When Dale Stevenson picked up the phone and Dame Valerie Adams was at the other end asking a rather large favour, the call did not come without its stress for the successful Aussie throws coach.
Adams wanted to come down and join Stevenson’s crack Christchurch squad, which already included three-time world shot put champion Tom Walsh and one of the rising stars of New Zealand track and field in hammer thrower Lauren Bruce.
The veteran Auckland shot put legend, about to attend her fifth Olympics where she will seek to add to her haul of two golds and a bronze, had realised she had to make a move to give herself the best chance at rounding out her storied career on a note she could live with.
Adams had previously worked extensively with now retired Swiss guru Jean-Pierre Egger and most recently had been trained by Athletics New Zealand high performance director Scott Goodman out of Auckland. But she knew she needed someone of Stevenson’s ilk to wring the very best out of her in Tokyo.
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By rights it should have been a no-brainer for Stevenson, the former Aussie Olympian who has shaped Walsh into one of the premier shot put exponents on the planet. An icon of the sport wants to join your squad for her final lap of the track … you jump at the chance, right?
But Stevenson told the Star-Times he had his reservations at first.
“It doesn’t come without its stresses, that’s for sure. Certainly it’s a burden I didn’t take on lightly,” he says of his superstar addition. “But it’s also an honour.
Tom Walsh has enjoyed the different dynamic of having Dame Valerie Adams alongside in their training squad.
“There was a bit of work up front, a lot of communication and honesty about what we expected or needed from each other to make it work. That was essential, and I’m glad we did that because it’s paying dividends now.
“But the fact she entrusted me to steer her through the final leg of such an illustrious career … the honour is not lost on me. So I’m giving it everything I’ve got.”
Naturally, a new arrangement like this, which involved a major change in the dynamic for both parties, took a little time to yield the results. But Stevenson, for his part, never doubted they would come.
“Valerie has got no point to prove as far as her own ego,” he said earlier this season. “She is 100 per cent in it for the purest of reasons. She loves the sport and wants to go out on her own terms … she’ll soon see the rewards for the sacrifices she’s made, moving away from her family and refocusing on her training down here.”
Sure enough that reward unfolded in all its glory at last Saturday’s Sir Graeme Douglas International meet in Auckland. Adams had been edging forward in small increments hitherto, throwing 18.34 metres in Hastings in January, 18.41 in Christchurch in February and 18.68 in Hamilton a week later.
But in Auckland she blasted out a best toss of 19.65 metres in a spectacular series that featured four puts over 19 metres. It had been nearly five years since she had thrown that far and over three since she had bettered that threshold. It equalled the furthest anyone has thrown in the world this year and immediately catapulted her back into medal contention for Tokyo.
Adams was almost overcome with emotion that night at Trusts Arena, much of it to do with the knowledge that the choice she had made – “I don’t call it a sacrifice,” she scowls – was reaping tangible rewards.
Alisha Lovrich/Athletics NZ
Valerie Adams says the work she’s doing in Christchurch is starting to reap the dividends in competition.
It takes a lot for Adams to leave her husband and two children behind in Auckland for the weekly trips south to train. But it was a toll she was willing to pay because she knew deep down it was required.
“I know what it feels like to throw well and execute a throw,” she said.” It was a matter of taking the time … we’ve done so much work with Dale the last few months, it’s been nit-picky and all the rest of it, but it’s all paid off.“
She also revealed a key tweak that had made the world of difference.
“Instead of watching other people’s videos, I had to go back and analyse my own videos, because I know what that feels like. I was able to execute those throws after just one week of studying it.
“The doubt wasn’t there but I needed to prove it to myself and see the results of being away from my family and all the hard work we’ve done as a team. Dale has been absolutely fantastic. They had to pick me to pieces and I know that, but it’s all worth it.
“Dale was wonderful in taking me on. It’s not an easy task. I am a use-by date athlete for some people. It’s been difficult emotionally for me but mentally and physically it’s been the best thing ever. It’s not forever … it’s a very short-term goal now.”
Alisha Lovrich/Athletics NZ
Tom Walsh threw a season’s best 21.60m at the Sir Graeme Douglas International athletics meet in Auckland.
Walsh, who shook off a form slump to throw 21.60 to win in Auckland, likes to think he and Adams are at a stage of their careers where they can help each other.
“One of the great things about having her training in Christchurch is we have time to talk outside throwing … about life, about her move or how training is going. It’s much more relaxed and easier to have real meaningful conversations.”
With two power women in the group, at either end of their careers, the dynamic has shifted, too. “We like to call her ‘Diva’,” says Walsh with a grin. “You definitely know where you stand with her, and it’s been really good. We love having competitions in the gym or at training, and she adds another flavour to that.”
For Stevenson there have also been adjustments in his dynamic with Walsh as they have both moved to different stages in their lives. Stevenson now has two children, while the three-time world champion and Olympic bronze medallist has sprouted his own roots.
“We’ll never lose that [connection],” he says. “We started out as contemporaries, and that’s a footing that has served us well. But we’ve worked hard to evolve it beyond that. We knew there were limitations if we just stayed as mates … I’m happy with where things have got to. It’s not as jovial as 10 years ago, but it’s much more respectful now.
“We’re different too. We were boys when we met; now we’re men. It’s natural to evolve and I’m proud of the fact we’ve managed to navigate that together.”
That evolution of their relationship has helped them deal with Walsh’s well-documented struggles with the changed landscape thrown up by Covid.
“We were remiss for a good 4-6 months for not grieving the fact it actually really hurt, not being able to do the things you want to do,” adds Stevenson. “For a while that was bleeding into our world and we were both getting a bit snappy with each other.
“That’s not us. But once we reconciled the fact it was really just the frustration around not getting the normal joy of what we love to do. That put us back on an even keel to start working on the problem.
“I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy. But things have taken a turn in training and I feel like we’re back on the same path together.”
The challenges keep coming. Nationals have been pushed back because of the latest Covid outbreak. There remains major doubt around what the Olympic buildup will look like. Question marks still hover over the Games. Uncertainty abounds.
But not at shot put central in Christchurch. There they know exactly what they’re working for.