The unimaginable crept into his mind in early 2016, as Ryan Crouser pursued a masters degree in finance and an Olympic medal.
His days consisted of five to six hours in the classroom, two to three hours of studying and a few hours of training. That didn’t leave much time for two other essentials, which is why he mastered eating while walking and surviving on four or five hours of sleep.
“There was multiple times that I called my dad (and said), ‘I don’t think I can do this. It’s a waste of time,’ ” Crouser says. “ ‘I can feel how much work I’m putting in, and I’m not seeing any payoff. I think I’m probably done.’ ”
But Mitch Crouser, an elite athlete and higher achiever himself, responded with hope and encouragement.
“Do what you can,” Ryan recalls his father telling him. “If you need to cut back, it’s fine, but academics are more important than athletics.”
Ryan felt a sense of relief — and he pressed forward. The extra set of squats and bench presses took a backseat to the group meetings related to his masters in finance at the University of Texas, Austin, a two-year degree he was cramming into one.
“It was a good example of hard work paying off,” Ryan Crouser says, “all at once.”
Crouser started playing soccer when he was four or five years old, then he played basketball on eight-foot rims and tee-ball.
What he seemed destined to do came last. His father Mitch placed fourth in the discus at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, narrowing missing an Olympic spot. And his uncle Brian Crouser competed at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, while his cousin Sam Crouser participated in the javelin at the 2016 Olympics.
Ryan Crouser first tried track in the fifth grade, trying multiple events. One of his first memorable sporting memories was in the sixth grade, the first time he could represent his school. He did so in the throws but also the long jump, 100-meter sprint, and he anchored the 4 x 100 relay team. He vividly remembers competing at historic Hayward Field, in Eugene, Oregon.
“That was a cool experience! Not necessarily the performance,” Crouser says, “just seeing how big the stands were.”
There was a lot of basketball because that was the favored sport among his close-knit group of friends. He also played football, though his position may be surprising to some now. Crouser was a defensive back and quarterback, because his size didn’t come early; he was 6 foot 1, 170 pounds as a high school freshman at Sam Barlow High School.
He continued to compete in track and field, and he credited basketball for helping him.
“Basketball was most beneficial to me,” he says. “You see kids who specialize early, they get movement down but have trouble making changes, or anything that’s off their regular routine. Basketball is a very reactive sport. It’s constantly changing.”
Crouser notes that rhythm is a key in basketball, an aspect he applies to throwing, and he can make adjustments with his body or technique.
Ryan Crouser first distinguished himself in track and field by winning the state titles in the shot put and discus as a freshman at Sam Barlow High School and setting a national sophomore record with a discus throw of 202-6. He won both events at the USATF Youth Outdoor Championships (for under 17 athletes) then won a gold in the shot put and a silver in the discus at the Youth World Championships. He finished up at Sam Barlow High with three national records and was the school’s valedictorian.
He headed to the University of Texas, where he won the Arkansas Dual with a throw of 64-08.5 then finished his first season with the Big 12 shot put title and placed top 5 in the NCAA Championships. He won his first NCAA title in 2013.
Crouser excelled in athletics and academics, eventually earning an undergraduate degree in economics.
“There was no breakthrough year. I slowly progressed,” Crouser says of his development as an athlete. “I prided myself on being a hard worker. It was a steady progression.”
Crouser noted that he never discovered a “secret,” and he actually remembered stretches where he didn’t feel like his hard work was pay dividends.
“I felt like I was training hard, but the results weren’t showing up, as I had hoped,” he says. “That was really frustrating.”
Yet his father and his coaches at the University of Texas encouraged him, and Crouser persevered.
Fast forward to the spring of 2016, when everything started to fall in place. He earned his graduate degree in finance in May, he secured his Olympic spot in June, and he barreled into full-time training in early July.
Then he headed to Rio, for the 2016 Olympics.
“It was a really good feeling, going in. I could just see myself getting better each week, as I was unloading my training. The reps and sets just decreased, so you feel better and better,” Crouser says. “Every week, I was dropping reps and throwing less, and working more quality over quantity.”
Not projected by many to even make the team, Crouser quietly believed he could win a medal on August 16th. His confidence grew on the warm-up track, a ten-minute walk from the stadium. He wasn’t trying his hardest, yet his effortless attempts were sailing.
“I had never felt better in my life, athletically,” Crouser says.
He set the tone for the event with a throw of 21.15 meters. After several competitors had foul trouble, American Joe Kovacs, the 2015 World Champion, took over the lead with a throw of 21.78 meters. But Crouser exceeded his personal best of 22.11 (set at the Olympic Trials the previous month) with a throw of 22.22. It was one of the top 20 throws ever.
Crouser wasn’t done.
His third throw improved to 22.26 meters, and his final throw measured at 22.52, beating German Ulf Timmermann’s Olympic record set in 1988.
“I had a big lead, but I didn’t feel I had it won. The field there was so deep,” he says. “You couldn’t call it won until it was over. I was just trying to stay focused and take it round by round, and being methodical.”
The shot put competition ended around 10 p.m., local time. But what transpired over the next few days was a blur for Crouser. He zig-zagged through what felt like a mile-long Mixed Zone, where reporters from all over the world can interview athletes. He did dozens of interviews for over three hours. Because he didn’t have time to even return to the Athletes’ Village, Crouser dozed for two or three hours in his parents’ hotel room, which was closer to the NBC headquarters. He had to be there by 7 a.m.
Then there were more interviews for the next 12 hours.
Those, of course, are fond memories.
Shot put isn’t a lucrative sport, but Crouser is among a handful the world over who can train full-time. He’s based out of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, a suburb of San Diego, and he throws four days a week and does other physical training five days a week. He eats five, 1,000-calorie meals a day, as well as lots of snacks to keep his 6 foot 7, 275-pound frame in peak form. Oh, and he gets lots of sleep now.
He’s currently preparing for the World Championships in Doha, Qatar in late September, early October following the Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships. Then he’ll set his sights on defending his Olympic title in Tokyo next summer.
Crouser will continue as a professional at least until 2021 because the World Championships will be in Eugene, Oregon.
“That will be a hometown World Championship,” Crouser says. “I’m really looking forward to that.”
He’s got plenty of competition, with notables such as Tom Walsh of New Zealand, Darlan Romani of Brazil and Joe Kovacs of the United States.
Eventually, Crouser wants to start his own business, tapping into his collegiate education. But for now, he’s grateful to do something he loves on the world’s grandest stage.
“For all the kids, just set your goals and work toward them. There is really no shortcut,” Crouser says. “I get asked that all the time: ‘What are some tips and tricks?’ There isn’t one. The biggest secret to being successful is there is no secret. Whether that goal is in academics or athletics, write down those goals and work towards it.”