EUGENE, Ore. -- Kent Whiting stood high in the stands at Hayward Field, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his son's name and trying to hold his emotions together.
Ryan Whiting is an Olympian in the shot put, his young life's work made good with one mammoth throw of that 16-pound orb. It flew 71 feet and three-quarters of an inch before landing in the dirt, and everyone watching Sunday at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials pretty much knew right then that Ryan would be heading to London.
Before Kent could reflect on Ryan's journey from Harrisburg's Central Dauphin High School to this momentous occasion, he had to stop himself. He had to make sure a visitor knew about the boy's mother.
"I wish she could be here," Kent said. "She was his best fan ever, you know. I know she's keeping track of him from somewhere."
Of what would Jill Whiting have been most proud Sunday? That, for the rest of his life, her 25-year-old son will be called an Olympian? That he achieved his goal with such effortless grace? Or that, when their family was broken apart with an inexplicable tragedy, Ryan did exactly what she would have wanted him to do and helped his father and two brothers pick up the pieces and reconnect them?
Three summers ago, Jill needed knee surgery. She had the operation, and it seemed very routine. Until, within a few days, she went into cardiac arrest and found herself in a coma. Ryan was in school at Arizona State, but he immediately flew home to be by her side. He would never get to say goodbye.
"My mom got a knee scope, and a week later, she was dead," Ryan said.
The explanation given to the family was that she wasn't given enough blood thinner after her surgery, which resulted in a blood clot developing in her lungs.
Jill was 50.
Her boys had been her life, and with them out of the house, she was just beginning to think about herself. She bought a ceramic shop, and she and Kent had just built a new home on a woody mountain in Grantville, just outside of town. Now, she was gone, leaving four men to consider a future without her.
"You're never ready for it," Ryan said.
Jill was the mom who couldn't stop making chocolate chip cookies, who taught her boys how to cook, who encouraged them to have diverse interests. She certainly rubbed off on Ryan, an avid reader who through the years has experimented with pottery, origami and knitting to avoid the dreaded state of boredom. He majored in civil engineering even though he doubted he would ever do it for a career, just because he was fascinated by it. Now, he's gotten into astronomy. He hopes to someday make his own telescope.
Before Jill was taken from him, Ryan found the time to give back to her, teaching her how to knit.
"It was backwards," Ryan said with a smile.
With Kent working long hours as chief information officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield, Ryan became closer to his mom over the years. When she died, he spent a month that summer at home, trying to show support to Kent and pull him close, too. Jill and Kent were high school sweethearts, so Ryan and his brothers understood the toll it was taking on their father.
"You have to rally," Kent said. "Those guys made sure I was OK before they all disappeared again into their lives."
Ryan went back to Arizona for his senior year, but he knew he couldn't be gone for much longer than that. His training in Tempe had led him to five NCAA championships, but he decided he was going to leave his coach, Dave Dumble, to train closer to home at Penn State with his eye on the 2012 Olympic Games.
That meant seeing his father and his brothers at least once a month, whether it be just getting together to watch a game, having a cookout or scoring tickets to an Eagles game in Philadelphia. The Thanksgiving feasts weren't the same without Jill, but she had prepared them to cook a delicious meal.
During that time, living in Port Matilda and helping out as a volunteer assistant at Penn State, Ryan kept his gaze squarely focused on London.
"A lot of people would have folded up the tent," Kent said.
But Ryan, who stands 6 feet 3 and 295 pounds, was simply too driven to turn away from his destiny. And too gifted. This spring, he won the indoor world championships with a throw of 22.00 meters, proving that he is a legitimate threat for gold in London.
Fellow shot putter Reese Hoffa, a veteran of two Olympics, identified Ryan as the future of American shot putting.
"I'm leaving the shot put in the capable hands of a monster shot putter," Hoffa said. "He's going to continue to grow. He's going to be the third American to throw above 22.50. I just see it in him."
Ryan, along with Hoffa and Christian Cantwell, was expected to qualify for the Olympics Sunday entering the final. But he still had to do it. Ryan's first throw was his best, a 21.66, and it put him in first place from the start. Hoffa would eventually best him with a throw of 22.00, but Ryan will have his chance to beat his friend and teammate next month in London.
On Sunday, when his Olympic berth became official, Ryan took a moment and thought about his mother.
"I definitely teared up a little," Ryan said. "I wish she was here, but she's not. She'll be with me."
An hour later, Ryan left Hayward Field with an American flag flying out of his backpack. He walked away holding hands with his wife, Ashley, and he suddenly stopped. He pulled her in and kissed her hard, and they smiled -- a strong indication that the Whiting family has the kind of future Jill would applaud.
NOTES -- Penn State sophomore sprinter Brady Gehret finished eighth Sunday in the final of the 400 meters with a time of 45.48. ... Penn State senior shot putter Joe Kovacs finished fourth in the shot put with a personal-best throw of 21.08 meters.sportsother
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.