LAWRENCE — The beer started flowing before 6 p.m. People filled the sidewalks outside Richard’s Music Co. and the Sandbar. College students. Little kids. Parents, too. A few feet away, a woman twirled cotton candy and mixed syrup to make snow cones.
The party was here in downtown, in the 100 block of Eighth Street between Massachusetts and New Hampshire streets. The shot put competition can feel like a street carnival with world-class throwers heaving heavy metal balls between the fans’ sips of pale ale. And really, that’s just how Christian Cantwell likes it.
“I notice it. I smell the beer in the air,” said Cantwell, an Olympic silver medalist in 2008. “I’m like (darn), I want to go have one of those.”
On Friday evening, Cantwell could wait to join the party, winning the competition with a throw of 70 feet, 1 inch (21.36 meters). He topped a field of former Olympians and world champions, a nice early-season victory.
But Cantwell, 33, is also a Missouri native who starred at Mizzou in the mid-2000s. That makes him a natural heel at a meet in downtown Lawrence — an event that has turned into one of the highlights of the Kansas Relays weekend.
This year, the professional shot put event was no longer an official part of the relays; this event was put on by the Lawrence Sports Corp. But a few days before the meet, while Cantwell worked out indoors after an April snowstorm in Columbia, he read a story about the upcoming meet.
The story mentioned Reese Hoffa, the former world champion and bronze medalist at the 2012 Olympics in London. It also mentioned Ryan Whiting, the 27-year-old silver medalist at last year’s world championships in Moscow.
It didn’t sit well with Cantwell, even if he was smiling about it a few days later.
“I probably have one of the least egos of anybody who competes,” Cantwell said. “But … I was reading stuff leading up to this. And everybody was talking about Whiting and Hoffa this, and they never once brought my name up.
“I was just like: ‘(Darn), did I just fall off the face of the earth?’ It was just like they forgot about me or something. So I said: ‘I can’t let that happen. I got to say hello again.’ ”
Cantwell hadn’t fallen off the face of the earth. But it had been nearly two years since he’d been healthy. Even at the 2012 Olympics, where he finished fourth, losing an opportunity for another Olympic medal, Cantwell wasn’t fully healthy.
So this felt good. While the rest of the field wasn’t quite in midseason form — “It’s still snowing,” Cantwell noted — the former Missouri star pulled off one solid throw, breaking the 70-foot mark on his fifth attempt.
Kurt Roberts, a 26-year-old former Division II star at Ashland University, finished second with a throw of 69 feet, 8 inches (21.23 meters). Hoffa, who won the downtown event two years ago, finished third.
Hoffa may have left some distance out there, he said, but he still enjoyed the party. At most events, the shot put is a sport of solitude, with throwers competing in some quiet corner of a large stadium. Here, the throwers — and the beverages — are the show.
“There are stadiums that are really cool,” Cantwell said. “But in terms of setting up an event where we are the deal and we are the event, it doesn’t get any better — as much as I hate to say that, being from Missouri.”
This is what keeps the world-class throwers coming back to Lawrence. The early-season competition is nice. The chance to throw in a nicely lubricated block in a college town is not bad, either.
“You’re right there with the fans,” said Hoffa, 36. “And they can almost reach out and touch you.”
“Everybody gets a little more amped,” Cantwell added. “To be honest with you, if this were just in a stadium where other events are going, you have a little less moxie. But out here, in front of everybody, you can put your chest out and feel good.”
Both Cantwell and Hoffa are entering the twilights of their careers. The next Olympic cycle is still two years away. There will be more major events, but not as many as before. For now, Hoffa says he’s just focused on 2014, while Cantwell just wants to feel healthy.
“I’m not dead; I’m still here,” Cantwell said. “I’m still going. I still got it. At least to a certain degree, I still got it. I don’t know how long I’ll have it. It might go next week, but I had it today.”