Athletes chase new field of dreams

COMMITTED: Jordan Pinnock, of Greymouth, winds up before launching the shot put at Rawhiti Domain.
COMMITTED: Jordan Pinnock, of Greymouth, winds up before launching the shot put at Rawhiti Domain.

Masters runner Lyn Osmers remembers her first glimpse of her field of dreams - QEII Stadium - as its great hulk loomed "out of the trees," an athletic oasis on the fringe of east Christchurch.

Osmers was "just a kid from the Coast". She came over from Greymouth in 1975 to compete at QEII for the first time and she has special memories of this "awesome stadium" that became a home away from home as her training base and competition venue, as the accomplished heptathlete went on to represent New Zealand at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, and the 1990 edition in Auckland.

Osmers was back in New Brightonlast Saturday, maybe 1500m (a good track-and-field distance that) from QEII's quake-ravaged ruins.

But Rawhiti Domain - Canterbury track and field's stop-gap home - is light years away from the former facility.

Osmers, who has dusted off the spikes to compete on the Masters' circuit, was one of the few senior athletes in action at Rawhiti. She lined up in a 100m heat against sprinters young enough to be her daughters.

It's the track and field tyros Osmers feels sorry for. "There's quite a few potholes [in the Rawhiti track]; it's not level and it makes it a bit hard. Everyone here is just so disadvantaged when it comes to nationals, it's going to be really hard.

"The up-and-coming athletes definitely deserve something [better]."

The new breed includes another Coaster, Greymouth schoolboy Jordan Pinnock, a talented field athlete and rugby league player already signed by the Melbourne Storm on a junior scholarship.

Pinnock travels over the hill to throw the discus - his specialist event - put the shot and run in sprints because there's no strong competition at home. The West Coast and South Island Scorpions 15 years' rugby league representative says Rawhiti Domain is "awesome for a grass track" but admits he also misses QEII.

Track and field types are an upbeat bunch by nature. They were singularly grateful to salvage some equipment at QEII and set up at Rawhiti. Throwing cages and supports were resurrected and a temporary steel storage shed erected as the sport's recovery group made the best of a bad lot. Their efforts were rewarded when committee chairman Alan Tucker won the Sport Canterbury administrator-of-the-year award last week.

But it's hard to escape the feeling a shift from QEII to Rawhiti Domain is slumming it for a sport harder hit than most by the calamitous quake.

Older athletics aficionados recall halcyon days when Rugby Park was the city's athletics base in the pre-QE II era.

Rawhiti had its own heyday in the mid-1970s when New Brighton club members remember 200 to 300 turning up for Tuesday night children's athletics session in a bid to become the next Dick Tayler or John Walker.

The old cinders track is long gone - rumoured to be part of the raised bank on the northern side of the ground next to the archery arena.

Rawhiti - tucked behind pine trees and flanked by houses on Keyes Rd - isn't any Elysian field of the Chariots of Fire milieu. Nor is it the antipodean equivalent of Oxford University's Iffley Road track, where New Zealand's 1936 Olympic Games 1500m champion Jack Lovelock trained, and where English doctor Roger Bannister became the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile in 1954.

It's not far from Lancaster Park, where Peter Snell shattered two world middle-distance records 50 years ago to a standing ovation from the packed stands. But centre records are unlikely to be broken in Rawhiti's pitted lanes.

There was no Rawhiti Roar last Saturday when The Press visited - more like Rawhiti Raw. A vicious southerly chilled a smattering of mums, dads and athletics anoraks watching the afternoon programme. Young long-jumpers huddled under blankets to keep their legs warm between jumps, just as Yvette Williams did in Helsinki in 1954 on her way to an Olympic Games gold medal.

Overnight rain had forced the Saturday morning children's programme to be spiked. But the ground was dry when Athletics Canterbury track and field committee chairman John McBrearty inspected mid-morning. "The throwing circles were a bit wet and there was a puddle on the high jump, but the track was OK."

So McBrearty made the "game-on" call. But a lot of athletes voted with their sports-brand-shod feet and chose to stay at home. No hammer-throwers turned up for the first event on the card. The middle-distance events were mixed-gender fields and many of the province's elite athletes are giving Rawhiti Domain a big swerve.

They prefer to race at the Canterbury region's only synthetic track at Timaru's Aorangi Stadium, where Athletics Canterbury interclub meetings are staged every few weeks. Rising stars, such as long-jumper Jesse Bryant and middle-distance runner Angie Smit, have to race on quality surfaces.

Highly regarded hurdling coach Jill Morrison won't let her senior athletes "do hurdles at Rawhiti". Even sprint races can be quite dodgy. The risk of injury is too great, Morrison says. "It can be quite dangerous when you are going at top speed."

Morrison prefers to take her nationally ranked senior stable, which includes her sister Fiona Morrison (also a Canterbury Cats hockey representative), Kelsey Berryman and Mackenzie Keenan, to Timaru, Auckland or Wellington.

The travel is taxing - "it's four hours [return] to Timaru, but we feel it's worth it to get racing on the track." Sometimes the Christchurch contingent fly to and from Auckland on race day, but they also stop over and train with local athletes on Sundays to maximise track time.

Morrison's elite athletes are luckier than most - they get some funding to defray expenses - but plenty are dipping deep into their own pockets to pay for petrol for the Timaru trips. That's dedication for you.

Morrison says the lack of a proper track in Christchurch also has an impact on training.

Rawhiti Domain is a no-go zone for training - McBrearty says Athletics Canterbury wants to try to avoid undue wear and tear.

Morrison's hurdlers, and a group trained by nationally ranked coach Andrew Maclennan, train at Christchurch Boys' High School, but the track only has a 60-metre straight.

"It's really difficult for the long hurdlers [the 300m and 400m] who are not allowed to train [at Rawhiti]," Morrison says. "They are the most disadvantaged."

Morrison and Maclennan - in fact everyone at Athletics Canterbury from rookie runners to life members - want to see a new track-and-field facility in Christchurch. Sooner rather than later.

Maclennan, an Athletics New Zealand high-performance coach, says top athletes are moving out of town to train and compete and won't return until Christchurch gets a new base.

His most famous charge, former Olympic heptathlete Rebecca Wardell, was a classic case in point. She shifted to Dunedin last year to prepare for a London Olympic campaign, which ended with a heartbreaking injury.

Alex Jordan, a potential Olympian in the 4x400m relay, has "gone back to Wellington-slash-Nelson so he can train on a track there. Others were "keen to come to Christchurch" but won't make the move until they know if, and when, a new track will be created.

Maclennan, whose current charges include Canterbury shot-putter Tom Walsh, says Athletics New Zealand want to establish a high-performance unit in Christchurch, but must wait for a proper facility.

So far, Canterbury athletes are holding their own at national level, despite the post-quake constraints.

But every season that ticks by puts them at a disadvantage.

Maclennan says its important to move quickly on a new home for the sport because "it's only four years till the next Olympics in Rio". "By the time we get a track, it will be three years [to Rio]."

He says there is "no substitute for high-intensity, high-quality racing". "We are only going to Timaru every three weeks. Some [athletes] are going down there every weekend just to compete at their very small club meeting there so they can race on a decent surface."

Maclennan says athletes preparing for next month's New Zealand Secondary Schools championships in Dunedin are "in a very compromising situation". He says some of the older athletics fraternity "will say they ran at Rugby Park year after year". "That's all good; but it's just not the same [as running on synthetic surfaces]."

Morrison and Maclennan agree there's been only one real advantage in running on grass - a reduction of injuries, such as shin complaints, and a rise in what Maclennan calls "stiffness qualities". Grass isn't as unforgiving as synthetic surfaces, but it's not as conducive to top performances either.

Maclennan backs the proposal for a track at Burnside Park, pointing to Athletics New Zealand official Terry Lomax's findings that the venue was close to the airport and the sport's traditional demographic base.

McBrearty says Athletics Canterbury favours a Burnside Park base between the Burnside Rugby Club complex and Roydvale Ave, and are still in talks with rugby officials.

Mayor Bob Parker went into bat for the proposal last July, proposing that the council allocate $1.8 million in the 2012-13 financial year and $4.8m in 2013-14. But the council amended the recommendation, granting $300,000 for the first year and $6.3m in the second - a decision Lomax, a former Canterbury and New Zealand high jump champion, called "a kick in the face".

Maclennan agrees the delay is frustrating, but says athletes and coaches could start to make plans "if someone could just make a decision".

McBrearty would also like action. "We would like to think that some time next summer we will be out of here, but [the pace of progress] is quite slow.

"But the city council have a lot on their plate, to be fair."

The Press