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Shot-Putter Changes Technique Ahead of Olympics

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Shot-Putter Changes Technique Ahead of Olympics

Shot-Putter Changes Technique Ahead of Olympics

Shot-Putter Changes Technique Ahead of Olympics

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/90442796/90484363" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Shot-putter Adam Nelson has won two Olympic silver medals and has the farthest throw in the world this year. John W. Poole/NPR hide caption

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John W. Poole/NPR

Shot-putter Adam Nelson has won two Olympic silver medals and has the farthest throw in the world this year.

John W. Poole/NPR

Read More about Nelson

Nelson is the only American track-and-field athlete to win a medal at every major outdoor championship since 2000. John W. Poole/NPR hide caption

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John W. Poole/NPR

Nelson is the only American track-and-field athlete to win a medal at every major outdoor championship since 2000.

John W. Poole/NPR

Three months before the Olympic Games in Beijing, U.S. shot-putter Adam Nelson is making what may be a risky move: He's tweaking his technique.

For the past eight years, Nelson's ability to heave a 16-pound metal shot has served him well. He has already won two Olympic silver medals and several world and national championships, and he has the farthest throw in the world this year — 73 feet, 6 inches. Now, he hopes to qualify for his third Olympic Games and win an elusive gold medal.

Nelson says he uncorked his first great throw at the 2000 Olympic trials. The way he describes it makes it sound like a first love: "That's the one I remember most. Because it was special to me."

As he prepared for his final throw at the trials, Nelson already had made the Olympic team. But he was in third and trying for a first-place finish.

"I felt this surge of adrenaline," he recalls. "Sort of the last thing I remember before I started the process, started to move across the circle, was putting the shot-put into my neck and saying, 'Yeah, this is it.' And I felt the hairs on the back of my neck sort of stand up and I was just focused on that moment, where all I was aware of was that I was about to throw a shot-put a really long way."

His 72 1/2-foot heave was the longest throw in the world in 10 years. It was also the beginning of unmatched dominance: Nelson is the only American track-and-field athlete to win a medal at every major outdoor championship since 2000.

An 'Unorthodox' Technique

A month ago, at an Olympic media summit in Chicago, Nelson's rival and former training partner, Reese Hoffa, called Nelson a "scary" thrower, saying he really shouldn't be as good as he is.

"His technique is so unorthodox," Hoffa said. "He does things that most people would never think would even work in the shot-put — and he can put it together, and the ball actually goes somewhere."

To the untrained eye, it's difficult to see what Nelson does so differently from other shot-putters as he builds momentum with a spin and then flings the shot up and out. But what's unorthodox is his left leg. It has always lagged behind in the spin, swinging high and wide, so Nelson ends up basically pushing off with his right foot.

Most elite shot-putters stay low in their spin, whip their left leg around in the air and back down to the ground quickly, then push off with both feet as they throw. A couple of weeks ago, Nelson and his coach, Kerry Lane, decided he should try it that way.

As they joked at a recent practice in Charlottesville, Va., they wanted to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

"It seemed like a good time. It was sort of a now-or-never kind of thing, because the Olympic trials are only a month and a half away," Nelson says.

Learning New Tricks

Nelson, 32, says some nagging doubts prompted the change.

"I've been, you know, never really pleased with my results, regardless of what they are — constantly want more," he says, "and I've never really changed my technique. So then it dawned on me that maybe I'm not doing things the right way with my throwing and so I kind of had this sort of epiphany — I'm like, 'Well, I'm going to just change my technique.' "

Even though he says it's a small change, he's working against two decades of muscle memory, with the Olympic trials — and, he hopes, the Olympic Games — looming.

"It makes it fun. It makes it exciting," Nelson says. "And in all honesty, I believe on any given day, no matter how I throw or what I do to get to the front of the circle, when the shot leaves my hand, it's going to go far enough to win. ... Whether or not it's true, it doesn't matter. It's what I believe."

This weekend will bring the first test of whether change is good for Nelson. A meet in Southern California will pit him against some of his biggest shot-put rivals.

Video: Adam Nelson demonstrates and talks about his new technique.