A slow-motion look at the form that has made the Hawkeye sophomore one of the nation's best
Reno Tuufuli III was born to fling heavy objects. It was his grandfather’s prophecy.
“Before I was even born, he said that I would be the No. 1 shot-putter and discus thrower in Las Vegas,” Tuufuli said last week during a break in his preparation for the NCAA Championships in Oregon.
The Iowa sophomore enters the national meet as the top seed in the discus by virtue of his personal-best 62.06-meter toss in the NCAA West Regional.
His grandfather, the original Reno Tuufuli, didn’t live long enough to see his grandson travel the path he had predicted for him.
Reno Tuufuli I was born in Samoa, where he was a wrestler and a decathlete before moving to California and becoming a pastor. His son, Reno II, grew to be so large that he once trained for a shot at the title of “world’s strongest man.”
So when Reno III was about to enter the world two decades ago in Las Vegas, grandpa made his premonition known. Reno III did become his city’s top shot-putter and discus-thrower. As a senior in high school, he was the best in Nevada at both disciplines, which is how he ended up competing for the Hawkeyes.
But the youngest Tuufuli didn’t pick up a discus until age 14 — one year after his grandfather died of a heart attack. Tuufuli had been playing football until that point but was growing tired of the sport. One day, a friend said he was going to give track and field a try and suggested Tuufuli tag along. It was then that Tuufuli remembered his grandfather’s words.
“I said, ‘All right, I’ll go with you — because my grandpa said I’d be good. I might as well give it a shot,’” Tuufuli said. “And I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
Tuufuli threw the discus until his hands blistered. It took him time to master the correct spin. Finally, something clicked.
By his sophomore year in high school, he was a state qualifier in both discus and shot. As a junior, he won the Nevada discus title. The next year, he won both.
Tuufuli had scholarship offers from Auburn and Iowa, but only took one visit — a 22-hour whirlwind tour of Iowa City just before his high school graduation. Tuufuli was set on being a Hawkeye.
As a freshman, he redshirted and added weight — 30-40 pounds of it.
Last year, Tuufuli’s debut season took him all the way to Eugene, Ore., for the nationals in discus. He finished last, fouling on each of his attempts.
He’s able to laugh about it now.
“I was too excited,” Tuufuli said. “I would throw it and try to look at it to see if it was far enough and then the next thing you know I was two feet out of the ring. So none of them counted.”
This year, Tuufuli has made sure all his throws count. He finally overtook his nemesis, Nebraska’s Nicholas Percy, at the NCAA Regionals. Percy, a junior, is the defending national champion, with a throw of 61.27 meters last June. Tuufuli had never defeated him.
“That’s a big hurdle to get over,” Iowa coach Joey Woody said. “But those guys go back and forth. They’re both very competitive and very, very good athletes. If (Tuufuli) stays consistent, he’s got as good of a chance as anybody to win.”
If Tuufuli does win, he'll make Hawkeye history — the school has never had a national champion in the throwing events.
“It would be a huge push for our program, as we continue to build in the throws area,” Woody said. “Plus, the guy comes back next year — it’s always good to have a national champ on your team.”
A Tuufuli victory would also be a big boost for the Hawkeyes in their quest for a top-10 finish in Eugene. Iowa is sending 15 athletes — 12 men — to nationals, which begin Wednesday.
Tuufuli is concentrating on Friday, when the discus final is held. He said he’s learned to keep a positive focus on the days he competes.
“I’ve tried being big-headed, and that’s so much negative energy and it just kind of drains you,” Tuufuli said. “By the end of the competition, you’re just tired because all of this emotional and mental energy you’re giving up.”
Tuufuli’s parents will be in Oregon to watch him chase history. His grandfather, who started this whole journey, will be on Reno’s mind.
“I’ll tell him he was right one day,” Tuufuli said.
Hawkeyes competing at the NCAAs:
- Christian Brissett, sophomore, 4x100 relay
- Brittany Brown, junior, 200 meters
- Will Dougherty, junior, decathlon
- DeJuan Frye, sophomore, 4x400 relay
- Mar’yea Harris, sophomore, 400 meters and 4x400 relay
- Collin Hofacker, freshman, 4x400 relay
- Antwon James, senior, triple jump
- Aaron Mallett, senior, 110-meter hurdles, 4x100 relay
- Avery Meyers, senior, discus
- Emmanuel Ogwo, freshman, 4x400 relay
- Laulauga Tausaga, freshman, discus
- Jahisha Thomas, junior, long jump
- Brendan Thompson, senior, 4x100 relay
- Reno Tuufuli, sophomore, discus
- O’Shea Wilson, junior, 4x100 relay, long jump