Sportsperson of the Year

By Chris Rattue

Valerie Vili

World champion shotputter

"Huge highs and huge lows - a real rollercoaster."

That is Valerie Vili's description of 2007, during which she won the shot put gold medal at the world athletic championships in Japan.

It was a glorious moment for New Zealand sport and Vili, who will be the likely gold medal favourite at the Beijing Olympics in August.

But behind the triumph lay difficult times, because it was also a year in which her father died after battling stomach cancer, and Vili had to endure an uncertain recovery after shoulder surgery late last year.

"There were a lot of ups and downs," says Vili, whose Olympic dreams were initially fired as a tribute to her mother when she died seven years ago.

"I didn't know where I was with the recovery from surgery and I was trying to get through that, and my dad passing away - that was a very difficult period.

"My dad, Sidney, was an Englishman from Bristol, very blunt, very straightforward, and he would say to me 'I wish you'd win the gold'. I looked at photos of him on my phone every day that I was away, and I still haven't accepted that dad has gone.

"June, July and August was all about the world champs and my head had to be pretty strong to be able to pull through and do that. All in all it was a very successful year for me and my coach."

If you think Vili might already be putting her feet up briefly before launching into the 2008 Olympic year, think again.

The 23-year-old was snowed under when the Herald rang to arrange an interview.

The Rotorua-born Vili, an assistant sports co-ordinator at Mcleans College in east Auckland, has worked for the past four years since discovering that life as a fulltime athlete did not suit her.

"You need balance, otherwise you get bored. I tried [not working] and it drove me crazy. It's not healthy ... your brain needs to be active and functioning and not on just one subject," she says.

"It's not a job I love, but I enjoy what I do and it allows me to focus on work, which then helps me concentrate on training when I'm training."

The lead-in to Christmas has thrown up a few hurdles.

Her revered coach Kirsten Hellier is on crutches following foot surgery, a legacy of her javelin career. And Hellier, the head sports co-ordinator at Mcleans College, has also been busy planning for her sister's wedding. All this has added a few pressures to the training regime.

Vili and her husband Bertrand, a New Caledonian discus thrower, have just shifted house. And Vili has been frantically "getting around my family" before she and Bertrand head to Noumea for Christmas.

What is clear, the more you talk to Vili, is that she and Hellier have worked hard to get everything nicely in place for a full-throttle tilt at Olympic gold.

The Osaka triumph is already an ace in their plans, having confirmed that their nine-year partnership is on the right track.

Vili happily recalls that glorious day in August.

She had been lying second to defending world champion Nadzeya Ostapchuk of Belarus, then unleashed a Commonwealth record 20.54m - the best throw in the world for 2007 - to take the gold with her final throw.

A track semifinal had repeatedly interrupted Vili's preparations for that final throw, but Hellier set her in the right frame of mind.

"It's scary sometimes, how well the woman knows me," says Vili.

"She said 'do this for your dad, you have nothing to lose, show them who you are and where you come from'.

"I was already full of emotion with so much of the stuff that had happened through the year and that just hit the right spot.

"The emotions were high, I was feeling excited, but relaxed at the same time and not too over-tense. It all came together with that last throw."

Afterwards, she continued her custom and still wrote a postcard to her late father, and posted it. His death is still an emotional subject, and during this interview Vili makes a point of praising her sister Vivian, who nursed their father in Rotorua and shouldered the responsibility for his care.

Yet while emotion has clearly played a large part in Vili's career, you sense that hard-headed realism is more the platform that she and Hellier are searching for next year.

Vili has already been through one Olympic drama, having had her appendix removed on the eve of the Athens event where she finished ninth. That emphasised you can never be sure what might lie ahead and is a reminder that an ability to deal with the unexpected is often what sets the great champions apart. But Vili and Hellier have done everything possible to ensure nothing will stand in the way of concentrating on the Olympic task, including Vili taking a year's leave from work.

She returns to competition in late January in Canberra followed by further appearances in Sydney and Waitakere, all grand prix events which will carry qualifying points for September's world athletics finals in Stuttgart. She also plans to take part in a pre-Olympic meeting in Beijing in May.

Constant exposure to the highest level of competition means Vili is a far tougher athlete than the illness-affected teenager who stepped on to the Olympic stage in 2004.

"The Olympics are the pinnacle of a sporting career and I have wanted to get everything set up so we can have no regrets at all next year," she says.

"Osaka showed what we have done is working, that everything is coming together. It was amazing, an overwhelming feeling, and I lost my voice celebrating.

"We do have a really good team around us and I don't want it to change. I'm happy, Kirst is happy, it's exciting.

"This is team Vili and Hellier but that other support is what is going to make things work. It ranges from the medical team to training partners - they pull you through the hardest training sessions or the hardest days when you are feeling blue or yuck or whatever.

"I'd really like to thank the public for their support and wish them a merry Christmas and happy New Year.

"For sure there is a lot of pressure from the public and everybody, but the main thing is I've got pressure on myself.

"Kirst and I have talked about it, and we both feel the pressure. It is hard but at the end of the day, what happens in the competition happens. I will put in 110 per cent for my country, myself, my family and friends."

Coxless four

For a couple of years they'd been the forgotten crew. When New Zealand won four gold medals at the world champs in Gifu, Japan in 2005 - men's single scull and coxless pair, women's double scull and coxless pair - the four were the odd ones out, coming in sixth.

But their time came on the Oberschleissheim course in Munich in September. The signs had been good in the leadup for Carl Meyer, Eric Murray - the two survivors from the fifth-placed crew at the Athens Olympics - James Dallinger and stroke Hamish Bond.

They won the Amsterdam World Cup regatta, although the formidable British were not there.

They got bronze at the Lucerne regatta behind the Dutch and British but cometh the day and the four produced the race of their lives to pip Italy in the tightest finish of the finals, courtesy of a blistering finish.

And to cap it off, when the sound system broke down early in the playing of God Defend New Zealand, the quartet belted the rest of it out acapella to the delight of the crowd, and themselves.

Coach Chris Nilsson, a 1972 coxed four Olympian on the same Munich course, had been headhunted by Rowing New Zealand to return from the United States. Talk about money well spent.

Katherine Prumm

Motocross queen

Katherine Prumm is the dominant figure in her sport.

The 19-year-old from Bombay defended her women's world motocross title in September in the Netherlands.

Prumm, on her Kawasaki, started the final weekend one point behind French rider Livia Lancelot, but when the Dutch GP began it was all Prumm, Prumm.

In each of the two races, Prumm beat Ireland's Natalie Kane by more than 26 seconds, with Lancelot scrambling to ninth and fourth placings.

Prumm has been world champion in two of the three years the women's World Cup has been contested, having pipped the 2005 champion Stephanie Laier of Germany in Uddevalla, Sweden last year, ramming home her standing as the pre-eminent women's rider on the planet this year.

She backed up her world title by winning the Australian championships for the second time in three years and late last month won the American association's women's cup in Texas to demonstrate her versatility.

Born in Johannesburg, Prumm moved to New Zealand at the age of 7. She has been studying computer graphic design at university but her sights will switch to a third successive title when next year's five-round World Cup starts at Mantova, Italy on May 11. It consists of five rounds ending, again, at Lierop in September.

Nicole Begg

Inline skater

You're in a low key sport and you want to boost your profile. If you're Nicole Begg you go naked, dressed only with a flag and your skates.

And when the 19-year-old Timaru inline skater won the 1000m sprint gold at the world champs in Colombia in August she was swamped with interest.

It was Begg's second world crown after nailing the 10,000m points elimination race in Korea last year.

She was overjoyed at her success, and unashamed at how she'd garnered the attention.

After all, New Zealand had won eight golds in Korea last year and got barely a skerrick of attention.

"It was a bit nerve-wracking but I don't regret doing it. It got my name out there and made a lot of people realise that the sport exists," she said.

It's a sport that runs in the family. Her father, Bill, is a coach; mum Cheryl won three world titles for Australia; and brother Wayne is in the national squad.

If she's forever linked with getting her kit off for a Swiss sports magazine's photoshoot so be it. You do what you can to promote your sport. This is a case of the happy, naked long distance inline skater.

Greg Henderson

Champion rider

It was a big year for Dunedin's former world champion Greg Henderson.

He spent his first season with leading European pro team T-Mobile, joining fellow Kiwis Julian Dean and Tim Gudsell on ProTour rosters.

But at the world championships in Spain in April, Henderson took a tumble in the 15km scratch race, breaking his nose in the process, at a stage when he was working his way into medal contention.

This month, the grimace was replaced by a grin when Henderson bested some of the world's best riders to win the World Cup points race in Sydney.

The win ensured a start at the world championships next year and is a big step towards qualifying for the Beijing Olympics.

Among those Henderson beat were current Olympic champion Mikhail Ignatiev of Russia and current world champion Joan Llaneras of Spain, finishing on 31 points ahead of Spain's Toni Tauler Llull and Australian Cameron Meyer.

In 2004, Henderson shot to fame by winning the world scratch title.

He was fourth at the Athens Olympics points race.

Might next year signal even better things in China?

Mahe Drysdale

Master sculler

If you're into the treacherous habit of picking early gold medal contenders for the Beijing Olympics next year, look no further than Mahe Drysdale.

The master single sculler picked up his third successive world championship gold medal in Munich in September, equalling the feat of Rob Waddell, who won the 1998-99 world titles and the Sydney Olympic gold in 2000, which doubles as the premier global title of every fourth year.

Drysdale has a key ingredient in a champion athlete - the ability to make physically exhausting sport look eminently comfortable.

He held off fast-finishing Czech Republic sculler Andrej Synek with 2004 Athens Olympic champion Olaf Tufte third.

"Once I was in front I felt like I could just pull away from the field when I wanted," Drysdale, 29, said. So it looked.

Now he has the biggest challenge of all looming. World titles are what the best rowers aim for, but they all know an Olympic gold medal is the one for which they will be remembered by the non-aficionados.

Drysdale picked up the US world challenge title in Oklahoma and did a solo journey down the Thames to win the Wingfield Sculls Trophy, the other oarsmen withdrawing in protest at a foreigner being allowed to take part, even though Drysdale is registered with an English club.

Black Sticks hockey team

When the national women's hockey team headed to Azerbaijan for the Champion's Challenge this year, they fancied their chances of doing well. Instead they got one win, four losses, including an embarrassing 8-1 belting from China.

Their chances of winning the Oceania Olympic qualifier, where they would have to beat the then world No 2 Australia looked, er, remote.

But this time, at Buderim on Queensland's Sunshine Coast on September 16, master coach Kevin Towns drew something special from his women.

Caryn Paewai drove forward to set up the only goal of the game for striker Krystal Forgesson with a perfectly worked diving reverse stick deflection. They had to earn it, with 15 minutes of sterling defensive work as Australia turned on the heat.

The result didn't knock the Aussies out. They were already Beijing-bound due to their world ranking, but the win bumped New Zealand from No 11 to No 7 and ensured a trip to the Olympics as Oceania qualifier.

It also meant avoiding the cut-throat final qualifying tournament early next year.

Wins over the Aussies don't come round every year. As a means of putting the miserable trip to Azerbaijan to bed, the Black Sticks couldn't have done it any better.

Scott Dixon

Indycar driver

Imagine being Scott Dixon on the final lap of the last race in the IndyCar series at Joliet, Illinois, in September.

You're leading the Indy300, appear to have things well in hand and are set to win the title to sit with his 2003 crown.

Then you get that sinking feeling, the high-powered version of cough, splutter, die from the engine as the last drop of fuel sucks through the line.

That was the Aucklander's fate as he watched helplessly while Scot Dario Franchitti whizzed past to win the race and pinch the title by 1.844s.

It was Franchitti's first Indycar series title, and worth US$1 million ($1.27 million), but you'd suspect the money was the last thing in Dixon's mind at that point.

Franchitti led Dixon by three points going into the season finale. Both stopped to top off their fuel tanks during a yellow caution 54 laps from the end of the 200-lap race.

Dixon took the lead from teammate Dan Wheldon on lap 194 and seemed to be holding off Franchitti comfortably before the late mishap.

"Our car was clearly quicker all day," Dixon reflected.

"It wasn't our day. It's tough, man. We had the same amount of fuel, but we just didn't use it wisely I guess."

Sarah Walker

BMX rider

New Zealand has a Beijing Olympic medal hope most have never heard of. Indeed it's a safe bet it's not widely known BMX riding is on the Games programme for next August.

If all goes according to plan, Kawerau teenager Sarah Walker will open plenty of eyes in Beijing.

She is the reigning world women's champion after clinching the UCI ranking series at Victoria, Canada, in July.

Walker finished second in the Olympic 20-inch elite final to nail the title. She won her three motos (heats), was second in the quarter-finals, third in the semifinal and second behind Britain's Shanaze Reade in the final.

Just for good measure she won the 24-inch Cruiser class the following day.

Beijing will be BMX's Olympic debut. Walker, and New Zealand's leading male rider, Cambridge local Marc Willers, should be in the frame.

"She's got so much natural ability. What Sarah has done in BMX circles is massive," her Australian coach, Grant White, said. Walker is the pride of Kawerau, a Trident High School pupil taking on the world.

BMX uses a two-year qualifying period, running from last year's world champs to next year's worlds in China in May.

The women's Olympic field is 16. It is tempting fate to suggest qualifying should be straightforward, given Walker's talent, and her points accrued, and fate's fickle finger.

She began this season's international series with victory in Japan and has also had an easy win in the Pacific Oceania leg in Hamilton in October.

The signs are good.

Team New Zealand

Okay, okay, so the Auld Mug is not parked up somewhere near the Viaduct but at least Grant Dalton's mob gave good value for money in Valencia.

Team New Zealand won the Louis Vuitton challenger series, seeing off Italians Luna Rossa 5-0, and having removed hometown heroes Desafio Espanol 5-2 in the semifinal.

But Alinghi had their measure when the cup match began, eventually winning 5-2. The racing was invariably close, Team New Zealand had their chances but could not seal the deal.

Race seven went Alinghi's way by a mere second, as Team New Zealand performed a penalty turn just short of the finish.

But Team New Zealand defied the doubters who reckoned downwind boat speed would catch them out. Time and again, they asked searching questions of Brad Butterworth's team and it was a measure of Alinghi's ability, and sailing wherewithal, that they took the series out.

That final margin was appropriate because this was as different from the 2003 match - when the Swiss swallowed Team New Zealand 5-0 - as P class is to the America's Cup.

"It just wasn't meant to be," Dalton conceded. "Alinghi beat us fair and square."

Still, there's always next time ...

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