DH: Hey guys. Welcome to keep on pushing radio. I am your host and yeah you know what we do here, man. We share ideas and insights that are going to challenge you and inspire you to live your best life. So, the question is do you want to live your best life? If you do, then you know you’re in the right place, baby so, welcome. Welcome to keep on pushing radio.
My guest today is a shot putt thrower. A three-time Olympian, he has competed in three consecutive Olympic Games starting with Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and London 2008 and during that time, he reaped two medals, a silver and gold. He grew up in Atlanta so he’s a Southern boy and was a high school standout in both track and football. He attended Dartmouth where he became the first freshman to ever play on their football squad and excelled in track as well. He won a number of accolades there and set the school record in the shot putt. In 1997, he became the NCAA champion. He was also the World Champion shot putter in 2005 and won the silver medal in 2007. Since retiring from competition he has trained some top-level athletes in football and track and golf and baseball. He has worked with NBC as an expert in the field events and just as importantly though, he is a really strong advocate of clean sport competition and often speaks out against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in athletic competition. He is a family man and a really cool guy and so I’m really honored, pleased to welcome Adam to keep on pushing. Adam, welcome.
AN: Thank you for having me, Devon.
DH: Yeah, man. Thank you so much, Adam, for coming on. Before we get started I just want to express my condolences. We learned just this week that your former teammate, Jared Rome passed away. So just kind of want to express our condolences to you.
AN: Thank you.
DH: Yeah, man. Are there any Jared stories that jump out at you?
AN: There are a lot of Jared stories. You know this as an athlete, you get to know the people that you travel and compete with and I’ve been traveling and competing with Jared for, gosh, for 15 years. I actually met him 20……between 1998 or 1999 was when I first met him so I’d known him for a number of years, but as several of us in the throwing world kind of gotten together and talked about it, you’d never meet a guy who was more physically intimidating yet just a joy to be around and when he laughed the whole room just laughed with him. And when he was listening and talking to you, you were the only person in the room and that’s a real gift that he had and it was a huge loss. I found out about it on Sunday and I think anytime you lose a friend at 42 years old it’s a really tragic thing.
DH: Yeah, I agree, man and you know, as an Olympic brother as well and although I’ve never met him personally, there’s definitely sadness there.
Let’s go back a little, Adam, in fact, way back to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. First of all, what was it like to be competing in Athens, in fact, in Olympia, in the ancient stadium, we’re not talking about where the modern Olympics started, but where this whole thing got started, what was that like?
AN: I mean, it was awesome, in a word. It was just awesome. The ancient Olympic stadium still stands in marginally the same condition that I think it was probably in, even a few thousand years ago. It’s this hole in the ground in Olympia and Olympia for those that don’t know, if you’re familiar with the U.S. it’s like their Napa Valley. It’s the heart of a lot of their agriculture and fine foods and wines and such. It’s just a beautiful area. And then you’ve got this ancient stadium with stone ruins that date back five or 6,000 years, and it’s the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games, and the inspiration for the modern Olympic games. So, it’s pretty cool.
DH: Yeah, I’m sure. So let’s talk about the competition. You are leading this thing, 58 throws and youre leading. First of all, I did not know that you guys make that many throws. Is that typical in a competition?
AN: Well, yeah. So in a competition, it’s a little bit misleading when I say 58 throws but it’s three throws in the preliminary rounds and an additional three throws. So across the whole competition, there are 60 throws amongst all the athletes. So the most throws that you take as an individual is six. It’s similar to like a bobsled when you get more than one run. So, if you’re good enough, you get six opportunities and if you’re not you only get three.
DH: Yeah, I got it. Okay. So you are leading and on the 59th throw at the very end of the competition, the Ukrainian guy tie your best mark and you end up having to go in what I’m going to call a throw off and he ends up winning, notwithstanding the fact that you ended up with what was the longest throw of the competition, but it was a foul. Talk us through what I have to imagine was just a roller coaster of emotions for you.
AN: Yeah. So I think, if you think about it like this, for 58 of those 60 throws, I was leading the competition and then on the 59th throw of the competition, the guy that was trailing me from Ukraine tied my best mark. And so as I stepped in the circle from my last competitive throw, I knew that I had to throw farther to win. And it’s one of those things, you know this is an athlete, like you dream about these scenarios. If you grew up around football, baseball, basketball, soccer, whatever it is, that last-second goal or score, like this is what we dream about as kids. And I remember stepping into the circle that day, it was so hot, it was really dusty down there. And I stepped in this circle that day and I remember just that the shot putt touched my neck and I was like, “this is it. I’m going to win my Olympic Games” and everything went quiet. I started my approach to the farthest circle and when it left my hand, I just knew that I had just won the Olympic Games. I knew it. It went literally about two or three feet farther than any throw I’d had that day. And I just, I raised my hands in victory thinking that I’d just won and I looked to the left and I see the red flag going up indicating that I fouled. And because I fouled the tie-breaking rule in the Olympic Games and in shot putt competition goes back to your second-best competitive performance. His second-best throw was better than mine and so he ended up securing or being awarded the gold medal on that day and it was brutal, you know. In that venue, the venue was unbelievable in terms of just the importance and it’s the way it resonated and inspired me, but at the same time it lacked some of the structure that you’d normally have in a modern competitive venue, meaning that as soon as the competition was over, there was unrestricted access to the athletes.
And so, I just go through this, I mean, it was a horrible, fantastic experience, if you want to call it that. Being in the lead for the bulk of the competition than having it so close and having a throw that would’ve won the competition then all of a sudden realizing that I just fouled and lost the competition and the reporters were on me like that. There was no filter and I’m an emotional guy when I compete. It’s one of the things….it’s one of my great strengths as an athlete is I really use my emotions well, but man, I’m telling you, you spend four years for one moment and it goes away like that. And the reporters come up and the first question they ask you is, how do you feel? It’s a hard question to answer thank goodness there was no social media back then, I suppose because I think I probably could have said a few things that would have been interesting.
DH: It would have been trending today, huh?
AN: Yeah, exactly.
DH: No, I know that feeling. We were joking earlier about Jamaican Island time and the similarities between people down South and us from the Island, but I’m resonating with you right now because when we crashed in Calgary, first of all, when a Jamaican tells you “soon come”, worry because it could be five minutes, it could be five weeks, it could be five years or more. So we crashed and they wanted to interview us and I was the guy who was earmarked to go do this interview and it’s like, what do you say when you have just failed in front of the entire world? So I give them a soon come. They haven’t seen me yet. I think they’re still waiting.
AN: You were able to get out, huh?
DH: Yeah, man. I gave them a “soon come. Soon come, soon come, honestly” In my introduction though, Adam, I spoke about the fact that you’re an advocate for clean sports. You speak with passion on the subject. I think one because of your value system and two because you have been directly and adversely impacted by athletes… an athlete who didn’t compete cleanly. Would you like to speak to that for a bit?
AN: Yeah, I mean, even at a very early age, I’ve had a fantastic support system over the course of my whole athletic life from the time I was very young, even until now, I should say, and when I was 15 or 16 years old, my dad noticed that I was gravitating towards these power and strength sports anyway, and we were working out at this gym. At one point and a guy came up to me at that gym and actually offered me drugs and I just remember thinking like, he didn’t do it in an overt way he just kind of alluded to it and my dad pulled me out and went and talked to the owner of the gym at that point. And then on the drive home, he said, “son, you’re going into a world of sports, the strength side of sports where people are going to offer you steroids.” And he basically said it just like this. He said, “if you ever do them, I will disown you.” There is just nothing worth that risk. He was very aware, even back in 1991, ‘92, this was actually before….that must have been like 1989, the risk of drugs. And at that point we just kind of talked about it and I made him a promise that I’ll never do this. I was never in a world where drugs were part of that lifestyle. None of my coaches advocated for it or promoted it. And that was unusual, I mean, you know this coming from Olympic sports, there are pockets of really great coaches, if you will, with great athletes, particularly 20 and 30 years ago but they only coached with the precondition that all of their athletes were following a specific drug protocol.
AN: I mean, I know that we don’t like to talk about it as athletes and the Olympic movement certainly doesn’t like us to talk about it, but it’s true. And so every step of the way, I was just very vocal I guess, I just decided, I was like, this is not going to be my thing. And I can remember meeting some of the senior guys in 1997, 98, 99 when I was starting to advance from a junior athlete into an open athlete and these guys would come up to me and said, oh, you can’t throw 66 feet clean. And I said, no, you can’t throw 66 feet clean, I can, don’t put your limitations on me. And that’s sort of been a theme of my career and I got in a lot of hot water if you will or took a lot of criticism for that, for being very vocal about it. Early on, I can remember almost getting into a fistfight with someone from Europe, a power athlete from Europe who asked me, oh, what do you eat? What do you eat? I’m like, well, this is how I structure my training. This is what I eat. And he said, no, no, no, no. What do you eat? And I’m like, no and literally like had there not been other people there, I think the only way I would’ve gotten out of that situation was to actually physical confront him to get out the door. And to this day, like I’m 44 years old and, and I think one of my greatest achievements is not just the medals but the medals without any concern or without any issue with the performance-enhancing drugs because I don’t have to look over my shoulder. I’ve never had that issue.
DH: I know exactly what you’re saying because as an athlete, you hear athletes all the time. They will literally swear on the Bible that they had never done drugs and then they test positive. And it’s always in my head when you say to someone, “I have never used drugs”, you’re wondering in the back of their mind if they’re like “yeah, right, you probably did use drugs”, but I think it’s two things for me. One is, as much as I wanted to win a medal at the Olympic Games, I don’t think it was worth growing another eye or another, you know? It just wasn’t worth that. And then the other thing was just internally, you just felt that something was not right. If you really believe in the Olympic ideals as you and I do, you just know that this idea of taking drugs is just out of bounds. So here you are, in Athens the birthplace of the Olympic Games, you walk away with a silver medal and only to discover nine years later that you really should have won the gold. In your quest for the gold, how did you react to finally being awarded the gold medal?
AN: When I received the gold medal or let me tell you how I found out first. First I got a call from the reporter in 2012, in July of 2012 just before the London Olympic Games, saying that five athletes have tested positive retroactively…..they re-tested a hundred samples from the 2004 games, five athletes had tested positive and one of them was the shot putter from Ukraine. And I said I hadn’t heard anything about it from any official channels, nobody at all, but I had actually had three or maybe four phone calls over the years, starting two days after those Olympics saying he tested positive at some point I never buy into those rumours until they become public and so I just kind of dismissed them as rumours, but they were from pretty legitimate sources. So then this reporter says this, and I said, well, that’s interesting. I said I’ll believe it when something changes. And then the London Olympics go by and I don’t hear anything. And I’m thinking, well, the eight-year…..there’s an eight-year statute of limitations, at that point has passed and now it’s gone. It’s done. It is what it is and decided to let this one go and the same reporter calls me about two weeks after the Olympics and says, hey, have you heard anything? I said I don’t know what you’re talking about. What are we talking about? She said, well, the IOC is meeting today to decide whether to vacate or allocate the medals, allocate the position or reallocate the medals. I said I haven’t heard anything. As soon as she finished saying that sentence, she said, oh my God, it just hit the wire. You’re the Olympic champion. So that’s how I found out. Ironically, I was actually in the car on the way to Austin, Texas for a symposium on drugs and sports which was kind of funny. About a year later in July of 2013 I got a call from a member of the USOC who said, hey, can you meet me at the Atlanta airport? And I said, sure. And he said, bring your silver medal. I said, okay.
I get down to the Atlanta airport and we meet in the food court at the Atlanta airport and if you’ve been to the Atlanta airport, there’s that food court there but it used to be like a Burger King or something like that. It’s changed since then, but we sat down in the food court and he said, did you bring the medal? I said, yes. I said, did you bring the gold? And he said, yes. And we just kind of did one of these things. I dropped it on the table he put his on the table and we just kind of did this, looked at them and he said, okay and that was it. And I get into the car I remember when I got into the car and driving back and I’m looking at this medal that’s sitting in my center console and I look at it and I’m like, huh, I had this gold medal. All I feel about this medal right now is a sense of loss. And no one should ever look at an Olympic gold medal and feel loss but nine years had gone by, a whole lifetime and the value of winning that silver medal at the time, or being awarded the silver medal at the time was what pushed me harder and got me more focused and really shaped those next eight or nine years. So I’m looking at this Olympic medal, I’m like, wow, we focused so much on this outcome but now I’ve got it. Like, I mean, it’s right there like that’s it right there like I’ve got it…
DH: But it doesn’t mean as much anymore.
AN: No, it doesn’t. And so it took me a while to process this and I’d love to say that I did it really professionally and in a way that I was always proud of, but I probably didn’t. And I said, at the end of the day, your process is the most important piece. So if you’re not…..you know, Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics used to stress the process, the struggle that we all experienced as athletes. So I look at you and I know, hey, you may have pushed a sled, but we went through the same process, that same struggle, that shared struggle and why is that struggling important versus the end goal? Well, everybody in the world, everybody, should enter this struggle, you know? And in the Olympics there are tons of people, there’s lots and lots and lots of victories along the way in this struggle. It’s the ability to get up every single day and do all this stuff that we talk about when we talk to kids but ultimately there’s only going to be one winner. And if you only focus on the medal, you’re missing the big picture because the medal, it’s just a snapshot of a moment. But it doesn’t necessarily determine or define what’s Olympic. It’s the ability, the courage to step into the arena, to step into that struggle and stay focused on a long-term goal and understand it’s going to take 1,461 days to get there and that’s hard. That’s really hard.
DH: You’re right. And if you only the focus on the fact that, you know…..okay, so let’s say there are only three winners per event and if you’re not one of them from you know, I forgot how many is it? 10, 12,000 people who go to the summer Olympics, five, six at the winter Olympics. So if you’re not one of those people who walk away with a medal and couple of people walk away with multiple medals, and your whole focus was on that end result, then you’re absolutely right. You would have wasted the journey and all the amazing experiences and lessons that you could’ve learned. And that’s true by the way, listeners, viewers, for every single one of us, not just those of us who are striving to compete in the Olympic Games, but those who are competing in the Olympics of life as well. So the journey and the process, which is why we speak about Keep On Pushing. So, Adam, anyone who has followed track and field and watches knows the name Usain Bolt and knows how great a showman he is. Yeah, phenomenal talent, I’m glad that he’s on my team, but he’s also an entertainer and I think what most people don’t know about you is that you’ve got some flair yourself, my man. Where did that come from?
AN: I watched a lot of professional wrestling growing up, so Rick Flair and Hulk Hogan and those guys taught me everything. No, it’s interesting. So Usain obviously was, is a great entertainer and an amazing athlete. And certainly, a hundred meters is such a great platform to have someone like his personality just dominate for so many years. It was awesome to watch. I was actually at his first European meet as a competitor and it was pretty funny to see him there versus where he ended up. But no, I always felt that part of our job as athletes, particularly individual athletes, is to entertain the people that come to watch us. And if the only way for me to feel like I’m entertaining people is for me to have a good time and to really enjoy the moment. And you know what I really want when I’m out there competing, I want people to watch what I’m doing and if they don’t think that throwing the shot putt is fun and exciting, I’m going to show them how fun and exciting it is. And it’s interesting that my whole pre-throw routine and celebration stuff just kind of evolved naturally from who I am when I compete but I just felt like if people weren’t watching, then what’s the point of us going there? And if I can’t give them something to watch, because I can’t always guarantee that I’m going to throw it farther than everybody else or have a great, great performance, but I can always make sure that they have an experience that they can take home and say, wow, I love the intensity of that guy. I love the way he approached the circle. He’s going all after it every single throw. And that’s who I am as a person and that’s who I am as an athlete. It’s like I want people to know that if you’re going to come and see me, you’re going to walk away with something that you may not even realize how fun and entertaining it’s going to be because, 90% of entertainment is the showman. The circus was not the circus without the ringmaster, without a great ringmaster. It’s just a bunch of things going on. I wanted to be the ringmaster when I was out there.
DH: Yeah. It’s a great mentality I think for all of us regardless of what it is that we do. Because you’re right, in the Summer Olympics in particular, everybody wants to watch a hundred meters but then there’s your event that is kind of on the side. Since people are there and they are watching in any way, how do you make them have an experience? How do you make someone have an experience when they come to your job? And it’s probably monotonous, but what can you do to put yourself or throw yourself into it to make it interesting, make it an experience? So you speak about controlled aggression. Talk to us about that. I think I know what it means, as a bobsledder but, talk to us about control.
AN: Yeah. Well, I mean, you know this, if you can’t control something that’s not controllable or is controlled, is not repeatable and it’s certainly not coachable. So a lot of time, for me, my pre-throw approach was developed for two reasons. One is I wanted people to watch and two is it helped me get into the right state of mind so that I could get in the circle and have complete control over everything in there. Cause I get really…I get really excited when I, when I work out, when I perform, when I compete and if it goes unchecked, it works against me. So my pre-throw routine was designed for two purposes. One was to entertain people and bring people in, but two was to let off a little of that extra energy that was detrimental to my ability to be able to compete and control. And I mean, that’s the thing, like, you know in the bobsled at the start or if you’re a driver or whatever, but you know, if you have a good start and it may not even be perceivable by anybody else there, but you’re like, I nailed every single step when I got in, I didn’t pull anything back. I was always pushing forward or kept on pushing the whole time and that’s just kind of how my whole approach is and it goes back…. My college coach used to tell me, he had a saying, he said, “I want you to go maximum effort at 90%.” And the reason why, is if you’re going 100%, like full out, you tighten up, you tighten up. You just can’t, because you’re pushing too hard.
DH: And you get exhausted mentally as well.
AN: Oh yeah.
DH: And I found that because I’m that way as well, super intense and it works better when I was a brakeman to be almost a hundred percent intense at the start but when you become a driver, you have to make that transition from being what I call this wild animal to being calm, cool and collected when you get in the sled and so, yeah. It helps you have to back off because then you get really exhausted.
So this Adam who competed with such flare and controlled aggression, is that the same Adam who was in high school?
AN: I was less controlled in high school. And certainly less controlled in college. I was also one of those guys when I was in eighth grade, I remember I read this book called the athlete’s guide to mental training. And there’s a state that they talked about and we all know it now as the zone or if you come from martial arts, it’s you know, just different. It’s just mastering control of yourself. And so when you’re able to put yourself into that state and do it in a controlled way, the amount of strength and just abilities that you have it’s superhuman and so I learned this at a very young age. When I was younger 15, 16, 17, 18 I could only do it by just knew that berserker kind of state, which was kind of uncontrolled and I was great if something was coming at me straight forward but if you ask me to chew bubble-gum and walk at the same time, I couldn’t do it. And so over time I got more and more refined and controlled with it. But I have always believed that the missing aspect in most athletes training is their mental training, their mindfulness, their mindset. And I spent a lot of time doing it not just in the pre-throw stuff that was a mental challenge, a mental aspect of my training in competition but also in preparation. I would spend hours every single week doing different types of visualizations, sports hypnotherapy, and a few other approaches, NLP just to help reinforce the mental strength that you need to be a great competitor.
DH: Okay. Mental strength to become a great competitor, it’s a similar thing that you need to be a great competitor in life, be successful. What advice do you have for Joe Smokes who is not trying to compete in the Olympic Games but really has a desire to be a top salesperson or a great student, or just a great family man? What advice do you have for them in terms of how they can use it to get there?
AN: Well, you say Keep On Pushing and I think that’s a great way to phrase it and certainly relevant for your background but one of the things that I think is most important in the mindset is you have a choice. It’s your decision on how you react and respond to different stresses, successes or failures. You know, we referenced Jared Rome at the beginning of this conversation and it’s somewhat fitting that the last speech he gave which was at his induction at the state Hall of Fame in Washington this past weekend talked about the two things he needed that were critical to success and one is failure and two was support, and that’s really important. We all have this fear of failure. Sometimes it’s a real like actual, real, this real downside to failure, but more times than most it’s a mental thing. It’s a mental block and it’s put in our way and we have this choice to react to it in different ways. So, to go back to your statement just Keep On Pushing. One thing you can do is Keep On Pushing through it and not treat failure as what it sounds like, which is this horrible thing but as a learning point. And then the other piece is if you’ve got the right support system, which I think was Jared’s point this past weekend, they help you back up and they help you see your mistakes and they help you correct those mistakes and help get you back in the right place. So if I’m talking to the businessman, I say one, the first things are the things that you control, which is how you react or respond to different setbacks. They’re not failures, they’re setbacks. The only time you fail to use some of the clichés here, but the only time you fail is the last time you decided to try. So, keep on pushing through all those, all those times until you make a decision that it’s last time you want to try and then the second part is making sure you surround yourself if possible, with people that give you the support and the guidance you need to not repeat the same mistakes, to see failures for what they are, which is just the setbacks. And to see the greatness and the potential in yourself and help push you forward when you lose that ability to push yourself forward.
DH: Indeed. Really wise words, Adam. Thank you for that because I think a lot of people when they think of success the word failure just doesn’t appear in their mind. They think it’s antithetical to success, but it’s such an integral part of that success journey and having, as you say, those other people, teammates to help you up to kind of guide you as well.
How did you find sports? I know you played football, but you settled on shot putt. How did you settle on that and what was it that inspired the Olympic dream in you?
AN: So, I mean, you said it earlier. I’m from the South. I’m from Georgia and I came from an athletic family. My dad played football through college and my brother is two years older and he was always in sports. So from the time I was four years old, I was always playing some sport and usually like three or four seasons. I mean, it’s all recreational. We did soccer and baseball and football and swimming and tumbling and whatever else. I mean, everything that you could do plus everything in between that you’d makeup, when you didn’t have a sport to go, to stick-ball and war games or tag or whatever it was. And over time, things get a lot more structured as you get older. And I was in eighth grade, so about 12 or 13 years old and at the time, I thought I was going to do football, basketball, and baseball that year. And football went well, and then I got to basketball, got cut from basketball, so went out for wrestling instead and then got cut from baseball. And I remember I went home and talked to my dad about it and I said, dad, I got cut from baseball today, but that’s, that’s okay. I’m going to start training for football. My dad was, you know. My dad had had a belief that with boys and boys and girls, but particularly teenage boys, they need structure and any idle time is not good, any unstructured time is not good. So he said, you can either go out for another sport, after school activity or you can go get a job. And 12, 13 years old, the jobs that are available, they’re not necessarily the most fun jobs in the world and so I was like, I’m going to go out for track and field, which I knew had a no-cut policy and the football coach was the track coach so I thought I was pulling one over my dad. I’m going to train to football anyway. So that eighth-grade year I did pretty much every event you can imagine from the hundred to 200 and 400 and 800, the high jump, the shot putt and the discus, the pole vault. I only did the pole vault for one day because I wizened up really quickly. And just as I got bigger, I started dropping events and it wasn’t until I ran my last 800 meters as a sophomore in high school at 215 pounds and still ran it.
DH: That’s a long 800.
AN: I still ran a 2:07. So I was fast.
DH: I’m impressed.
AN: Maybe was it 2:08, but it was sub 2:10. Then after that, I remember telling my coach that I’m never doing that again. And I just focused on the shot put and the discus for my junior and senior year on. But I did football, wrestling, and track all through high school and then football and track through college.
DH: And the Olympic dream, how was that sparked?
AN: 1984 Olympics. I have so many great memories from the 1984 Olympics. It’s where it started. I mean, I remember seeing Edwin, Moses and Mary Lou Retton and all of those just fantastic athletes that year competing and thinking, wow, that’s the coolest thing ever. It was the right age for that kind of impact. And then the ‘96 Olympics were in Atlanta and so as I was coming through college and my college coach kept saying, hey, you’ve got something. You need to keep training. You need to keep doing this after college, he kept planting that seed. And so in ‘96, I qualified for the Olympic trials in which those Olympic trials ended up making the finals and finishing last in the finals. But the seed was planted and I realized that this is something that could be a ton of fun and I could be good at. And it’s pretty cool. You get to travel the world and meet a lot of cool people and ultimately hopefully have an opportunity to be the best in the world at it.
DH: Yeah. So you graduated from Dartmouth, an Ivy League school. Your coach had planted that seed in your head and you decided to go pursue this crazy dream. What were those first years like for you?
AN: Okay. So the first thing was graduating from Dartmouth and deciding to be a shot putter, was telling my parents about it and I said, mom, dad, I was like, I know you guys just supported me through this really expensive school and I probably should go to New York and make millions of dollars in the next however many years but I got this idea, I’m going to go through a shot put. So then I moved to California to train.
DH: So, obviously you survived that.
AN: I did and they were supportive. My dad kind of laughed. He said, if there’s any time to do it, it’s right now. He’s like, you’ve got three years till the Olympics. He said, by the time the 2000 Olympics are over, you’ll be 25 and you still have time to get back on track. So I was looking at this in a three-year window, and I moved out to California and I moved into a house that had 10 other track athletes living in it. It was a five-bedroom house, and I literally lived in a closet under the stairs. It cost me 200 bucks a month which some may say that’s a lot of money, but in California, that’s cheap. And that’s kind of how it all started.
DH: Yeah. The thing, Adam, is that people will see you now and don’t understand, you used the word struggle earlier, don’t understand the struggle. Don’t recognize the things you have to do. I don’t always like to use the word sacrifice because you’re making a conscious decision to do these things, to go achieve this dream. And so here it is that you had an opportunity as you say, to perhaps go to New York and make lots of money, but instead you’re living in a closet, chasing the dream. Welcome to the life of an Olympian, right?
AN: Exactly. Exactly. And I think that’s the hard part for most people is that first big step. I mean, you know, this everybody talks about their dreams, right? Everybody talks about the things they want to do. And I think in 1997 I was just young, stupid and naive enough to not realize the gravity of that decision and allow it to take me across the country and start committing me down this path. I mean, it was intentional, don’t get me wrong, but it would be hard I think at this point in my life to go back and maybe make that same decision but I don’t regret it at all. And I think that’s something about the shared spirit of Olympism that every Olympic athlete has, is we’re not afraid to dream big and bet the ranch on those dreams. And that’s the only way you’re ever going to make it to an Olympic Games.
DH: Really great point. I think dreamers, whether you’re Olympians or not, I think first of all you decide that you’re going to bet the ranch on it but because we are so optimistic, we have no clue. I don’t think about how difficult it is going to be. Perhaps if we could look in a crystal ball and see how intense and the struggles and the challenges were we’d probably back off. But we naively just kind of go, yeah, I’m going to go do it and it’s going to be fine. To our credit though, once we discover that it’s not as easy as we think, we decide to Keep On Pushing, we don’t quit. And so your story really illustrates that because you speak about getting cut in the eighth grade and you found another sport. You commit yourself to compete in the Olympic Games and then you finished last, you just said at the Olympic trials, how did that failure, that “F” word coming up again, fuel your drive for the next four years to Sydney?
AN: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think it was the experience, one, that fueled my drive was I got that taste of Olympism going to the Olympic trials in 1996 competing at the Atlanta Olympic stadium for those trials. I got just a little exposure as to what this thing is about. And I jokingly refer to Olympism, the decision to become an Olympian or pursue Olympism as a drug. And it’s very addictive and not necessarily in a bad way but I literally went to those Games, to that Olympic trials and I was walking around with guys that were going to be on that team and I didn’t see a difference between where they were and where I was except that they were throwing farther and in my opinion, they were throwing farther because they were not doing football and track at a top 10 academic institution. And I said, this is all good and I’m going to keep pushing and the next time I step into the ring at the Olympic trials, there’s going to be a different story to tell and that’s what powered me. I didn’t see that as a failure. I was like, Oh wait, until next time, come on. Like you guys have no idea what’s about to happen in the next four years, like 1,461 days from now I know where I’m going to be, I know what I’m going to do and y’all are just going to be there to be present to see what happens because I’m going to own that moment. And that was the conversation in my head. Probably the things that I don’t necessarily share publicly, but because then people start to look at you funny for different reasons.
DH: Well, I joke about that all the time that I talk to myself and I go, “you don’t talk to yourself?” But you have to though, how else are you going to get there? You need that cheerleader, you need that guy who’s going to push you. And it’s not always going to be your coach or family members. The person who is going to push you the most and is going to encourage you the most, is the one in your head. Because he’s living with you every day and you need to kind of put him to work to get you going. So you failed in ‘96, you’re now moving into 2000, you are dominating the sport, you have won every major competition so obviously whatever that guy was saying in your head was working and you get there, you win the US trials get to the Olympic Games, you finished second. Although your best throw at the Olympic trials would have won the Olympic medal. The F word again, what did that feel like?
AN: So, that one was a big failure. That one was one that I took personally and like there are some failures that you take in stride and then use it as a positive sort of response and there’s some that are driven by more of a negative like response that powers you forward, right? And that one was certainly one of those. I looked at that and I was frustrated because not only did I have the world-leading throw by quite a bit, almost 50 centimeters, I think that year at the Olympic trials but I was in fantastic shape except I rolled an ankle like three weeks before and I’m not going to say that that was the reason why I didn’t throw far, but it was really frustrating. I felt like everything was kind of in line, I felt like I was in a good place physically and mentally and a guy from Finland had a career day, ended up PR, setting a personal best that day and beating me by about two and a half inches. And so every single day for the next years, I’m like, I lost by that much. That will never happen again but at the same time, I remember walking off the field in Sydney and one of my competitors who’s been a mentor of mine and a good friend as well named John Medina from the U.S. said, no matter how you feel right now, because at this point I just walked away with a second-place and he knew I should’ve won. And he said, no matter how you feel right now, you’re happy that you had the second. That’s the only thing, the only message you need to convey out. Proud, happy to have represented the United States and happy to have won that silver medal but I saw it as a loss of the gold. And so I came back from that just hungry and frustrated and ready to train and I did okay.
Something that I’ve learned over the balance of my competitive career is that while anger can be a good short term motivator, anger, and frustration, you know if this guy wronged me I’m going to focus all my energy on him and be negative, it’s not a sustainable emotion for me. And that was something that I felt after winning a silver medal in 2000, winning a silver medal at the 2001 world championships, winning a silver medal at the world championships in 2003, and then ultimately being awarded at the time in 2004, that silver medal, I remember even walking off the field in the 2004 Olympics and people had dubbed me the first loser. The first loser. In fact, I remember having this conversation with a sponsor and we’re talking about the business side of the sport. And I said, well, look, I’ve proven that I’m one of the top, if not the top number one ranked shot putter in the world. And their response to me, yeah, but you’re only good enough for second place and I was livid. So when I came back from the 2004 Olympics, I was so angry. I was angry at everybody. I was angry at myself. I was angry at my sponsors. Anything, anybody that could be angry at. I woke up every single morning for the next, it was about three months basically, and woke up, the first thing that I said was not the failure, but the other “F” word and followed by the world or whatever or whoever I was angry at that day and man, I had some amazing training. But what ended up happening there, so that year between 2004, 2005 I wasn’t able to find a sponsor. They deemed me the first loser. So they were undercutting me pretty big time on the business side. I won’t get into it. And I went without a sponsor and it was the greatest thing to happen to me in my whole professional/athletic career. And the reason why is it forced me to change the motivations for why I was training and how I perceived myself. It was no longer about financial gain.
DH: I was about to ask you about that. Your motivation and your purpose for doing this. And you’re right, if you’re angry at the world, yeah, it’s a great motivator but as you said earlier, it’s not sustainable. So, how did you make that shift from, you know what, I’m not going to be angry at the world I’m not even going to be angry at myself. I just need to kind of switch my focus, find a new purpose or get myself reacquainted with my purpose.
AN: Yeah, I wish I could say I did it intentionally, but it was really done for me. It was just by, again, I kept pushing through it and literally one day, I mean my training was going, I mean I’m an emotional guy. I’m like, I’m just going to get in here and I’m going to do hard work and I’ll work as I’ve always done, nobody’s going to work harder than me. I’m going to stronger and faster next year I’m going to just crush it. And so, I was destroying my workouts and you start to accumulate those little bitty victories along the way. And then you kind of look back and you’re like, wow, look kind of far I’ve come and it’s fun seeing the progress. I don’t like to be angry. So then I got addicted to that like I want to see progress, that’s what it was. And as long as I was progressing, I was getting happier and happier and happier. It was no longer about F this or F that it was, F yeah, it was like, this is great, but it reminded me of why I started doing this in the first place. And as you can imagine, as an Olympic athlete for most of us, we don’t start doing it for the money. And from 2000 to 2004, I largely started looking at this as a profession that your success was ultimately determined by how much money you made and I found myself a mile wide and an inch deep. And so when someone else kind of called me out on it and said, you’re only good enough for second place and I was like, man, none of this matters if I’m not enjoying it. The money’s never going to be enough to satisfy me so what the hell am I doing this for? And ultimately, I love the process. I love the process of growth and challenge and goals and pursuing those goals daily for long periods of time and I’m really good at it. And that’s how I defined myself.
DH: And may we all learn from that. Learning to love the process, learning to grow, learning to embrace the challenges so we can succeed. And that brings me to a really good point. Let’s talk a little bit about learning to deal with change and learning to be comfortable with change because just before the 2008 Olympics, three weeks before, I read that you changed your technique for throwing the shot put. So talk to us about this idea of, you know, changing and taking that what I’m going to call a huge risk, just weeks before the Olympic Games.
AN: Yeah. So I mean, change is a relative term and when you say, I’ve got to change something and you’re an Olympic athlete going into the Olympic Games, a lot of people freak out about it, but even Tiger Woods changed his stroke. He was at the top of his game and he’s like, I have to change this. There were some things that I had to change. And materially, they made my throw look a lot different out of the back of the circle if you understood what I was doing but the reason why I had to do it was to improve my consistency. And it’s something that, God, there’s never a good time for change, but God, when it’s there and you have to do it, you’ve got to do it and I have no regrets about it. The 2008 Olympics, it was another year that I was leading the world by over a meter with my best throw over a meter better than anybody else’s that year and going to Beijing, it’s my last full throw workout. Like real hard workout before throwing workout before technical workout before we actually compete so it’s a Monday before Friday competition and I’m warming up and I’m feeling awesome. I mean, I’m talking like everything indicated that I was going to not only throw really well but set up big time, personal best. I start my first real full throw where I’m like, okay, putting the throttle down, not going to have the governor on and I felt a pop in my back. And you have these little muscles in between your ribs called the intercostal muscles on the backside of your muscle and I’d just basically torn one of those and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
I think I’m kind of going off point of your question of change but the bottom line is the change in my technique was necessary. The reason why it didn’t perform in the 2008 Olympics where I wanted to, that’s something that goes beyond my control. My body just said you’d have enough stress and that’s it. And I will say this about those 2008 Games, I think I actually had the farthest throw of my career, ever, during those games. And it went about 15 feet foul of the sector, but it was well over. I remember we were walking off the field and I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to throw that whole week after that injury, I mean, I was having problems walking and breathing because intercostal, it helps control the breathing. And so if it spasms, it just basically, feels like an ice pick going into your lung, it collapses everything. So I’ve been able to deal with that pain and deal with that discomfort. And so I’m walking off the field and I’m looking at the throw that got away. The one throw that I actually took that was full like I was like, I’m just going to deal because it was hurting like hell. What I made was about a 22 and a half meter, 23-meter throw and I’m walking off and I remember walking, going up to the reporters and said, Adam, you are the favorite to win, how do you feel? I’m like, I feel great. There’s nothing that I would have changed over the last six years, well, no, sorry, over the last four years at the time of my training. Not a thing. And when you can look back on that and say, look, I had some ups and downs, but all those ups and downs I earned and everything that’s happened to me over the last four years as I earned it and I earned it the right way and I was in a great mindset and there’s nothing that I would have changed. Like, that’s a huge victory and that’s a victory that doesn’t necessarily show up on the scorecard but for me personally was one of my most proud moments as an Olympic athlete.
DH: Indeed. Adam, that’s a great way to wind down this conversation I think because earlier we spoke about the destination and the medal can’t be the destination or shouldn’t be, well, we need to focus on the journey. And here it is that you’re… In Beijing, you’ didn’t win, which is what everybody expected. That’s kind of the definition and the expectation of the culmination of the journey. And you’re saying, hey, you know what? I had an amazing journey. I took some risks that other people may not want to take but that’s part of what I needed to do to grow. That’s what all of us, our listeners and viewers need as well. And I thank you for being such a great example of that lesson and message. You definitely epitomize, keep on pushing. So, thank you for agreeing to come on the show.
AN: Thanks for having me, Devon. This has been wonderful.
DH: Yeah, man. So just before we close, tell us about what you’re doing now and how people may find you if they want some coaching, want you to come and speak, whatever.
AN: Yeah. So the easiest way to get in touch with me is through either direct email and I can give that out. My email is email@example.com. You can email me and what I’m doing now, since retiring from the Olympics, from an Olympic athlete standpoint, one of the things I’ve always been seeking is that opportunity to coach, to run a business, but also have this philanthropic sort of Goodwill thing. I found this job here in Houston that was awesome. I recently stepped away from it to pursue some individual consulting things but at the end of the day you talked about finding your why. Well, my purpose, my why is I like to do things that have a broader social impact. And so that’s one of the things that attracted me to the Olympics, was the desire to use sports as this conduit for Goodwill and all the other things that the Olympic movement stands for. And I’ve been fortunate enough to do that in another iteration in my life where we use sports to raise money for pediatric cancer research and treatment and I’m looking forward to finding out what the next steps going to be and I’m in the process of doing that right now.
DH: Awesome. Awesome. Yeah. So it’s about growth, it’s about change, it’s about embracing the challenge and loving the struggle. I love it. Absolutely. Adam, you’ve been awesome. Adam Nelson ladies and gentlemen. Olympian and philanthropist and all-around great guy, thank you so much for gracing us.
AN: Thank you, Devon. I appreciate it.