From all appearances, shot-putter Randy Barnes doesn't have a care in the world. At 22, he has an Olympic silver medal and a world record to his credit. He talks with a good ol' boy drawl, a product of growing up in Texas and West Virginia. "It's not an accent, I just mumble a lot," he says, and laughs. Then there's his walk—more of a majestic waddle, really—which is either the result of his having 32-inch thighs or his confident attitude. All this—the strut, the voice, that ready laugh—gives him the aura of a happy-go-lucky kind of guy.
But Barnes is a 6'4½", 295-pound worrywart. What does he fret about? Anything he thinks, or imagines, might interfere with his throwing. He worries, for instance, about what he eats and wants to lose 10 pounds—but not an ounce of muscle.
"I worry constantly. I'm scared of the thought of getting in a car accident and hurting my right arm," Barnes says. "I'm absolutely absorbed in what I'm doing now and the intensity it takes to work out. I can't work out 100 percent if I have something else on my mind. I just can't."
His goal is to better the outdoor world record of 75'8", set in 1988 by Ulf Timmermann of East Germany, who beat Barnes for the Olympic gold in Seoul last September.
May 14, 1989
"I think the record should go early in Randy's outdoor season," says Robert Parker, the throwing and multievents coach at Texas A & M and Barnes's mentor since Randy first set foot on the College Station campus in 1985. "Maybe we'll push for as many as 77, 78 feet. Those sound like outrageous numbers to people who know the shot, because they understand how hard it is. But then they don't see what we do every day. Randy threw 77 feet in practice last year."
Barnes's typical day includes 1½ to two hours of throwing, two hours of lifting weights (he can bench-press 565 pounds) and 45 minutes of plyometrics (a series of exercises in which he jumps over boxes to improve his quickness and balance). The license plate on Barnes's red Corvette bears witness to his long-term target, which he hopes to reach before the 1992 Olympics. It reads: 80 FEET.
In the U.S., where putting the shot is the concern of a very small group of very large people, the sport is not as well known to the public as, say, bowling. So, a recent trip with Barnes to a College Station bowling alley might be instructive to shot-put neophytes. The heaviest bowling ball is the same weight (16 pounds) as the grapefruit-sized shot. Barnes handles the bowling ball as if it were made of Styrofoam, whipping it down the lane with such force that the pins seem to explode. Bowling is not really his game—his aim is wild—but when he hits an outside pin it careens crazily and knocks down more of its mates than seems plausible.
Barnes is the best U.S. shot-putter since Brian Old-field, whose antic personality and explosive ability made him a fixture in world competition throughout the 1970s, and Barnes's performances have rejuvenated the event in this country. He has sparked particular interest on the indoor circuit. After falling off the programs of most major indoor U.S. meets over the past decade, the shot was added to many meets this winter just to showcase Barnes's talent.
Still, there were a couple of worrisome moments during the winter: Barnes experienced his first earthquake, and his favorite shot broke. It was the one he had used to set the indoor world record of 74'4¼" in Los Angeles on Jan. 20. The next night at a meet in Portland, Ore., the sphere hit the cement floor after a warmup throw and cracked open. "Some kind of greenish powder came out of it," Barnes says.
That was upsetting, but not as upsetting as the Los Angeles quake he experienced at 10:53 p.m. in his hotel near the Los Angeles airport two nights before his record heave. As soon as Barnes realized that the rumbling and rattling weren't the result of an airplane crash, he ran into the hallway of the hotel, wearing only his underwear. Other guests were out there, too, similarly attired. Excuse me, ma'am.
But no matter what the 1989 indoor season threw at Barnes, it couldn't come close to the drama of the shot-put competition in Seoul. On the afternoon of Sept. 23, the Olympic record was broken six times by the three medalists, Timmermann, Barnes and Werner Gunthor of Switzerland. Barnes was off on the first three of his six throws, a result, he says, of paying too much attention to everything going on around him—"to soak up the moment." Finally, with only one throw remaining and in fourth place with a best effort of 69'11", he decided it was time for some reckless abandon. So he whirled around and unleashed an Olympic-record toss of 73'5½". For five minutes he was confident of gold. Then Timmermann, who already had broken the Olympic record twice that day, stepped into the circle and reached back for the pressure put of his career, 73'8¾", to win the gold by 3¼ inches. It was, by all accounts, the most exciting shot-put competition ever.
"It was definitely the highlight of my life," Barnes says.
It also ended all the flash-in-the-pan talk. In April 1986, as a 19-year-old Texas A & M freshman, Barnes had made a throw of 71'9½", which eclipsed the school record, set by the legendary Randy Matson, and moved Barnes up to No. 5 on the alltime U.S. list. Barnes even appeared on the June cover of Track & Field News. The young phenom had been a good, but not exceptional, shot-putter in high school, so his sudden improvement came as a big surprise.
Until his senior year at St. Albans (W.Va.) High, Barnes had used the conventional glide technique: The thrower starts with his back to the landing area, does a half turn in the ring and throws. But during his last year of high school, he searched for a way to rely less on sheer power and more on technique, and made the change to his own interpretation of the spinning method popularized by Oldfield: The thrower starts at the back of the ring, discus style, and makes 1½ turns before releasing the shot. Because the spin is harder to master, Barnes's form was primitive.
"The spin is difficult," Parker says. "It takes incredible balance and coordination." Parker, a former college decathlete at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, had just signed on as a graduate assistant at Texas A & M when he saw Barnes throw for the first time, in the fall of 1985. "Randy was a great talent with little technique," he says. Barnes was basically muscling the shot to 57 feet.
Parker and Barnes concentrated on technique for the next eight months and began a weightlifting program. The coach cites Barnes's increased strength and better technique as the basis for his phenomenal improvement in that period. The two also obtained a 16mm film of Oldfield's 1975 throw that went 75 feet, a distance that remained unsurpassed until Timmermann's world record last year. (Oldfield's put was not recognized as a world record because he set it while on the professional ITA circuit.) Barnes studied the film over and over.
In late April 1986, Barnes's shot-putting career peaked, then plummeted. It all happened at the Mount San Antonio Relays in Walnut, Calif., where Barnes first met Oldfield, who was competing at age 40.
"In the warmups we were testing each other, the heck with the meet," Oldfield says. "I threw one about 73 feet, and then he came through and imitated exactly what I did, and he went 75 feet, 11 inches."
Mt. SAC was Barnes's first competition under international rules. He had always taped his palm when he threw, but IAAF rules forbid that. No problem, Barnes thought; he took off the tape and threw as hard as ever. Big problem. He tore the tendon sheath on his right middle finger and began a year-long odyssey in search of relief.
"I kept icing it, thinking the pain would go away, and it never did," he says. "When it would start to feel good I'd go out and put just a little bit of pressure on it, and there would be a lot of pain." He sought out specialists in Texas, Ohio and Washington and got conflicting advice. Barnes also heard some interesting theories about the injury. "People would say, 'Oh, you had so much phenomenal improvement, something had to give,' " he says. "I was starting to believe them, thinking that maybe such progress caused an injury that wouldn't go away."
You could say Barnes was worried sick about the injury, because he developed a bleeding ulcer from daily doses of anti-in-flammatories and aspirin. Finally, his mother, Mary Lou, told the family doctor in West Virginia about her son's problem. He recommended that Barnes consult a Charleston, W.Va., plastic surgeon and hand specialist, Dr. Hans Lee. In June 1987, Lee removed scar tissue and about a half inch of the tendon sheath from Barnes's finger. The operation was a success, and Barnes decided to concentrate on training for the Olympics. He didn't reenroll at A & M, though he lived with Parker in College Station until he recently moved to an apartment in Houston.
Barnes is inevitably compared with Matson, who was also an Aggie student when he won a silver medal, at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and who went on to set three world records the following spring, breaking the 70-foot barrier. His best was a world-record 71'5½" in 1967, and he won the Olympic gold at Mexico City in 1968. No shot-putter came close to Matson's record for seven years; at one point the 22 longest outdoor puts in history were all his.
Matson, who is now the director of the Association of Former Students at Texas A & M, keeps an eye on Barnes. "We've talked about the pressures and expectations," Matson says. "People expected me to throw 70 feet every time out, which probably shortened my career. If he throws 80 feet, people will expect that. After the first time I threw 70 feet, I went to a meet in Los Angeles and threw 67 feet, 11 inches, which was three-quarters of an inch over the previous world record, and people booed."
The sport is different now, Matson says. "The athletes can afford to train full-time and can continue after they get out of school, so they're with the sport longer, when they may hit their best years. And I'm not close enough to it to know about the steroid business, but I'm sure they've done a lot in that area. They're so much bigger. We trained hard and ate well, and we never got that big. Makes you suspicious."
(Barnes, by the way, gets ticked off when he hears the s word. "No, I don't use steroids," he says. "And I'm tired of the rumors and the accusations. It just hurts the sport.")
Matson has some regrets about his shot-put career. "After I got over 70 feet and got on top I changed my motivation," he says. "Before, it was to throw an inch farther every time, but then I got a little complacent, and my motivation became to stay Number 1. I competed against people and not the tape measure—that was my mistake."
Barnes doesn't seem to have any problem with motivation nowadays; his anxieties keep him going. "If I didn't think I could throw over 70 feet tomorrow, I would feel terrible," he says. "It's my identity. I'm scared of the day it won't go any farther."
Oldfield isn't worried about Barnes's future. "I think he's just going to own the sport," he says. "I knew that from the first time I saw him. I always wanted to throw the perfect throw—that's something I've thought about, and I've had warmup throws go very, very far.
"With Barnes I feel like Zeus on the mountain, looking down and saying, 'Ah! There's a young lad with the potential to throw the perfect throw.' "