Valerie extract: With success comes heartbreak

From the breakup of her marriage to falling out with her longtime coach to losing to a drug-cheat at the Olympics, few athletes have overcome as many hurdles as Valerie Adams. In an extract from her new autobiography, Valerie, she tells her side of the story.

Splitting from coach, Kirsten Hellier, seen below at the Beijing Olympics, was a wrench for Adams. Photo / Getty Images
Splitting from coach, Kirsten Hellier, seen below at the Beijing Olympics, was a wrench for Adams. Photo / Getty Images

I was 13 when I took up throwing. At Southern Cross Campus it's a compulsory part of school athletics. I threw the shot at the school championships and broke the school record by a couple of metres. At the Counties-Manukau championships a couple of weeks later, I broke the record there by two metres. We turned up late, and I threw in bare feet.

I didn't really think too much about it. My first love was basketball.

Then I went to my first secondary schools nationals in Massey Park in 1999. I was shitting myself. I came second to a girl called Monique Taito. I was pretty tall, but she was quite a big girl. That was pretty amazing, and I got a silver medal.

I was only 14 when I had my first trip overseas, to a place called Bydgoszcz in Poland. That was the first time they held a world youth championships, for athletes under 18, and I finished in tenth spot.

I was homesick like you wouldn't believe. I'm a homebody really. I called my mother collect every day on the calling card they used to have back in the day. I'd cry on the phone all the time. But it was also the best experience for me. Mum was pretty proud that I did it after just six months of training.

When my Mum died I was 15, and my coach Kirsten Hellier's house was like a second home to me. She and [Kirsten's husband] Pat took me, a teenager, in and really looked after me.

In 2001 I lived fulltime with them for 12 months. They had a little girl, Mikaela, and when their son Jarrod came along I helped them look after him. He was like my little boy. I was Aunty Val, and it was really nice.

I was reliant on Kirsten when Mum died. I had no parent figure and Kirsten filled that role, and her mother did, too. I had no one really, and they were there for me. That was the great part, the best part, of the relationship. Training together and living together worked when I was younger.

In athletics we grew and learned together. Kirsten was a javelin thrower, a former national champion, who knew the basics of shot put, but didn't know the real detail. While I was learning to throw the shot, she was learning to become a better coach at the shot. We tried this, tried that, tried new and different methods until we found what worked. In a way I was a guinea pig. It was a big learning curve.

AUCKLAND, FEBRUARY 2006

The night of the Halberg Awards should have been a happy occasion for me and my husband, Bertrand Vili.

For the first time I was nominated for New Zealand Sportswoman of the Year, and Bertrand and I were together at a function where the biggest names in sport socialise together. I was just hoping nobody would ask too much about the white plaster on Bertrand's hand, a reminder to me of the massive problems that would eventually break our marriage apart.

Just two nights before the Halbergs I wake up and I get a phone call. It's Bertrand; he's had a car accident. My heart is pumping like mad, just about jumping out of my chest. I hop in my little Daihatsu and dash to where he is.

He'd written off the V8 Holden. He'd lost control at a roundabout, smashed a barrier open, and gone into a garden in Howick. He was 399 micrograms per litre of breath, which was one microgram under the alcohol limit. The police were there, and an ambulance had been called.

He had a small cut on his hand so that night was spent at the police station and then at accident and emergency getting the cut attended to.

Problems between me and Kirsten also started in 2006, when I went to have surgery for a shoulder injury.

That was the start of the bigger issues. While I was recovering I was trying to throw, and then it was time for the world champs in 2007.

We were preparing in Cairns, and at the Oceania champs, I screwed something up in my throwing hand. When I released the shot I felt a shooting pain. "Oh shit."

Soon as it was sore, Kirsten said, "I think we should go home." By this stage I had my strength back up to the way it was before the surgery. I felt I was okay. As we were just leaving the track she was already saying, "We should go home." I was crying because it was sore, and I was crying because I felt my career was on the line.

Kirsten was doing the silent treatment, which she was very good at. I don't handle that very well. When you're trying to compete, what you want is for your coach to be positive. Kirsten wanted to have a test-throwing session three days before I was due to compete. As you can imagine it was painful - eye-wateringly painful. I threw and I made 17m. I tried to throw as hard as I could. Kirsten didn't look very happy, but I was trying. She was just nodding, but no words were coming out of her mouth.

The next day I lifted well, so Kirsten was back to being her normal self again, and then we went and competed. As painful as my effing hand was I really tried my hardest to throw. I threw every round, sitting in second place.

When it came to the last round I was nervous, but I was determined to do it. I threw 20.54m to win, and told the journalists, "See that last put, that was for my dad."

Of course, after I won Kirsten was a different person. I was happy that I'd won, I was happy that she was happy.

BEIJING, AUGUST 2008

When I know I've won, there is a wave of emotions: happiness, relief, the lot. I signal to the Chinese officials that I've finished. I high-five the competitors who want to with me, and then I'm running to the stand, across the track and Kirsten is making her way down.

We're so happy because it's like job well done, 10 years from when it all started. You can't contain it. You start jumping round like a hooligan, start waving flags, and a Chinese official is trying to hold me back, pulling on my arm. I quietly pull my arm away, just look at her, and say, "Don't fucking touch me." I say to her, "I've just won the Olympics."

Next night I would go and get my medal, and all of a sudden, just like that, Kirsten had changed. She wouldn't talk to me. I'd hardly see her. We were rooming together at the village, but there was just nothing. When I saw Kirsten I'd say, "How's it going?" She'd hardly reply.

I wished I could think of ways to make it better, to make Kirsten feel better. They had a beauty parlour in the village, so I went out and bought her a voucher for a massage, manicure and pedicure. She was very grateful, and said thank you very much. Later on she told me she was feeling torn over how to divide her time (her husband, Pat, was at the Games, on the Cook Islands coaching staff). That was at the end, and after that chat we were sweet.

AUCKLAND, MARCH 2010

When Kirsten told me she didn't see how she could continue to coach me I was devastated.

I think the breaking point was in March 2010 when I lost in Doha, in the world indoor championships. I lost my first title in two years.

I had a small suspicion Kirsten was going to break up with me, but I didn't really buy into it. I still thought we could work our way through it. Maybe I'm naive.

After training when I went home, I thought, "That was a bit weird." But when I left, Kirsten did say, "Okay, see you in Christchurch." I didn't know then that I was going to meet her that afternoon. I rang up my manager, Nick Cowan, and asked him what he thought was going on. Kirsten, I'd find out, wanted to tell me after nationals that she wanted to break it off.

We had a meeting at Waipuna Hotel. Nick came along with my lawyer, Maria. I was very nervous. Everybody walked in with a cold sort of look, and I was much the same. I didn't know what to do.

I did not walk in with my lawyer and manager saying to Kirsten, "You get out of my life." Not at all. At first we all went together into a room. Then Kirsten and I were left alone.

She did almost all the talking. She told me she didn't want anyone else involved, she wanted it to be just me and her. "I think I can't give you anything more to improve on," Kirsten said. "Things are not working out like they used to, and we're both different people now." So she was going to pull out of coaching me.

I'll always be so grateful and thankful for what she's done for me. Kirsten and I started working together when I was 13 years old. Over the next 12 years we trained six days out of seven together, travelled the world and won Olympic, world and Commonwealth titles. At the end she said, "I hope we can still be friends." I didn't give much of an answer. I was upset, and was very quiet.

Later, Kirsten was on TVNZ's Close Up, saying that it was my decision. And I thought, "Shit, this is going to get bitter," and it was. We hardly spoke for ages, although there was the odd text. It feels weird now every time I'm around her. We don't see each other socially at all.

SWITZERLAND, 21 JULY 2012

We knew we were on the right track leading into London. All the training and all the hours working on technique were paying off. Everything was going very well.

But then, on Saturday July 21, I injured my back, and it was a bad injury. I was doing a dead lift and tore a muscle in my back, really screwed it. I had to shut down all training for three days. On the Monday I went to Zurich and they gave me three cortisone injections.

On the Sunday I'd said to my coach, Jean Pierre Egger, when we knew I was getting the jabs the next day: "Have faith in me, write the programme as you would normally write it, so we can start on Wednesday." He asked if I was sure, and I said I was.

On Tuesday my stubborn-cow side came out and I went to the gym. On the Wednesday JP said, "I don't know if you'll be able to get through this." I have to admit it wasn't the easiest.

I was getting physio twice a day, sometimes three or four times a day, for the next five or six days.

Thank God my wonderful physio, Lou Johnson, was with us. She knows my back so well, and has got me through similar injuries in the past. We knew from past experience that the injections would heal the back very, very quickly.

Lou was scheduled to go back to London on Tuesday, July 24, but she was able to change her flights and stay to help me.

There were times in the days straight after the injury when I was thinking, "My God, I don't think I'm going to be able to compete at all." But I was able to put those negative thoughts, and that's all they were, random thoughts, aside. I had faith in my ability to recover. I knew it was something that we'd seen in the past, and something we'd got over completely before.

So we were able to get through the hiccup. On Friday, July 27, I had my first throws session, and it was okay, but 10 days after the injury I was back to full throwing sessions, throwing really well, over 21m, and in full swing with the weights. My mental preparation was on track, too.

We kept things quiet about the injury. I wanted to keep it behind closed doors, because we didn't need any outside pressure or speculation.

By the time we flew to London on Thursday, August 2, I was strong and dynamic again.

LONDON, AUGUST 2012

At 2pm I went online to see what pool I was in for qualifying the next morning. I had about an hour to kill before our last training session.

When I found the lists my name wasn't there. I went through it three, four, five times, but I just wasn't listed. There was no New Zealand flag in among all the other flags beside the athletes' names.

I ran into my coach Jean Pierre's room and said, "I'm not on the start list. What do I do? What do I do?" Of course, I'm in a panic because I don't know why I'm not on the list.

If I wasn't on the start list I'd be sacrificing the last two years of my life being in Switzerland to do what I had to do. For an athlete, nothing could be more serious at an Olympic Games than finding you're not on the start list. That's basically a disqualification.

By a mile it was the hardest lead-up to any competition I've ever been in.

Finally, at seven o'clock my name was there. I should have gone to bed and slept like a log. But my body was strung out. I couldn't get to sleep until midnight, and I was wide awake at 4am.

I went into the first call room at the stadium, which was all good, but when I went through to the second call room, where the formal process really begins, where you get your bib with your number and surname on it, they didn't have my name on the list or my bib printed out.

For 20 minutes I stood there and begged them, "Please, please, check on the internet. I'm on the start list, I swear I'm on the start list, please print me a bib."

Terrible panic, because I still didn't know, just minutes before the final call, whether I was going to be allowed to compete or not.

Eventually, after phone calls, they were prepared to print out my bib so I could throw. I should have been ready, everything focused on going out there, throwing the qualifying distance, packing up and heading back to the village to get into the right space for the final.

But I was a lot more worried about just getting my name on the list.

Then I had to try to regroup and focus on competing. I really had to pull myself together. I think you could see from the qualifying round the mental state I was in by then. I didn't even get past the qualification distance with my first throw.

I didn't feel my usual self. It was like a bad dream, as if the person throwing in that competition wasn't me. Normally, I'm feisty, and I'm out there pushing hard, firing on all cylinders. Instead, I felt like I'd just stepped off the plane into the circle.

I headed back to the village, and tried as hard as I could to get some sleep, but my head was spinning. I badly needed to sleep, but all I could do was lie on my bed for three hours and try.

Heading into the final we prepared as normal. I always try to think positive, to get some positive energy running through the system.

There was no way the situation was completely responsible for the result. Maybe if I was doing it all over again I'd do my own registration - just kidding! You can only do the best you can do on the day. But I was just not as dynamic as I normally would be.

Basically, I felt like shit. I was still able to throw 20.70m, but it just wasn't my competition.

I tried so hard, but I just couldn't control the way I was feeling.

When I went to JP he said to me, "Smile, Val, just try to smile. Smile and enjoy yourself out there." For the life of me I tried, I left my heart out there trying, but it wasn't my day.

I always knew Nadzeya Ostapchuk from Belarus had the potential to throw big, but watching her throw all five throws over 21m was massive.

In the last two months before the Olympics she was throwing some very big throws in Belarus. Anything is possible in the Games, and she just came out and did what she did.

What we'd find out, of course, was that she was cheating when she did those amazing throws.

SWITZERLAND, 13 AUGUST 2012

At 12.30pm came the news that changed everything - changed my emotions, changed my life really.

It was almost unbelievable. My phone rang, and it was Dave Currie, the chef de mission of the New Zealand Olympic team.

He said, "I'm just ringing you up to let you know that the IOC has informed us that you've now won the gold medal. Ostapchuk has been done for drugs."

- Extract reproduced from Valerie by Valerie Adams with Phil Gifford, with the permission of Hachette New Zealand Ltd.

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