joe is and plans to always be under the guidance of Coach Venegas.
A move for Love
In the fall of 2017 Joe moved to Columbus OH to be with his then girlfriend Ashley Muffet. Ashley is the coach at the Ohio State University and Joe intended on training there after his move. A few months later in February Joe proposed to Ashley on the Gapstow Bridge in Central Park New York City. In November of 2018, Joe and Ashley were married in Ashley's hometown of North Canton, OH. Joe admittedly went through the motions in the 2018 year because his focus was not on the shot put. In February of 2019 Ashley became the primary voice of coaching and consulting to Joe with his training. there were a few rough points before that but Joe and Ashley were able to build up to what is now considered the greatest shotput competition of all time. Below is an article from Sports Illustrated writer Chris Chavez on joes thought from the 2019 world championship competition:
Tom Walsh opened up with a 75-foot throw – the farthest throw I’ve ever seen in a meet. The farthest throw we’ve all seen – ever. It didn’t faze me. 2015 me, who was a world champion or 2016/2017 me, who was a silver medalist, definitely would’ve freaked out. I would’ve lost that meet because I would’ve been so caught up in that battle instead of just worrying about myself. A lot of the analogies that we were sharing all week were to just put on the blinders like a horse. It was all to keep me in the zone.
When I went into that last throw in Doha, I wasn’t really trying to win the meet. That sounds weird to say.
I had a really good week of training. The goal and my personal best at the time was 74-feet (22.57m). I threw that twice in training in the week beforehand. I knew I was in shape so I thought, ‘Let’s P.R. Let’s just get a P.R.’ Hopefully, that would get a medal.
That would’ve barely gotten bronze because it was a crazy competition. I went into there just trying to replicate what we did in practice
We know in the sixth round, there’s always those sixth-round heroics. Somebody always pops up and goes crazy. I wasn’t trying to get affected by that. I turned out to be that guy who was doing it. I was aware of the meet. I was aware that people were throwing far but I wasn’t getting caught up in it. I was just making sure that little-by-little I was inching away.
I remember Dan O’Brien was down on the ground and doing some commentating. He saw me pacing back and forth. I could see him make eye contact with me. I think he knew something was going to come from that.
When the ball came off my hand, it looked like I celebrated that I won the meet. I think because of the relaxation and the intensity of the atmosphere, it found a way to go 75-feet. All I knew is that it was what I wanted to do. That is why I was screaming like crazy. When I turned around and saw the board that said 22.91 and first place next to it – just one centimeter further – yeah, I yelled little bit crazier that’s for sure.
It’s the loudest scream that I’ve ever had for not knowing anything. I’ve yelled at a lot of throws and you can kind of know where it’s at. Generally, there are not three guys throwing over 74-feet at a meet. Sometimes it’s like a 71 or 72-foot meet and you hit that big one, you know you won. For this one, I screamed louder than I ever had. It could’ve landed a centimeter short and I would’ve walked away with just as big of a smile on my face because we got the job done. That for sure was the biggest blind yell I’ve ever had.
Celebrating with His Wife
The first person that I went over to was my wife because that was the goal the whole time. I was shouting, ‘I love you at her.’ It was awesome.
I called her my North Star because I told her I have all this perspective now because of her I know where everything is. And, ‘We did it.’ Those three things right away came to mind.
It was awesome to feel all that frustration from the year before and the doubt – 2018 I definitely thought that was my last year. It was a good run and hang it up – to have all that go down and come back up again, that was a real story of us.
Everyone wants to talk about how crazy of a competition it was statistically. It was by far. But for my wife and I, my mom and my stepdad who were here in February when I was coaching an athlete who beat me at a meet – that’s tough. I can remember being here in February and my mom saying, “Maybe it was a good run.” They’re trying to be positive and helpful but to see it come full circle and have them in Doha…That will never go away for me.