Athletics: Distance no object for Adams' coach

By Michael Burgess

Valerie Adams is training in New Zealand with Swiss coach Jean-Pierre Egger for the first time. Photo / Doug Sherring
Valerie Adams is training in New Zealand with Swiss coach Jean-Pierre Egger for the first time. Photo / Doug Sherring

For two such imposing figures, together Valerie Adams and her coach Jean-Pierre Egger come across as gentle giants.

Adams is 1.90m tall and physically imposing. Egger looks her in the eye and has a handshake that could break a rock. But, in tandem, there is lightness and levity.

They are together for the first time in New Zealand. Egger arrived a week ago and will spend two months here, as Adams completes the Australasian track and field season.

We gather after a morning training session; Egger brings an emerging level of English and a warm smile, while a relaxed Adams assists with her fluent French. Outside the serious business, there are jokes and bilingual banter as Adams sometimes translates for Egger before smirking at his occasional linguistic stumbles.

Last year, from Switzerland, she often talked of her new personal contentment, the peace she had found and the bond formed with her Swiss mentor; now here it is plain to see.

The litmus test will come in the heat of competition or if something goes awry in their 2012 programme, which is meant to end with a podium ascent in London.

The signs are good and the mutual respect between coach and athlete is as obvious as Egger's trademark moustache.

"She doesn't like to be bad or out of shape," says Egger.

"Every day, she gives her best. But the main thing is her honesty. She is transparent with me and that is the most important. I can accept defeat but my big problem is when someone is not up front, not sincere."

"If I have a bad day at training or I'm throwing like s**t, he handles it really well," says Adams. "He still keeps pushing me as much as possible but it is positive - he doesn't get frustrated for nothing. I've never come across a situation where we have had to drop training and walk away - which I have done with my other coaches quite a few times."

Don't be mistaken; Egger can be stern and demands the best, with former pupil Werner Gunthor often fulfilling the 'good cop' role when the two men train Adams in Switzerland.

Egger was first here 10 years ago, as Alinghi strength and conditioning coach when they won the 2003 America's Cup.

"It is a pleasure to be back but we have a lot to do," says Egger. "In 2011, she won everything, so this year, everybody expects the same. Last year was about experience and finding out how Valerie would respond to my methods. This year, I won't change much but she knows exactly what we need to improve.

"We must accept that everyone [here] expects first place in London," says Egger. "We must live with that. I can't change that. I must say I feel no pressure up to now. You are the first to mention this - we have had no discussions about pressure and expectation."

Adams is unbeaten at a major competition (world championships, Olympics, Commonwealth Games) since 2005 and seen as a near certainty for gold. Despite that CV, it all comes down to performance on that July night; as Adams likes to say "everybody is ranked zero on the day".

"For me, the event is not a problem," says Egger. "In competition, she is one of the best athletes I have ever known. For me the problem is to bring her [to London] in the best mental and physical shape. This is my job. For the rest, she is alone on the field and knows what to do. She has done it many times in the past. But we must also have respect; if we throw 21.50m and someone else throws 21.60m, then they are better and this is sport."

Aside from her pure ability, Adams also packs considerable psychological weapons. The sight of her prowling the arena at the Bird's Nest, with some of the other competitors suddenly looking like a child who has lost their mum, was a resounding memory of the Beijing Olympics. It reminded of Carl Lewis' supreme confidence in 1984 or Peter Snell's purposeful poise in 1964.

"She intimidates them," says Egger. "She imposes herself physically and mentally and the others see that. I always say to her you must be the queen. You must be the Sky Tower."

"The Sky Tower of the shot put arena," laughs Adams. "I don't know about that. It is hard when you are defending champion. Everyone is out to hunt you down. I don't talk a lot to them when you are out there. It's all about your eyes and your demeanour. I walk around with my 'don't mess with me' look. At the track, you grab your bag, you don't even make eye contact with anyone or raise your eyebrows. It is all mental."

Not everything goes to plan. At the world championships in Daegu last year, Adams wasn't in top form until the second half of the competition, producing a personal best 21.24m with her final effort, an incredible 1.19m ahead of the field.

"I was physically prepared for the world champs," says Adams, "but mentally it took me four rounds but I got there. Yes, I threw like s**t in the first three rounds but it ain't over till it's over".

Nothing, it seems, is off limits between the two.

"I remember one day at training, she was two or three metres behind her [usual] mark with every throw," says Egger. "I didn't know what was wrong. Valerie eventually turned to me and said 'Jean-Pierre, I'm not Werner Gunthor. I'm a woman. Once a month, we can have problems and it can affect us'."

Despite his impressive CV, you sense Egger also has something to prove this year. He coached Gunthor to three world championship titles but bronze (in 1988) was the best Olympic effort, though Egger was also strength and conditioning coach for the French basketball team in 2000 that took silver.

Adams will open her year in Christchurch next month - the garden city remains a special place for her, as she broke 20m for the first time there.

Then Hamilton (February 11) and Sydney (February 18) before the world indoor championships in early March in Turkey. She also expects to compete in Rome (May 31) and New York (June 9) before building up to the Olympics.

- Herald on Sunday

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