The Herald continues its series on 12 Kiwi athletes or teams to keep an eye on at the Games - whether for their medal potential, rapid global rise, or captivating road to Tokyo. This is the story of 1500m runner Sam Tanner.
Part I: Jack Lopas
Part II: George Bennett
Part III: Ella Williams
Part IV: Emma Twigg
Part V: David Nyika
Part VI: Peter Burling and Blair Tuke
Part VII: Dame Valerie Adams
Part VIII: Lisa Carrington
Part IX: Jaime Nielsen
Life was good for runner Sam Tanner when he arrived at the University of Washington in Seattle two years ago.
It may even have been a bit too good as far as his waistline was concerned.
The 20-year-old Tanner, New Zealand's latest 1500m star-in-the-making, does things a little differently.
Encouraged by initial coach Craig Kirkwood - a 2002 Commonwealth Games marathon runner - Tanner incorporates a love of board sports into his training programmes.
Tanner's American university coaches were even surprised to find their new recruit turn up from Bay of Plenty brandishing a skateboard.
But when it comes to staying in shape, some techniques never change.
"The first year here was a bit tough," says Tanner from Seattle.
"Too many pizzas, too much food. We got cards with dining-money on them, and if you didn't spend the money it disappeared. So we spent it all. It didn't work out well.
"I got a bit chubby, put on a few pounds. I definitely felt it during the NCAA cross country and had the worst result ever – I came 233rd.
"That was a bit of a punch in the face. I learnt a lesson, came home and got skinny."
Tanner quickly turned things around after the cross-country flop at Indiana in late 2019. Just 15 months later, in February this year, he roared into the Kiwi Olympic team by running a fabulous 3:34.72 in New York.
This was a breakout performance, setting a US collegiate and New Zealand indoor record over the glamour 1500m distance. Tanner also finished well ahead of Tokyo team mate Nick Willis, the double Olympic medallist, in the young Kiwi's first outing since a Covid-break back in New Zealand.
"I definitely knew I had the Olympic standard in me at that stage," Tanner says.
"I was pretty strong over the summer and I had some competition to tow me along, challenge me physically.
"It all fell together. I ended up running out-of-my-mind fast."
Fast is something Tanner has been doing naturally since competing as a kid.
"I remember a parent saying to me 'it's like you've got a turbo at the end of the race'," he says.
Tanner's mum Krissy (Bowman) was a national 400m secondary schools medallist who quit athletics at 19, when Sam was born. She then became a top-ranked touch-rugby player. Dad Paul was a "fun athlete" who loved spear-fishing, diving and cycling.
Sam surfed his home beach at Papamoa near Tauranga, with the odd trip to Raglan, Gisborne and Shipwreck Bay in the Far North thrown in. He even did well at a national secondary schools surf competition.
"Running took a back seat for a long time, but at 17 I started training with Craig," he says.
"He understood who I was, what I loved, and didn't want to limit that.
"He saw that surfing added to my athleticism and encouraged it, and even prescribed it on some days.
"Skating doesn't build stamina but it definitely helps with agility.
"Funny story... I rolled my ankle pretty bad the other day and because my ankles are used to a range of movement they are super strong. The next day it was completely fine.
"Surfing is more for the stamina side. I would go for a two or three-hour surf a couple of days a week on top of training, so it was just a lot of low-end aerobic activity.
"If the surf was really good, it would be wave after wave after wave. After two hours you are completely knackered."
Last year, during the indoor season, he found an $80 board online and went snowboarding with a team mate in Seattle.
"I didn't tell the coach... it was awesome, the best snowboarding day of my life in two or three feet of powder. It was insane," he says.
"I'm definitely a bit of an adrenaline junkie."
A lot of Tanner's life is sorted beyond athletics. He's set his sights on a degree to work in child and youth development.
And he's engaged to Melissa Bulder, a teacher trainee at Waikato University.
An out-of-the-box performance in Tokyo might change a few things of course. And the Eliza McCartney story looms large when you consider Tanner's Olympic hopes.
Pole vaulter McCartney initially targeted Tokyo for a medal, came up trumps in Rio, and won't even go to Japan with her qualification effort wrecked by injury.
With Kirkwood a key influence, Tanner has not over-trained at a young age.
But he has no intention of using Tokyo as a stepping stone. And his quest to carrying on a Kiwi tradition gets a boost via regular messages from the legendary Rod Dixon, the 1972 Olympic 1500m bronze medal winner.
That history and today's rapidly rising standards are driving him on. Tanner returned to Seattle without his skateboard this year.
"I told my coach I'll commit to running a bit more this season – he was grateful for that," Tanner says.
"The level of running going on... there are high schoolers running as fast as me now.
"Some people used Covid to just train and get really, really strong, and really really fast, and start running crazy times.
"I'm still doing quite low mileage compared to a lot of pros so there is a lot of room to improve.
"[New Zealand's running history] is definitely an inspiration, and probably a weight too. I love that history and standing on the start line with that black jersey on.
"New Zealanders have won 1500m medals in the past – let's just do it again."