Shot-putter Jacko Gill says it's time to step up
Jacko Gill agonised over his decision not to go to the London Olympics. And it wasn't easy for him, either, to turn his back on a chance to compete at the recent world championships in Moscow. He was good enough, no doubt about that.
But the 18-year-old phenomenon wasn't ready for either of those global events. He hadn't ticked off the last remaining challenge he'd set himself as the dominant shot put exponent in the world's junior grades. One mark had eluded him as he cut a swathe through his sport and he couldn't move on until he'd achieved it.
Last Sunday, at the Millennium Track on Auckland's North Shore, that final hurdle was cleared. At last he was ready to say goodbye to the junior grades and try his lot in with the big boys. The new journey could finally begin.
In front of a smattering of supporters and enthusiasts at the North Shore facility Gill launched the 6kg sphere out to 23 metres, eclipsing the junior world record of double world champion Dave Storl, of Germany. Gill now holds every world mark for the 5kg and 6kg shot through every age-grade - a stunning feat that is thought to be unprecedented in his sport.
In many ways Gill's record-breaking feat represented the final frontier for this determined young man who looks assured to follow in the footsteps of the great Valerie Adams. Now - and only now - he can refocus his mind and reset his goals. Now, it's time to enter the senior ranks with all the commitment and enthusiasm he will need.
Gill is more than ready. He's a two-time world junior champion, winning the titles as a 15-year-old in 2010 and a 17-year-old last year. He could have gone to the London Olympics, but decided not to because he wanted to give the retention of that junior crown his full attention.
That decision perplexed some, but he's always been a tremendously focused young man who has danced to the beat of his own drum.
It was a similar story with the world championships this year. It didn't quite feel right, with either body or soul. He still hadn't crossed off that last record he'd long had his sights on.
"It was the last stepping stone," he says of the throw that surprised even his most faithful followers. He'd got within 19cm of the mark a couple of weeks earlier when he popped five attempts all out past the 22m mark, but had not had a good lead-in to the latest tilt.
"My mindset was to finish my years with the 6kg. Now I've got nothing stopping me, so I can move on to that 7kg (the senior shot is 7.26kg)."
"It was his first throw and there was just stunned silence," says proud dad Walter Gill.
"Everyone was thinking ‘how far did that go?' We didn't expect it. I thought he'd been fresh too long and was starting to go down the other side."
Now it's like a weight has been lifted off the young man's shoulders. He's achieved a sweep of junior records that not even the great Usain Bolt managed. It had been his driving force for so long, he feels like the shackles have been removed.
"I don't feel much pressure with the senior weight," says Gill.
"I'm not expected to throw records or anything, just to go out and do the best I can. If I'm like Val and get eighth at one of these massive competitions then I'm going to be looked at like he's a really good up-and-coming athlete. It's cool to have that label."
This is a young man who has felt the pressure of his ascendancy through the age-grades. Truth be told, it's why he hasn't competed as much as he might have.
"You have a lot of pressure when you're expected every time you go out to break a word record or get a personal best," he says. "It's hard to do that every day, and I didn't feel like competing every time because I didn't want to fail.
"Now I feel a lot less pressure. It's nice to have got all these records. I'm not going to be best in the world with the 7kg - far from it. So there's going to be another buildup from maybe 50th place to hopefully near No 1 in the world some time."
The young man admits his decision not to go to London was one he had agonised over.
"I wanted to last my years as a junior, and I didn't get any help from the selectors, I would only have known two weeks before if I was going to go, and I had to train for two different weights (the 6kg junior shot and the 7.26kg senior one). It was just too difficult at the time.
"It was a very hard decision to make as a 17-year-old. I could have looked really bad, and I might have been really sad if I never made the Olympics again. It was a big decision, but the right one because to get this record means everything to me."
Dad Walter says his son has always made his own decisions, right from the time he wrote his first weight training programme as an 11-year-old.
"We've always left things like that up to him. If he's said no I've always gone with it, because I know that what he refocuses on is going to be a buzz as well. He could have gone to senior world champs but doing what he's done is so much better. It completes the cycle."
Like Adams when she came on to the senior scene, Gill will have to work his way up the ranks, bide his time, and build his strength. He doesn't know how long it will take; his dad picks two years.
"He's got the speed which is a gift, and if you haven't got that you're never going to get it," says Walter.
"He's got that speed and lift and can make the shot put look light - now he needs to get the strength while keeping that speed."
The numbers suggest something pretty special building. His 23m throw with the 6kg shot translates to about 21m with the heavy sphere (Gill's national record is 20.38m). At the recent world championships in Moscow only four men threw further than 21m, including winner David Storl, whose record Gill has just snatched.
Gill has next year's Commonwealth Games in his sights, and will start a long, thorough process of building up the strength and speed he needs to compete there. He's got a couple of injuries he needs to shake off - an inner foot strain and also sore fingers - both the result of straining to throw the 7kg shot.
He's also got to deal with the fact his coach, former Commonwealth Games silver medallist Courtney Ireland, has moved to Singapore. They'll continue to work together via modern technology, and he'll also use mother Nerida (a former shot putter in her day) and Kiwi throwing great Les Mills for ongoing guidance.
"I'm excited," declares Gill. "I've followed a dream ever since I was 10 years old. I've always wanted to be a really good shot putter and travel the world. It's been a dream and for it to come true is just unreal."