Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is a NZ Herald’s chief sports reporter

Athletics: Shotput rivals set for Wellington showdown

Gill and Walsh shaping up as best match-up in NZ athletics for 50 years.

Jacko Gill. Photo / Getty Images
Jacko Gill. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand athletics has waited a long time for a rivalry like it.

Next weekend's shotput showdown between the junior star Jacko Gill, the Devonport dynamo who enjoyed phenomenal success at an early age but is now experiencing growing pains as he steps up to the senior ranks, and Timaru's Tom Walsh, the quiet achiever who is finally reaping the rewards for his years of hard work, is the most anticipated athletics match-up in 50 years.

The pair will go head-to-head for the first time since December 2011 when they meet at the national track and field championships in Wellington next Saturday.

On that occasion a 16-year-old Gill shattered his own New Zealand senior record, throwing more than 1.5m further than Walsh.

But since then a lot has changed for both athletes.

Much like the optimum trajectory of the shotput, Gill enjoyed a steep ascent early on his career, but his progress has levelled out as he makes the difficult transition from the 6kg shot to the 7.26kg senior weight. His throw of 20.38m on that balmy evening in 2011 remains his personal best.

Walsh, meanwhile, took some tough knocks as a junior but has continued chipping away in the sport and the rewards have come.

He took the New Zealand record off Gill in December last year, before announcing his arrival on the international scene with a bronze medal at the world indoor championships in Poland this month.

His throw of 21.26m extended his national record and easily met the Commonwealth Games "A" qualifying standard.

Since Walsh eclipsed Gill's record four months ago, little has been seen or heard of the 19-year-old star.

The teen has gone to ground as the pressure of his looming battle with his Canterbury rival and the frustration of his stalled progress has placed him under huge strain. But his few public statements have added even more intrigue to the upcoming battle.

This month Gill posted a video montage of his outrageous, high-octane training sessions.

In the YouTube clip, the strapping 118kg youngster is seen bounding over hurdles, squatting 250kg and doing one-arm shoulder presses, before bizarrely staring down the camera as he eats a raw chilli without flinching.

It was meant to send out a strong statement that Gill is in top shape ahead of the nationals, but his father Walter then cast doubt over that when he said in a radio interview this week that his son was suffering a groin strain. Gill later took to Twitter to refute the suggestion.

"Just so everyone knows I'm completely injury-free ... Even if I was injured I'd still be in Wellington," Gill tweeted.

The feeling outside the camp is Gill probably is suffering from a minor groin strain, but he refuses to acknowledge any weakness before the battle.

Tom Walsh. Photo / NZ Herald
Tom Walsh. Photo / NZ Herald

That stubbornness and determination to compete very much sums up Gill as an athlete, says 1966 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Roy Williams, who has been assisting the young star with his conditioning for the past few months.

"He's very much his own person, and has been throughout his career. He does things his way, despite the fact he's still a teenager," says Williams.

There are some in athletics circles who consider Gill's self-directed approach sneeringly. They see his rejection of Athletics New Zealand's high performance systems and insistence on designing his own programmes as either foolishness or arrogance.

Others say why should Gill conform to a system that does not suit him? After all, his unusual training methods made him one of the most gifted teenage athletes in the history of New Zealand athletes and served him pretty well up until this point.

But with his progress stalled over the past two years as he makes the step up to the 7.26kg shot, there seems to be growing recognition from Gill that he can't continue to do things the way he always has.

Last month, he announced a change to his coaching and management team, bringing on new coach Kirsten Hellier - the woman who took Valerie Adams to the top - athletics great Les Mills as manager, and Williams.

The latter says Gill approached him after seeing him coach a couple of young athletes at the Takapuna Athletics club "where Jacko has been a member since basically as soon as he could walk".

"He didn't say as much, but I had a feeling he possibly over-emphasised his weight training at the expense of his mobility and general fitness," the former decathlete says.

With Gill insisting on keeping a low profile before his impending showdown, those in his camp have been reluctant to speak publicly about the youngster's recent form.

Williams, who believes the Gill-Walsh battle is the greatest in New Zealand athletics rivalry since the decade-long discus battle between Mills and Robin Tait in the 1960s and 70s, says the next 12 months loom as a critical time in Gill's development as he faces the toughest mental challenge of his career.

"Rightly or wrongly, the guy is totally committed, and has been totally committed since he was in his early teens, to doing nothing else but weightlifting and throwing the shot.

"I think he realises he is just joining the big men, the senior ranks, and he's got to be patient. He's not going to be getting the massive improvement he has over the last three to four years and he's got to look at the long-term programme and be satisfied with small and incremental improvements rather than the massive improvements he's had up to this point.

"Tom Walsh has certainly set the standard, and it is going to take a mighty effort from Jacko to beat him [next weekend]."

- NZ Herald

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