Jacko Gill, the world junior shot put star who has battled to make a mark at senior level, admits he has had to emerge from some "not very nice places".

A life threatening illness and series of injuries had halted a career already stalling in the senior ranks.

At his lowest point, the 24-year-old Gill was confined to bed, unable to even go fishing let alone train and perform to the level which saw him usurp Usain Bolt as the youngest ever world junior athletics champion, at the age of 15.

It was a dramatic fall, from the days when Gill's training regime made him a YouTube star.

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Fair to say that Gill, who has already qualified for this year's world athletics championships in Qatar, has undergone a major turnaround.

Despite yet another — if comparatively minor — setback this week, it is a very positive and enthused Gill who sat down for an interview with the NZ Herald at his family's Devonport home.

"I'm so grateful for being able to do what I do now," he says, reflecting on the life-threatening heart condition which struck just 15 months ago.

"We are getting into this with the belief we can win a medal at the world championships, the Olympics. We are in it for the long haul. I do believe I can be the best in the world."

It has been some tale of woe.

His first Olympic appearance at Rio in 2016 was hampered by a foot fracture, as he finished ninth. Groin tears struck the next year, due to what Gill calls a faulty throwing technique.

Jacko Gill during the international athletics challenge in west Auckland this month. Photo / Photosport
Jacko Gill during the international athletics challenge in west Auckland this month. Photo / Photosport

Far worse was to follow in late 2017.

While heading to training at North Harbour's Millennium Stadium, he vomited in his car. With "no respect for my body" he put in an eight hour training stint, still feeling ill. Unrelated heart twinges, stemming back to 2011, may have helped fool him.

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The next day, Gill drove to his doctor in tremendous pain, and was rushed to hospital where he stayed for 12 days.

"They found symptoms of a heart attack, raised troponin levels...above normal heart attack level," he says.

It turned out he had myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, usually caused by a viral infection.

"When the body is run down the virus has a free path, takes your body, takes your heart," says Gill.

Jacko Gill in the Shot Put at the Sir Graeme Douglas International Track Challenge. 21 March 2019. Photo / Photosport.co.nz
Jacko Gill in the Shot Put at the Sir Graeme Douglas International Track Challenge. 21 March 2019. Photo / Photosport.co.nz

"It is common amongst young sports people. It doesn't run in the family and the other good news is I'll be as good as new, with no long term effects."

It has been a road back to fitness dotted with major potholes.

Initially, Gill refused to accept the seriousness of the condition, and still planned to compete at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games by training but avoiding weightlifting.

He felt it was his time to shine, and there were high performance funding considerations.

But a meeting with leading cardiologist Rob Doughty finally persuaded the dogged young man to change his mind, and his parents Walter and Nerida — former top athletes — weighed in with a story about someone they knew who had died of myocarditis.

"I love sport, love competing - I wanted to be out there so bad," says Gill.

"Rob Doughty said I would risk permanent damage. Specialists told me I would be risking my life.

"My purpose for waking up every day was to train to get better and that was taken away. I did get very low.

"When you go through changes like that, you do suffer. I went through some not very nice places.

Jacko Gill competing at the Potts Classic athletics meeting in 2017. Photo / Warren Buckland
Jacko Gill competing at the Potts Classic athletics meeting in 2017. Photo / Warren Buckland

"I've always used my body - suddenly I couldn't do anything. Not even long walks or ride a bike.

"I had to stay in bed or sit down, sleep as much as possible. I couldn't even go fishing — I was very nervous about the pain coming back and being far away from hospital."

His parlous state was symbolised by a young man who could bench press 250kg in his prime gingerly putting 20kg on the bar. He wasn't allowed to get his heart over 90bpm.

He slowly reversed the downward mental spiral, initially helped by a sports psychiatrist. He started writing weights programmes for a couple of other people, did light work at his father's concrete construction company, and began writing a comeback plan.

But after eight months of rest, that comeback was hit by a pectoral injury suffered while trying a new bench press machine for the first time.

And this week, while in the middle of a 72-hour body-cleansing fast, he had three lipoma (fatty tissue lumps) removed from his upper body, requiring a 10 day break from full training.

But Team Gill — he has a group of seven including coach Kirsten Hellier and strength/conditioning specialist Angus Ross — is buoyant.

This month, he pipped the world championship qualification mark of 20.70m then finished close to Kiwi great Tom Walsh with a 20.76m throw at the international challenge in west Auckland.

Unlike Walsh, the world number one who can pick and choose where he competes, Gill must play the game in terms of finding the ideal European events to compete in as his comeback gathers speed.

Olympic athlete portrait. New Zealand shot put Jacko Gill - Rio Olympics. 16 June 2016 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Brett Phibbs.
Olympic athlete portrait. New Zealand shot put Jacko Gill - Rio Olympics. 16 June 2016 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Brett Phibbs.

His IAAF-authorised agent, a former Ukrainian thrower Valentina Fedjuschina who is based in Portugal, handles that. It is a tricky balance of making money — she gets 15 per cent — and earning ranking points which will get him into the Olympics and glamorous Diamond League events.

A new IAAF ranking system gives greater weighting to more important competitions, so the landscape has changed a bit. However Gill believes he will reach the automatic Olympic qualification mark of 21.10m between this May and June next year.

The comeback takes a step up at the Oceania championships at Townsville in late June, where his main competition will be the Aussie thrower Damien Birkinhead.

Then it is off to Europe for three months and a New Zealand camp in Cyprus to prepare for the world championship in Doha.

As in 2017 — when he finished ninth at the London world championships — it means a lot of travel and much of it alone although coach Hellier will join him for a few weeks.

The travel, and the wheeling and dealing which goes on below the highest echelons, is something Gill says he revels in.

He is still a little reticent about straining the pectoral injury area, and his famed bench pressing capability is way down. Elsewhere, his levels are as good if not better than ever.

Using his speed and keeping his weight around the 115kg mark are central to the plan.

"I have twice the amount of motivation - I'm so hungry for it," says Gill.

"Even after the junior years, I had a bit of a rough time, didn't reach my potential.

"As a junior, I wrote my own weight programme, and because of the success I struggled to change my approach. Someone might say the world champ is doing it this way, but I wouldn't listen.

"It took something like this — failure — to realise I shouldn't have shut myself off. Angus is great for me and Kirsten, because he challenges what we do.

"I used to be pretty stubborn. Now all options are open. We are thinking outside the box. There have been some good signs in training.

"In competition, a bad throw is going 20.60m instead of 19.60m. There's no limit to what we can throw.

"And yes, a lot of people wrote me off, which is just more motivation to prove them wrong."