Back in the day, there were I two Nelson boys in one body. One was Adam, a bright, studious, athletically gifted Southern gentleman with a Redfordian shock of dirty-blond hair who was educated at an Atlanta prep school and sent on to the Ivy League in the fall of 1993. The other was Nellie, the name given to Adam's evil twin by his Dartmouth fraternity brothers. Nellie was a madman, a tornado on the football field and such an intense competitor in the shot put that teammates and opponents alike, hearing his wild screams, thought him nuts. On weekends Nellie would troll the Hanover, N.H., campus in an orange, prison-style jumpsuit and a Viking helmet—a Gen-X Blutarsky looking for a party. They were as different as midnight and noon, Adam and Nellie, yet they were one.
Gradually Adam, now 25, put Nellie to rest. He earned a bachelor's degree in government in December 1997 and has worked as a telecommunications sales supervisor, a financial consultant and, most recently, a Silicon Valley dot.com foot soldier. Occasionally, however, his alter ego surfaces. Late on the afternoon of July 15, Adam threw the shot 72'7" on his final throw to win the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and earn his first Olympic berth. That was more than a foot farther than he had ever thrown. As soon as the shot landed, Nellie emerged, running wildly from the ring, his face as red as ripe watermelon, his fists pumping, until he leaped into the arms of third-place finisher Andy Bloom.
"I never saw the shot land," Nelson said later. "I just felt it, and I knew it was huge. It was like the perfect golf swing, where the ball is right on the sweet spot."
Nelson's winning toss made him the fourth-longest thrower in U.S. history (behind world-record holder and '96 Olympic gold medalist Randy Barnes—who has been suspended twice by the IAAF for doping violations—Brian Oldfield and John Brenner) and was the longest by a U.S. shot-putter since Barnes went 73'6" four years ago. (The world record is 75'10", set in 1990 by Barnes.) Nelson will go to Sydney as a slight favorite in a very deep competition, after beginning the season far off the radar screen. "It's fair to say that Adam has caught everybody off guard," says Bloom.
Nelson has risen to prominence without benefit of size. He is 6-foot and struggles to keep his weight above 250 pounds—a big man in a sport dominated by giants. World champion C.J. Hunter of the U.S., who finished second to Nelson in Sacramento, is 6'1", 330 pounds. Ranked second in the world last year was 6'7", 287-pound Oliver-Sven Buder of Germany; third was 6'4", 298-pound Aleksandr Bagach of the Ukraine. Among the leading shot-putters only the 6-foot, 275-pound Bloom is close in size to Nelson.
Nelson compensates for his lack of bulk by producing more torque than any thrower in the world. Like most modern shot-putters, Nelson uses the rotational style, spinning through the ring like a discus thrower, but he is much quicker than most of his opponents from the back of the circle to the front, and he has an explosive, trunk-twisting release. "He throws with a style that is not like anyone else's, ever," says Stanford associate men's head coach Robert Weir, who will throw the discus for Great Britain in Sydney and who has coached Nelson since spring 1998. "A bow and arrow come to mind. His body is the bow, the shot is the arrow, and he just slings it."
Nelson's technique is a mystery even to him, because it was not something that he copied or was taught. The first time he picked up a shot, when he was in the eighth grade, that's the way he threw it. "A total accident," he says.
Nelson's success is also an accident of sorts. The second of Will and Lynne Nelson's three children, Adam was a three-sport athlete at The Lovett School in Atlanta: a hellacious linebacker-center in football; a 205-pound wrestler who competed in the heavyweight division against much larger opponents; and a solid shot-putter who reached national prominence when he threw more than 63 feet with the 12-pound high school shot at the end of his senior year. An excellent student, he had by then chosen Dartmouth over Princeton, Clemson, Furman and Georgia. "None of them," says Nelson, "had any idea who I was."
Football was Nelson's passion (his dad, a tax attorney, had been a center at Mississippi State in the late '60s), but his college career was stunted by injuries: several concussions and two shoulder separations as a freshman, and a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee as a sophomore. He moved from linebacker to defensive tackle as a junior and finally completed a full season. As he rehabbed football injuries, his shot putting yo-yoed, from the high of winning the IAAF World Junior title as a freshman to finishing 13th in the NCAAs as a sophomore and ninth as a junior. Nelson also parried long and hard. "But it was just a two-or three-year deal," says Alexander Ghanotakis, his college roommate. "After that Adam started to realize that you can't compete at the highest levels, athletically or intellectually, if you're staying out all night every night."
Nelson had begun finding his books and his bed and was enjoying a solid senior football season when he broke his ankle in a frat-house incident. "I was trying to calm down a buddy, and I swear to god I was not drinking," says Nelson. "He pushed me, and my ankle rolled over on a staircase. It was incredibly disappointing, because it was the end of my football career." Crestfallen after doctors told him that he was finished as a football player, he talked with his father on the phone long into the night.