MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now to an athlete we've been following as he prepares for the Beijing Summer Olympics. Shot-putter Adam Nelson has already won two Olympic silvers and a bunch of national and world championships, but he's still dreaming of that elusive gold medal. This year, Adam Nelson has thrown farther than any other shot-putter, but three months before the games in China, he's making a risky change in the technique that has served him so well. NPR's Tom Goldman has been spending some time with Adam Nelson.
TOM GOLDMAN: If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? For the past eight years, Adam Nelson's ability to heave a 16-pound metal shot has been anything but broke. Eight years ago at the 2000 Olympic trials is when Nelson says he uncorked his first great throw. He makes it sound like a first love.
Mr. ADAM NELSON (Shot-Putter): That's the one I remember most, because it was special to me.
GOLDMAN: As he prepared for his final throw at the trials, Nelson already had made the Olympic team. But he was in third, trying for a first-place finish.
Mr. NELSON: The crowd was clapping in the background. You could hear it just going...
(Soundbite of clapping)
Mr. NELSON: And I was just - I felt this surge of adrenaline. 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.
Unidentified Man: ...turned 25 years old a week ago.
(Soundbite of screaming)
Unidentified Man: And he lets everything fly on his throw - five feet past his old personal best of just a month ago.
GOLDMAN: The 72-and-half-foot heave in 2000 was the longest throw in the world in 10 years. It was also the beginning of unmatched dominance. Since 2000, Nelson is the only American track-and-field athlete to win a medal at every major outdoor championship. A month ago, at an Olympic media summit in Chicago, Nelson's rival and former training partner, Reese Hoffa, called Nelson a scary thrower, because - said Hoffa - Nelson really shouldn't be as good as he is.
Mr. REESE HOFFA (Shot-Putter): His technique is so unorthodox. He does things that most people would never think would even work in a shot-put, and he can put it together, and the ball actually goes somewhere.
Mr. NELSON: My usual technique, I come around, wide out of the back here.
GOLDMAN: At a track in Charlottesville, Virginia, Adam Nelson shows NPR video producer John Poole in slow motion what he does, as he spins through the shot-put circle before flinging the shot up and out. What's unorthodox is his left leg. It's always lagged behind in the spin, looping high and wide, so Nelson ends up basically pushing off with his right foot as he throws. Most elite shot-putters whip their left leg around in the air and back down to the ground quickly, then push off with both feet.
A couple of weeks ago, Nelson and his coach, Kerry Lane, decided he should try it that way. As they joked at the track, wanted to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Mr. NELSON: Yeah. 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. You know?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah. Yeah. You know? And he is only 32. So...
Mr. NELSON: I've only been doing it one way for 20 years.
GOLDMAN: Seriously, though, Nelson says some nagging doubts prompted the change.
Mr. NELSON: I've been, you know, never really pleased with my results, regardless of what they are, constantly want more. 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.
GOLDMAN: Even though he says it's a small change, what about those two decades of muscle memory he's now asking his muscles to re-memorize? And what about doing this with the Olympic trials and, he hopes, the Olympic Games looming?
Mr. NELSON: You know, it makes it fun. It makes it exciting. 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.
GOLDMAN: This weekend, the first test of whether change is good - a meet in Southern California pits Nelson against some of his biggest shot-put rivals.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
NORRIS: Now, Tom Goldman provided a very detailed description of that technique, but if you want to see it with your own eyes, go to our Web site. We've got a video there. You can find that at npr.org.