The early years of Vikas Gowda’s international discus-throwing career included two Olympic appearances, but had more bummers than breakthroughs.
Inconsistency, injuries and high-profile disappointments pockmarked his professional biography.
It wasn’t that the 6-foot-9-inch, 308-pound Frederick High graduate was shrinking in the big moments, or that he didn’t belong in them — even as he struggled at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Games for his native India.
Rather, Gowda said, “I just wasn’t that good yet.”
Now, at the threshold of his third Olympics, the stage appears to be set.
Gowda, 29, has enjoyed the most successful stretch in his career since moving to Phoenix in 2009 to train with Olympic medalist John Godina at the World Throws Center.
In April, Gowda hurled his first personal best (66.28 meters; 217 feet, 5 inches) in five years to win a meet in Oklahoma. Heading into the London Olympics, that throw sits as the 16th best in the world (Germany’s Robert Harting leads at 70.66 meters). He followed with a bronze-medal effort (64.86) at the prestigious Adidas Grand Prix.
This time around, Gowda has ironed out his problems to enter his prime with the Olympics on tap — the exact scenario such an athlete strives for.
Gowda finds himself in the best form of a career that began around age 12, when a growing boy took a break from the triple jump for a dalliance with throwing under the eye of his father, Shive Gowda, the 1988 Indian Olympic track coach who moved his family to Frederick County in 1989.
Eventually, Vikas landed a full scholarship to the University of North Carolina, where he won the 2006 NCAA discus title as a senior. He then turned pro, though his occupation has been largely funded by his parents and whatever money he could make by putting his math degree to use as a tutor.
His throwing career — including Olympic showings of 14th (Athens) and 22nd place (Beijing) — didn’t take off until a last-ditch trek to Phoenix. At first, he crashed in Godina’s guest room with a balky knee. He had been injured and out of competition for a year, spending part of that time teaching math at Frederick High.
“I wish I would’ve moved out here a lot earlier; I would’ve saved a lot of time,” Gowda said in a mid-July phone interview from Phoenix. “It was tough, but I got through it, and now I’m a lot better.”
The discus, with its maddening “slow progression” rate of improvement, has become his life. London could be his defining moment.
It may sound like the same story that was spun four and eight years ago, but since 2010, Gowda has regularly put himself in the company of the world’s leaders on some grand platforms: second at the Commonwealth Games; third at the Asian Games; seventh at the World Championships.
Gowda is no longer the thrower whom Godina termed “injured, skinny and a little rough” when he showed up three years ago. He’s closer to healthy, brawny and sharper.
Said Shive Gowda, who will stay with Vikas in the Olympic Village, “This is the most important time of his life. This is high time to come up with it without any excuses.”
Sense of confidence
Vikas Gowda’s recent ascent can be traced to October 2010. Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was packed, its inhabitants roaring support for Gowda as he stepped into the throwing ring in New Delhi.
Gowda, who has permanent residence in the United States, was born in Mysore, India. His people were fully behind him during the Commonwealth Games discus competition.
“You could just hear the noise and the excitement of the crowd when I would get into the ring compared to when everyone else was,” said Gowda, owner of both the Indian national record and the Maryland state high school mark. “That meet kind of changed everything, because everyone in the stadium was cheering for me. That’s probably the only time I’ve experienced that.”
Gowda came through with a throw of 63.69 meters, good enough for the silver medal. With it came a previously elusive sense of confidence.
“Every eyeball was on him, and it was a huge deal,” Godina said. “They don’t have medal threats over there (in India), and he did do his job.”
Godina has played a key role in Gowda’s arrival as a medal hopeful, which many Indian publications have pegged him. Godina’s team helped Gowda get healthy, pack on about 40 pounds of muscle and clean up his technique by focusing on his balance.
For years, Gowda’s fluid ability to twirl and fling an object from a circle with an 8-foot diameter appeared at odds with his massive body. Godina, though, has been able to correct some minor flaws over the past few years and influence his habits in the weight room and at the meal table.
“He was already able to do some really good things over the years,” Godina said, “it’s just easier to do it when you’re healthy and strong.”
Prepared for the pressure
Godina got a call from Gowda out of the blue in 2009. The two had competed against each other near the end of Godina’s decorated career.
He vaguely knew Gowda.
“Everybody knows him because he obviously stands out in the crowd,” Godina said of a man with a head-turning look — impressive height, dark skin, black hair, youthful face — especially among a mostly European crowd of throwers.
The two got more familiar when Gowda packed up for Phoenix not long after Godina opened his center. They set out together to address Gowda’s issues and find his groove.
With the London discus competition set to open Aug. 6, Gowda is more prepared than ever to handle the pressure. He sounds nonchalant when he says the key is to “try to hit the same positions I do in practice, and that extra adrenaline (of the moment) will just carry the discus.”
At the Olympics, however, field athletes in particular are almost set up to fail.
“The Olympics is not logistically set up to help athletes perform well; it’s set up to manage a quarter of a million people,” said Godina, a shot put silver medalist in the 1996 Atlanta Games and a bronze medalist at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Specifically, warm-ups take place an hour or more before the start of an event. Rhythm is hard to find. Plus, the stadium is full, and the moment is enormous.
“It’s not easy,” Godina said.
Gowda, at least, has plenty of experience and the comfort of knowing he has consistently been hitting good distances for three years.
That will help him deal with the capricious nature of his event. He might be in a decent spot on the list of world leaders, but that list might as well be tossed into the trash once the competition starts, he said.
First, throwers try to reach the top 12 in qualification. On the second day, that’s whittled to the top eight for the final.
“Last year (at worlds), the guy with the biggest throw in the world didn’t even make it past the first day,” Gowda said of Hungary’s Zoltan Kovago.
He believes 65 meters is a good target for a top-six finish.
“He says, ‘I know where I am,'” Shive Gowda said. “He is very confident and more mature, and I don’t think he can be intimidated because he has competed with these guys.”
What could complicate matters is that London saw steady periods of rain in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. Vikas Gowda says his event will not be postponed due to wet conditions, and he has been practicing a bit each day with a wet discus.
Regardless, he expects an improvement over his previous Olympic performances. A top-three finish would garner the first track and field medal in Indian history.
Asked if Gowda is a medal threat, Godina said, “I think he is — and that’s not to put pressure on him.
“I know the kind of competitor he is, and I know that, with his training cycles right now, we’re coming up on a period of time when he’s finally getting recovery, and he’s going to feel really good.
“I think it’s sincerely possible for him to have a lifetime best at the Olympics, which is rare to say … about somebody.”