Coach-athlete relationships come in a range of philosophies and styles — the martinet, the dispenser of cuddles and back slaps, the technical tutor.

In the case of Tom Walsh and Dale Stevenson, it's a couple of mates knocking about the world, climbing the shot put tree to the top. Or at least a step away from reaching the summit. Tokyo and the 2020 Olympics are beckoning like a winking beacon.

The Christchurch builder has won his last three world titles — two indoors at Portland, Oregon, in 2016, and Birmingham, England, this year, with the world outdoors in London last year sandwiched between.

Add in a bronze at the Rio Olympics, gold at the Commonwealth Games last month and owner of the biggest throw this year (22.67m in Auckland — the sixth longest ever and furthest since 2003), and Walsh is the most dominant figure in the sport. In the process, he has also become the leader in the pursuit of one of sport's oldest and more discredited world records, the 23.12m of disgraced American Randy Barnes set in 1990.


At his side has been his former rival Stevenson, whose last international meet for Australia was at the London Olympics, where he finished 25th. His relationship with Walsh goes back to around 2009, when the pair competed against each other, got on well and, once Stevenson stepped out of the throwing circle, the dynamic changed.

"We knew each other and there weren't that many people in this corner of the world who understood rotational shot and had followed it to a passionate level round the world," Stevenson said.

"We struck up a bit of a relationship, he came over and stayed with my wife and I in Melbourne and I'd help him out with some coaching."

Dale Stevenson. Photo / Photosport
Dale Stevenson. Photo / Photosport

For a time, it was nothing formal. That changed around 2014. Late that year, Stevenson relocated to New Zealand and oversaw projects leading up to Rio. As he put it, "one thing led to another".

Walsh is in Phoenix this weekend, competing at the Drake University annual event before heading to Oregon and the Prefontaine Classic meet, which he has never won.

Then it's on to Europe, a Diamond League meet in Oslo, a couple of other competitions in Poland and the Czech Republic before heading home for a break ahead of the end of the season.

Stevenson is home in Rangiora, the birth of a child not far away. But theirs is a relationship which has never involved being glued at the hip.

"Like all good relationships, you need time apart, and we've talked openly about the need to bring in other coaches so we get a healthy diversity in our team.


"The end game for me is to make myself redundant and Tom to be completely autonomous. Whether we get there is another question but it's an end point I'd like to aspire to, rather than having some co-dependence. It's a much healthier place to operate from and it seems to have worked for us thus far."

So what is the key to the relationship between two big men who still relish the days of leaping over school fences in Melbourne nine years ago for a bit of extra training?

Stevenson reckons it is built on trust and mutual respect. But given Walsh's status and having thrown much further than Stevenson did, it's not a coach "pouring information into the athlete bucket".

"I ran out of direct coaching information to pass on to Tom a long time ago. If I tried to come at it from an authoritarian perspective, it wouldn't work. The best thing we decided was I needed to get really good at asking questions, probing, and that's probably the foundation of our relationship.

"We don't have a written contract; we never will. I don't take a cent from Tom; never will. We're doing this because we want to and to build on some healthy foundations.

"That's probably the crux of what's enabled us to do what we've done. Even if the dollars and Diamond Leagues and trophies didn't stack up, I'd like to think we'd still be doing it because we love the sport."

They have bets on all sorts of things to add some fun, and have since their early days.

"We've had plenty of competitions over the years, whether throwing or on the golf course. It keeps it fun for us and that's why we do it.

"I wouldn't be misquoting Tom to say that while he loves winning medals, he also loves beating me," Stevenson quipped. "We are fortunate now to have high performance centres and government funding but if you took it all away, we'd still probably be doing this. It's a cool little trajectory we've been on."