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Athletics: Hotshots on field and at play

Tom Walsh throws against the world’s best today at the Auckland Track Challenge because of his chutzpah as much as his skill, writes Andrew Alderson.

As the first shards of light pierced the Marlborough back country dawn on Tuesday, two giants shimmied down a hillside.

Each held a silencer-clad rifle, and their twinkle-toed stealth would have earned a nod of mute approval from the SAS.

New Zealander Tom Walsh and American Ryan Crouser, the respective bronze and gold shot put medallists at the Rio Olympics, were competing as usual, just like six months ago at the Games.

This time it was on a deer-stalking expedition organised by Destination Marlborough and Athletics New Zealand. Their crosshairs locked on a couple of does. Shots echoed through the valley. A mimicry of Barry Crump's Good Keen Man sorted out their next feed of venison.

There was no Rambo hollering or Deliverance banjos, just men, including fellow throwing rivals Ryan Whiting (US) and Damien Birkinhead (Australia), enjoying a spot of hunting before breakfast.

It was all blood, sweat and deer.

The party soon advanced on a river hut at a vineyard where debate ensued as to who shot what from Walsh and Crouser's grassy knoll.

"I've had a long six months of training," Crouser says. "This is a way to recharge the batteries by stepping away from the sport for a day or two and get out of the city."

Crouser grew up hunting and fishing around his hometown of Boring, Oregon.

"We don't have red stags back home so I wanted to come down and hunt them. We saw a few but couldn't get a shot on one. Still, it was great to get out and experience something new. I'd recommend it to anybody."

"It's been amazing to get these guys down here," Walsh says. "I think it shows that, as shot putters, we really get on well.

"We go out for dinner, spend hours talking trash to each other and debating things. We're away from home far too much not to enjoy each other's company.

"The hunting was amazing. It's a while since I tried to track down deer."

The throwers offer casual observers an appreciation on how strained life's logistics can become when the needle on the scales stretches beyond 120kg. A military exercise ensues each time they enter or exit a vehicle, and you'd better have a well-stocked fridge if you're hosting lunch. Strolling behind them along the Picton waterfront was like tracking a sleuth of bears.

Convincing such a stellar cast of male shot putters to visit reflects the industry clout Walsh wields.

The circumstances draw parallels to the bargaining power of Sir John Walker, Dick Quax and Rod Dixon as a running trio in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Walsh's breakthrough performance came when he earned bronze at the world indoor championships in Poland on March 7, 2014.

He was the first New Zealand male to secure a medal at the event.

Shortly afterwards, he told the Herald on Sunday: "If you told me I'd be in this position at the start of the year, I'd have said you were bat-shit crazy.

"Fingers crossed this is what I'll be doing every New Zealand winter for the next 10-15 years."

So it has proved to date.

Walsh enjoyed a seminal moment at the end of 2015: he had beaten every major competitor at some point in the season and won his maiden Diamond League meet in Brussels.

"I feel like I belong," he said at the time. "I know how I got there and how it felt. It's a lot easier once you've done it, and thrown consistently over 21m in the process. I don't want to be a blip in the ocean.

"Two years ago, I thought 'these guys are gods'. Last year, it was 'how the hell am I here?'

"This year, they're starting to respect me and believe I'm a threat. I've definitely made some mates, but I hate losing to them."

Walsh has built one of the sport's most consistent records with his 25th birthday looming on Wednesday.

He was crowned the overall Diamond League champion last year, earning US$40,000 ($55,800) to gild his other prize money and endorsement deals. Despite his rise to throwing stardom, he has refused to relinquish his tool belt at Mike Greer Homes in Christchurch. Seeking leave from work to contest major competitions suits him fine.

Walsh's gregarious nature builds trust with his rivals, but when he needs to turn camaraderie into competition, his focus is as steely as the 7.26kg ball he heaves for a living.

Observe his social media entries. One has him doing a dancing bear routine as he falls off a slack line rope designed to improve his balance; he topples off a mechanical bull at his Christmas work do; he somersaults while boinging between trampolines during a gymnastics session.

Walsh's charm came to the fore in Marlborough. A pre-dawn stop before the hunt prompted the query whether he could "have a nibble" on the homemade bacon 'n' egg pie packed by the mum of Athletics New Zealand events manager Gareth Archer; he held court from a beanbag during a tour of one of the region's local wine estates; and he gave an expert insight on a Sounds cruise into life as a builder and how houses are built without roads leading in (clue: helicopters).

He and Crouser share a mutual love of hunting; he and Whiting love swinging their golf clubs; he and Birkinhead bond as Antipodeans.

"He's a lot of fun," fellow 24-year-old Crouser says. "He always has something to say, he's a bit of a jokester, but we're good friends.

"Tom's one of those guys who can be making a joke a minute before he throws, then he turns into a different person who is zoned in."

Walsh became a New Zealand sporting pioneer with his penultimate 21.36m throw to secure bronze at Rio - the first Kiwi male to earn a medal in an Olympic field event in attempts stretching back to 1928 in Amsterdam.

The previous best New Zealand men's shot put result was Les Mills' seventh at Tokyo in 1964.

There were whispers Walsh's home city of Timaru might become Tomaru to celebrate his return.

He has joined a burgeoning stable of success stories within Athletics New Zealand, including fellow Olympic medallists Dame Valerie Adams, Nick Willis and Eliza McCartney. This generation ensured the sport was among the biggest winners in the pre-Christmas high performance funding round, going from a Tier 2 to Tier 1 core sport with a $375,000 increase to $2.6 million per annum.

After today, the focus for Walsh and his competitors, turns to August 6 and 7 in London when the next world champion will be crowned.

Don't bet against Walsh taking aim at another precedent.

- NZ Herald

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