Penn State's Joe Kovacs Gears for 2021 Olympics in 'Enemy Territory'
Joe Kovacs went to Penn State as a shot-putter but longed to play football. The coaching staff offered him a chance to walk on at fullback, but the track staff wouldn't hear of it.
Turns out, that was the best move. Kovacs, a Big Ten champ at Penn State, went on to win two world titles and the 2016 Olympic silver medal in the shot put. In a normal world, Kovacs would be in Tokyo now, gearing to throw at the 2020 Summer Games.
Instead, he's in Columbus, Ohio, training with wife and coach Ashley, resetting himself for the 2021 Olympics. So how does a Penn State graduate who held his bachelor party at a Lions-Buckeyes football game wind up living and training in the shadow of the Horseshoe?
It's a love story that has turned into one of the U.S. Olympic team's top partnerships.
"When I came here, I didn't have any intention of having Ashley coach me," Kovacs said. "Now, having my wife as my coach is a huge advantage."
Two of Kovacs' primary coaches in his career have been his mother and his wife. Joanna Kovacs Royer coached her son at Bethlehem (Pa.) Catholic High School, where they often trained in the school parking lot. She helped him earn a scholarship to Penn State, where Kovacs became an All-American.
Kovacs won the world title in 2015 and the silver medal in Rio de Janeiro a year later. Along the way he met Ashley Muffet, the throwing coach at Ohio State. She was a four-time All-American thrower at Kentucky who grew up in North Canton, Ohio, in a Buckeyes home.
After the 2017 world championships, Kovacs decided to move from Los Angeles, where he lived and trained, to Columbus. Their relationship bloomed, They were married in November 2018. During that time, Ashley became Kovacs' coach as well, leading him through the most difficult time of his professional career.
Kovacs suffered a career crisis in 2018, as his distance and confidence waned. He considered retiring, even succumbing to doing online job searches. Ashley guided the two-time world champion through a reconsideration.
"He thought he had to have this edge all the time, this combat-mode mentality," Ashley Kovacs said in an interview last year. "He was just in battle mode for so long and just got tired of it."
Together (Ashley was the U.S. men's throwing coach at worlds), they rebuilt Joe's psyche and technique, and he emerged as a refreshed athlete for the 2019 worlds. He threw a personal-best 22.91 meters to win the title in Doha, Qatar, by one centimeter. The throwing community considers it the greatest shot-put competition ever.
Joe and Ashley Kovacs still were celebrating less than two months later, when Penn State visited Ohio State for their growing football rivalry. Kovacs is a huge Penn State football fan: He worked at Beaver Stadium his senior year and drove Joe Paterno to the locker room after the coach's final game in 2011. Kovacs threw his bachelor party at the 2018 Penn State-Ohio State game.
So, of course, they had backstage passes for ESPN College GameDay (Ashley's office was next to the set) and threw their own tailgate. Joe and fellow U.S. shot-putter Darrell Hill represented Penn State. They were outnumbered, and the Buckeyes won 28-17.
"I am living in enemy territory," Kovacs said, laughing. "The rivalry here with Michigan is unreal, but the people who are actually sports fans recognize the Penn State rivalry as true competition. They have been beating up on Michigan for all these years, not to put that team down, but that's mostly a historical rivalry.
"But I think when Penn State comes to town or they go to Happy Valley, everybody here, even outside the team, recognizes that you're going to play a good team and it's going to b a nail-biter to the end."
Like everyone else, Kovacs is hopeful to see a Penn State-Ohio State game this season. In the meantime, he is training for the 2021 Olympic trials, scheduled for June in Oregon, to win a spot on the U.S. team.
At 31, Kovacs is a veteran thrower, having won four medals at international championships since 2015. Once the Olympics were rescheduled, Kovacs viewed the delay as a bonus to recover and restart his training.
He last competed at the Millrose Games in February and might not throw in a meet this year. He's training at a middle school, a reminder of his days training alongside his mother, who drew chalk throwing lines in the high-school parking lot.
In all, Kovacs considers himself pretty lucky.
"Especially in an individual sport, where everything is on you, who you have in your corner is really important," he said. "And I've been really fortunate to have mom, a great coach in Art [Venegas] in California and now obviously Ashley. Things went pretty well, that's for sure."
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