Christian Cantwell says 'thank you' to those who helped him reach full potential

There is an old proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child.

Well, for Eldon native Christian Cantwell, that phrase would certainly apply to his decorated track and field career as a champion shot putter for the University of Missouri and as a medalist on the international stage for the United States track and field team. 

For a career built on so much individual achievement inside a 7-foot circle, Cantwell does not hesitate to point out all the people who helped him maximize his full potential and did so once again on Sunday evening in Springfield where he was enshrined as a member of the 2018 class into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

Cantwell said the ceremony was a good chance to thank everybody that helped him get to where he was today and during his speech in front of a room of an estimated 1,500 people, he referred to two important lessons that former longtime Missouri track and field coach Rick McGuire instilled upon him that the thrower still carries with him today.

“One of the things he used to say is that you never accomplished anything great by yourself and there is always a team behind you, which is definitely true. I was never alone in the ring,” Cantwell recalled. “He also said to say, ‘thanks’ and say it often. So tonight, I accept this award on the behalf of everybody that helped me throughout my career. Thank you, and this is for you.”

That positive influence began in Cantwell’s hometown of Eldon with his parents whom Cantwell said worked hard every day. There were also two unrelated individuals in Phill Hess and Roger Bigses whom Cantwell credits for sending him on the path towards a successful future. One opened his eyes to what was possible and the other was relentless in his goal of getting the 1999 Eldon graduate to the University of Missouri.  

Hess’ wife was Cantwell’s English teacher at Eldon and the young thrower recalled a time where he went to go pick up their daughter for a date. Cantwell, who refers to Hess as “Uncle Phil,” said he was a nice guy, but there was something different about him.

“I go in and he was waiting there to talk to me. The next time I came out, all he wanted to do is tell me all this stuff I could do,” Cantwell said. “He was like, ‘You know, you could be one of the best in the world,’ and I thought he was crazy at first. Who is this guy? But the way he said it, I left there thinking maybe he is right, maybe I could, and he was laying it all out how this could happen.

“It was not some dream and whenever you are a small kid, that is what you think it is. He told me it was the opposite and said, ‘It is right in front of you. You just gotta go do it,’ which was awesome.” 

Cantwell won the discus title at the 1999 Class 3 state meet and finished second in the shot put, but the young thrower’s journey was just beginning as Bigses may have played a small role in helping Cantwell find his next school to throw for.

“This crazy guy from Eldon kept calling Coach McGuire at Mizzou. Well, that was Roger and he was very instrumental in me going to the University of Missouri,” Cantwell said with a smile.

But the help did not stop there. Cantwell was no longer dating Hess’ daughter, but he got to know the man more. In the ensuing summer after the 1999 state meet, Hess drove Cantwell to Dallas for Junior Nationals and it was there that the thrower saw some of his potential really come to fruition.

“He drove me there on his own dime and never asked for anything. That is really where it started,” Cantwell noted. “I saw I could compete with those guys and that was really the first step. Then I thought, ‘Wow he is right. All the stuff this crazy guy was saying was true.’

“That is where it started with me believing that anything I wanted to do, I could do.”

Cantwell found his confidence, but his future was still uncertain. Missouri had offered him a books scholarship and nothing was guaranteed beyond his freshman year. Knowing what the stakes were, he did not waste any time in practice.

“My parents did not have money to pay for school and they said they would help out as much as they could. I could take out loans for the first year and after that I needed to reconsider. It was a big motivator,” Cantwell recalled.

“When I went to practice, it was probably different from most people. My mindset was I’m fighting to stay here and it all worked out in the end, but you had to grow up quick and it is a lot of pressure to put on somebody. Especially somebody who did not really know if it was going to work out or not. I was hoping it would, but you don’t know.”

In a video during the ceremony provided by the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, McGuire said Cantwell’s workouts became “legendary” as the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder was lifting over 500 pounds in the bench press by his sophomore year. Fortunately, his hard work started to pay off as Cantwell won the Big 12 outdoor shot put championship as a freshman. However, Cantwell said he noticed it taking effect before then.

“I got second in the indoor season to the reigning champion from Iowa State. At the time it was one of the better performances in the country,” he said. “So, whenever I got to win the Big 12 title and saw I was going to make the Olympic trials, then I was like, ‘Holy cow.’

“But the funny thing was is that I probably didn’t realize it at the time. That is one of the great things about being young is that you don’t realize the magnitude of things… That was obviously a huge step forward for me.”

And just like that Junior National meet in Dallas, Cantwell saw he fit right in amongst those vying for a chance to compete in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Safe to say, he had earned his full-ride scholarship with Missouri.

“Being the youngest kid there, seeing all those guys I had watched on television and being just like them, nothing was much different,” Cantwell pointed out. “I was as big as they were, as strong as they were and half of them wanted to talk to me about stuff I was doing.”

It did not take Cantwell long to start accumulating more accolades. He was a five-time Big 12 Conference champion and seven-time NCAA All-American for Missouri where he holds school records in the indoor and outdoor shot put. He also won seven titles in the USA Track and Field Championships and excelled on the international stage as well, posting the top four throws in the world during the 2004 outdoor season.

There was just one last hurdle and that was earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. In 2004, Cantwell came close as he finished the year ranked No. 1 and won all of his meets except the Olympic trials where he finished fourth and did not go to Athens, Greece.

“I don’t know if there is a worse place in sports to finish. That was crazy and that crushed me,” Cantwell remarked. “Here I was, this kid who never knew what he could do, all of a sudden doing really great and I was brought back down to Earth.”

But he did not let that disappointment linger. Instead, he bounced back and made the cut for the 2008 Beijing Games in China in spite of elbow issues and a shin injury between the trials and Olympics. He then threw his way to the medal stand where he earned a silver medal with a throw of 69 feet and 2 1/2 inches.

“In 2008, I definitely approached everything much more cerebral, I was much more appreciative of what was happening and what I was doing,” Cantwell stated. I was very fortunate to make that team… I was pretty banged up, but I was throwing ok. Nothing special, but as it worked out I threw good enough to get a silver.

“It is my most proud moment obviously…That was a big deal for me because I went into it just hoping to get some experience and exposure and make a try at 2012.”

But Cantwell had been a model of consistency throughout his international career as he regularly threw the shot put 70 feet or better. Over the span of six years, he won three World Indoor titles, a World Outdoor title and also went on to finish fourth at the 2012 London Olympics. From 2003 to 2012, he was ranked in the top five globally for the shot put and recorded the best throw in the world in five different seasons.

How exactly did he stay on top? Cantwell attributed part of it to his attitude.

“When I go and do camps or talks, I’m talking to somebody and they’re saying, ‘Wow, you are so talented, big and strong.’ But I never felt like I was and I don’t think I was,” Cantwell said. “What I was, was pretty stubborn. I did not accept things the way I probably should have and I was just determined.

“I’ve always been a competitive person and that is probably what kept me in the game so long and ultimately at that high of a level. I lost a lot, but I hated it.”

Another key factor was his daily work ethic and the way he approached his aspirations.

“I never really took a lot of happiness in my wins. That might sound weird, but I took joy in the process and the win was just sort of the outcome,” Cantwell noted. “There were times where I’ve been really good and did not win, but the process is what I really enjoyed and knowing that you are getting ready to go to battle. One of the things about track and field that I really liked was that it is you versus the tape measure.”

Cantwell took the blame for any of his shortcomings, but always attributed his successes to those he worked with as he never forgot those who helped him reach his goals.

“If I lost, I had myself to blame and if I won, I loved to share that with everybody that helped me get there,” he stated.

It was passion that drove Cantwell throughout his career and being passionate about something is what the thrower offered as words of advice, imploring and challenging people to do just that.

“Not a lot of people get to be passionate about something and I was. I’ve been fortunate for most of my life and almost all of my adult life to be passionate about something and it is a good feeling,” he said. “Whether it is track and field, shot put, math or driving a tractor, just find something that makes you happy and care. Put a lot of effort into it, don’t shortchange things and just give your best effort.

“I think you’ll end up being happy with the outcome.”