Anatomy of a world championship: How 'tiny' Tom Walsh shot down the giants

Tom Walsh wasn't the strongest in the world champs shot put field, but he did throw the furthest legally.
REUTERS

Tom Walsh wasn't the strongest in the world champs shot put field, but he did throw the furthest legally.

It was Jake the Muss in the iconic Kiwi movie Once Were Warriors who brutally encapsulated the delicate balance between "too much weights and not enough speed work". Tom Walsh may just have taken that theory to another level with his world championships shot put triumph in London.

Walsh tipped the shot put form book on its head when he knocked over the heavily favoured American duo of Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs to claim his first IAAF World Championships title, and continue his groundbreaking ways.

These are good times to be Tom Walsh, a part-time builder from Christchurch (by way of Timaru) who is laying some impressive foundations as an athlete. Last year he became the first Kiwi male to win a world indoors title; then followed that up by claiming New Zealand's first men's field event Olympic medal (a bronze) in Rio; and also becoming the first bloke from these parts to claim an overall Diamond league crown.

Tom Walsh throws in the men's shot put final in London.
REUTERS

Tom Walsh throws in the men's shot put final in London.

Now with his world championship triumph early Monday (NZT) at London's Olympic stadium, Walsh has struck a further blow for blokedom, becoming the first Kiwi male to make the podium at the global event. The US$60,000 (NZ$82,000) bonus he achieved for doing so was just a delicious icing on the cake.

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It wasn't easy for Walsh in London as he had to suck up an agonising groin tear on the eve of the event and compete through gritted teeth, and then survive multiple protests from both Crouser and Kovacs in the aftermath that left the final outcome in doubt right up until just minutes before the medal ceremony the next evening.

But the protests were all eventually thrown out and Walsh was able to limp on to the podium to receive a richly deserved gold medal that was a blow not just for the underdog, with Crouser and Kovacs owning the year's 10 biggest throws between them, but also for the comparative "little guy".

Yes, Walsh, at 1.85 metres and around 124kg is pretty damn big to be anyone's idea of small. But these things are comparative.

Crouser, a giant of a man, stands 2.03m and tips the scales around 141kg. The more compact Kovacs is still a full 10kg heavier than Walsh. They are both power men. They muscle the shot put, rather than finesse it.

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Brazilian monster Darlan Romani, who was fifth in Rio last year but failed to make the final in London, nudges the scales at 140kg and is reputed to be bench-pressing 300kg in his workouts.

"There are two major ways to throw," says Walsh. "You can be strong or you can be fast. I'm not overly strong and I'm not overly big either. I'm definitely the speed and rhythm kind of guy. Most of the guys are strength kind of guys – get very strong in the gym and you'll throw far.

"Yes, I am stronger than probably 99 percent of Kiwis. But in terms of world shot put I'm not overly strong.

"Put it this way, if it was a strongman contest, I'd be way out the arse-end."

But it's not. The pre-throw whirly-gig routine in the circle is as important as the actual release of the 7.2kg silver sphere. And the 25-year-old Walsh is so very good at generating the low-to-the-ground speed that then transfers into power on the throw.

For a big man, he is remarkably light on his feet, and it's an attribute he has honed into a game-changing point of difference.

Not that Crouser, whose only quality throw in London was red-flagged (thus his protest, and then re-protest), can be surprised by what played out. Back in February, when he beat Walsh twice in meets in Christchurch and Auckland by throwing over 22 metres in both, he remarked about the difference in style.

"I'm bigger and stronger than I was last year, so I'm kind of muscling it out there," he said after throwing 22.15m to win the Auckland Track Challenge. "You see Tom is lot quicker and has a lot more finesse than I do, and he's definitely in cleaner form.

"He's an unbelievable competitor, and he's one of those guys you can have a big lead on and he can throw a monster when the pressure is on. You never really beat Tom till that last throw is done."

What Walsh has also become is the most consistent performer on the shot put scene. He had five of the top six throws in London with a series of remarkable quality: 21.38m, 21.64m, 21.75m, 21.70, 21.63m and, then, saving his best for last, 22.03m.

On a day when his rivals struggled to find their best stuff – at least legally – the smiling Kiwi was quite simply a man apart.

Walsh puts that down to his accent on technique, timing and speed, and a strong mindset that has been a big part of the work undertaken with coach Dale Stevenson and sports psychologist John Quinn.

"Mentally I was in a really good place. I knew exactly what I needed to do and I stuck with that. Dale and John and I always talk about sticking to what's been working in training, and what has been working in training is getting out and around at the back of the circle.

"That means flowing through the back of the circle in terms of acceleration, and then a strong left side. If I've got a strong left side, all my power goes into my left side and it pops up, and that keeps me in the circle."

Remember, the best throws of both Crouser and Kovacs in London (both would have won the gold medal if legal) were red-flagged. The sport is not just about chucking tin a long way. But doing it within the rules of the game.

Walsh does a lot of mental work now. It's something he's, well, got his head around.

"When you're young, you don't think it's important. You think physical attributes are important. I bombed out at the world juniors the year Jacko (Kiwi rival Jacko Gill) won. I went from throwing 20 metres in the warmup area to throwing 18 metres in the competition arena.

"I thought, 'well, what's the reason?'. From there, it's been a long and gradual process over the last seven years to get to where I am now. My routines are very structured and I know exactly what works for me."

The burly Kiwi is also a competitor. "It was great to come in when everyone was talking about those two (Crouser and Kovacs) and do the deed. No one was talking about me, and that was good. Kiwis compete well with a chip on their shoulder.

"It's a great feeling to know we've achieved what we set out to after Rio.  We said we'll probably need to throw mid-22s to win in London. I got myself into that shape, but on the day no one managed to throw that far, and I took the cake."

Yes, the sweet taste of success went to not the biggest, meanest or strongest. But the man who figured out that if you don't get the balance between speed-work and weights, there is most definitely a price to pay.

 

 - Sunday Star Times

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