ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Tomasz Majewski is the new Olympic champion in men's shot-put. That means Adam Nelson is not. We've been following Nelson for several months as he trained for Beijing in the chance to win a gold medal. He won silver in the two previous Olympics. Today, Nelson did not come close - a disappointment not only for him but for other American shot-putters, too.
From Beijing, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
Unidentified Man: Men's shot-put finals…
TOM GOLDMAN: On a beautiful Beijing night, warm but not muggy, Adam Nelson felt as good as the weather. Earlier in the day, he had the second farthest throw in the qualifying round. Earlier in the week, he suffered a painful injury, a muscle pull that knocked a rib out of place. But it wasn't bothering him. He was ready.
Stepping into the throwing circle for the second time, his first throw was a foul. Nelson told himself to see it — the whirling move through the circle, the soaring steel ball. Another foul. The shot landed long, but wide of the marked sideline. No problem, he told himself. He knew he was capable of a big throw; he'd done it before. In fact, he had the farthest throw in the world this year, but he had to uncork one now.
After three throws, the top eight shot-putters move on for three final rounds. The rest are out. Nelson, with two fouls, stepped into the circle once more. He put the shot straight this time, but stepped over the line. A judge raised the red flag.
Unidentified Man: A foul for Adam Nelson. You (unintelligible) in this competition.
GOLDMAN: And that was that. Adam Nelson, the only American track and field athlete to win a medal at every major outdoor championship since 2000, crashed out of the biggest one, didn't even make the final round.
Do you know why you didn't?
Mr. NELSON: I got a lot of answers, but just not the right question.
GOLDMAN: He felt okay, he said. He certainly wasn't going to use his injury as an excuse. He was focused, confident, but it just didn't translate. After the last foul, Nelson sat down, put on his white USA track and field baseball cap, and looked stunned.
Mr. NELSON: After the third foul, I kind of said to myself, well, I came out here. I really did the best that I could. And I'm not going to let myself walk out of here with my head held low - I want to hold it high.
GOLDMAN: Nelson's goal heading into Friday's competition was to perform his best at the right moment. He felt he hadn't done that in Sydney or in Athens, even though he walked away with two silver medals.
While the result in Beijing might not show it, he said he did the best he could - not that he was happy, nor was his American teammate Reese Hoffa. The reigning world champion, Hoffa finished seventh. Hoffa, Nelson and Christian Cantwell were called the Big Three heading into Beijing. Reporters who had no clue about the fickle, pressure-packed nature of an Olympic competition chocked up three medals for the U.S.
Cantwell came through and won the silver Friday, but he was at a loss to explain Hoffa's and Nelson's performances.
Mr. CHRISTIAN CANTWELL (Shot-putter, U.S. Olympic Team): I have no (bleep) clue to be honest with you besides the fact that it just didn't go. Sometimes it just doesn't go. I mean, you know, the sport's brutal. It's - sometimes it's so easy, and sometimes it feels like that ball's 100 pounds.
GOLDMAN: Adam Nelson is 33. His wife is expecting their first baby next month. If this is the end of his Olympic career - which he hedged about after the competition - I asked what would he tell his child about the experience.
Mr. NELSON: That I cared about something so deeply that I was willing to sacrifice a whole lot of time and effort to pursue that goal for 12 years. I don't know if I'm going to be able 16, but I'll make that decision in about a month or so.
GOLDMAN: When we finished talking in the bowels of the Bird's Nest stadium, Nelson turned and walked past the doorway. Reese Hoffa was just coming out. They hugged and then walked slowly, side by side, toward an exit - two big men sharing one tough night.
Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing.