ATHENS — At this point, Reese Hoffa is a grizzled old veteran when it comes to the Olympics. He’s only 34 years old, but London is his third Olympic Games and he has literally been all over the world as shot putter.
But that doesn’t make him immune to the rush that comes with competing with the best in the world. When Hoffa steps inside the circle for Friday morning’s qualifying round (the finals are Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.), he expects to be just as nervous and excited as he was for his first Games in 2004.
“I am definitely in a different place mentally,” said Hoffa, a UGA graduate from Augusta who still lives and trains in Athens. “But I still get very excited about going out there and testing my skills against the best shot-putters in the world. You get a little bit older and you don’t quite bend and move the way you used to, but to see if you’ve still got it is very exciting.”
Clearly, Hoffa has still “got it.” In fact, just as retirement and life after track and field started to enter Hoffa’s mind, he has gone out and had one of his best years ever. He recorded seven first-place finishes in professional meets on four continents in 2011 and carried that momentum into 2012. He finished first in seven meets in the first half of the year. Among those victories was a winning throw at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Oregon.
In that meet, Hoffa recorded a world-best throw of 72-feet, 2¼ inches on his third attempt to punch his ticket to London. He topped second-place finisher Ryan Whiting (71-0.75) by more than a foot. Christian Cantwell (69-9.75) took third and to join Hoffa and Whiting on the U.S. contingent in London.
“After 2008, I was thinking, ‘should I retire?’” said Hoffa, a five-time All-American for Georgia from 1998-2001. I’ve been to two Olympics and I’ve had a great career and won some world championships. I felt at that time maybe I had reached a pinnacle. But in 2011 I had a banner year just in terms of my consistency in throwing. Though I didn’t get a medal at the world championships (fourth), I felt like I was still competing with the best the world has to offer. I was beating them on a semi-consistent basis. Taking my punches here and there but still being successful made me think continuing to throw might be fruitful. Hopefully I’ll be in position to get a medal.”
Hoffa has been in this position before. He won the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials before finishing seventh at the Beijing Games.
It remains one of Hoffa’s most disappointing moments as a professional. But he believes he learned some valuable lessons from that experience that he carried with him to London.
Before the 2008 Games, Hoffa was identified as one of the U.S. stars. A gregarious and outgoing character, he was trotted out before the media as one of the faces of the U.S. team. Among the appearances he made was as a guest on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in Los Angeles. He flew there overnight from the East Coast in the middle of his training.
“I learned that you have to be very selfish if you’re going to be successful,” Hoffa said. “When you start compromising those things for other people it can affect you. I was spreading myself too thin and not focusing on the business of throwing the shot put. Coming into this year I’ve really tried to do my best at keeping those things down and keeping those people a little further away so that I’m only focused on the throwing.”
Hoffa, who still works under the supervision of UGA throws coach Don Babbitt, is one of 26 current or former UGA athletes represented in the London Games. The Bulldogs have already claimed five medals from swimmers Allison Schmitt and Shannon Vreeland. Schmitt won the first individual gold by a UGA athlete since hurdler Spec Towns in the 1936 Berlin Games.
Some believe Hoffa could become No. 3. He, Cantwell and Germany’s David Storl are considered favorites.
“I would consider myself a contender, but definitely not a favorite,” Hoffa said. “I think I’ve got to earn that right. But I can’t imagine going there and not throwing well.”
Not after the year Hoffa has had.