Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Athletics: The power behind the thrown

After multiple world records and titles, Jacko Gill has rarely been sighted in the past 18 months. Andrew Alderson catches up with the shot putter.

The key advice shot putter Jack Gill has gleaned as he ventures into the elite ranks is 'be patient'. Photo / APN
The key advice shot putter Jack Gill has gleaned as he ventures into the elite ranks is 'be patient'. Photo / APN

Witnessing a Jacko Gill training session feels like a throwback to television's Six Million Dollar Man.

He is a physical tour de force, a teenage colossus, a precocious talent. At 1.92m, 118kg and 19-years-old, Gill appears capable of turning his hand to anything, much like when Lee Majors put his bionic powers to community use as Steve Austin on telly in the 1980s.

Need a rugby ball drop-kicked from halfway? No problem. What about leaping 1.1m hurdles in stationary bounds? Easy peasy. Want someone to dispatch a shot put further than anyone his age? Gill's your man.

Many are aware of his physical feats from the training videos he posts on social media. Any promotions agency would be proud to have commissioned them.

Gill is performer, choreographer and director. What you don't see behind the wall of brawn and bravado is a reserved and courteous individual who simply wants to do things his way.

He's experienced the odd glancing blow from officialdom as a repercussion, especially before the London Olympics which Gill eventually didn't attend.

Rehabilitation from a series of injuries means he'll debut in a senior black singlet at next month's Commonwealth Games, renewing his rivalry with New Zealand's indoor world championship bronze medallist Tom Walsh.

This week, Gill had a conditioning session with New Zealand's greatest decathlete, Roy Williams. Williams, the 1966 Commonwealth Games champion, remains a formidable athlete at 79.

He participates with Gill and his 11-year-old training partner Kaia Tupu-South in their warm-ups and offers measured advice.

Gill's mum Nerida, a former national discus champion, is also involved. She sprints on the spot with her son, coaxes him through stationery leaps and maintains his medal and trophy collection on the lizard tank at home.

His dad Walter, a double national shot put champion who runs a concrete construction company, also plays his part.He built the gym Jacko uses in the basement of the family's North Shore home.

Throwing great Sir Les Mills offers mentoring advice and Val Adams' former trainer Kirsten Hellier is his coach.

The key advice Gill has gleaned as he ventures into the elite ranks is, be patient. "The easy improvements he's made to date will be more incremental," Williams says.

"There will be hard luck stories with injuries but he's just got to keep working away, gaining centimetres at a time over 10 years." Mills endorses that view.

"Jacko's a charming fellow and he will always be competitive, given his wonderful record through the junior and youth ranks, but there are plenty of people in the mix for medals in Glasgow.

"I tell him he's got to take a few years to adapt to the senior environment. Don't be too disappointed with failure. Just realise the transition is difficult into the top group of those throwing more than 21m. He could definitely be an Olympic champion."

Gill seems to be listening. "I'm not rushing anything," he says. "I'm trying to be sensible by keeping my injuries under control without giving in to external pressures.

"Kirsten and I are working to a plan where I'm not going to give in to the demands of the Diamond League where I might waste myself too early.

I've just had my doctor's screening for the Commonwealth Games and I feel totally healthy.

"I try to do explosive lifts in training so I don't end up with dead muscle. Some people do bicep curls but I've never done those. It's always about exercises which can be applied to my sport.

"Flinging medicine balls or hammering a sledgehammer into tyres is good. Anything where you're moving weight fast. I'm just amazed the neighbours have never asked me to stop because of the noise."

Gill also knows there's nothing he can do about the demon of the discipline - the drug culture - other than stay clean and stick to a plan which has seen him pick up world records and championships at youth and junior level.

"It's frustrating but you know you're not doing it," he says. "That's all you can deal with. I know if I put in the work, I can break these records. I believe in myself. I know I can do it. I want to do myself and New Zealand proud."

Gill is aware of the perceived rivalry with Walsh after the Cantabrian beat him in their first senior duel at March's national championships.

Gill says it's not about creating a gladiatorial battle. "It's not like boxing where it's one-on-one.

You're throwing a ball to see how far it'll go. It's not even really a rivalry because you compete against yourself first.

Of course, I want to beat Tom and he wants to beat me. And he has. But I'm looking at how good I could be in four to five years.

" Walsh,who set the national record of 21.26m at this year's world indoor championships in Poland, sees it differently.

"It's definitely a rivalry for me," he says. "Without Jacko, I wouldn't be throwing as well as I am. He's a phenomenal athlete at such a young age. The big question is, how much can he improve in the next few years?


Jacko Gill in action. Photo / APN

"I know he wasn't up to his usual high standards at the nationals but having us throwing against each other is massive for the sport in New Zealand.

" Gill's capacity to achieve athletic feats has never been in question. This was once a boy who, even at five, would head to the local park to compete with his family. He would throw a cricket ball, boot a soccer or rugby ball and, with the lure of an ice-cream, heave a shot put. By the time he was eight, he could throw a cricket ball 56m. By 10, he'd kicked a soccer ball 70m to score a goal in an age-group competition. By 11, he launched a 'shot put marathon' when he completed almost 500 throws and had his dad nip out for some band aids midway through because he'd skinned the tips of his fingers.

The seed of Olympic gold and world-record dreams had been planted. Gill proves a mellow interview subject, as he sits with the weak winter sun reflecting off his white singlet-he rarely dons a jersey because he "doesn't feel the cold".

He considers each question carefully as if it were a tin-laden barbell, then raises his opinion before depositing it to one side.

There's a similar propensity for politeness and courtesy in his training regime when dealing with failure. He doesn't appear to get angry if he knocks over a hurdle or fails to start his sprints effectively.

Gill's also a willing listener, asking Williams to remind him about golfer Gary Player's mantra - "the more I practise, the luckier I get" - and negotiating to borrow the scrapbooks of Williams' Olympic gold medallist sister Yvette, which detail her experiences of the then-Empire Games at Auckland in 1950 and Vancouver in 1954.

Outside sport, Gill engages in some quirky hobbies. He's tweeted pictures of himself in action with a metal detector and has lizards as pets but his favourite pastime is growing chillies to sell.

"I spend two to three hours a day looking after my chillies. I have hundreds of plants. "I got into it when I bought one as a Mother's Day present last year. A few days later, it started growing its first chilli and I was fascinated so I pinched it off mum and started looking after it myself. Then I started buying seeds off Ebay and Trademe and it's become a bit of an obsession."

So much so, Gill even 'leases' a spot for 20 plants on the windowsill of his parents' bedroom because it gets the best of the winter sun.

"I like hot food, so I made up a chilli seasoning. I smoked the chillies, threw some other ingredients in there,and made a powder. I chuck it in my stir fry every Monday night. It adds a bit of heat but it's beautiful. Stir fry's my favourite ... and steak." Otherwise, Gill enjoys the solitude of training in his basement gym where much of the video content is recorded.

"You're alone and it's peaceful but I've tried to cut out the habit of doing it at all hours. I try to finish by 10pm these days. It sure gets the adrenaline going, though, when you've got no-one to spot [weights for] you. If you fail, you're in trouble. It helps when creating PBs [personal bests]," he laughs.

"I haven't improved my personal bests [221kg bench press and 250kg squat] since the last video but I've got more testing next week before I leave for the Commonwealth Games so I'll update them online. I've been amazed by the views and the feedback they've had. I found the response unbelievable."

Much like Gill's athletic career to date.

- NZ Herald

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