Weeks after beating the world’s best shot putters, Tom Walsh is back at work on Christchurch building sites

While Usain Bolt fraternised at a Miami nightclub and Mo Farah indulged in celebrity football, another Olympic athletics medal prospect was on the end of a jackhammer going to war against slabs of concrete at a Christchurch building site.

Tom Walsh is on the cusp of becoming New Zealand's finest male shot putter at next year's Rio Games.

Les Mills finished seventh at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Walsh finished fourth at the world championships but beat every major international competitor across the 2015 season, meaning his chances of challenging Mills are high.

The 23-year-old also became the first New Zealand man to win a Diamond League meet, recording 21.39m in Brussels last month, and set a 21.62m personal best in Zagreb.


Despite his growing reputation as one of the world's leading shot putters on a lucrative track and field scene, he has returned to work for loyal employers Mike Greer Homes during summer.

"I'm under no illusions," Walsh says. "Most people don't realise how well you've done or what something like fourth at the world championships means. Say I was an All Black and came back to building, it'd be like I was a god. It's just good for me to get back and do some hard labour."

Walsh finds the work helps his conditioning. He's already dropped 3kg to 123kg, which is expected to make his first training block of the season easier, and he loves getting his hands dirty working towards a building apprenticeship. He hopes to complete his final two modules, exterior cladding and site set out, before he returns to the US and Europe in May in the build-up to Rio.

"The first two days we were chipping concrete and that was fun. It forced the ol' hands to harden up," Walsh chuckles. "Mike [Greer] has been outstanding keeping my job open, whereas many bosses might say, 'this is ridiculous'."

There is no shortage of construction around Christchurch. Walsh is working at sites in Halswell, Merivale and Sumner where the banter is rife and keeps him grounded.

"One bloke says if I win gold at Rio, he'll let me order him around the site for two days on return but, if not, it'll be the same old, same old.

"Another gag is for someone to yell out, 'Hey Jacko, do you mind passing me the hammer?'," in reference to Walsh's Kiwi rival Jacko Gill, who also made the world championships final. It's all about ensuring he doesn't get a pneumatic ego on the back of a jetset lifestyle which saw him flit through locales such as New York, Lausanne and Monaco. However, Walsh is not at the level of Bolt, Farah or shot put contemporaries Joe Kovacs, David Storl or Tomasz Majewski, who can command appearance fees.

"I haven't won enough medals or done enough time," Walsh says. "I don't get paid until I compete, so that puts more pressure on and therefore means a lot more if I pull it off."


A Diamond League win netted Walsh US$10,000 on a payscale which filters to US$1000 for eighth, plus there's generally an IAAF US$800 supplement for accommodation and travel. He also gets support from a burgeoning list of sponsors and should pocket a pre-tax $47,500 from High Performance Sport New Zealand for his world championship performance, his pinnacle event of the season.

However, travelling across Europe comes with expenses.

"I'm earning more but I estimate I spent $50,000 away for four-and-a-half months with the flights, rental cars and accommodation. It's a hell of a cost before you break even. But if you want anything world-class in athletics, that's what you have to do."

The confidence and experience Walsh gained in his first full year of professionalism should serve him well in the Rio cauldron next August.

Psychologically, he ranks beating every competitor on the circuit as more significant than the Diamond League win or his personal bests.

"I feel like I belong. 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."