BEIJING | Christian Cantwell slapped the chalk on his neck fiercely before his last throw in the shot put. He was in fifth place. So it came down to this: Get his best effort of the night, or go home without an Olympic medal.
“We have a saying where I train, ‘Last throw, best throw,’ ” Cantwell, a Missouri graduate from Eldon, Mo., said. “It wasn’t the best throw of the day, but it was MY best throw. So I’ll take it.”
And with that toss -- 69 feet, 2 ½ inches -- Cantwell has a silver medal to take back. The winner was Poland’s Tomasz Majewski (70-7), and Russia’s Andrei Mikhnevich (69-3/4) won bronze.
The Americans -- Cantwell, Reese Hoffa and Adam Nelson -- were thought to have a decent likelihood to sweep the medals here. But only Cantwell came through, and initially his disappointment that he didn’t throw better was his primary emotion.
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Cantwell has topped 70-7 outdoors 10 times since the start of the 2004 season. He said he never would have believed that distance would win the Olympic gold.
“The Olympic Games are hard. It’s a hard day,” Cantwell said of a schedule that started with qualifying at 9 a.m. and finals that began at 9 p.m. “Had I gotten a better throw early, I think I could have put it away. And I felt like, god-dang, I was so close.
“I feel like I’m gut-shot right now. The kid from Poland, he found a way to get it done. He won it. I didn’t do my job. None of the Americans did their job.”
Sounds like a pretty harsh assessment of winning an Olympic medal, doesn’t it? Yet after awhile, it began to sink in with Cantwell that silver was actually a pretty big accomplishment. He smiled when asked what it would mean to the communities he grew up in and went to college in.
“I hope people back home take pride in it,” he said. “I know in Eldon, they had a big thing at the local community center. I hope they enjoy it, at least get a little bit of kick out of the last throw. Suspenseful. This is all for them, really.
“And (Columbia)’s so supportive. Everywhere I go, everybody is saying, ‘Hey, you’re the shot-putter.’ ”
Cantwell will be going home Monday and is eager to see his wife, Terri, had their son, Jackson Daniel, who was born in May.
“Man, I hope he's not all grown up by the time I get back,” Cantwell said. “I’ve been here so long that I forgot what he looks like. I’ve got a picture of him, but I’m sure he’s going to be a lot different by the time I get home.”
As for what he’ll tell his little boy someday about his experience in China, Cantwell said, “That’s a good question. I’m sure it will come to me sometime. I just hope someday he can, you know, tell his buddies, ‘My dad was in the Olympics, and he did pretty good.’ ”
Cantwell, of course, missed his chance at the Olympics in 2004, when he fell short of qualifying for the team at the U.S. trials. He struggled to get over that. Then even when he made the 2008 Olympic team, he didn’t show a lot of emotion. His goal still wasn’t met.
He came to Beijing expecting a gold. But on his first five tosses, he never felt completely in sync.
Neither did Hoffa, who won the Olympic trials but finished seventh here. And Nelson, who won Olympic silver in 2000 and 2004, was out of this competition after three fouls. He had a pulled muscle in his left side, but said that wasn’t an excuse.
“I was having some technical errors and pulling it down the left side,” Nelson said. “The more important thing is that Christian Cantwell won a silver medal. I think he should be given a lot of praise for that. Because he certainly had a lot of stress and pressure on him over the last few years, and he’s an amazing athlete.”
The pressure crystallized into one moment here. The best of his first five throws came on the second toss, which was 68-10. His distances decreased with each of the next three. Then he was down to his last attempt.
“Just knock the (expletive) out of it,” he said of what went through his mind. “Don’t hold anything back, just spin as fast as you can, break your fingers off and see where it lands. And I almost broke my fingers off. But luckily, I got an inch longer than the second-place guy. So I walk away with a little bit of redemption from 2004.
“I’ll take silver for now. Four more years, and I guess I’ll have to come back (to the Olympics) and get the different-colored one.”