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Shot at Olympic Glory: Reese Hoffa of Athens Headed for the London Games

With world’s best throw of 2012, local shot putter stamps himself as favorite for the gold medal.

Reese Hoffa once competed in a ski mask and cape as the “Unknown Shot Putter.” He’s used to being unrecognized in his hometown of Athens.

His local profile might improve Aug. 3, however.

That’s when he hopes to claim a gold medal at the London Olympics, where he might be the favorite after winning the U.S. Olympic Trials in the shot put Sunday.

On a cool and sunny afternoon at the University of Oregon’s historic Hayward Field, Hoffa’s third throw landed 72 feet, 2¼ inches away—the best mark in the world this year.

“This is it,” Hoffa said of what he called his final shot at Games glory. He was 22nd in 2004 and seventh in 2008. “This is do or die. If I want to end my Olympic career [with a medal], I just have to go after it.”

At the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Games, Hoffa said, he went in with a “businesslike” attitude, which he thinks prevented him from throwing with childlike abandon.

This time, said the 34-year-old University of Georgia graduate, he’ll try to have fun—and take charge.

“I need to be aggressive and set the tone for the meet,” he said.

Having won the 2008 Olympic Trials shot put and not delivered on its promise, he said after his 2012 victory: “This means absolutely nothing. I’m starting at zero. … If I don’t win the Olympic Games, nobody will care what I [did] now.”

Hoffa lives 100 yards from the Jackson County line on the west side of Athens, near a cattle farm owned by a fellow Georgia track alumnus.  He still trains at Georgia, where he starred in the late 1990s.

He might get some knowing glances while shopping in Athens, he said, but he’s a superstar in Europe.

On Sunday, while being quizzed by reporters in the press tent, he recounted the time he was having dinner in Finland, and a gaggle of track fans interrupted him like paparazzi after Lady Gaga, seeking his autograph.

He’s made his home in Athens since 1997, and married his wife, Renata, in 2005. He won his first world title in 2006 (indoors in Moscow) and added the outdoor world championship in 2007 (in Osaka, Japan). 

His all-time best is 73-7¼ — just 2 feet, 3 inches short of the world record.

But he’d be happy with any mark—as long as he gets to stand at the top level in London.

His plan is to throw aggressively from the start, grabbing a lead and putting pressure on his rivals, likely to include Tomasz Majewski of Poland, who won the Beijing shot title with a mark of 70-7.

Majewski’s best throw in 2012 is 70-10 1/2.

Hoffa’s journey to a third Olympic Games may not be the most dramatic story of his life, however.  He was born Maurice Antawn Chism in Evans, GA, to a single mom and given up for adoption at age 4 after he destroyed his home by playing with fire—mimicking the example of his 6-year-old brother, who put his own fire out.

(He reunited with his mother at age 23, after she called him out of the blue while he was studying at college.)

Later, Hoffa made a name for himself as a Rubik’s Cube competitor, solving the puzzle last year in 39.38 seconds.

He said he took up the game to help him relieve the tension of track meets, buying the cube at Target.

“I was a head case when I came to competitions,” he said. “I used a Rubik’s Cube to focus.”

In London, he won’t need it, he said.

“I think I’ve hopefully moved on from using the Rubik’s Cube.”

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