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The Strong, Silent Type Thrower Connie Price-Smith is the best woman athlete you've never known

April 19, 1999
April 19, 1999

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April 19, 1999

The Strong, Silent Type Thrower Connie Price-Smith is the best woman athlete you've never known

It has taken years, but Connie Price-Smith has gotten used to
it. No longer does she feel all eyes upon her, people whispering
behind her back. Her self-consciousness came from neither the
widely held belief that all world-class throwers take drugs nor
the fact that she's a black woman married to a white man. Those
were minor headaches. What troubled her was that she stands 6'3"
and weighs 212 pounds, virtually all of it muscle. In this
small-minded world, doting as it does on thin women, her size
has brought her acute discomfort.

This is an article from the April 19, 1999 issue Original Layout

"It really was traumatic for me being the tallest girl in
class," says Price-Smith, who stood 6 feet tall in eighth grade.
"Especially in high school. You want to fit in and be like
everyone else, but you're bigger than the guys. I didn't really
want to be an athlete. Now I like myself, and I'm proud of what
I do."

With good reason. At 36 and nearing the end of her career,
Price-Smith is probably the best woman thrower the U.S. has ever
had. She has won 20 national titles in the shot and discus,
indoors and out. Her bests in the shot (64' 3 3/4") and discus
(212'8") rank her second and fifth, respectively, on the alltime
U.S. lists. Moreover, she is a threat to medal at every major
championship, something no U.S. woman has been for years. With
the exception of the boycott-weakened Los Angeles Games of 1984,
the only post-World War II Olympics at which the U.S. has won a
medal in the women's shot or discus were those of 1960, when
Earlene Brown won the bronze in the shot in Rome. Since then the
women's throws have been dominated by Eastern European
countries, due in no small part to their formerly
state-supported doping programs.

Price-Smith put an end to that streak of U.S. futility in 1995
when she won the silver medal at the world indoor championships
in Barcelona. At the Atlanta Olympics she placed fifth in the
shot--the best finish by a U.S. putter since Brown--though her
husband and coach, John Smith, believes she would have medaled
but for the bad luck of her participation in an ill-timed fire
drill, which aggravated soreness in her left knee.

Smith is his wife's biggest fan, so it's surprising to hear him
suggest that her recent success is due not so much to her own
steady improvement as to the fact that drug testing, while far
from perfect, is working--offering both a strong deterrent and
weeding out the users. Indeed, Price-Smith's world-championship
silver was a bronze until a postcompetition drug test revealed
that Larisa Peleshenko of Russia, who had finished first, had
tested positive for steroids.

"We used to struggle to make a final," says Smith. "Now, if
Connie throws well, she gets a medal. That's kept her in the
sport. If [the level of drug use] had stayed where it was in
1988, she would have gotten out."

What a loss that would have been. Not only is Price-Smith one of
the few top athletes about whom there seem to be no drug-use
rumors--indeed, other throwers go out of their way to volunteer
that she is clean--but she is also a model of sportsmanship and
generosity, a kind of den mother to a talented trio of young
U.S. throwers: Tressa Thompson, Teri Tunks and Valeyta Althouse.
Price-Smith has given up free trips to places such as New
Zealand to give younger throwers crucial international
experience. "It's hard to imagine track and field without Connie
around," says her longtime pal, hammer thrower Lance Deal.
"She's the peacemaker. She has nothing bad to say about anybody."

Price-Smith grew up in St. Charles, Mo., just west of St. Louis,
where her late father, James Price, worked first in a brick
factory and then as a mechanic for Ford. He was not a large man,
John Smith says, but "even at 90 he still had big Popeye arms.
And the women on his side of the family are huge." At St.
Charles High, Connie successfully petitioned the school board to
allow her to play four sports, which she did with impressive
success, winning two state titles in the shot; high jumping
5'11"; running 100 yards in 11.2 seconds; and starring on the
basketball, softball and volleyball teams.

She attended Southern Illinois on a basketball scholarship,
playing center with a kind of Gulliver-among-the-Lilliputians
diffidence. "She was so much bigger and stronger than anyone we
played, so she held back," says her former coach Cindy Scott.
"She didn't want to hurt anybody." In her junior year, 1982-83,
she led the team to a 22-11 record and finished third in the
nation in field-goal percentage (.650). She thought about
playing pro ball in Italy, but instead, with the encouragement
of her husband-to-be, an All-America shot-putter at Southern
Illinois who became her coach in 1985, she took up the shot once
more.

"After watching her throw for three days, I went and got her a
passport," Smith says. "I told myself, If she's not national
champion in two years, I quit."

Smith is one of those detail nerds you find in track and field's
technical events, happy to talk for hours about hip rotation,
lifting schedules and angles of trajectory. "People have taken
John's ideas and made entire Web sites from them," says Connie.
Married in 1990, the couple spent the first three years of
matrimony on the Smith family spread in Portage, Ind., where
three of the 16 acres were mown for throwing, with four throwing
circles. In 1993 USA Today called the Smiths' farm one of
America's "fields of dreams."

"I'd come home," says Price-Smith, "and there'd be 25 high
school kids waiting for John in the backyard." Smith has
individually coached 19 Indiana state high school champions.
Today the couple lives in Bloomington, Ind.

Smith is also on a personal quest. Using the Internet to
correspond with coaches and throwers around the world, he is
hoping to identify the "clean" world record in the women's shot.
Nevertheless, he would be reluctant to publicize it, for fear of
offending throwers whom his wife counts as friends. He has
implored her to read some of the stuff he's collected,
especially the files of the Stasi, the defunct East German
secret police, which point a finger at virtually all the top
throwers from the former East Germany. "I don't read that
stuff," Connie says. "I'd like to think that the world's not
like that. I live in a Norman Rockwell world."

Asked if she has ever been tempted to take performance-enhancing
drugs, she gives a weary sigh. "I was the kind of kid who wasn't
exactly a tattletale," she says, "but I followed the rules. I
thought it was bad not to. Lance teases me because I always obey
signs. I won't go in the OUT door or up the DOWN stairs."

"It drives me crazy," groans Smith, who believes that his wife's
pathological need to follow rules cost her a medal at the '96
Olympics. Determined to learn from the mistakes they had made in
Barcelona four years earlier, when Price-Smith lost 12 pounds
while staying in the non-air-conditioned athletes' village, he
got a hotel room half a mile from the practice track in Atlanta.
It cost $4,500 for the week but seemed worth it until Connie
insisted on being one of the few medal contenders to obey an
obscure IOC rule that requires athletes to leave for competition
from the athletes' village. There, a fire drill 90 minutes
before the shot final, when she was in the shower, sent her
running up and down the stairs, aggravating the sore knee. "It
was the only way things could have gone wrong," Smith says with
a grimace. "But then again, if she'd medaled, she'd have retired
and not done the things she's doing now."

That's the kind of comfort honest throwers must find these days.
Recently, Connie and John looked at old photos of their throwing
pals and grew sad. "Eighty percent of them are gone from the
sport," says Smith. Because women get an even greater boost from
male hormones than men do, coaching a world-class woman
shot-putter has opened Smith's eyes painfully wide. At his
wife's first Olympics, in 1988 in Seoul, the two of them visited
the weight room at the practice track. "We had to leave because
Connie was so embarrassed [about her strength level]," says
Smith, who regards 1988 as the year that drug use reached its
alltime high. To illustrate this, he notes that his wife's best
toss last year, 63'10 1/4", which ranked her fourth in the
world, would have made her only 31st in 1988. "That year there
were four women over 70 feet," Smith says. "Now it's a rarity to
have one. But 1988 was necessary. If it weren't for that, things
wouldn't have swung back the other way, and Connie probably
would have retired."

It has not been easy all these years, training her tail off only
to lose to women her husband is certain were using drugs. What
has kept her going is her love of the athlete's life. Certainly
it hasn't been the money. Price-Smith has never had a guaranteed
contract with a sponsor--only performance-based deals--and in
1995, her most lucrative year, she made between $40,000 and
$50,000, as much as a midlevel high school teacher. A few years
ago she studied massage therapy and now works about five hours a
week giving massages at the Iron Pit gym in Bloomington.

For years it was whispered around the throwing community that
Smith was a bad coach because his wife was not throwing as far
as everyone believed she could. "I really wondered what I was
doing wrong," Smith admits. Because Connie is so clearly a
gifted thrower--"Best levers in the business," says Deal, not to
mention her 7%-9% body fat and her ability to dunk a
basketball--the couple still hears criticism.

"If she changed things about her technique, she'd throw
farther," says Kevin Toth, who won the men's shot at this year's
Millrose Games. "I think all women need to be more aggressive at
the end of their throws. Connie never grunts or yells. She's
never manly."

Yelling, of course, means calling attention to yourself, and
that is something that big, strong women aren't always
comfortable doing. "You battle it as a coach," says Indiana
women's coach Randy Heisler, who threw the discus at the '88
Olympics. "The women want to be feminine, and part of that is
being a little subdued. It's easier for guys to be aggressive in
the throws. It's a learned trait in females. Women don't have
all that testosterone [naturally] running through them."

Price-Smith plans to throw at least through the 2000 Games in
Sydney. As she nears the end of a great if relatively anonymous
career, she is finally learning to celebrate her strength and
size. Last year, at a weightlifting competition in St. Louis,
she deadlifted 501 pounds, a U.S. record. Last October, in Las
Vegas, she cleaned up at her first Scottish Games, setting five
world bests, including heaving a 28-pound weight over a bar set
at 18 feet. "It's fun for her to venture out in other sports and
show her versatility," says Smith.

It is fun, but Price-Smith seems at least as proud of something
else she's done. At the Iron Pit she met a tall young woman
hockey player who clearly was timid about using her size. With
Price-Smith's encouragement, the girl has become more
aggressive, more effective. "She has blossomed," says
Price-Smith with a smile. "That's one thing I would love to do
for American girls: make them feel more comfortable with who
they are, with their bodies."

COLOR PHOTO: RALF-FINN HESTOFT/SABA What troubled her was that she stands 6'3" and weighs 212 pounds, virtually all of it muscle.
Price-Smith has won 20 national titles in the shot put and
discus, indoors and out.