UNIVERSITY PARK — Ryan Whiting admits he was distracted, and his competitive juices were off.
That kind of thing can happen at the Olympics, when tens of thousands of athletes from a variety of sports are all in the vicinity, and it is easy to let attentions wander.
It left Whiting feel like he underachieved, and he has something to prove.
The No. 1 shot putter in the world plans to show he should be a gold medal winner in a few weeks.
The Harrisburg native and Penn State volunteer assistant coach heads to Moscow soon for the IAAF World Track and Field Championships. The meet runs Aug. 10-18, with his competition set for Aug. 15-16.
He carries with him the status of meet favorite, at least in terms of the season’s performances, and he has a singular goal for the trip.
“If I don’t win I will be disappointed,” Whiting said. “I can’t say I would be happy with silver.”
Whiting not only has the top throw in the world this year, but the top four. Next is teammate Reese Hoffa, a bronze medallist in London last summer, and the two of them combine for the top 10 throws in the world rankings. Whiting’s best is 73 feet, 1 inch (22.28 meters), achieved in May at a meet in Doha, Qatar. He won the title at the U.S. Championships in June at 72-6.
While those numbers are impressive, he also has to erase the sting of last summer.
He was also No. 1 in the world last year, was the world champion indoors, finished second at the U.S. outdoor championships and qualified for the Olympics for the first time. He went to London early — his competition wasn’t until the tail end of the games — so he could soak in a little of the atmosphere. But with the flood of other competitors and the circus that is the Olympics, he lost his focus.
“I went in a lot earlier for the Olympics,” Whiting said. “It’s just a different experience with the (Olympic athletes’) village and everything. We have a village sometimes for World Championships, but we sometimes stay in hotels too. It really changes with that, but the (Olympic) village is kind of a sensory-overload-kind-of-thing.”
He was fourth after the morning preliminaries, easily making the 12-athlete final round that night, but then fell to ninth, managing a top throw of just 67-8 1/2.
It was a hard lesson to learn, and he plans on using that lesson when the Olympics come around again in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016.
“For Rio I won’t go as early as I did for London,” said the 6-foot-3, 295-pound Whiting. “I was there too long. I kind of lost a little bit of why I was there. I got into a daily routine instead of going for the meet and looking forward to the meet.”
In his third year as a professional thrower, after winning six NCAA titles at Arizona State, Whiting sees the growth as the same as when he was in college, just at a different level. He has been much more consistent with his throws this year as a result.
“I have a different mindset,” Whiting said. “You learn from every little experience. This being my third year as a professional, I finally feel comfortable, like getting to my senior year in college. ‘I can beat these guys. I know how to beat these guys. I can throw far enough.’ … Going into the World Championships, I know I can do it, I know I can beat everyone in the world this year because I have beaten everyone.”
That is one of the reasons he is a volunteer assistant coach with the Nittany Lions.
While some in that position have been hands-on coaches, some are there just to train and maybe pass along a pointer here or there. Whiting gives some technique notes when he’s in the throwing circle, and also advice in the weight room, but he’s as much there to provide motivation as details.
There are very few teams that have access to the top-ranked athlete in the world in an event.
“His biggest impact right now is to lead by example and to help them be better competitors,” Penn State head coach Beth Alford-Sullivan said, making sure when recruits visit campus they get to meet Whiting. “If these kids are standing around when he’s doing the great things he’s doing, they’re inspired and their confidence grows because of that.”
Whiting was a standout athlete at Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg, dominating state competitions before he went cross-country to throw with the Sun Devils. When he was a senior and knew he wanted to try to compete internationally, he contacted Alford-Sullivan, reasoning he would be just 90 minutes from his family while training at one of the top athletic facilities in the east.
“It was a no-brainer for us,” said Alford-Sullivan, saying Whiting would make a good full-time coach some day down the road. “He wanted to move here, help out, use our facilities and train … and that’s been a great impact.”
He knows he could have a long career ahead of him, with some throwers lasting into their 40s and still winning gold medals, but he has a civil engineering degree and he’s working on his Master’s. He also has a new addition to the family, with a son, Charlie, born eight weeks ago, and that provides a different dynamic.
“It added an extra little motivation,” Whiting said. “(I can) treat the trips like business, then I can come back and spend time with him. They’re not like vacations — they never were — but even more now it’s something to miss at home even more.”
Add it all up, and there is plenty of motivation when Whiting steps into the throwing ring in Moscow.
There is a lot to prove, and gold is the only suitable reward.
“When I get to a higher pressure meet,” Whiting said, “my body just knows how to do it now.”