Olympic champion Valerie Vili drops coach

Choking back the tears, Olympic and world shot put champion Valerie Vili announced a shock end to her relationship with coach and mentor Kirsten Hellier.

At a hastily called Auckland press conference - where Vili several times had to gather herself as the emotions threatened to overwhelm her - the 25-year-old announced the 11-year coaching relationship between herself and Hellier had come to an end.

The decision had been a "mutual" one and was "100 per cent professional", she said as she revealed a split that no one had seen coming.

TOUGH DECISION: Valerie Vili at today's press conference when she announced that Kirsten Hellier would no longer coach her.
TOUGH DECISION: Valerie Vili at today's press conference when she announced that Kirsten Hellier would no longer coach her.

Together the pair had forged a stunningly successful relationship which began when Hellier first took Vili under her wing as a raw 14-year-old and saw them rise to the mountaintop of the athletics world. Together they have won every honour in their sights over the last handful of years.

Vili is a two-time world champion (2007 and '09), won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and also triumphed at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and 2006 IAAF World Cup.

It was only recently at the world indoor championships in Doha that Vili had a near three-year winning streak ended when she was beaten into a silver medal by Belarussian rival Nadzeya Ostapchuk.

Vili said her Doha defeat had nothing to do with the decision to part ways with Hellier, but confirmed she believed it was the best thing for her if she is to continue to meet her goals in the sport.

Vili dropped the bombshell as soon as she walked into a press conference at Auckland's Millennium Stadium, telling the assembled media: "Today I announce that my coach of 11 years, Kirsten, and I have agreed to end our coaching partnership. This has been a tough decision but we agree that for me to continue the way that I have new input is required."

She then continued to read a statement, biting back the tears as she said it was "sad to be losing Kirsten from my team".

She added: "It's been amazing what we have achieved together but I have more to do yet. We have together talked about the future and feel this is the best pathway to take.

"Kirsten has always been more than a coach to me. She has been an amazing mentor and a friend. That part of our relationship will not change."

Vili then took questions from the media, but remained constant with her message: the decision had been made by both athlete and coach; it had taken a heavy emotional toll on both; and they were united that this was the best way forward for Vili.

"As you can see it's still pretty raw, but this is what we've got to do for myself to move ahead as an athlete," said the towering Aucklander. She confirmed their decision had finally been arrived at last week.

"We both put input into this choice we've made and feel it's the right choice to make. It is hard. It hurts so bad, but for me to continue doing what I do it's one of those things you've got to do."

Vili said Hellier - a maternal figure in the athlete's life after the early death of Vili's own mother - was "pretty hurt" and equated the severance as being like the end of a marriage.

"I know she is hurt and upset ... it's bloody raw for both of us ... it's like a marriage being broken into. She's hurting I know.

"But we both feel it's time for a change and time for new input into the whole training regime and planning of everything, and together we've made that choice."

Vili said she was confident their friendship would survive this tumultuous day in their relationship, the tears welling up in her own eyes as she uttered the words.

"In 10 or 20 years' time we may be looking back at this laughing at it. But at the moment it's raw, it hurts inside. But our friendship will continue."

Asked what Hellier had meant to her, Vili said: "She's been there since I was 14 years old. That's a long time. We've grown, I've grown, we've succeeded in so many things. We've had great experiences together and I'll never forget that and I thank her so much for a wonderful 11 years she's given me in my career."

Vili now heads off for a previously planned holiday (she is attending a friend's wedding) and will return to Auckland after Easter ready to begin the next phase of her career, which will start with the search for a new coach and also include the Commonwealth Games and world championships.

Vili said the decision on a new coach would be a joint one between her, her management and Athletics NZ, and at this stage she had no idea who that new person would be, or even whether they would be a New Zealander.

But New Zealand's premier sportswoman, and the three-time supreme Halberg Award winner, remained certain of one thing. She was as motivated to perform as she had ever been.

"Probably more since Doha," she said. "I'm looking forward to the challenges I have set myself this year. This just a speed hump and something I've got to deal with. It's going to be hard, but I hope it's going to get better as time goes by."

Hellier felt it was time for Vili to explore new coaching fields.

"I feel I can no longer give Valerie what she needs in order to continue her progression as an athlete," she said via a statement. "I wish her nothing but happiness, love and success for the future."

Stuff