New Zealanders of the year: Valerie Vili

By Eugene Bingham

Valerie Vili's large, unblinking eyes stared into the distance, lips pursed as tears rolled down her cheeks. Though she was later to joke with team-mates it was nothing more than sweat, there was no denying the nation was witnessing something - and someone - special that night in March.

Vili had just won the Commonwealth Games shotput title with a record throw. During the competition, she looked unusually relaxed, smiling to her coach Kirsten Hellier.

On the dais, treasured gold around her neck, the emotions spilled as the anthem piped around the packed Melbourne stadium. The cameras froze on her, capturing one of the enduring images of the Games. Vili sums up the moment bluntly: "Yeah, it was pretty special, pretty emotional, very satisfying."

Unsaid is how it was an opportunity to honour the memory of her beloved mother, Lilika, who died in September 2000. Neither does she say how it was another step on the road to her longed-for Olympic gold medal.

At 22, Vili stands to become one of our greatest athletes. In a sport in which athletes usually mature in their early 30s, she is already ranked number two in the world.

Her first place in Melbourne was followed in September with gold at the World Cup in Athens. Although it was a global victory against tough European competitors - "it was awesome to beat the big guns" - she rates Melbourne as the highlight of the year.

For next year, her main goal is the World Championships in Osaka and to better her placing from the last world championships in 2005 where she finished third.

It's easy to throw around the label "role model"; it's also something athletes feel they should not have to be weighed down by, as if it is an expectation thrust upon them by the public. But in so many ways, a role model is what Vili is.

As a child she had an unsettled upbringing, was bullied, and burdened by overwhelming shyness. Just as she was establishing herself as an athlete, she lost her mother.

And she has had setbacks that would have crushed lesser mortals - on the eve of the 2004 Olympics she was sent to hospital with appendicitis. She emerged from under the knife and went to Athens anyway, and fought hard for eighth place.

None of that has held her back. She has turned blows into challenges and motivation. She believes that if she can do it, so can those other kids in South Auckland with truckloads of talent. If only they had her determination - she trains twice a day and holds down a job at Macleans College.

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