This given winter morning Reese Hoffa was 300-plus pounds of walking congestion, a persistent virus having sublet his quite spacious chest.
The inhaler he was prescribed was of limited use. Hoffa is allowed only a few hits a day, or he risks getting lost in the maze of track and field’s doping regulations.
No matter, he had throws to make. Inside the chilled metal building that is an eccentric mix of gym/indoor shot-put range — it houses his eponymous throwing academy — Hoffa chalked up for another practice, cradled the 16-pound ball between cheek and neck and went to work.
He is 38 years old, well into the dotage of an Olympic dream. How many thousands of times had Hoffa repeated this practice ritual, whether he was feeling hale or puny? Because there are no valid excuses in an Olympic year.
Entering the throwing circle, he lined up his target, engaging in a pre-shot routine worthy of a PGA Tour pro on the range. To get from the back of the circle to the point of release up front, Hoffa spun like a music-box dancer, if your music box happened to be built as sturdily as an office safe.
The shot landed downrange, punishing the carpeted concrete floor with a deep, “Thump!” There being a scarcity of shot-put catchers, Hoffa lumbered downrange, plucked the shot from the ground like a melon and lumbered back again.
Spin. Thump. Walk. Retrieve. Repeat. Again and again. Ah, the life of a human cannon.
When you are attempting to make your fourth U.S. Olympic team, knowing that there are no shortcuts from Georgia to Rio de Janeiro, this is the path you walk, 70-plus feet at a time between launch and where the heavy ball rolls to a rest.
It is five months before the U.S. Olympic Trials, the survivors moving on to the opening ceremonies in Brazil a month after that. Hoffa certainly won’t be getting any younger between now and then.
“I’m going to be the senior guy there by a lot. I’m going to be that old guy,” Hoffa said with a grin.
Hoffa is among a small and determined group of Georgia-based or Georgia-reared track-and-field performers who have contributed much to the state’s Olympic heritage — and believe they have one more good quadrennial meet in them.
Call them the Olympic die-hards, the few whose medal collection still feels incomplete enough that they would dare themselves to defy age and their sport’s short attention span.
The roster of these golden, silver and bronze oldies to look for this summer includes:
Hoffa, the bronze medalist in the shot in 2012 after failing to medal in Athens or Beijing. He’s the light-hearted thrower, the one who once competed in an overseas meet while wearing a pro wrestler’s mask.
Angelo Taylor, 37, 400-meter hurdle gold medalist in 2000 and 2008, relay silver medalist in 2012, attempting to make his fifth Olympic team. The former Georgia Tech runner trains in Stone Mountain, with another would-be five-time Olympian (for the Bahamas), Chris Brown.
DeeDee Trotter, 33, the one-time runner from Cross Keys High, now training in California for a possible fourth Olympics. She owns 4x400 relay golds from 2004 and 2012, as well as bronze in the 400 meters for the last Games in London.
Chaunte Lowe, 32, from Decatur, once a Georgia Tech high jumper and three-time Olympian, trying to make it to the track at Rio while raising three children.
Their motivations are elemental enough, the same that keep any competitor going until the last usable fast muscle twitch has been exploited. They just are expressed in a variety of ways.
Stubbornness is certainly a part of the equation.
“There’s still a love for the sport, a love for training. And I still feel I have more to accomplish in the sport. My last Olympics didn’t go as well as I wanted to,” Taylor said.
“I always told myself I was going to do it as long as I could. As long as I’m still able to compete at this level I’m going to keep doing it because once it’s done, it’s done. You can’t ever go back.”
If you want sheer defiance, look west to California, to USC, where Trotter trains. As she rounded the last turn of a colorful running life, it seemed a lot of people in the sport wanted to move the finish line on her.
“You can call me old, you can offer me pennies but you can’t break me,” she affirmed last week.
For close to the past two years, as her major sponsor began negotiating for a smaller deal for an older runner, Trotter has trained without that financial net. “I didn’t want to spend these years feeling under-valued and under-appreciated,” she said. So, she markets herself and her non-profit Running 4 the People. She is model, spokeswoman, online saleswoman all in one. It all sort of fits the colorful persona of a 400-meter runner whose game face comes decorated in elaborate paint-and-sparkle designs.
Hazel Clark, a three-time Olympian, is one of Trotter’s closest friends. And as the executive director of the Georgia Track Club — a relatively new group that looks to support local talent both raw and refined — she, too, knows a little about the flighty economies of track and field.
“The nature of our sport is that sponsors know that when a person gets to a particular age their value has diminished and most athletes will scramble and take anything even if they are one of the best in the world just to make ends meet,” she said. “I thought it was very gutsy of DeeDee to say no, I know what my worth is and I’m going to go at this on my own.”
“There’s not a lot of financial support — some but not a whole lot,” said Taylor, who between Olympics has worked as an electrician and for FedEx, but is now focused on training. “Most people would be surprised. I manage to make it work. Like DeeDee, you have to make things happen. Fortunately I have a good support system with my family, they understand what I’m trying to do.”
For Hoffa, there is a sense of unfinished business, that there is work to be done on that bronze medal showing in 2012 — “I didn’t perform to my very best in the last Olympics, I just survived,” he said
The odds favor none of them. Hoffa judges his chance to make a fourth Olympic team at about 50-50. But age also comes with an advantage, at least that’s one of the beliefs that prompts Hoffa to keep throwing even on days when he’d just as soon stay in bed.
“The Olympic trials is all about pressure,” he said. “Who among the top guys can get that throw off that puts them on the team? I have the experience, I’ve handled the pressure. I know that I generally go into the meets in very good shape, and I usually execute and perform well.”
So, take that, young’uns.
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