By Dan Plouffe
Tim Nedow’s quest for the Tokyo Olympics is the ultimate solitary pursuit. That was the case before the pandemic, and it’s doubly true now.
The Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club shot putter was on track to throw in front of 68,000 fans at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium this month. Instead, he’s often quite literally the only person training inside the stadium at Terry Fox Athletic Facility.
Under the sweltering noon-hour sun, Nedow takes a sip of water, then applies a heavy load of chalk to his neck and right hand, to keep the shot from slipping due to sweat. He reaches down to grab the 16-lb. metal ball, he inhales and exhales deeply, and enters the paved throwing circle.
Nedow takes a moment to focus his energy, then crouches into his starting position, his right arm bent to hold the weight, his left arm pointed out like a propeller. He spins around once, twice, to build momentum, then launches the shot with a heavy heave. He finishes unwinding and watches his shot land with a thud roughly 20 metres away.
Outside of a young Lions summer camper or two perhaps peering over from a distance, there is no one there to watch Nedow. No coach, no training mates – just Nedow alone inside the 7-foot circle, tossing out world-class throws that clear the gravel pit and land in the crispy outfield grass at Terry Fox.
“I’ve been in some pretty crazy stadiums, from Worlds, to Commonwealth Games, to Olympics. This is definitely a totally different environment,” smiles the 29-year-old who competed at the Rio 2016 Games. “We train so hard to mimic these situations, but you can’t really. When people are around, you get more excited.”
Nedow throws three times a week, on his own, which is an apt reflection of the solo journey he’s on to compete at the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
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Nedow’s sports career came very close to being entirely different once upon a time. Growing up, the Brockville native played about every sport he could.
With exceptional coaching and facilities in the backyard of Thousand Islands Secondary School, Nedow became a strong all-around track-and-field athlete, though he’d actually committed to play basketball at Queen’s University until a full scholarship offer landed from Tulsa University for decathlon.
“With team sports, there’s a lot of support there right with you,” Nedow says of the contrast between basketball and shot put. “At track, it’s more all on you. No matter what other people do, it doesn’t really affect you.
“I’ve got a lot better with this over the years, but especially in practice, you have a lot more ‘down-days’ than you do ‘up-days’. It takes a lot of mental strength. Because at the end of the day, all that matters is how hard you work.”
Nedow was a decathlete for the Tulsa Hurricane, but a bad ankle injury from pole vaulting meant he could only do the throws events pain-free for a long period. After transferring to DePaul University in Chicago, Nedow continued to focus his energy on throws and developed into an international-quality shot putter.
The winner of 7 consecutive national men’s shot put crowns qualified for the 2016 Olympics, though he didn’t perform as well as he wanted to, placing 16th overall.
“Rio was a great time, but it’s sort of hard to talk about it because it just happened so fast. It was like a cloud to me. It was such an adrenaline rush,” recounts Nedow. “But it’s so crazy. I mean, you train months and years and then you get 3 throws. I had 3 throws at the Olympics, because I didn’t make it to the next round.”
It would be a 4-year wait until Nedow’s next shot at Olympic redemption, now prolonged further by the Tokyo Games’ pandemic-induced postponement.
Winding road to Ottawa
Since 2016, Nedow has changed his home training base several times. He would have liked to remain in Sweden, where he’d been stationed in the lead-up to the 2016 Games alongside a renowned coach. The Swedish stay bore a Diamond League event victory and indoor personal-best throw of 21.33 m, but the additional funding Nedow received to train overseas was lost when he missed the mark in Rio.
Instead, he returned home and got to train daily with his younger brother Tom during his last year of high school in 2017, helping him to become an NCAA thrower at Southeastern Louisiana University.
Nedow then spent some time in Toronto at Athletics Canada’s York University hub, though at age 27, he wanted to start building some roots outside of track, so he bought a place close to the Louis-Riel Dome in Ottawa, where housing costs less than Toronto.
The Dome provides an ideal winter training venue, adds Nedow, who likes to be able to see how far he’s throwing, not just guessing like at most indoor facilities where he has to throw into a net.
Just like at Terry Fox, hardly anyone is around for Nedow’s indoor sessions, which take place during a late-afternoon window after the school’s sports have wrapped up but before community groups come in. He has a throwing circle installed next to a volleyball court with a full soccer field to throw at.
“They’ve been really good to me at the Dome,” states the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games silver medallist. “They gave me my own little area to train in. It’s just me there by myself, no distractions.”
All things considered, Nedow enjoys the solitary setup. He blares some music on a portable speaker – appropriately, indie rock bands like Local Natives and Empire of the Sun – and gets in the zone.
“When things are going well, I like it a lot,” explains Nedow, who records video of his training and receives feedback from friends he threw with in the NCAA. “It’s those days when it might be a little rainy or you’ve had a bad practice or a little tweak to your groin or your back, and it’s like, ‘Ah, this is tough.’”
It can also be difficult when athletes work every day to get better but don’t see frequent progression, though Nedow says he’s learned to manage those frustrations with experience.
“I know how far I can throw, and that just keeps me going,” explains the world’s 12th-ranked men’s shot putter. “When you’re having an off-day, sometimes it’s like, ‘Man, can I do this?’ But I’ve had so many years where I’ve had downs, but then I get back going up. I have a lot more down days than up days, but over time, I’ve come to realize I can be down for like 3 months and then come competition time when I get into that environment, everything comes up. So there’s nothing I can do except just grind.
“The last few years since I’ve been in Ottawa, things have been going really well. It’s been kind of fun training on my own.”
On top of practice and weightlifting, the job of an international-quality shotputter includes around-the-clock attention to sleep, recovery and nutrition – every decision or action made in a day is geared towards making his body the best it can be.
“A lot of my training is eating,” signals the 6-foot-7 hulk, “and honestly, I’m not the biggest eater.”
Yes, it’s easy enough to eat junk food and gain weight, he notes, but he’s after quality food to build muscle and fuel performance. Aided by his smoker grill that allows him to cook big batches at once, Nedow consumes roughly 5,000 calories a day – lots of meat, potatoes and rice, and of course eggs from his sponsor Burnbrae Farms, he smiles.
Nedow rooms with a childhood friend, but there’s plenty of time on his own each day.
“I’m pretty introverted,” says the nonetheless personable gentle giant. “If I see a bunch of people at the track, that’s it for me. I don’t want to do anything after that. I’ll just go home and chill.”
Funding a concern in Tokyo quest
A self-proclaimed “gaming nerd”, the computer game design program graduate enjoys playing Fortnite in the evening with fellow national team members such as decathlete Damian Warner and high jumper Mike Mason.
What Nedow doesn’t share in common with his Team Canada counterparts, however, is that he’s looking for a job outside of sport.
It’s tough to find an appropriate part-time opportunity in his field at present, Nedow indicates, but that’s something he’d like to land since the carding funds he received under the federal government’s Athlete Assistance Program were cut after the 2019 season. The reason behind that is largely bureaucratic.
Unknown to him at the time, Nedow needed to finish top-8 at the 2019 World Championships in order to maintain his carding. He wound up finishing 9th – the best outdoor worlds result of his career to date.
His performance also came in the event judged to be the most difficult to hit the podium in all of track-and-field. World Athletics produces a scoring table that compares performances across all disciplines, and the top-3 results from the 2019 Doha worlds all came from men’s shot put (ranked better than even Christian Coleman’s 9.76-second clocking in the men’s 100 m).
Measured against the distances recorded at Olympics since the world record was set in 1990, Nedow’s best heave of 20.94 m in Doha would have placed him 6th, 5th, 4th (on 2 occasions), and would have won 2 bronze and 1 silver medal at those recent Olympic competitions.
Athletics Canada’s selection procedures for funding are detailed and fairly complicated, simply put. The policy also leaves room for some discretion/interpretation.
Nedow could have perhaps squeezed in to be considered a “top-8” performer (and part of the Canadian Athletics Performance Pathway’s “podium” stream) since his season-best performance was 1 cm ahead of podium stream consideration standard, but he was instead judged to be at the “world class” level, which is a tier lower on the CAPP system.
Of the 103 Canadians who met CAPP performance criteria, 78 athletes received various levels of AAP carding. Nedow, who was Canada’s 13th-best individual based on placing at the last World Championships before the Olympics, was not among them.
The end result was Nedow receiving CAPP funding to cover some travel/competition costs, but not the living expenses that Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program helps offset at the rate of $1,765/month.
“That’s been tough, but I don’t want to touch on it right now,” Nedow says when asked about the impact of the lost funding. “I feel like there’s always obstacles in track-and-field, and this is just one of them.”
Nedow did appeal the carding decision to the Athletics Canada commissioner, but it was denied based on Sport Canada rules that state athletes must move into the “senior international” category of carding – given to those who are top-8 in the world – within 6 years of first receiving senior-level carding (Nedow’s 7th-place result at the 2016 World Indoor Championships didn’t count).
The appeal decision landed on Jan. 23, shortly before Nedow was feted by the Ottawa Sports Awards as the city’s Male Athlete of the Year out of all sports for 2019.
“The (financial) support system was kind of gone after Doha, but as far as everything else goes, not much has changed,” adds Nedow, noting that his girlfriend and his family have always stayed behind him. “I love the sport, I love going far, I love competing, and I’m proud to represent Canada.”
The one-year Olympic delay has compounded Nedow’s funding problem. If he’d qualified for Tokyo 2020, short-term carding would have been restored, but instead there’s an extra year gap.
Just days before the Olympic qualification window opened, Nedow launched a 21.18 m outdoor personal-best throw in April 2019 – a distance that surpasses the standard required to automatically earn an Olympic berth. Nedow was “fired up” to open his 2020 season strongly with a 20.90 m throw in February.
“I was like, ‘Man, this next year is going to be intense, but I am ready to go,’” reflects the 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist. “My body was healthy, my training was going really well. I was ready for a big year.”
Then COVID struck and cancelled the next meets he’d planned to attend. Performances now won’t count towards Olympic qualification until the window reopens Dec. 1.
“If I already had that auto-standard, this would make it all a lot easier,” highlights Nedow, who can also qualify for the Games based on world ranking. “I was feeling very satisfied with trying to make Tokyo and then calling it a career. I think I’ve had a successful career and I’m kind of ready to move on.
“Now it’s a full other year, and it’s kind of weird because I can’t do all the lifting or the training I want to do.”
Persisting through the pandemic
Nedow says he feels really strong at the moment, but that his speed in the circle is just a little off. That may be a product of not being able to access training space with a high enough ceiling to perform rapid movements like the snatch in weight training. Lately, Nedow has been working out in his home gym, thankful to have picked up weights via kijiji when he moved to Ottawa.
“It came in super-clutch,” he notes. “I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have that little gym.”
When the pandemic struck and the Tokyo Games were officially postponed, Nedow considered not continuing forward to pursue a 2021 Olympic berth.
“That’s still a thought,” he maintains. “But things are just going so well. Yes, I’ve been to the Olympics and it’d be nice to go to another one, but it’s more like, I know I haven’t had ‘that’ throw. If I’d had it, maybe I would have shut it down. I’ve been close in the last 7 or 8 years where I was like, ‘there it is!’ but I’ve either fouled it, or it’s been in warm-up.
“I think that’s why I’m hanging on. I know there’s still a throw in me that I haven’t hit yet. I know I can do it. It’s not like I’m going down. I know I’m about to hit something big. The toughest part is just waiting another year for it.”