Ryan Ballantyne hurled the 5kg shot a mighty 21.66m at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Track, Field and Road Championships in Auckland earlier this month for a world-leading under-18 mark. Steve Landells speaks to the teenager from Te Awamutu about his journey so far and his exciting plans for the future.
If Kenya is home to the world's greatest distance runners and Jamaica the planet's leading sprinters, then in more recent times New Zealand could be viewed with some validity as the home of the shot put.
Led by double Olympic champion and seven-time World gold medallist (four outdoor and three indoor) Valerie Adams and in more recent times by the accomplishments of Olympic bronze medallist Tom Walsh and former World Youth and World Junior champion Jacko Gill the talent stocks in the shot in the land of the long white cloud are the envy of many.
Yet at a sun-drenched Douglas Track and Field in Waitakere earlier this month, 17-year-old Ryan Ballantyne revealed that the conveyor belt of talent is showing no signs of drying up as he added more than a metre-and-a-half on his lifetime best to hurl the 5kg metal ball 21.66m.
It was impressive. The St Paul's Collegiate student had not only shattered his PB but also added 15cm on to the previous world leading mark of Greek Odisseas Mouzendis. He had emerged as a rising force, which within days had captured the interest of a TV3 reporter.
"It was a massive competition for me and I was aware of what the world lead was," admits Ryan, who five times during the course of the competition exceeded his previous 5kg PB of 20.04m. "It was massive to get over that mark, but I always set no limitations on myself. "After that throw (achieved in round two) I probably got a little too excited and threw a little too aggressively. I was really pleased for my whole team because we are all working towards the same goal."
Raised on a dairy farm in Te Awamutu, he started his athletics life as a sprinter before turning to shot and aged 13 he joined the Hamilton City Hawks AC, where he was guided by Kevin Bradley. In 2014 he secured his first New Zealand Secondary Schools title and the following year qualified for his first major international competition at the IAAF World U18 Championships in Cali, Colombia.
Unfortunately, in the red-hot heat of global competition he under-performed, throwing a best of 18.21m - more than a metre down on his best - to finish 21st.
"Putting on the Black Singlet (in Colombia) was an amazing feeling, but when I walked out to the arena and thousands of people were cheering, I lost the general plan of what I was there to do. I was also put off my stride by the size of the other throwers, many of whom were 30kg heavier than me!"
Yet crucially he refused to be fazed by the experience, and on his return to New Zealand he was determined to use the disappointment as motivation for the future and on the back of his World U18 experience he made some big changes.
First up, he left his long-time coach, Kevin Bradley, to link with Athletics NZ High Performance Throws Co-ordinator Dale Stevenson - coach to Tom Walsh. It was a far from easy decision, but one which he insists he needed to make to further his career.
"Kevin taught me all I knew and had given me a great foundation in the basics, but I knew it was time to make that choice," explains Ryan.
"Dale has a lot of experience and knowledge to pass on and I am constantly learning. We have worked on technical, strength and power periods, but what Dale has introduced me to during the tapering period before a big competition is to completely drop technique and simply focus on aggression."
As Dale is based in Christchurch, it was decided in the wake of the 2015 IAAF World U18 Championships for Ryan to adopt a locally-based strength and conditioning coach and so he started working with Michiel Badenhorst, who is based out of St Paul's Collegiate.
He describes the South African-born coach as having done an "amazing job" and adds: "In many ways everyone can do the core movements, but where he has been very good is with those specific movements to being a rotational thrower. He definitely knows his stuff."
Another learning he took from the World U18 Championships was that he needed to put on weight to compete with the very best. In the past 18 months, Ryan has piled on 10kg and now weighs in at 104kg - a feat achieved with no little help from his sponsor Chop Chop! Chicken.
"I'm fortunate to have Davies Foods as a sponsor as they supply me with a constant supply of Chop Chop! chicken, which is high in protein and Loaded sports drinks which enhances and regulates the hydration of the body." says Ryan, who celebrates his 18th birthday in January. "Chicken is by far my favourite meat. It is so easy to cook and throw on some rice."
With a new technical coach and strength and conditioning coach on board he saw some immediate gains last summer. He secured the 2015 New Zealand Secondary Schools title and earlier this year the National U20 crown and a bronze - behind Tom and Jacko - in the senior event at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Dunedin.
He set PB's for the 5kg (19.61m) 6kg (17.94m) and 7.26kg (16.04m) but returned to winter training determined to perform better and around four weeks before the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Waitakere he started to feel like he was throwing with greater zip.
In West Auckland he then met his rising expectations with his blockbusting 21.66m effort, but he is not resting on his laurels and in the New Year he is moving south to be based in Christchurch to work alongside his coach, Dale, where he will also train alongside Tom.
For some the move to the South Island would seem a daunting move, but for Ryan it is a no-brainer.
"Dale and Tom are both Olympians," says Ryan, who hopes to take on a part-time role in the building industry. "They are also great lads and I'm constantly learning from them, but they never let me become big headed and bring me back down to earth. I have a good relationship with both and I enjoy all the sessions. Tom is a world-class athlete, and although he is very humble he is also very confident in what he does."
Ryan is also looking forward to working with a technical coach on a daily basis - as opposed to remotely or only occasionally while he was living in the Waikato. However, he still intends to retain Michiel as his strength and conditioning coach.
For the rest of the summer, Ryan hopes to target The Big Shot event in Christchurch in February and the NZ Track & Field Championships in Hamilton in March. Yet with no major international target in 2017 he is already looking ahead to 2018.
"That will be a big year for me with my main focus the World U20 Championships (in Tampere, Finland) and I'll also have in the back of mind the Commonwealth Games," he says
By that point it could just be New Zealand boasts a third top quality international shot putter to sit alongside Tom and Jacko.
But why does Ryan enjoy the event so much?
"I love the fact you are facing yourself as much as you are facing your rivals," he explains. "I also love the fact that putting all the hard yards in the gym and in the shot circle can reap rewards."