New Zealand's Tom Walsh wins historic shot put gold at world athletics championships
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Tom Walsh's big-game nerve, unyielding self-belief and gritty toughness have yielded an historic, dramatic, golden result at the athletics world championships in London on Monday morning (NZT).
But not before the 25-year-old Christchurch-based Timaru athlete was put through the wringer of a double protest that could have rubbed out his career-best achievement in claiming the men's shot put world title in front of a sellout crowd at London's Olympic stadium.
As if Walsh didn't have enough to deal with on a tension-filled third day of the IAAF World Championships, he also had to shake off an ill-timed groin injury that struck on the eve of the qualifying round of the competition. No mind, he simply willed himself to compete through the pain of an adductor strain.
In the end neither the injury, nor the protestations of American silver medallist Joe Kovacs and beaten favourite Ryan Crouser, could deny the champion Kiwi his crowning result – his winning, and final, throw of 22.03 metres seeing him become not only the first Kiwi male world champion, but the first New Zealand bloke to step on the podium at his sport's global event.
It was also the first shot put competition in history with seven men over 21 metres, while Walsh's best put was the equal third furthest winning throw in world championships history, behind only Werner Gunthor's championship record of 22.23m from 1987 and Reese Hoffa's 22.04m from 2007. It matched the distance achieved by Christian Cantwell en route to gold in 2009.
Not many had given the burly Kiwi a chance of an historic gold either heading into the final, even though he'd offered a hint at what was coming with a season's best 22.14 metres to top the qualifying competition on Saturday.
After all American Olympic champion Crouser was riding a 10-event win streak and was unbeaten for 2017, including seven throws past the 20.20m mark and seven of the year's 10 best distances. He had a season's best of 22.65m and had defeated Walsh the last five times they had faced off.
Kovacs, too, had been in intimidating form, with a season's best of 22.57m, and had been pegged as the only man in the field capable of pushing Crouser.
Not that Walsh feared either heading into the championships, the part-time builder telling stuff.co.nz beforehand: "I'm going to win it, no doubt. I'm throwing better than I ever have before at this time of the year. When I line things up a few people may be changing their tune about me."
They certainly will be now as the 1.85m, 120kg thrower held his nerve as the big boppers around him failed to fire in cool conditions in London, claiming his first world title on his second attempt.
Walsh produced a stunningly consistent series of 21.38m, 21.64m, 21.75m, 21.70m, 21.63m and then that big heave of 22.03m last up to put the icing on a stunning victory. He had five of the top six throws of the competition and broke 21m with all six of his attempts.
"It feels pretty good. That's exactly what we came here to do," he said in the mixed zone afterwards. "To do that and to throw so well over the whole comp, it's something pretty special. It's payback for all the time and effort that the team behind me has put in, and also myself obviously."
Walsh's success in London follows his Olympic bronze medal, world indoors gold and overall Diamond League crown achieved last year, and might well be New Zealand's most meritorious sporting achievement of the year.
Walsh had finished fourth at the last world championships in Beijing, but had been adamant leading in he could upset both Crouser and Kovacs. He was as good as his word on a night when Crouser completely failed to fire (with a best of just 21.20m to finish sixth), and Kovacs managed a best throw of 21.66m for the silver medal.
The US team did subsequently protest Crouser's third-round no-throw of around 22 metres, but it was rejected after the event finished.
Croatia's Stipe Zunic claimed the bronze with 21.46m, nudging out Czech Tomas Stanek and Pole Michal Haratyk who both topped out at 21.41m.
"I'm over the moon," he told TVNZ in London. "I won a world indoors last year but this is world outdoors and means so much more to everyone
"It's just happiness, you're just so proud of yourself and also proud it's paid off for the other people that have helped you out as well."
Kovacs had looked like putting a spanner in the works with his final throw which soared out to 22.08m, only for it to be ruled a foul when his left foot hit the top of the board. That meant Walsh could not be headed with his third-round effort of 21.75m.
Kovacs would have won had his final throw stood, and the big American was visibly upset at the decision, later challenging the ruling via an official protest that was eventually thrown out.
Walsh stepped up, coolly, to nail his own 22-metre effort to put the exclamation mark on his victory, and launch the celebrations which had to be muted a little when news of the protest came through.
He admitted to a few nerves while it was being considered. "It's a relief to know I didn't do that victory lap for nothing. It's just a great feeling. To wear the New Zealand singlet and to win is what I dreamed of and what our team has been working so hard towards over the last year."
And the injury?
"On Friday in the last training session before the big day I tweaked my groin on the third throw. I'd done similar things before but this wasn't as bad. I thought 'we've come this far, we're going to give it a nudge in the qualifiers and see how she goes, and she held up pretty good.
"In the final I was feeling better. I'd done that much hard work, I wanted to give it my best shot."
Walsh's New Zealand team-mate Jacko Gill finished ninth overall and just missed out, via countback, on the top eight and the three extra throws afforded those finishers.
The 22-year-old Aucklander produced his best toss of 20.82m – just shy of his season-high and PB of 21.01m – with his third and final attempt, but was shaded for eighth spot by American Ryan Whiting who managed the same distance with his first throw.
Gill, a two-time world junior champion, had opened with 20.36m and then threw 19.82m with his second attempt.
Walsh becomes New Zealand's third athletics world champion – and the third Kiwi thrower to stand atop the podium.
Beatrice Faumuina won the discus world title at Athens in 1997, while Dame Valerie Adams won four consecutive world shot put crowns in 2007, '09, '11 and '13, as well as a silver in '05.