To call rising Kiwi shot put star Tom Walsh a ‘throwback athlete’ may be a touch insincere not to mention a shade inaccurate.
However, there is something about the big man from New Zealand - who spectacularly announced himself as a future star by throwing a mighty new personal best of 21.26m to win a shock bronze at the IAAF World Indoor Championships last month - which harks back to a bygone age for the sport.
Naturally modest and self-effacing, Walsh grew up on a farm just outside the town of Timaru, which, coincidentally, was the birthplace of 1936 Olympic Games 1500m champion Jack Lovelock, on the country’s stunning South Island.
He credits his rural upbringing for keeping him “grounded” and also given him a good base of “real, mature strength.”
Up until a few years ago, he had never stepped inside a gym but today he combines his weekly training commitments by working three days a week as a builder in Christchurch.
From a sporting family – his father played provincial level rugby – Walsh started competing in shot and discus aged “about seven or eight.” He also showed an aptitude for hockey and cricket and won a six-month scholarship to play the latter sport at the prestigious Winchester College in Great Britain.
Combining several different sports while still at school, he became a national youth champion in the shot and discus despite training “only two or three days a week,” according to the man himself.
Shot the sole focus
With this background, he went on to place sixth in what has now become his specialist event at the 2009 IAAF World Youth Championships halfway around the world in Bressanone, Italy.
Hugely encouraged by that performance on the international stage, the other sports gradually fell away. Two years ago, frustrated by the subjectivity of team sport, he decided to fully commit to athletics.
“I love the fact that if you throw 21.26m for the shot no one can dispute that,” commented Walsh.
In 2012, he spent more than a month living and competing in Europe, achieving a personal best of 19.33m.
Impressed by his application and talent early the following year, he was presented with a golden offer he could not refuse: a personal invite by his countrywoman and two-time Olympic Games Shot Put champion Valerie Adams to train with her at her Swiss base for six weeks last summer.
“I had to ask her a few more times to ask if she was serious,” added the 22-year-old Walsh with a laugh.
“The whole experience was a big thing for me, a big learning curve. It was interesting to see the way she was so focused and rather than going into my shell, I too became more focused. Val and I get on like a house on fire. I’m very lucky to have her.”
In the summer of 2013, Walsh came out firing. He threw a personal best of 20.07m in Ried, Austria, just three centimetres shy of the 2013 IAAF World Championship B standard.
Two weeks later in Nottwil, the 7.26kg metal ball plunged to the ground at a tantalising distance of 20.09m but the effort which was to prove his best of the season. It was an agonising disappointment.
“I never thought I would get any closer (to the qualification mark) after I threw 20.07m without achieving the standard and I was extremely gutted,” he explained.
“Yet looking back I wasn’t ready to go. I might have gone to Moscow and thrown high 19s and not qualified for the final. Now I know I’m capable (of competing), so in a wee way it might have been a bit of a blessing.”
Returning home, he worked hard on improving his strength, technique and plyometric ability with the aid of his long-time coach, Ian Baird and with regular input from Australian record holder Scott Martin.
He believes genuine gains have been made in all three areas with “greater lift” out of the front of the circle contributing to his rapid improvement. In the space of a little under two weeks late last year he improved his personal best three times, ended with a 20.61m effort in Melbourne.
In Sopot, he proved that he possessed that most cherished ability of being able to produce his very best when it mattered most.
Competing in his maiden senior global championship, Walsh shed any nerves he might have been feeling to loom into medal contention with a new lifetime best of 20.88m in round five before producing a mighty heave of 21.26m to win bronze with his final put.
“All I can remember is being on the medal podium and not quite believing I was standing next to Ryan Whiting and David Storl as the third guy,” reflected Walsh, who also set an Oceania indoor record.
“To see that Kiwi flag go up still gives me tingles,” he says. “To think where I have come from in the space of just nine months is amazing.”
On his return to the southern hemisphere, Walsh proved his Sopot success was no fluke by setting a national outdoor record of 21.16m at the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Melbourne and then winning the so-called ‘Clash of the Titans’ battle with his fellow compatriot and two-time World Junior champion Jacko Gill at the New Zealand Championships.
Looking ahead to the European summer, Walsh plans to spend more time living and training in Switzerland with Adams.
His ambitions are to perform with distinction at both the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and on the IAAF Diamond League circuit, an event he describes as the “pinnacle of the sport outside of the Olympic Games and World Championships.”
Yet just why does he believe the island nation of New Zealand, which has a population of barely 4.5 million, has become such a hot bed of top class shot put talent?
“I don’t exactly know why but the depth has generally improved in New Zealand and we also have some good coaches.
“Hopefully when younger athletes see me, Jacko and Val, of course, it will encourage them. We are also built for the shot put. We have some massive rugby players, but maybe now people are seeing there are other options next to playing rugby.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF