"My goal usually when I go to compete at any time is just try to throw a personal best," he tells PEOPLE

By Adam Carlson
February 21, 2021 11:01 AM
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Ryan Crouser reacts during men's shot put at the IAAF World Challenge Zagreb 2020 - 70 in September 2020.
| Credit: Marko Prpic/Pixsell/MB Media/Getty Images

Ryan Crouser looked a lot different the first time he ever won at shot put.

This was half a lifetime ago, when the 28-year-old Olympic gold medalist was a middle school pre-teen living outside Portland, Oregon.

"I was really skinny … I was kind of a tall, lanky kid," the 6-foot-7, 310 lb. Crouser remembers now. "But I still knew how to move from having played a lot of basketball."

When he stepped up to fling the shot put, his body spinning like a top, it went further than anyone else's.

"I just picked up and I was naturally pretty good at it," he says.

A lot has changed for Crouser since then. (His dad, who threw in college, started giving him tips.) But that has not.

On Sunday, he'll compete on ESPN, in an American Track League meet, where he hopes to break the world record in indoor shot put. That's not so impossible, really: Crouser set the record himself just a few weeks ago; and multiple of the top-10 farthest indoor throws are his.

He's sanguine-sounding about all of this, the ease with which he hurls a 16 lb. shot through the air. Like … what else would he try and do with it?

"My goal usually when I go to compete at any time is just try to throw a personal best," he tells PEOPLE. Or as he said last month, after breaking a world record that had stood for 32 years: "I can still throw quite a bit farther than that."

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Ryan Crouser
| Credit: Shawn Price/American Track League
Ryan Crouser
| Credit: Shawn Price/American Track League

There aren't exactly secrets to his success: He trains — a lot — and built his own COVID-era shot put ring near his home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Chance passersby might even catch him mid throw.

"To be able to throw far while I'm still in my in training phase and haven't really started doing a whole lot of speed work or just lowering the reps in the weight room and starting to feel good — that's almost the thing I'm most excited about with throwing," he says, matter of fact, "is that I know that there's more there."

Competing in track and field is Crouser's full-time job, having turned pro in 2016 when he graduated with a master's degree in finance. He also coaches part-time at the University of Arkansas.

Oh, and he eats.

"If I want to gain weight, I need to be around 5,500 to almost 6,000 calories [a day] and doing sets of six, eights or tens rep scheme in the weight room," he says.

With the same rigor as he trains, Crouser says a break would be to not eat. Listening to him describe his diet can be disorienting only when you see it written out. For him, it's all science and logic: muscle for power; fuel for muscle; food for fuel.

"The shot is 16 lbs. Just trying to throw that as far as possible, it helps in general to be heavier," he says. "And for me, I've always kind of been on the lighter side, especially for how tall I am."

Crouser aims to be around 315-320 lbs., more muscle than fat, and describes bulking like a bodybuilder.

"The key to gaining weight, and for me keeping weight on, is just — I can't go more than three hours without eating, and so I break it down to five meals throughout the day," he says. "And then kind of fill in the gaps with at least some type of snack."

That means five 1,000-calorie meals each day: breakfast, early lunch and lunch and dinner and then, as he jokes, "second dinner." He eats "a ton of a ton of chicken and then a lot of really lean ground beef."

The fattier ground beef would have more calories but the wrong kinds of fats. So instead he mixes the 93-percent lean ground beef with brown rice and quinoa and barbecue sauce, for taste. "My girlfriend jokingly calls it 'slob,' " Crouser says.

Sure "it doesn't look appetizing at all," he says, "but it doesn't taste bad and it's really easy."

Such is the life.

"Everyone always thinks, 'Oh, it must be so nice to eat everything all the time.' But even for me at this point, it's like, it's never nice," he says. "I can almost guarantee you that if you put someone who's like, 'Yeah, I love eating on such a regimented diet' — it's not very fun."

As a treat, on a weekend night, he and his girlfriend, pole vaulter Megan Clark, will have a pizza night. (He's partial to the meat lover's — with lots of peppers.)

With his downtime, he loves to fish. The immersion of it and being able to turn off his phone and get away.

All of his work amounts to this: On Sunday afternoon, Crouser will essentially be competing against himself. It'll be good practice, with the Tokyo Summer Olympics approaching in five months. (In 2016, his first Games, Crouser topped the podium.)

During last year's pandemic postponement, Crouser says he had to adjust his mind-set — stop reading so much news — and just focus on what he could control.

"At this point, I'm just training," he says. "Training and pretty much 100 percent committed as an athlete that it's going to happen and we're going to go forward with it."

In January, after he set the world record, he celebrated with a "big old greasy burger" and got right back to work. (His mom had wanted him to get a bottle of champagne — a tricky proposition because he was celebrating on a Sunday, when all the liquor stores were closed in Arkansas.)

Come this summer, with a second gold medal around his neck, Crouser may well have to celebrate all over again.

"For me, I've kind of always viewed myself as a student of the event, just trying to learn as much as I can," he says. "And there's a lot to know. But at the end of the day, the kind of thing that keeps me grounded is just focusing on the fundamentals."

The American Track League meet will air on Sunday (5 p.m. ET) on ESPN.