U.S. shot-putting 'dream team' a bust in Beijing

BEIJING -- They will cheer in Eldon, Mo. They will watch Christian Cantwell on big screen at the community center, and erupt when the local boy's drama unfolds on tape delay. In Beijing, Cantwell and his buddies -- the 870-pound mass of shot-putting might known as the big three -- will scowl and try to forget.

The United States was expected to do big things on the opening night of track and field, possibly sweep the shot-put competition, set the tone for their teammates' long, grueling weekend at the Bird's Nest. They'll have to settle for Cantwell's final-round heave and a silver medal.

On an erratic night full of fouls and a few four-letter words, two-time U.S. silver medalist Adam Nelson didn't make the finals, world champion Reese Hoffa of the U.S. floundered to a seventh-place finish and Poland's Tomasz Majewski fist-pumped his way to gold.

Cantwell, possibly the least likely candidate to help the U.S. save face, stepped to the circle, final throw, in fifth place. The bushy-bearded Missourian has faltered in spots like this. In 2004, he was zooming toward the Olympics, such a lock for Athens that a local newspaper, The Kansas City Star, shot a cover photo of Cantwell wearing a toga for its preview. Cantwell didn't make it, and the photo was scrapped.

But Friday night was different. As a gaggle of reporters began crafting stories of an American bust, Cantwell spun and ripped out a throw that sailed 69 feet, 2 ½ inches.

Asked what was going through his head before that last throw, Cantwell said, "Just knock the s--- out of it.

"I said, 'You know what? Don't hold anything back. Just spin as fast as you can, break your fingers off and see where it lands.' I almost broke my fingers off, but luckily I got an inch longer than the second-place guy. So we can walk away with a little redemption."

There will be dozens of theories today about why the big three looked considerably smaller on Friday night. Was Nelson's pulled muscle worse than he let on? Was Hoffa pressing too hard, or did the 4 a.m. wake-up call disrupt the Americans?

Five of their first nine throws were disqualified because of fouls, and Nelson had three of them. Hoffa, an affable 315-pounder who once wore a wrestling mask to a competition, smiled during the introductions and playfully raised his arms to the crowd. Halfway through his performance, he wasn't grinning anymore.

He qualified for the finals, but his final two throws were fouls.

"When I started warming up, it just wasn't there," Hoffa said.

"When everyone that you talk to is like, 'Hey, You're the guys who are going to sweep, you're the dream team.' … It kind of gets in your head a little bit. I try not to listen to it, but it's going to be there. Just being an American thrower, there's always going to be that pressure. It's the U.S. against the world."

Nelson was dealing with his own issues. He pulled a muscle near his left ribcage on Monday, but spent most of the week downplaying the injury. He bounced around like a prize fighter before his first throw, then flung his warm-up to the ground.

All night, his throws pulled down the left side. But Nelson said the injury had nothing to do with his performance on Friday.

"At this level, this is what we do for a living," he said. "We're professionals at this, we're Olympians at this. When you're at the Olympic Games, you're going to have to fight through some adversity.

"I don't know who said it, but it was a football player, I remember reading it. It said, 'Injuries are really simple. It's mind over matter. If I don't mind it, it doesn't matter.'"

Nelson sat through the finals and waited for Cantwell's last throw before exiting the field. He is 33 now, has a baby on the way in September and is working on an MBA. But Nelson said he didn't think he was ready to retire, but had to talk it out with his wife.

None of the big three, it seemed, wanted to leave with the taste of Friday night. Not even Cantwell.

"Right now, I don't feel much," he said. "I hope that it sets in that I did something. Where we're from, we take a lot of pride in what we do. And this is a rough night. Silver's better than nothing. I'll take silver for now. In four more years, let's come back and get a different color."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.