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Gold Medal Faith

8/1/2016

by Columbia staff

An interview with Catholic Olympian and world champion shot putter Joe Kovacs

Joe Kovacs shows his gold medal during the awards ceremony

Joe Kovacs shows his gold medal during the awards ceremony for the men’s shot put final at the 15th International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Athletics in Beijing, China, Aug. 24, 2015. Photo by Christian Charisius/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Currently ranked the No. 1 shot putter in the world, Joe Kovacs was born in Nazareth, Pa., on June 28, 1989. Raised in a Catholic home by Joseph and Joanna Kovacs, he suffered the loss of his father at age 7. Kovacs graduated in 2007 from Bethlehem Catholic High School, where he excelled in football and won state titles in the shot put and discus.

In 2008, Kovacs earned a track and field scholarship to Penn State University and joined the Knights of Columbus as a member of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Council 4282 in Nazareth. An All-American shot putter, he graduated from Penn State with a degree in energy business and finance.

After just missing the 2012 Olympics with a fourth place finish at the Trials, Kovacs became a professional athlete the same year, endorsed by Nike. In 2015, he heaved a throw of 22.56 meters (74 feet, 1/4 inch) – the best in the world since 2003 and the 8th longest in history. Later that year, he won the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. On July 1, Kovacs qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games, which take place in Rio de Janeiro Aug. 5-21.

Columbia recently spoke with Joe Kovacs about the role his Catholic faith and community have played in his life as a world-class athlete.

COLUMBIA: Can you describe the impact that your mother has had on you? How has she helped you over the years?

JOE KOVACS: My dad passed away when I was 7, and my grandmother, my mom’s mom, passed away the very next day. That experience brought us very close together. The whole time growing up she was juggling a bunch of different roles, and she was always there for me.

Once I was in high school, she became my track coach. I went to a small Catholic school – Bethlehem Catholic High School – and we didn’t have a track or a facility. I started track just to stay in shape for football, which was my primary love and sport at the time.

My mom came to practice and realized we didn’t really have a coach for shot put and discus. Because she knew some things about throwing, having been district champion back in her day, she helped me out. She found a coach who knew a lot, and we’d drive down to Harrisburg every Sunday after church and meet with him. I’d practice, and my mom would learn with me, which really brought us together and helped me a lot in the sport.

COLUMBIA: Your mom made a point of providing good role models for you after your father’s untimely death. Could you talk a little about that?

JOE KOVACS: We’re really close to the community of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. They’re the priests at our parish, Holy Family, and their retirement community is about 20 minutes from my house. The whole community of priests and sisters in the area really helped me and my entire family get through that tough time.

They helped me with my faith, but they also helped me do things that aren’t the norm. One of the priests, Father Joe Gleixner, was my confirmation sponsor and helped me a ton. I was in a lot of science fairs in high school, and he showed me how to build things. We built a wind tunnel together. One of the retired priests also helped me chip a golf ball around their grounds, and that’s how I learned to have a good golf swing.

So the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart have been very close to my family. They weren’t just role models, they were friends, and I consider them all part of my family.

COLUMBIA: When you were a freshman at Penn State, you joined the Knights of Columbus. What led you to join?

JOE KOVACS: As a little kid, it was the guys with the swords who were really cool. But I got close to the Knights at church just because they were always the people volunteering, holding events. They have done so much in our community. So that’s what attracted me – I realized that the people I looked up to or wanted to become were part of this great organization.

Before I joined, I was a Squire for two or three years in high school. I went to our Pennsylvania meeting twice; it was an awesome place to be.

At Penn State, I kind of got away from it, since I was gone almost every weekend traveling for track.

I definitely have not been as active as I’d like to be. I’ve been living in at the Olympic Training Center for almost the past three years but would like to start back up once I’m able to find my own place and settle down.

COLUMBIA: Do you find it difficult to practice your faith while competing internationally?

JOE KOVACS: have to say that one of the coolest things about the Catholic faith, being universal, is that every time you go to a church in a different country the format of the Mass is the same. I may not know what they’re saying in their language – but I do know what they’re saying. In most countries, I know only enough words to order food in their languages, but when I go to church I know what’s going on and can participate in Mass.

COLUMBIA: Have you found common spiritual bonds among your teammates or coaches?

JOE KOVACS: My coach, Art Venegas, comes from a Catholic upbringing. He actually taught in a Catholic school before he went to the collegiate level.

I was at the Vatican last year, and when I came home, I gave his mother a rosary blessed by the pope because she always says a rosary for me every time I go on a trip. And on competition day, she’s always praying I won’t get hurt. It feels good to be associated with people who know the Catholic faith.

Of course, if people in the track community heard this about Coach Venegas, they wouldn’t believe it. He’s a very old-school coach and one of the craziest and loudest people you’d hear, but he has great values and a strong faith.

COLUMBIA: What have been your proudest and your most challenging moments as an athlete?

JOE KOVACS: I like telling people that I’ve lost way more than I’ve ever won. I won States my senior year of high school, but it wasn’t that I had a spectacular performance – I feel that I got lucky that day. And I never had big throws in college until the end. I was always the one working the hardest.

My high school welcomed me back for an awesome recognition assembly after winning Worlds in Beijing, and they read off my athletic résumé, saying “All-American” a bunch of times. It sounds good, but you get All-American if you’re top 8. So if I hear that in 2006 I was All-American, I remember that I was fifth, or I was fourth. Fourth place is not the place you want to be in.

As I look back, I think that’s what kept me going. I had fire in the belly and a chip on the shoulder because you go into every meet wanting to win.

At the same time, I was excited to be in fourth place at the 2012 Olympic Trials because that’s when I realized I had a big PR. The next week, I was in Paris for my first international meet, so it opened a lot of doors for me to keep doing this.

Probably the proudest moment so far has been lifting up the gold medal last year in the World Championships, wearing the U.S.A. jersey in Beijing. Everything we planned I was able to execute and get done.

COLUMBIA:What are you looking forward to most in Rio?

JOE KOVACS: I have a lot of family coming; I think 14 family members. Now, it’s really exciting for me, but going into the Trials when I hadn’t punched my ticket yet, that was stressful – knowing that they were all getting ready to travel to Rio, and I hadn’t done what I need to do.

So, I’m excited that they’re coming down now, because they can experience it with me. They haven’t seen me wear the U.S.A. jersey; that’s the biggest thing. Wearing the U.S.A. jersey means so much to me; I love representing my country. But it also represents being at the top level. If you’re from any other country and you throw 66 feet, that’s the Olympic standard. Just throw that once and you’re going to the Games, whereas over here in the States we’re throwing 70 and not making the team. So, if you are wearing the U.S.A. jersey at Rio, you know you can come away with a medal, and that’s the biggest vote of confidence.

Of course I’m going for the gold, that’s the plan. And we still haven’t backed off our training yet, so we’re looking to see some good things. With my coach, it’s all about: “You don’t have to do anything special.” I want to be the guy who just had to do what he did on a normal day.

COLUMBIA: Any final words for our readers?

JOE KOVACS: Thank you, guys. Prayers always help – for our whole team going down to Rio. God bless.