Scott Fowler

Kannapolis discus thrower Tavis Bailey wants to be an Olympic Wonder, too

Tavis Bailey played football and threw the discus in high school at A.L. Brown in Kannapolis, N.C., where his family still lives. He starts the Olympic discus competition Friday in Rio.
Tavis Bailey played football and threw the discus in high school at A.L. Brown in Kannapolis, N.C., where his family still lives. He starts the Olympic discus competition Friday in Rio. Courtesy of U.S. Track and Field

U.S. Olympic discus thrower Tavis Bailey is a long way from home here in Brazil.

He’s 4,725 miles away, to be exact, from the place he grew up in Kannapolis to the Olympic Stadium in Rio. That’s where Bailey begins competition Friday morning in front of a crowd that will even dwarf the substantial number of fans who show up every fall Friday night in Kannapolis to watch the A.L. Brown Wonders play.

How did he get here? That’s a question that winds through Kannapolis and Knoxville for its answer, with a stop in Oregon where Bailey, 24, made the U.S. Olympic team earlier this summer.

Bailey was a Wonder once, a huge offensive lineman for A.L. Brown once who could be balletic in his movements. They still marvel there at the time when Bailey, as a pulling guard on a running play, did something you hardly ever see.

“Tavis knocked one guy down, did a full forward roll, got on his feet and then knocked the safety down, too,” said Todd Hagler, a mentor of Bailey’s and the strength and conditioning coordinator at A.L. Brown. “We still show that film to our guys today.”

Smart, tough and athletic, Bailey seemed like the sort of player destined for a college football career.

But even then Bailey also could throw a discus as well as anyone and he loved the feeling of getting a throw just right and watching the discus sail into the distance.

“You take a turn and a half in the ring, and when you throw it just right you are firing it from the ground up,” Bailey said. “Ideally, it rolls off your index finger and you just watch it go. I loved it, and the coaches at A.L. Brown helped foster my love for it.”

That is not nearly as marketable a skill as playing offensive guard in today’s America – nor is it as marketable as the computer skills Bailey has long had – but it was really what Bailey wanted to do. Brian Landis, another mentor and coach, kept encouraging him. In high school as a senior at A.L. Brown in 2010, Bailey fired a discus 185 feet 1 inch, which set an all-classification NCHSAA record that still stands.

But man, the guy could play football.

“He should have been recruited by somebody big,” Hagler said.

Bailey wasn’t, but he still showed enough ability that Lenoir-Rhyne offered him a full scholarship to play Division II football after he graduated from high school. He also was getting some partial track scholarship offers from Division I schools, but none of those offers were as good as Lenoir-Rhyne’s.

“So I went to college to play football because of the scholarship,” Bailey said. “I was in a weird situation. My senior track season hadn’t happened yet when the offer came, and I didn’t want to take the risk that a partial scholarship might go up or down, but a full football scholarship was right there.”

Bailey’s parents – Charles and Edwina Wright from Kannapolis – tried to stay neutral in the process. “Football was a real family tradition for us in Kannapolis, and Tavis had gotten into it for awhile,” Edwina Wright said. “But when he was having to make the Lenoir-Rhyne decision, he wanted me to weigh in on it. I said that decision is ultimately yours.”

So Bailey went to Lenoir-Rhyne – and didn’t like it. “It just wasn’t my cup of tea,” he said. “It is smaller, tighter-knit. I wanted a bigger atmosphere.”

He kept throwing the discus throughout, and by the spring he decided to give up football, transfer schools and concentrate on the discus. Tennessee offered Bailey a partial scholarship, so he went to Knoxville.

An iconic Olympic sport

At Tennessee, Bailey blossomed into the 6-3, 275-pounder he is today. He became a three-time NCAA All-American. He never won an SEC championship nor an NCAA championship, but he placed highly in both.

At A.L. Brown, Bailey had been somewhat unmotivated as a freshman football player, Hagler said.

“Tavis wasn’t always as committed as we wanted early on,” Hagler laughed. “He went on a vacation once in August when we were supposed to be having practices, and I remember sitting in the coach’s office and saying, ‘We maybe are going to just have to get rid of him.’

“And the head coach said, ‘We are not going to get rid of him. We don’t have enough people who look like him.’”

By college, after his transfer, Bailey was extremely motivated. He graduated from Tennessee and kept throwing the discus, which for men in the highest ranks is a disc that weighs 4.4 pounds. The sport dates to ancient Greece and is one of the most iconic of all Olympic track and field sports.

That doesn’t mean you can make much, if any, money in it. Bailey knew it wasn’t fair to his parents to ask them to support him once he graduated, and so he stayed in Knoxville but got himself a job, a coach and a training partner for after work.

The job was part-time at first and then evolved into full-time as of Jan. 1. Bailey works in sales and marketing for a company that makes exterior signs, including some for the Best Western and Marriott hotel chains.

The Runner-up Track Club

Each night after work, Bailey and his training partner (Stephen Mozia of Nigeria) would meet with their coach and work on their sport. Both men had some history in finishing high but not winning various throwing events, so they came up with an unofficial name for their twosome: “The Runner-up Track Club.”

There are times when finishing second hurts, as in Bailey’s senior year in 2015. He led much of the way in the NCAA discus championships, only to be surpassed on the final throw and finish second.

And there are times when finishing second is perfect, as it was last month when Bailey made the Olympics by finishing No. 2 in the U.S. Track and Field Trials. Bailey had made the trip to Oregon on his own dime, with no sponsor, hoping it would pay off.

It did and so here he is in Rio. His medal chances are doubtful – the sport is dominated by Europeans, and only three of the 35 entrants will find the podium. But Bailey is ecstatic.

“No matter what happens, I’ve reached the pinnacle of my sport,” he said.

His family is thrilled, too, with several members making the trip from Kannapolis to Rio. And you never can tell in the Olympics. Once you get here, this far from home, anything seems possible.

Bailey used to be a Wonder in high school.

We will see if he still can be one this weekend.