U.S. Shot-Putter Nelson Aims for Olympic Gold Adam Nelson has two silver Olympic medals under his belt, but not a gold. The U.S. track and field athlete is gearing up for Beijing this summer in hopes of taking home the ultimate prize.
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U.S. Shot-Putter Nelson Aims for Olympic Gold

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U.S. Shot-Putter Nelson Aims for Olympic Gold

U.S. Shot-Putter Nelson Aims for Olympic Gold

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The Olympics open in about four months, and despite the political issues, an estimated 11,000 athletes will compete.

NPR is profiling some of these athletes. Today, we meet one of them, and we'll follow him through the games. His name is Adam Nelson. He's an American, and he's one of the greatest shot-putters of all time.

As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, Nelson has won a lot of medals but he's hoping to complete some unfinished business when he gets to Beijing.

TOM GOLDMAN: Adam Nelson would like to be on an airplane. He'd like to be flying home from the track-and-field Indoor World Championships in Valencia Spain, but he didn't qualified.

So, on this cold March morning, he's at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, bundled in gray sweatpants and a blue fleece top ready to practice throwing a shot-put. And Nelson is okay with it.

Mr. ADAM NELSON (Olympic Silver Medalist, Shot-Put): If I'd gone to Valencia, maybe I wouldn't be as hungry as I am right now.

GOLDMAN: Up-and-comers are hungry, but Adam Nelson? He's the only American track-and-field athlete to win a medal at every major outdoor championship since 2000, including Olympics silver medals in 2000 and 2004. He should be like the guy pushing away from the dinner table with a burp and a toothpick in his mouth. But, in fact, a competitive hunger still gnaws at Nelson because of one wrenching day four years ago.

Unidentified Woman: Ladies and gentleman. Welcome to Ancient Olympia's.

Unidentified Man #1: Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) stadium…

GOLDMAN: The shot-put at Ancient Olympia was the showcase event of the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. Near the end of the competition, Adam Nelson was in first place, but then Ukrainian Yuriy Bilonoh tied Nelson for the longest throw.

Nelson had one last chance to break the tie and win. He gave the 16-pound shot a mighty heave.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GOLDMAN: It was far enough for a gold medal, but the throw was disallowed after a judge signaled a foot foul.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Mr. NELSON: No. No. That was not a foul. That was not a foul.

I let the officials know that I didn't agree with their call, and I said that, no, I didn't foul. I stayed in the circle, waited for a protest, and they showed me a film of it, and I immediately apologized because that was not the right response.

GOLDMAN: But Nelson says this was.

Mr. NELSON: I remember walking out of the circle thinking, man, I don't know if I'm ever going to have an opportunity to compete in Olympic Games. And it took me about 30 or 45 seconds before I said to myself, I said, no, I'm going to go after one more, and I'm not going to make the same mistakes I made this time.

GOLDMAN: Which bring us back to Charlottesville, where four years after his experience at Olympia, Adam Nelson is correcting the mistakes. Nelson decided he needed change, more balance in his life, so he got married. He and Laci are expecting their first child in September. He enrolled in business school at Virginia, and he joined forces with a new coach.

Kerry Lane is a former competitive athlete who left the track for the field.

Ms. KERRY LANE (Coach, Adam Nelson): I used to be a distance runner. Yeah.

Mr. NELSON: A collegiate distance runner who've decided that the big guys have more fun.

Ms. LANE: Yeah. I made the transition to the dark side, and never looked back.

GOLDMAN: Lane is a rarity, a woman in a world of big guys.

At 6 feet, 265 pounds, Nelson is considered a smallish shot-putter, but he's still thick and powerful. His massive neck where he cradles the shot-put before the throw is discolored below the right ear.

Is this built up right under here, right under your…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: Is that like (unintelligible)?

Mr. NELSON: The shot-put hickey. The shot-put - yeah. Go ahead, you can touch it, you know, you can touch it. Come on, it's just - yeah, it's a callous basically. It's a pretty thick piece of skin. It's just like, I get them on my hands, too.

GOLDMAN: His right hand gets so calloused and swollen from throwing, Nelson jokes it makes him feel like a hulking cartoon character.

Mr. NELSON: It's clobbering time. You know, like, when my hand, it gets like that. It's - I'm ready to rumble with something.

Ms. LANE: It kind a looks like it.

GOLDMAN: Brute strength is part of throwing the shot-put, but Nelson says Kerry Lane has introduced some stretching and track exercises, a training regimen that Nelson says will probably make him more athletic in the shot-put circle and also help extend his career.

Two months ago, there was compelling evidence that 32-year-old Adam Nelson's career is doing just fine.

Unidentified Man #2: Close to here.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Unidentified Man #2: And he blasts out in a territory not seen indoors since 1989.

GOLDMAN: Nelson uncorked the third-farthest indoor throw in history — 10 inches off the world record. There's more where that came from, he promises. But will it emerge at the moment he needs it? Despite his long record of success, Nelson says his biggest failure is not competing at his highest level on the day of the Olympics. The changes in his life don't guarantee a gold medal, but the way he's feeling now, it may well be clobbering time in Beijing.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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