Game of Throws

by Graham Hays

Track and field associate head coach Ashley Kovacs has mentored multiple Olympians, including her husband Joe.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Shot put came naturally for Ashley Kovacs. Mind you, she didn’t set out to throw heavy objects competitively. Few kids do. But after deciding in middle school that track and field would be a good way to pass the months between basketball seasons, she discovered that she possessed the strength and agility to send the metal ball soaring through the air.

The discus throw was another story. It bedeviled her. When she threw the discus, it wobbled, as if wounded, and then fell to earth. Until one day a stranger at a track meet told her that anyone who could throw the shot as far as she did ought to be able to throw the discus 100 feet. When she responded that she was lucky to throw it even half that distance, he showed her a handful of ways to improve her technique. She went home, practiced and soon hit triple digits.

Kovacs went on to excel in both the shot put and discus throw. She won high school state titles in both events. At the University of Kentucky, she was an All-American in shot put and the SEC champion in the discus throw. The chance encounter all those years earlier was the start of a journey that ultimately led her to the world championships and Olympics—except by then she wasn’t the one throwing.

For Vanderbilt track and field’s new associate head coach, who this summer coached husband Joe Kovacs when he won a silver medal in shot put in the Olympics, making a heavy object defy gravity wasn’t the revelation. That came in understanding how a mentor can change the course of a person’s life through nothing more complicated than caring enough to teach.

The day she learned to make the discus soar was the day she fell in love with coaching. From a former walk-on who needed someone only to believe in her to a former world champion who temporarily lost his way, she’s been helping people reach new heights ever since.

“The thing that was most intriguing to me was that you could make a correction and it completely changed everything,” Kovacs recalled of that day with the discus. “From that point forward, I was invested and intrigued by the whole process and the technical evolution of how you could make yourself better.”

From champion thrower to coaching apprentice

Kovacs grew up in Canton, Ohio. Famous as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the city is also the hometown of former hammer thrower and four-time Olympian Jud Logan. Kovacs and Logan’s son were in the same class at North Canton Hoover High School. Coming off his fourth Olympics in 2000, Logan drove past Hoover’s track each day on the long commute to work as Ashland University’s track and field head coach. The school was usually deserted by the time he drove by in the evenings—but for a solitary figure working in the shot put circle.

Hoover didn’t have a big track and field budget for specialized coaching, and Kovacs never had much in the way of private coaching. Instead, she worked on her own and saved up questions for Logan’s summer throwing camps at Ashland. Escaping the summer heat when a midday break arrived, Logan typically retreated to the quiet of his office. A knock on the door soon followed. Kovacs invariably entered, assuring him she had only a few follow-up questions.

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“We knew from a very early age that she was special.”

Four-time Olympian Jud Logan

“You can’t coach that,” Logan said. “You can’t tell kids to do that. They either have that or they don’t. I told her I thought she could someday be an incredible coach with this knowledge base and this inquisitive mind. We knew from a very early age that she was special.”

He was honest with her too. While he told her she had the potential to be an All-American in college, he also admitted that her smaller size would make it difficult to reach the Olympics. He was correct on both counts, but that hardly mattered by the time she graduated from Kentucky in 2009. She kept competing, through the Olympic trials in 2012, but coaching was already more stimulating than even her own competitions.

She left a lucrative sales job in Columbus, Ohio, in 2011 to move to Kentucky and become a graduate assistant coach at Murray State University while pursuing a master’s in human development and leadership. From there, she took a full-time assistant coaching position at Western Kentucky University, where she helped recruit and coach Jessica Ramsey. A junior college transfer, Ramsey swept Sun Belt Conference titles in shot put, discus throw and hammer throw as a senior and went on to represent the United States in shot put in the Olympics after breaking the Olympic trials record.

Returning to her home state as an assistant coach at Ohio State in 2014, Kovacs soon spotted a kindred spirit in Adelaide Aquilla. Initially a recruited walk-on who came late to throwing in high school, Aquilla won NCAA indoor and outdoor titles in shot put this past year as a junior and joined Ramsey on the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo.

Kovacs helped Aquilla develop her technique and improve her weight training. But she also invested in making Aquilla a stronger person. Even as Aquilla enjoyed a breakthrough junior year, she said she still sometimes saw herself as a walk-on—the imposter syndrome that people in countless fields experience. Again and again, Kovacs reassured her that she belonged, words that meant something because of the bond the two had formed over their years together.

“The best thing that she does with her collegians is she connects with them,” Joe Kovacs said. “She connects with them emotionally, with who they are as a person. It’s not just being their friend; it’s being their trusted adviser.”

Her most accomplished athlete knows that better than anyone. It’s why he is still on top of the sport.

A world-class power couple emerges

Six athletes represented the United States across the men’s and women’s shot put competitions in Tokyo. Barely a decade removed from her own days as a college student-athlete, Kovacs had coached half of them at some point in their development. One of them is also her husband.

More experienced than younger athletes Ramsey or Aquilla, Joe won a world championship in 2015 and an Olympic silver medal in 2016. That was before he and Ashley had either a personal or professional connection. The two met in passing over the years and knew of each other for some time. The younger of the two, Joe had heard about the exploits of local high school star Ashley when visiting family friends in northeastern Ohio. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that a relationship bloomed. By the end of September that year, he moved from California to Columbus. They were engaged the following February and married that fall.

Yet amidst personal joy, Joe’s throwing career appeared near an unhappy end. His passion for competing waned after the grueling cycle that spanned the 2015 and 2016 successes. A coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in California wanted to radically change his throwing style, exacerbating his disillusionment. His physical conditioning slipped. He checked out.

Governed by times and distances, track and field can be a ruthless sport. There isn’t room for moral victories or passing off blame. The tape measure doesn’t lie, as Joe put it. And when it told tales of shorter and shorter throws, Joe wondered if his time was simply over.

“Ashley never thought I lost it,” Joe recalled. “She just thought I was lost in the way I was going about it.

“I was supposed to know what I was doing at that point. I had an Olympic medal and the world championship, but I know she was gritting her teeth because it didn’t make sense to her. She’s very smart and very knowledgeable. She’s been mentored by great coaches. She has two master’s degrees. She knows biomechanics. It really pained her to see things that didn’t make sense to her, which was reaffirmed when she saw things not working out for me.”

That changed with the “kitchen table talk,” as Joe calls a moment now part of the sport’s folklore. At an impromptu family council with his mother and wife in the early week of 2019, on the heels of another disappointing performance and when it appeared retirement was a likely outcome, they instead decided to move forward with Ashley taking over as his coach.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Still at Ashland University, Logan recalled a conversation with Ashley around that time. She loved Joe, she told the mentor who knew both of them, and worried that coaching might get in the way of their relationship. He encouraged her to give it a try. After all, no one understood him better. And with Joe then living in Columbus, she had day-to-day access to him in a way that another coach wouldn’t.

They gave it a few weeks. Then more time. Joe started regularly recording throws beyond 70 feet, a baseline for working up to world-class competition. A year that began contemplating a career change ended with Joe winning by one centimeter in the world championships in Doha, Qatar. The top three finishers all broke the previous world championships record.

After most global competitions were scrapped in 2020, a period in which both said they talked and thought little about throwing and interacted mostly as spouses, he finished second in the U.S. Olympic trials and won the silver medal in Tokyo—having led until the final round of throws.

With her help, he is one of just nine men to win at least a silver medal in multiple Olympics.

A new challenge awaits at Vanderbilt

There is plenty of technical work involved in throwing—Aquilla recalled that Ashley and the Ohio State throwers might spend an entire week working on one small part of the movement in the circle. The details are even more important at the world-class level, where Joe proved that finding even an extra centimeter can be the difference between success and disappointment.

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But for all of those details, finding someone to trust can be as important as finding a master technician. Just as Aquilla trusted Ashley’s message that she belonged because it was backed by genuine investment, Joe trusts his wife to know him better than anyone.

“When they’re around each other, he is laser-locked on what she’s talking about,” Logan said. “She’s the boss, and he gets it. That’s something he needs because he can take it off his plate. He can focus on his recovery and the mental aspects. Any time you have a coach that you believe in, as an athlete, that takes something off your plate.

“The more things you can take off your plate, the better competitor you’re going to be.”

They have the 2024 Olympics in Paris in their sights, but Ashley’s priority—just ahead of finding a house for them in Nashville—is her new role as Vanderbilt’s associate head coach.

Even in the SEC, the nation’s preeminent athletic conference, most student-athletes aren’t building toward the Olympics or even professional track and field careers. But she doesn’t coach to create Olympians, even if they do seem to accumulate around her.

Joe often worked out around the Ohio State throwers, as he will at Vanderbilt. But just as a bystander might not have discerned that he and Ashley were husband and wife until practice ended and the jokes started, that bystander likely wouldn’t have known that one of the people on the field was among the best in the world if judging solely by the way Ashley coached.

“It was a very similar coaching style, similar plan to the season and for the weight room,” Aquilla said. “She’s had a lot of success with athletes at different levels. Whether it’s Joe or someone walking on, she treats everybody similarly and develops them into who they want to be as a thrower. She’s always willing to help anyone progress, as long as they’re willing to give the time and effort to the sport.”

In addition to a bond with Vanderbilt head coach Althea Thomas, and a belief in what the new coach wants to build, Ashley seized the new opportunity because she would be serving people with “high expectations for themselves.”

She can help those people. Help them to throw a few more feet in the short term. Help them learn how to succeed at anything in the long term. Someone showed her. She can show them.

— Graham Hays covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @GrahamHays.

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