Scalding clouds of vapor drift toward the wood benches in the steam room at Life Time Fitness in Scottsdale, Ariz. The air reeks of menthol, so hot it sears your throat and burns your skin, while a steady stream of sweat cascades down your forehead and stings your eyes. Luke Sullivan, a discus-thrower who trains at the gym, steps inside the roiling inferno and sets his watch for 15 minutes. Good luck.
Breaux Greer, one of the best javelin-throwers in the world, breaks the silence. "You know that someone died in here, don't you?" Greer asks. "He fell asleep, and somebody locked the door. When they came in, he was dead." Greer sadly shakes his head. A couple of minutes later he sits bolt upright. "What was that?" he asks. "Did you guys hear the door lock?" Everyone laughs, a little nervously.
After eight minutes, Sullivan has had enough. He strides through the mist and out the door, leaving a dancing cloud of steam in his wake. A minute later it dawns on you that he's the smart one, so you blindly find your way to the door. Greer follows, grinning. "I can take more pain than anyone," the 31-year-old says, the surgical scars on his right shoulder and elbow and left knee proof that he's had his share.
Greer chose to master an obscure pursuit because he wants to stand out. His ripped torso is prominently inked, his bright blond hair is streaked with magenta and moussed into a spiky "Breaux-hawk," and he dresses in stylish black when he competes. The javelin is a tricky interest, and Greer is the first American with serious Olympic potential in a generation; the last U.S. medalist, William David Schmidt, took bronze at Munich in 1972. The rules are simple: An 8'6" spear, weighing nearly two pounds, is hurled into a grassy infield. The required combination of strength, skill and foolhardiness—the unnatural throwing motion often causes injury—suits Greer, who's won the U.S. championship every year this century and has even claimed a spot alongside the Finns, Norwegians, Swedes and Russians who dominate the sport on the world stage.
Greer is a specimen: 6'2", 230 pounds, with broad shoulders and a sculpted chest that filters into a 33-inch waist. Beijing is six months away, but the native of Monroe, La., wants you to know that he has a plan in place if he fails to qualify at the trials in July. "I think I'll do porn," he says in a deep, gravelly, Cajun accent. "That's something I know I do well."
Classic Greer. Last May, after breaking his own U.S. record by hurling the javelin 297'6" to win the Adidas Track Classic in Carson, Calif., Greer told NBC's Lewis Johnson that he has an innate ability to see wind currents. "It's a gift I've had from birth," he said. "I can look up in the air and see where the wind is gonna change direction." After another meet, Greer told a group of reporters he'd just had surgery that he hadn't made public. As they scribbled notes, a deadpan Greer told them it was penile reduction surgery. "When you put a camera in front of me," he says, "I'm home."
A few minutes past 4 on a scorching summer afternoon in Scottsdale, Greer drinks hot coffee on the balcony of the town house he shares with his sister Andrea, her husband, Marios, and their daughters, Alexi and Ainsley. (He's come to Arizona in part to train with the Finnish national team coach, Kari Ihalainen, who's also based here.) Greer's shoulder, elbow and knee are wellsprings of pain, so he takes Vicodin for relief. But for every sleep-inducing painkiller, there's caffeine to provide balance. This also fuels Greer's bravado. He lifts a white mug to his mouth. The words "Life Without Limits" are visible beneath his fingers.
Monroe is the birthplace of Celtics legend Bill Russell and Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton. Drug-related crime proliferates; the homicide rate is among the nation's worst. "There's nothing to do," Greer says, "so gangs are big there." Greer, who grew up in a lower-middle-class hood, admits to restless moments as a kid. He shows you a one-inch scar on his left arm. "I got hung up on a fence, running from cops," he says. "I've seen people get shot. I've been shot at." But he wants to make clear that his were youthful indiscretions; he swears he never got into real trouble—he didn't have time. "I always had two or three jobs at the same time," Greer says. "I started doing yard work when I was 7 or 8. When I was 13, I got my first state job doing road construction. Between working, sports and school, I hardly ever had free time."
Life is often a series of small decisions that lead to big consequences—small, innocent-seeming choices that change the course of your life. You make them for this or that reason, and you set your path. Sometimes the catalyst is as random as a kid you hate in high school.
Early on, Greer learned he had a gift: a peculiarly powerful right arm, which naturally led him to the baseball diamond. By his junior year at Ouachita Parish High, his fastball had attracted the attention of major league scouts. "He wasn't a first-rounder," says Brian Murphy, assistant GM of the Royals, "but he could have played." One day in his senior year, Greer spotted David Pederson, younger brother of former Packers quarterback Doug Pederson, tossing the javelin down on the infield of the school's track. "Pederson was an a—hole," says Greer. "I got into it just to beat him." The first time he threw the javelin, just for fun, it sailed 150 feet, which is like someone's picking up a football for the first time and chucking it 80 yards.
A few weeks later, after he won his first meet, Greer came to an understanding. He was good at baseball—like a lot of other guys—but he felt he could be the best at throwing the javelin. Gradually, that feeling drew him away from the pitcher's mound. "I could've gone to the minors," says Greer. "But with this I've had a chance to see the world."
He earned a scholarship to throw the javelin at Northeast Louisiana in Monroe, finishing in the top five at the NCAA championships four times. As a sophomore, he missed making the 1996 U.S. Olympic team by three-quarters of an inch. That's when he decided that the javelin was his best bet to avoid punching a clock at the General Motors plant in Monroe, like many of his pals.
In a way, the javelin offered Greer global citizenship. Largely inconspicuous in the States, the javelin is a national tradition in Scandinavia. On a lazy afternoon in Kansas or North Dakota, a father and son may throw a baseball around. But on that same day, in Finland and Norway, dads teach their sons the ancient art of throwing the spear.
Despite that cultural disadvantage, or maybe because of it, Greer got serious about his training. Living on grants from USA Track & Field, he moved to Athens, Ga., and rented a room in a house with other athletes who had come there to train. He'd throw 20 to 30 times in a single day, striving for flawless technique. He tossed a heavy ball and ran sprints to perfect his runway approach. When he wasn't on the track, he was in the weight room. But Greer bristles at the notion that his success is purely physical. "It was all in here," he says, pointing to his head. True enough, but much of what's in Greer's brain was put there by Don Babbitt, veteran throwing coach at the University of Georgia. Babbitt met Greer in 1997 at the World University Games, and the two began working together after Greer graduated, two years later. "Breaux has a great arm, great size and a loose, flexible shoulder," says Babbitt. "He's a guy who's critical of himself. It's not a negative thing. He's just always trying to improve."
Says Greer, "Even Spartacus needs a coach."
Hurling a javelin is at the same time a forceful and an awkward act. The thrower, while on a dead sprint, holds the javelin above his head and behind him. The idea is that when he hits his mark, plants his lead foot, jerks to a halt and throws the spear at a 40˚ angle, there is no wasted motion; the arrested movement of the lower body transfers kinetic energy to the throwing arm. "Instead of winding up and throwing down off a mound, like a pitcher does, you're running and throwing up into the air," Babbitt says. "That puts incredible stress on the lower back. And you're sprinting at top speed, then planting on a hard surface that doesn't give. It's very stressful on the body."
No kidding. Greer had Tommy John surgery in 1999 to replace a torn elbow ligament, followed by shoulder surgery in 2002. Battling through the pain, he finished 12th at the 2000 Sydney Olympics; the same year, he began compiling his run of eight consecutive U.S. titles. In June 2004, Greer broke the U.S. record with a toss of 286'8" in Bergen, Norway. The second-best throw in the world for the year, it should have set him up as the Olympic favorite. But in the process he tore the ACL in his left knee. Doctors recommended surgery, but that would have knocked him out of the Athens games. Greer decided to delay the operation, hoping for the best.
Two months later, on a sweltering day in Athens, Greer had the longest throw in Olympic qualifying. But again, as the javelin left his hand, his knee buckled and he limped through the finals, again finishing 12th. "When you're hurt, you can't make excuses about it," he says. But there's no masking his disappointment; on the far side of 30, good health is a loosely clutched dream. "I've been injured every year since 2000," Greer says in a whisper. "I just want to have one year where I'm healthy."
The road to Beijing for Breaux Greer began at Carroll Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, site of the 2007 national championships. As Greer toed his mark last June and prepared for his second throw, the sun emerged from an overcast sky. A few rays broke through and shone directly on him. His back to the stands, Greer raised his arms, whistled loudly through his teeth and urged the crowd to start a rhythmic clap. As the noise built, Greer made his approach. He sprinted toward the infield, his feet pounding the surface, and when he hit his mark, he slammed on the brakes, planted his left foot and let fly. As if in a movie, the crowd fell silent as the spear rose. It struck terra firma at the 91-meter mark. The PA announcer quickly did the math. "Two hundred ninety-nine feet and six inches!" he shouted. "That's a new American record!" It was also the longest official throw in the world during 2007. The crowd erupted, and Greer threw his head back and raised his arms.
The competition was over for Greer, who skipped his final four throws and basked briefly in the glow of his eighth national championship. Afterward, he issued a mock apology. "It took me two throws," he said. "It usually takes me just one."
Greer is back in Arizona now, recovering from another shoulder surgery and contemplating life after Beijing. The javelin won't make him rich, and probably not famous, either. But Greer loves how the sport gives him the freedom to express himself. The hair, the jokes, the swagger as he preps to throw—all tell you that he knows he's good, and good-looking. In Scottsdale's clubs, he sits back and waits for women to approach him. Invariably, they do.
So is an Olympic medal too much to ask? Can his body hold up long enough to give him a shot? Or will his shoulder betray him again, as it did at the world championships in Osaka this past September, when Greer had to settle for bronze behind two of his biggest rivals, Finland's Tero Pitkämäki and defending Olympic champ Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway?
The answer might not be as important as we'd like to think it is. We want our Olympians as obsessed with their sports as we think we would be, unable or unwilling to even consider defeat as a possibility. Greer has his own ideas. If he can beat all the Scandinavian spear-throwers, great. If not, it's on to the next dream. "I like the excitement of not knowing what's coming next," says Greer, who has his eye on an acting career, like Schwarzenegger and The Rock. And why not? The camera embraces those with a strong sense of self, who throw caution to the wind.
Breaux Greer is expert at that.