For so long, she thought she may never be back.
For so long, just making it to Rio – whatever about reaching the podium – seemed an impossible dream.
It’s for this reason that the tears began to well up in the eyes of Valerie Adams late on Friday night, but not out of sadness at missing gold. No, this was something else that kicked her emotions into overdrive: pride.
“There have been so many moments when I’ve been on the edge of crying just because I’ve been struggling so badly,” she recalled. “It’s been a very, very long and difficult journey with so many obstacles. It’s been such a struggle.”
But, she adds, with no shortage of resolve, “I stayed with it.”
It would have been a truly seismic achievement if Adams claimed gold for the third Olympic Games in succession, the final coronation of a career that is often considered the greatest in shot put history.
But it was not to be.
Adams opened Friday night’s final with a bang, firing the shot out to 19.79m to seize control of the competition. It was her second throw, however, that put her within spitting distance of another Olympic triumph.
The New Zealander heaved the sphere 20.42m, immediately clapping her hands in celebration at what was her longest throw in two years. That put her 55 centimetres clear of her closest competitors – Michelle Carter of the USA and Anita Marton of Hungary – heading into the sixth and final round.
Adams, however, has been around this game long enough to know that gold is never secured until the deed is truly done.
“You can never underestimate anybody,” she said. “Especially Michelle; she’s one of these people who can pop out a big throw at any point.”
That was exactly what happened, Carter unleashing a whopping effort of 20.63m in the final round to snatch gold. Adams, though, was left with one last chance to strike back.
“It pumped me up,” she recalls. “At that point you just have to live in the moment. The competition isn’t over until it’s over.”
Adams summoned another effort in excess of 20 metres, but felt that crushing feeling in the pit of her stomach as it hit the ground 20.39m away, not enough for gold. In the immediate aftermath, she was stuck in limbo between the disappointment of seeing the title slip away but also left reflecting on what a monumental effort it was to get silver.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said. “But this is a day that reminds you about sport. You have to take the good and the bad and give it your very best shot. That’s what I did.”
Adams’ entire career has been testament to that approach, especially in recent years as a string of injuries meant it began to be spoken of mostly in the past tense.
This time last year, she bypassed the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 to undergo surgery on her knee, her fifth time going under the knife in three years. The comeback was slow, often interrupted, and on several occasions Adams suspected the dream of Rio had passed.
“It’s been raw,” she said. “The start of the season has been very rough. I spent so much time doing rehab, training and just trying to get myself to a decent standard. The Olympics seemed so far away, such a reach to get to.”
Adams made it back in time to take her place at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016, but she was a shadow of her former self, throwing a best of 19.25m in the final to finish third.
By mid-summer, however, that distant prospect of an Olympic medal was steadily moving within her grasp. She surpassed the 20-metre barrier once again in Monaco, and went further again in Budapest, throwing 20.19m.
When Carter’s sphere hit the turf in Rio, though, it landed like a sucker punch to her solar plexus.
“The realisation that I won the silver medal sucked,” said Adams. “The goal was to win, but I have to take it and reflect on the last year that I’ve had. It’s been a very tough road for me to even be here, so to make it to the final and get a medal is pretty awesome. I fought to the very end.”
Beating the odds
No Olympic medal arrives without meaning, but last night the importance of this particular one began to set in for Adams.
“Today I got to show that the hard work does pay off,” she said. “I’ve given it everything I’ve got. I was training all day, every day. I got married this year and 48 hours later I was on a plane to a training camp. My husband has been dragged round all over Europe because he knows this journey has been very important to me. It’s been such an obstacle course, so I’m going to enjoy this moment.”
Adams will now fly back to Europe to compete in IAAF Diamond League meetings in Lausanne and Brussels before taking stock of her career at the end of the season.
And what about the possibility of a fourth successive Olympic medal in Tokyo?
“I don’t know,” she said, and it was clear she truly didn’t. There will be plenty of time to ponder that in the off-season.
What she does know, however, is just how strong a message her performance will have sent to athletes out there just like her, those who, while maybe not as talented as Adams, have also seen their careers fall off the tracks due to injury.
“My biggest message is to believe in yourselves,” she says. “If you want it that bad then you’re going to have to go through the bad times to get it. It’s going to be hard, but the strong ones make it out the other side.”
Adams, it’s fair to say, is one of the strong ones.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF