Kiwi shot put supremo Tom Walsh turns to gymnastics to refine his game for 2017
Here's one for the mental imagery department: big, burly Tom Walsh, a power athlete if there ever was one, up on his tippy toes and pirouetting around the gymnastics mat.
As unlikely as it sounds, a dose of gymnastics has been introduced into the training regime of this Kiwi shot put champion as he eyes a followup to his breakthrough year on the world track and field scene.
In case you haven't been paying attention, this 24-year-old part-time builder, full-time athlete from Christchurch, by way of Timaru, had some 2016. He was a world champion (winning the indoors title in Portland in March), an Olympic bronze medallist in Rio and also secured his first overall Diamond League crown, which earned him a cool $70,000 bonus.
At a time when men's shot put has an exciting crop of young athletes making some pretty serious waves, headed by 24-year-old American Olympic champion Ryan Crouser, Walsh is right there riding the crest, and doing it in his own indomitable style.
Which brings us back to the gymnastics. The likeable Cantab, at the launch of Athletics NZ's innovative February international series, said he has made some key tweaks to his training regime as he looks to return even stronger in 2017.
"I'm doing some gymnastics for balance stuff, body awareness and range of motion. It's a bit of fun, and something different," he says, joking it won't be long before he's pulling off the iron cross. "There's some ring work, core strengthening ... If I'm going to be doing this for another 12 years I've got to enjoy it, which I am at the moment. Changing things up definitely helps."
When Walsh looks back on his 2016 season it's with almost total satisfaction. Except for that one day in Rio when he came out in the Olympic final and just didn't quite find his best stuff, throwing 21.36m to finish in the bronze medal position behind Crouser's Games record 22.52m and American Joe Kovacs' 21.78m.
It was the only time in 15 major meets through 2016 that Walsh didn't finish in the top two.
"I didn't compete as well as I wanted to," he says, just a little ruefully. "That was probably a B-minus day in terms of what type of nick I was in. So to still be able scrap through that and throw well enough to stay in the fight and get a bronze medal, I take a lot more out of that than not."
Still, you can tell it rankles this fellow who's devoted his life to perfecting the art of throwing that silver sphere as far as humanly possible. "One day every four years, it's hard to get right. But I'm still happy with it. People go you missed your peak by four or five days (he broke 22 metres at his next three major meets post-Rio), but I didn't miss my peak. I just didn't quite line things up on the day, and that can happen in any sport."
Asked what he learned from his Rio experience, he indicates it's as much about accepting limitations, as anything else.
"I felt like I handled everything pretty well. In the final things just weren't quite lining up, and the timing wasn't quite there. But I don't think there was any huge reason. It was just one of those days.
"I had a throw in the third round that was close to 22m, and that could have changed my whole competition. But I just fell out the front of the circle.
"I still threw well. I had four throws over 21m, but I just didn't have that big one I needed to. I feel like I handled the whole situation pretty well for my first ever Olympic Games."
It wasn't like he didn't have his high points in 2016 either. He nailed it at the world indoors in Portland to grab the title with an outstanding 21.78m. And after Rio he threw beautifully in Europe, winning both Diamond League meets in Paris (22.00m) and Zurich (22.20m) to not only join the 22-metre club, but haul in Kovacs to annex that prestigious overall crown.
He finished the year, too, with a PB 22.21m in Zagreb (just behind Crouser's 22.28) to sign off in style, and leave him convinced that this crop of shot put exponents can give that world record 23.12m of Randy Barnes a decent lick before too long.
All of which leaves him excited about what 2017 holds. It will kick off with Crouser and fellow American Ryan Whiting in New Zealand in February to battle Walsh and Jacko Gill at the Big Shot on February 19 in Christchurch and the Auckland Track Challenge a week later, and culminate in the world championships in London in August.
"I still feel like I've got a few points to prove," says Walsh with a smile. "I really want an outdoor world champs medal (he was fourth in 2015 in Beijing). It's a big year, and having the two Ryans here in February will be a great way to start it. They're both good mates, and it will be a tough competition.
"It's all on soon as we get out there ... I'm a competitive bugger and if it's throwing a cricket ball at a wicket, or whatever, I'm trying to win."
No stone unturned. Or in this case, no gymnastics mat untouched.
- Sunday Star Times