Athletics: The teen who would be shot put king

By Chris Rattue

Jacko Gill has an incredible gift for throwing and an old-school determination to be the best. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Jacko Gill has an incredible gift for throwing and an old-school determination to be the best. Photo / Steven McNicholl

One of Jacko Gill's missions is to turn shot-put, the behemoths' playpen, into an elegant sport.

And the remarkable thing about this rising sports phenomenon is that, at the age of just 16, he's already well on the way to achieving that and more, including taking charge of the world record and standing atop the Olympic dais, perhaps by next year.

This is a case of David trying to put Goliath out of business and the teenager from Devonport has got the brutes on the run.

At an age when most kids are lugging their school bags around, Gill has hurled the 7.26kg shot-put past the Olympic qualifying mark, staggering seasoned athletics observers as he jumped to a world ranking of 14.

He still has to qualify during the official period, which begins tomorrow, but that looks a cinch.

So New Zealand has a new athletics star to rival Olympic legends of old - Peter Snell, John Walker et al.

When Gill's throw landed a touch past the 20m mark at North Harbour's Sovereign Stadium last Saturday, smashing his personal best training throw of 19.1m, it was as if the reverberations carried to the United States and all the other Olympic he-man havens. Some leading coaches are telling their charges they need to go the speedy Jacko way.

While he remained a New Zealand sporting secret of sorts, plenty had twigged to what was being launched from the family's Auckland home. Usain Bolt, the world's greatest sprinter, raced to congratulate Gill at a meeting in Sweden last year, recognition that he had removed Bolt from the record books as the youngest world junior champion.

I met Jacko at home three days after the 20m throw.

Sitting around the dining room table, his father, Walter, sketched out Jacko's career while mum Nerida filled in details as I waited for Jacko to emerge.

The family warmth was obvious, the atmosphere so relaxed and inviting it was hard to imagine that somewhere in the house lurked an incredible young hulk who may chuck the not-always-pretty history of drug-tainted shot-put into oblivion.

Both parents were brought up in these parts, and were also national throwing champions, Walter in the shot and discus, and Nerida (nee Morris) with the discus.

As I listened for the sound of heavy footsteps, Walter emphasised how small Jacko was, but size is a comparative business.

At 1.9m and 97kg, Jacko Gill is no slip of a lad.

"I was pretty happy with that throw, more in shock really," he says of the 20.01m effort last Saturday.

"But it wasn't the perfect throw, there is still a lot more there, so it's quite neat to know that as well."

More, more, more might be the Jacko motto.

He played all sorts of sport - basketball, soccer, karate, boxing, ran the 100m in 11.5s as a 14-year-old and could leap like a gazelle into the long jump pit.

What emerges is the story of a kid with an incredible gift for throwing things, a supportive family with a sporting background and, most importantly, a young man's old-school dedication, to put Jacko's attitude mildly.

THE BEST place to start is at Sovereign Stadium, at a primary school cricket ball throwing competition, when the 8-year-old biffed the cherry 56m, the next best being 32m.

"I think my arm speed is a gift," he says in his humble and down-to-earth manner that avoids false modesty.

His 20-year-old sister Ayla is an A-plus business student in Texas, and also a fine athlete who finished sixth in the hammer throw at last year's world junior championships in Canada where Jacko won gold.

The family used to head down to the nearby Navy fields with a variety of objects for a good throwing and kicking session - a shot-put, discus, rugby, tennis or soccer ball, you name it.

The mission: endless attempts at personal bests during what the burly Walter calls "family sports days".

The rewards for those long ago PBs have gone way further than the icecreams won at the time.

Walter laid a concrete shot-put circle at his old family home, and Jacko's career took flight.

From the age of 10, Jacko and his father checked websites to see the distances youngsters around the world were throwing the shot.

Little could those heaving kids in the US, Australia and elsewhere know that their progress was being tracked in a location not known for producing world class field athletes, and their prospects were not good.

Jacko was killing them, from afar.

The father and son were already eyeing the world stage and world records. The family home took a more purposeful shape.

The formal dining room became a weight room, and no one has dared try to claim it back.

A large corner of a large garage was commandeered as the main weight room - it houses commercial exercise machines and a stout, wooden home-made bench.

This is the bunker from which Jacko plans his assault.

Fanatical might best describe his approach.

Fluorescent lights have been demolished as weights fly skywards. This week, a 20kg dumbbell went spinning into Walter's pink - sorry, Tahitian coral - 1956 Buick convertible, after a training move went awry.

The average day involves two weight training sessions of two hours each, where the boy with the golden arm mixes up athletic drills and power plays. His parents take turns transporting him to the Millennium Institute each day for a half-hour throwing session.

The relentless regime goes all hours. Walter and Nerida are quite happy to be woken regularly around 1am to the sound of their son doing hopping exercises on the internal stairs.

Jacko says their timing is out - he is often bounding about until 3am.

THE GARAGE PB board sports a rough written order that he train hard and never give up, as if there was any chance of that.

"No one ever has to tell me to train - I just enjoy it," he says.

The less you tell Jacko the better.

His coach, Frenchman Didier Poppe, has been asked to leave Jacko to his own devices.

Poppe's training concepts are duly considered but only alongside a lot of other information that Jacko has moulded into his own training programme.

"I lift by myself, I never train with my coach," says Jacko. "I'm quite focused and independent. I like to do stuff on my own. It's just the way I am. I like to train, not talk.

"I'm quite dominant over my training programme - if I do bad then it's my fault and if I do well it's not my coach's fault, if you know what I mean."

He is on red alert into the wee hours, thinking about any upcoming competitions.

"I stay up every night for hours and hours, thinking about it - you train for six hours-plus every day and when it comes to the moment you always get nervous but whenever I compete I know something good is going to happen," he says.

While Jacko might see every competition day as D-Day, his parents take to the liferafts in a controlled evacuation.

"He's laid back but don't dare interfere with his sport," says Walter.

"He'll let people like his friends into his world but then comes the time when you have to leave.

"You just don't want to be around him on competition days. The atmosphere is unliveable. He excels in competition and he builds himself up to those amazing performances.

"The look on his face - it's just too uncomfortable to be around.

"We go out at seven in the morning for breakfast, brunch, see the sights, and then come back when it's time to pick him up.

"Basically, you don't say anything in the car - if he wants anything then he will say something. That's the way it's always been."

You might ask how school fits in with all this. Not very well, is the correct answer.

There probably hasn't been a turning point but, if there was, it came during a national championship in Timaru as a career path appeared before him while the 5kg shot went hurtling towards the world under-15 record.

This was when schoolwork picked up the silver medal and trudged off towards retirement. Takapuna Grammar allowed him to train in study periods.

The family look a little sheepish about this subject, but at the end of 2010, Walter and Nerida let Jacko quit school after his Year 11.

"It's not a decision parents want to make, but we saw his dedication and realised he had something to offer the world," says Walter, before Nerida adds: "If he wanted to qualify for London he really had to step up the training."

Time for a quick breather. I'd assumed, by this point, that the only wee hobby Gill ever had time for was a bit of school work. Wrong.

He has three pet lizards who peer out from glass cages in his bedroom, all prehistoric-like, as their caregiver plots to become the greatest athlete in the most ancient of sports.

Nerida reveals that the pets don't stop there.

"Jacko loves animals - he's got two turtles outside as well," Nerida says.

There's a feeling of calm among the relaxed animals, although that had been disturbed that very morning.

Sports drug testers arrived, for the ninth time in his young career.

He used to peer out at the world, now the world is peering back.

Many emails arrive, to coach Poppe as well, with accusations about performance-enhancing drugs.

"It's a compliment really," says Jacko.

Walter says: "With Jacko's performances he's probably getting nailed for tests more than the others, because people can't believe what he's doing, but all these [clean] tests are actually good insurance for us."

Block your ears lizards - another horribly modern subject ... money.

A protein powder company has been among his loyal supporters. Athletics New Zealand is now on board, covering two thirds of the costs. This side of his life should take care of itself with sharp management.

"It cost $28,000 one year, before he was even going overseas," says Walter. He owns a concrete construction company and Nerida is a part-time caregiver for children.

Walter adds: "Jacko hates talking about money, although in saying that, he just hops on a plane and doesn't see the money passing hands."

ENOUGH ABOUT drugs and money.

Jacko believes he can win gold, at the age of 17, at next year's London Olympics and break the 21-year-old world record of 23.12m in the process. Poland's Tomasz Majewski won the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a throw of 21.51m.

If he does win gold, Jacko Gill will be an utter sensation of Bolt-plus proportions. A 17-year-old winning the Olympic shot-put - that would be a story for the ages. Any medal would be stunning.

"Most of the guys are getting quite old - they are in their 30s," says Gill of his rivals.

"I met them all in Stockholm - they were really nice to me and I respect them too. They are great throwers and athletes.

"The world champ [American Christian Cantwell] is nearly 2m tall and 140-150kg. A few others are shorter guys but they are still around 130kg.

"I want to turn shot-put into an elegant sport, not one that is all about these massive guys. I want to change the perception of shot-put."

The Goliaths are on notice - a stone may be about to fly past them.

- NZ Herald

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