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TOKYO – On his first of what was certainly going to be six throws in the men’s shot put final, Ryan Crouser set a new Olympic record at 22.83 meters. That’s just under 75 feet. That’s like throwing a palm-sized bowling ball across almost an entire tennis court.
The blue baseball cap with an American flag on it that had been attempting to contain an unruly mane of red hair, flew off in the process. His sunglasses, however, stayed on.
The record he broke was his own, set when he won gold in Rio at 22.52 meters. Crouser also owns the world record, set in Olympic trials just a couple of months ago at 23.37 meters.
In case it wasn’t abundantly clear at that point that Crouser was competing largely against himself, he bested his barely 15-minute old Olympic record again on the second throw: 22.93 meters, just over 75 feet. That time, his hat stayed on.
That one held for a little longer, but not much. On the last throw of the day, he did it again. A new record. This one: 23.30 meters. Over 76 feet.
So, uh, yeah. Ryan Crouser won gold.
If he could have thrown that far with the eight-pound shot he used as a kid, it would have flown clean out of Larry Crouser’s backyard in Gresham, Oregon, over the fence, and into the neighbor’s. Instead, when Larry first introduced his grandson to shot put, Ryan could barely make it the 20 feet from the concrete pad to the patch of sand. Those early throws would land on the lawn, and Larry had a really, really great lawn.
Larry Crouser, 86, passed away the day before his grandson flew to Tokyo for his second Olympics.
“He had a lot of health issues towards the end, but the one thing [is] you'd never [see] him in a bad mood. He was always happy, and he was always so supportive,” the younger Crouser said, draped in an American flag, his baseball cap having been replaced with a cowboy hat.
The Crousers celebrated Christmas 2019 together and then, like so many families, they were forced apart as the coronavirus pandemic overtook our lives and left empty spaces and uncertainty where loved ones had been. Everything stopped. The 2020 Olympics, for one. The chance to sit with his grandfather and be reminded to stop and smell the roses sometimes, for another.
Earlier this summer, at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, Crouser threw a shot put further than anyone ever has. Shortly after, with the trip to Tokyo on the horizon, he was able to see his grandfather again for the first time in over a year. Larry Crouser had lost his hearing by then, so Ryan would communicate to him through writing. He wrote that he was the new world record holder. And what grandfather wouldn’t be proud? But Larry was overjoyed. He had watched Ryan take his very first throw and now he watched the record-setting throw over and over.
“Thousands and thousands of times,” Crouser said.
And then he was gone, before Crouser got to write him a note about defending his Olympic title with a second gold medal.
“The Olympics is a stressful place,” Crouser said. That had started to sink in over the past week. This year, more than ever. He was following the protocols, he felt safe.
“But there's still, that back [of] your mind, every morning you take a COVID test that you don't know if you're going to get a chance to compete until you actually do.”
Crouser watched as pole vaulter Sam Kendricks tested positive and couldn’t compete. Plus, he was missing his grandfather.
“And I was just sitting there in my bed — and I had a great practice — but it was just like, I felt emotionally drained.”
So he wrote one last note addressed to Larry Crouser.
Grandpa, WE DID IT, 2020 Olympic Champion!
“I wrote that down, and I felt like as soon as I did, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.”
That was a few days ago. Crouser is confident. He had reason to be.
In the qualifying round, Crouser had out-thrown the second place finisher by .56 meters — the other 11 athletes to advance were separated by .59 meters. In the finals, nearly everyone who advanced improved.
And yet still, of Crouser’s six throws only one was not far enough to win it all. Amid a disappointing and, at times, embarrassing showing from the American men at Tokyo Olympic Stadium this week — including a failure to advance out of the prelims for men’s 4x100 relay — it was just the first men’s track and field gold.
His teammates were not surprised.
“When he throws that I'm not really surprised because I expect it,” Joe Kovacs said about setting a new record with the first shot. If it wasn’t for Crouser, Kovacs would have had his own Olympic record. Instead, his 22.65 meters was enough to take home silver, behind his teammate. New Zealand’s Thomas Walsh took bronze with 22.47 meters.
“He just keeps doing what he was already good at, better,” said Payton Otterdahl, who ended up 10th. “He's just technically so good, he's gotten so much bigger and stronger, become more comfortable in the ring. Sky's the limit with that guy.”
In the end, after Crouser had bested his Rio Olympic record six times in six throws, he pulled out the note he had written days before. After missing him all week, it felt like his grandfather was there with him in spirit.
“I know he'd be proud if he was here.”
Hopefully, Crouser had fun. The records are nice, but that’s not what mattered to Larry.
“He really instilled that in me that it's not so much where you end up, it's how you get there, and enjoying the process of getting there.”
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