Athletics: Stevenson growing shot put hub

Dale Stevenson poses during the New Zealand Olympic teams Rio 2016 Olympic portrait session. Photo / Supplied
Dale Stevenson poses during the New Zealand Olympic teams Rio 2016 Olympic portrait session. Photo / Supplied

The Christchurch hub of throwers led by Athletics NZ lead throws coach Dale Stevenson is building into a very impressive unit spearheaded by Olympic bronze medallist Tom Walsh. Steve Landells chats to Dale to found out more about its evolution.

Dale Stevenson has a blue-sky vision for the future of the Christchurch hub of throwers and he is not afraid to share to his ambition.

"I would like to have a village of throwers," says the Australian, who competed as a shot putter at the London 2012 Olympic Games. "What I mean by that, is all the throwers would look out for other throwers, training autonomously and having a group of strong robust athletes who foster a culture of excellence. I don't want any thrower reliant on any one person."

It is a vision that may be some way short of being totally fulfilled but thanks to a combination of Dale's input, the support of his strong ancillary staff and a committed buy in from a powerful group of throwers led by Olympic shot put bronze medallist Tom Walsh and supported by the likes of rising hammer talent Lauren Bruce and 2016 World U18 shot (with the 5kg implement) number one Ryan Ballantyne and 2016 Rio Paralympic bronze medallist Rory McSweeney, it is certainly developing along the right path.

To further deliver his vision he has recently brought on board an assistant coach - Amanda Murphy - whom he describes "a great asset." A strong support team, which includes HPSNZ physiotherapists Tamsin Chittock and Vanessa Trent and strength and conditioning coach John Wilson, are on board. The groundwork is being laid to foster the culture he desires.

"It Is starting to blossom and the athletes are starting to feed off each other," he says. "The throwers are starting to get together outside of training hours to hook up for a mobility and stretching session or an extra gymnastics session."

The signs are positive but it is far from easy operating out of the city of Christchurch which lost its principle athletics facility the QEII Stadium in the 2011 earthquake.

As a consequence, the group are based out of three separate training venues. The main hub at the Apollo Projects Centre is home to the gym facilities and the services providers such as physios, strength and conditioning specialists etc. A small throwing area for shot has been built while all throwers have the option hurl their implements into a large net.

Five minutes down the road the throwers use a small sprint track plus discus, shot and javelin facilities at Christchurch Boys' High School. Then 35 minutes away on the other side of town at Hansen Park, Lauren Bruce carries out her hammer training.

It is a challenge and far from perfect, although Dale prefers to suck the positives out of the situation.

"It really does give us a snap shot of who wants to do the sport," he insists. "When you build shiny, flash facilities it is easy for athletes to gravitate towards that. But having to make do, scrape time and negotiate with other stakeholders are skills we have to live and express every day here in Christchurch. I think, long term, that serves to produce better more robust athletes."

Dale points to the fact the throwers laid down their own shot put ring at the Apollo Centre as to the athletes' resourcefulness.

"It builds character," he adds.

There have been other obstacles to fostering the throws culture that Dale demands down in Christchurch and he points to the strong rugby culture in Canterbury as another significant impediment.

"There is a long legacy of young males here aspiring to be All Blacks," he says. "It is socially acceptable. What I want is for an eight-year-old boy or girl to believe they can throw for New Zealand at the Olympics and that there is a realistic pathway. It can sometimes take a lot of time and effort to shift cultures, but it would be nice to provide another avenue people can pursue."

With funding a "perennial challenge" in such a small country he believes New Zealand needs to look to its past success in the throws for the way forward. Since the 1990s, he believes Kiwi success in the throws can be traced back to a number of key individuals - such as former World and Commonwealth discus champion Beatrice Faumuina and three-time Commonwealth Games javelin bronze medallist Gavin Lovegrove - supported by passionate coaches.

This he believes provides the best formula for unlocking New Zealand's throws talent.

"To prosper in throws we need to look after those relationships (between athletes, coaches and other stakeholders)," he adds. "We need to have that the flexibility. We need to understand that what Jacko needs is different from Valerie and what Tom needs is different too. We need to cater for that and enable the coach-athlete relationships in these little hubs to blossom. We can't operate like the Chinese system, where if you don't fit into the mould of the camp you are out. We have to be more relationship based in New Zealand because we are remote and because of our small population. We can't adopt a one-size-fits-all approach."

The dazzling diamond at the top of the Christchurch Hub is World Indoor champion and 22m, shot putter Tom Walsh who has developed into a consistent and widely-respected world-class performer.

His professional approach couple with his naturally accommodating nature to his training partners - Ryan Ballantyne and Nick Palmer (a promising 16-year-old shot putter from Hawkes Bay) - is "huge" according to his coach, who believes Tom offers all the qualities needed to accelerate the culture within the group.

"Tom is pretty unique," he explains. "He is incredibly coachable and brings an honesty to the table every day," which provides a really nice platform to work with. We don't talk about it too much, but we have some pretty lofty goals around the world record. So, for the rest of the squad to train with someone like that every day who has shown what a route to excellence looks like, makes my job a hell of a lot easier. It is a real luxury for people like Ryan and Nick to spend a couple of hours training with an Olympic medallist and a 22m thrower. There is no reason Tom should give a lot of his time to a schoolboy thrower (in Nick Palmer), but for whatever reason he makes an effort to accommodate others."

Yet besides the purely mentorship advantages, the trio also thrive in a highly competitive environment.

"Tom, Ryan and Nick will usually have a wager on who can throw the furthest to end the training session with the loser buying lunch," adds Dale. "Without even knowing it, they are competing day in and day out trying to be the best that they can be."

The signs are promising and the roots have been laid down for the hub to develop into something quite special. In his private moments, Dale can reflect upon a quiet satisfaction at the work achieved so far in Christchurch.

"I'm pretty proud of how the team has grown and rise to the challenge," he explains. "I do ask a lot of my athletes and my colleagues down here. if we want to lead the world then we need to act like we are world leaders. To do that means we need to ask hard questions of ourselves and be prepared to do that every day. By in large, I've been impressed with how people have risen to that challenge."

- NZ Herald

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