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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Reigning Olympic champion keeps up his spirits, keeps workouts going in Arkansas

COURTESY FILE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Ryan Crouser, acknowledging the Hayward Field fans after winning the 2016 Olympic Trials, has his sights set on the world record in the shot put.Ryan Crouser's date with Tokyo has been postponed by a year, but the big fella isn't going to whine about it.

The 2016 Olympic shot put champion has been on pace to successfully defend his title, but he'll have to wait until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I have mixed feelings (about the one-year delay)," Crouser said from his home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. "It's a little bit tough as an Olympic athlete; four years is a long time (between competitions). You're marking your calendar for the next time.

"It's frustrating because I felt I was in a good place, but it was a good call (to postpone). I will still have the opportunity to compete next year."

Every country has different regulations in terms of how a prospective Olympic athlete can train.

"Because of that, it would have been unfair to have the Olympics this year," said Crouser, 27, in his second year as a volunteer assistant coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks. "Give it a year. I'm hoping by early (this) summer we're back to life as we know it and all the athletes will have an equal opportunity to train for next year."

The Barlow High grad has been up an upward path since early 2016, when injuries and academic pressures threatened to end his career. Crouser had his undergrad degree in economics from Texas and was working on his masters in finance there while trying to train for an Olympic bid.

"Even in high school, I was a student-athlete," he said. "My studies came first, and I was still really school-focused at Texas. There was some transition to that, and it took awhile to adapt. I had some injuries, too."

Crouser had an excellent sophomore season in 2014, winning the first of two NCAA shot put titles. He struggled some with injuries and a coaching change in 2015, and that fall began a masters program with the goal of finishing it in one year.

"It was a two-year program done in 12 months," Crouser said. "I was stretched pretty thin. My training schedule got kind of chopped up. I worked out about 90 minutes a day. I did the best I could, but it was difficult. There was a high level of stress and not a lot of sleep."

At one point in January 2016, Crouser had a conversation with his father, Mitch Crouser, a former discus thrower who was fourth at the 1984 Olympic Trials and an alternate on the U.S. team.

"I was having trouble throwing 62 feet," Ryan said. "I told my dad, 'I don't think it's going to work out.'"

His father's response: "Do the best you can. Do the work now and down the road it will pay off. You don't need to be throwing far in December; you need to be throwing far in May and June and July."

Sage advice. Ryan finished his masters work in May, which created more training time and alleviated the pressure he was feeling from schoolwork.

In March, he ended his college career with a personal-record toss 71-3 1/2 to claim the NCAA Indoor crown. He moved to Chula Vista, California in May to live and train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Two months later, he won the Olympic Trials in Eugene. And six weeks later in Rio de Janeiro, Crouser blew away the competition with an Olympic-record mark of 73-10 3/4 to win the gold medal.

"Unbelievable," he said. "It felt like everything I'd been working on and the frustrating grind I'd gone through paid off. I was able to make a year's worth of progress in a couple of months."

Crouser was born into track and field royalty. The Crousers are the First Family of throwers, not only in the U.S. but in the world.

Ryan's father was a world-class discus thrower. His uncle, Brian, was a two-time Olympian in the javelin. Another uncle, Dean, won both the shot and discus at the 1982 NCAA championships, won the discus in 1983 and still holds the Oregon school record in the shot (69-1 1/2) and discus (216-2). Cousin Sam was NCAA champion and an Olympian in the javelin, and Sam's sister Haley is the former national girls high school record-holder and a two-time Big 12 champion in the javelin.

"It was special, but to me, that's what I grew up with," Ryan said. "I didn't know any different. All of the brothers were throwers, but they were also all athletic and competitive.

"I didn't start track until middle school, and that's just because it was the first school sport I could go out for. It was a lot of basketball and football and other sports in the driveway or in the street. I was in a competitive atmosphere."

Ryan's father and uncles provided instruction, but applied no pressure.

"They helped a lot once I decided it was something I really wanted to do, which wasn't until high school," he said. "I played about as much basketball as I did track.

"It was more passive guidance, but they were there to help support me and get me on the right track focusing on fundamentals."

Crouser set the national high school indoor shot put record of 77-2 3/4 with the 12-pound shot as a senior at Barlow, then had a terrific college career at Texas, winning the NCAA shot title twice both indoors and outdoors. Since coming into his own in 2016, he has won U.S. outdoor titles and been ranked No. 1 in the world three of four years.

In summer 2019, Crouser unloaded a PR of 74-7 1/4, the longest mark in the world since Randy Barnes threw world-record 75-10 1/4 in 1990. Barnes tested positive for an anabolic steroid two months later.

A few months later, the greatest shot put competition in history took place at the world championships in Doha, Qatar. American Joe Kovacs won at 75-2, edging Crouser and New Zealand's Tom Walsh, who both threw 75-1 3/4. Crouser took the silver medal on the second-best throw.

In February, Crouser won the U.S. indoor title in Albuquerque with a world-leading 74-1 3/4, winning by more than 5 1/2 feet. Only Barnes has thrown farther indoors (74-4 1/4), and that was in 1989.

Considering the unusually short offseason — the world championships were a month later than usual, and the U.S. Indoors two weeks earlier — Crouser was thrilled.

"It was not an optimal training base, with almost no speedwork, and I missed the world indoor record by less than three inches," he said.

Then came the coronavirus outbreak, and track and field — like everything else — went dark.

Crouser moved to Fayetteville last year to train with Arkansas throws coach Mario Sategna and help out with the Razorbacks. After three years in the dorms in Chula Vista, he was ready for a change.

"It felt like for me to continue to grow and develop, I needed to expand," Crouser said.

That worked until the world shut down a few weeks ago. Now, Crouser is practicing social distancing along with the shot. With the Arkansas training facilities off limits because of COVID-19, he has had to improvise.

"I found an older shot put ring in a grass field," he said. "I got an orbital sander and I've been grinding on (the ring) for a while. I got it down to some fresh concrete and have a decent surface on it now.

"It's uphill and real muddy. There is a lot of time spent cleaning off the shots and cleaning off my shoes, but I'm doing the best I can. I have a lot of time throughout the day, so my I can spend two, three, four hours out there throwing, working on little things."

Crouser has been able to support himself through a sponsorship wtih Nike, which provides a base income. The majority of funding comes from prize money in Diamond League and world championship events and occasional appearance fees.

The 6-7, 315-pound Crouser ranks fifth on the all-time world shot put list. He is behind three athletes in the late '80s and early '90s, when steroids were prevalent, and Kovacs, who has him by a quarter inch. Crouser's PR is only 8 1/4 inches behind Barnes' world record of 75-10.

"(The world record) is one of the ultimate goals for me," Crouser said. "I've had the potential to be there a couple of times and it just hasn't quite happened. All I can do is keep working at it, doing the best I can to put myself in a position to have a chance to break it. One of these times, I'll get it."

Crouser said he has "never used any performance-enhancing drugs, never tested positive." He'd like to leave no doubt that the world record-holder in the shot put is clean.

"Yeah, that's a big part," he said. "Track and field has had a black eye with this for a long time, but one of the biggest changes is the retroactive testing. Now we can go back eight years and test for things. It's a lot easier to catch (cheaters) now. You'll get a suspension and stripped of all your medals.

"That's been a big help in cleaning up the sport, both in catching people but also as a preventative. If you do decide to cheat, you're going to get caught."

Many shot putters are competing at world-class levels well into their 30s. Crouser will be 31 at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, 35 at the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

"I'll keep doing this as long as I feel like I'm improving, and as long as my heart is really in it," he said. "Once the passion for it goes away, it's a tough thing to fake. I still really enjoy it, going out there every day to practice.

"These days, it's just me, but I'm going out there and competing against myself."

World-class track and field athletes are looking at a "rapid-fire schedule" the next three years, Crouser said, with the '21 Olympics, the '22 world championships in Eugene, the '23 world championships and then the '24 Olympics in succession.

"I'll definitely compete through then," Crouser said. "Then it will be a time to reevaluate, but I'd like to make the team and compete in an Olympics on American soil in 2028. It's a long ways away, but that's a dream of mine."

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