Christian Cantwell putting at the 2008 USATF Indoor champs (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Hoffa v. Cantwell - the indoor clash of champions to continue in Valencia

On Friday, 22 February, at an obscure meeting in the small town of Warrensburg, Missouri, 2004 World Indoor Shot Put champion Christian Cantwell threw what may have been the best series ever produced indoors, with six legal efforts over 21.46m. Then after a very long Saturday of traveling, he won the U.S. Indoor championship and earned a spot on the U.S. squad for Valencia on Sunday, the 24th.

His Valencia teammate, Reese Hoffa, is the defending World Indoor champion and 2007 World Outdoor champion as well. Unfortunately for these two men, there is only one championship on offer in Valencia, and only one gold medal in Beijing this summer. And neither can be won merely by impressive throwing résumés.

Cantwell's late-February tear

With the shot contested at three high-visibility meetings on the U.S. domestic schedule, Cantwell didn't lack for competitive opportunity this winter. With 2005 World champion Adam Nelson putting over 22m twice in those contests, though, Cantwell may have seen a need to establish himself as a real contender before the national championships.

Whatever his motivation, he found an accomplice in the head coach at the University of Central Missouri, Kip Janvrin, himself an Olympic decathlete in 2000. At the Central Missouri Classic on February 22nd, Cantwell threw 21.46m, 22.07m, 21.79m, 22.18m, 21.98m, and 21.66m, with the second mark his first over 22m undercover and the fourth, the second best this year. Cantwell's opening blast was nearly four metres beyond the best mark of the second-placed thrower in the field of collegians. With two PB marks in one day and less than half a metre between him and the World Record of 22.66m, Cantwell looked forward to contending with Nelson in Boston.

First, though he had to get to Boston, where winter was asserting itself and snarling air travel. After driving to St. Louis airport - itself a 3-hour drive - Cantwell spent two hours trying to get a flight to anywhere where he could catch a train to Boston. He had given up and was actually in his truck, about to drive back home, when an airline ticket agent called him and offered a flight to Philadelphia. From there, he spent seven hours on a train to Boston, arriving at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning.

"My wife offered to drive me somewhere to get a train, but she's pregnant, so I wouldn't let her."

Shot Put Size matters

For a competitor in an event which seems to reward nothing so much as brute force, Cantwell has a craftsman's appreciation for tools--if not Goldilocks' choosiness.

Describing the three sizes of implements used indoors, Cantwell explained, "There are three sizes of shot: the 125mm, 128mm, and 140mm. The little ball is too hard to get hold of, and the big one is too hard to get hold of. 128mm is just right."

As he gestures to show the sizes, Cantwell's massive hands are visibly swollen from the stresses of applying tremendous force to the smallest of those three balls. Cantwell's only 128mm shot is steel, an outdoor shot, and was not allowed for throwing at the U.S. nationals.

Instead, Cantwell threw with a padded 125mm shot, which bent his fourth and fifth fingers back as he put it. This, he grumbled, accounted for his self-proclaimed sub-standard throwing in Boston.

"I knew I was going to come here and throw a World Record if I could get hold of one.”

Now," he sighed, "I'll have to wait two weeks."

Hoffa: Not satisfied with Boston performance

Hoffa would love to see Cantwell throw beyond 22.66m, as long as it's a silver medal performance. He also agreed with Cantwell that the quality of competition in Boston was disappointing, and not simply because he himself finished second; Hoffa wanted the Boston results to send a message across the Atlantic.

"I don't think I threw exceptionally well. I expected not to make the team, and what I wanted was to get a mark out there that would make people say, my goodness, the U.S. is so strong in the shot, this is what a third-place throw is. Right now, my technique is still so-so; I'm looking forward to having two weeks to work on it before Valencia."

Even with the titles he's claimed in the last two years, Hoffa has to be at the top of his game every week. "I feel like I have to earn it every time. There are so many good throwers in the U.S. now, there's no way you can say, 'I've made World Championships teams, I can do this with no problem.'"

"I know we're still strong, and I wanted to put a mark out there that was respectable so the Europeans look at what was thrown in this meet, they'll say, 'There's no way we can win.' I wanted to throw down the gauntlet."

Nelson now looks to Eugene

After a third place finish at the U.S. Nationals, Nelson, the longest thrower of the indoor season, won't be in Valencia. Instead, he'll be getting ready for the next big clash of Titans: the U.S. Olympic team trials in Eugene in mid-summer.

"If I'm not going to make a team," Nelson said after the Boston competition, "I'd rather it be this one, and not the Olympics."

Nelson's 22.40m in Fayetteville on 15 February was the best throw the world has seen since the 1989 season, and leaves Nelson in good position to contend for a medal in Beijing - if he can survive Eugene, which may be the most competitive shot competition of 2008.

Unless, of course, Cantwell finds enough competition from Hoffa to push him to the World Record he's predicting for Valencia.

Parker Morse for the IAAF