You know how when someone loses an election or an Academy Award they always say they’re happy for the winner, but you know in their head they’re really thinking, “I hope that blankety-blank falls into an empty well or gets dengue fever”?
Well, there were for sure some bitterly disappointed competitors at last weekend’s men’s shot put competition at the London World Championships, but none of that bitterness was directed towards gold medalist Tom Walsh of New Zealand, one of the true gentlemen of the sport.
And it turns out that Tom’s coach, Dale Stevenson, is a great guy as well. The day after Tom’s win, he took a few minutes off from a celebratory visit to a London pub to talk about Tom’s career, his unusual off-season pursuit, and the challenges of grinding out a win at a major championship.
McQ: Congratulations, Coach. That was a huge win for Tom.
DS: Thanks. Tom is a great athlete and more importantly, a great human being. It is a fun journey to work with someone like that. We are both aspiring to be good at our craft, and it’s an exciting time for Tom and for the throws in New Zealand in general.
McQ: How long have you been Tom’s coach?
DS: Officially since 2014. Prior to that we were competitors. I stopped competing in 2012, and was sort of mate/mentor to Tom for a couple of years. We officially formalized it in 2014 when I moved to New Zealand and started working there, and the rest is history.
McQ: Are you employed by the New Zealand federation?
DS: Yes, I’m the head throws coach for Athletics New Zealand.
McQ: You said you moved to New Zealand. Where did you move from?
DS: I’m originally Australian. Born and raised in Melbourne and competed for Australia. My wife and I moved to New Zealand in 2014. It was a major checkpoint for our lives, and here we are three years later and loving it.
McQ: What does your wife do?
DS: My wife was originally in real estate. Now she works in recruitment. She is incredibly supportive. They say behind every good man is an even better woman. I want to thank her…she supported me right through my throwing career and now as a coach in a job that requires extended time on the road and is not a nine-to-five job. I love her with all my heart, and she is a huge part of this result here in London, as are the other members of our team.
McQ: How does Tom maintain such a high level of performance over the long season from indoors to the end of the outdoor season? Last year, for example, he was World Indoor Champion then still threw great at the Olympics five months later. How do you keep him at that level for such an extended time?
DS: It is a bit of a different philosophy than in the US model. We don’t have the collegiate system, so there is not a huge amount of pressure on our athletes to be at their peak when they are seventeen/eighteen/nineteen years of age. Tom is twenty-four now, and we’ve had a long term plan with incremental improvement. We don’t take crazy risks to make fast gains. I guess it’s a bit more measured from other philosophies out there. There are guys who are super strong five, six, seven years younger than Tom just blowing crazy numbers up, but they tend to have more erratic series in meets like major championships. I was fortunate to have spent a lot of time under the mentorship of Don Babbitt (longtime throws coach at the University of Georgia) and spent a lot of time training with Reese Hoffa. And that’s probably something that Reese did well across his career, and as a result he’s one of the greatest shot putters of all time. Improve by small increments over time, and brick by brick you end up building an impressive career. We’ve got the luxury of taking that kind of approach in New Zealand because we don’t have the rigor of the hard selection trial like the US Championships every year. And we get support from the federation. We are trying to leverage our advantages, and as a result it has been a long, steady road, and we are now at the point with Tom that his bad days are still enough to get him through qualifying rounds.
McQ: Is his good health partly due to the slow progress in training that he’s made over the years. To the fact that he wasn’t rushed?
DS: Absolutely. Tom was incredibly fortunate. His first coach when he was a young boy was a really wise man who lives in a small, rural town in New Zealand. He taught Tom that no one competition was worth sacrificing your health and well-being. He planted the seed at a young age, but it requires a certain kind of demeanor and Tom has it. Some guys like to get really fired up and go out and chase that one huge throw, whereas Tom is more prepared to say “What am I going to do to get one percent better today?” Eventually, that adds up. That incremental improvement is something that we are looking for.
McQ: Is it true that Tom does construction work in the off-season?
DS: Yes, he does. In October, November, and December he works three hard days a week depending on training and where he is at physically. He’s got a good relationship with his employer. They basically let him pick his own hours. And it is an important part of his development as a shot putter. We feel this is crucial for his development as a good human being and a good athlete.
McQ: Do you feel that it is mentally healthy for him to go back to being a “normal person” for a couple of months a year?
DS: Totally. We want our athletes to be balanced. We want them to be smart and to feel grateful for the opportunity of getting paid to do sports for a living. When you’re up at 5:30am and you’re laying bricks, you’re laying a foundation, or you’re digging holes or whatever you are doing on the construction site it gives you a really gracious mindset when you come into training. Training feels like a privilege. It is good for Tom to have something in his life other than throwing. For his development as a young man, it’s crucial.
McQ: Will he go back to working construction this October?
DS: Yes, We’ve got a short turnaround this year with World Indoors in March and then the Commonwealth Games, which is a reasonably big deal in New Zealand, in April. So, he may have a shorter time on the job, but we’ll have a conversation about that when the season in Europe ends.
McQ: Let’s talk about the Worlds. Tom had a perfect day in qualification. One throw. Killed it. (22.14m to be exact). That had to feel good.
DS: Absolutely. It doesn’t matter whether you throw 20.75m, the auto, or 24.75m as long as you get the qualifying out of the way. It gives you the peace of mind to go ahead and line it up the next day.
McQ: Watching the competition, it seemed like it took everybody several throws to find their timing.
DS: That’s not unusual for a major championship. Guys like Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs, they’ve been there and done it before and they still get challenged by that. It’s not unusual for them to take a couple of rounds to get into their work. You’ve just got to work through it and deal with it and bring your way into the competition. Get into the top eight to guarantee yourself six throws. And guys started to free up towards the end. But to be honest, those were funny results. But it is what it is. Championships do funny things to people.
McQ: Even with super-experienced throwers, do you feel like the atmosphere at a World Championships or Olympic Games can be hard to manage?
DS: It’s just so infrequent. The exposure to it three times every four seasons. And guys like David Storl, Ryan Crouser, Ryan Whiting, Joe Kovacs, Tom…they want to be regarded as among the handful of throwers who are the best who ever picked up a shot. They are vying for their legacy, essentially. The first things that people look at are the Olympic Games and World Championships, and you’ve got to perform well there if you want to be considered among the best. When it means something, it does funny things to us as human beings. It is strange that we pin our self-worth and our meaning as a human being on an arbitrary kind of competition where you pick up a metal ball and throw it, but hey, we all do it.
McQ: During competition, I know a lot of throwers like to check in with their coach between throws. Do you and Tom do that?
DS: No, we don’t. I’m there, but my end game is to make myself redundant, so we are working towards Tom becoming more and more independent and not needing me. I’m trying to work towards being more of a safety net. It’s probably going to take a little more time, but I’m pretty content Tom’s got a good feel for what he’s doing now. He knows what he has to do and when he has to do it. My role is kind of like the bumpers in ten pin bowling. If he goes too far one way, I sort of give him a nudge back the other way. He’s getting better and better at bowling strikes, so my role is probably becoming more and more redundant, which is fine with me.
McQ: Did you say anything to him during the final in London?
DS: Yes. There were a couple of technical things he needed to iron out. He was throwing early in the order in the first three rounds, then last in the order for the final three rounds, so that meant that he had twenty or twenty-five minutes between throws from the third to the fourth round, so I think more than anything just to break up that time he came over and we had a few words. It was mainly to get out of the heat of the battle, because you’ve got twelve guys pacing around in a fairly confined arena. Sometimes just getting out of that and going and seeing a different face helps you to reset.
McQ: Was your heart beating like crazy when some of those guys were taking cracks at twenty-two meters?
DS: Absolutely. It would have been foolish to think that the competition was sewn up at any point when you have guys that can throw well over twenty-two on any given day. We knew it would come down to the wire and we were prepared for that. I was probably more calm than I have been at any other major championship because I knew Tom was in good shape. We’d done all the work that could be done. But, the heart rate does go up. When it was all done and Tom came over, I found myself jumping the fence and running out on the track to give him a hug.
McQ: But you kept your clothes on, right? Unlike the guy on Saturday night?
DS: Say again?
McQ: You kept your clothes on, unlike the streaker on Saturday night?
DS: I did keep my clothes on. Security was keeping a close eye on me. I managed to shrug a few of them off I was so pumped for him. Tom’s an amazing athlete and he deserves everything that comes his way. I just wanted to affirm that for him, and it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
McQ: I know people in the sport really like Tom.
DS: I was talking to Art Venegas (coach of Joe Kovacs) last night about this. We talked about how important it is to mentor athletes into becoming good human beings. I’d rather coach a lesser athlete who is a good person than a medal winner who is an asshole. But you can have good athletes who are also good people, and certainly Tom is one of them as is Joe and Ryan and many of the other guys. As we speak, I’m out having a drink and Ryan Whiting has come to join us to help celebrate Tom’s victory. That speaks to the character of Ryan and to his selflessness. We are incredibly thankful to everyone who has helped us around the world. We’ve got great friends in the US and they continue to welcome us and have us back every year. I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has helped us along the way.
McQ: One last question. Were you surprised that Stipe Zunic (the bronze-medalist from Croatia) was able to put Tom on his shoulders during the victory lap?
DS: No. Stipe is probably the strongest guy throwing at the moment. He is a beast. Stipe could probably pick up three guys and put them on his shoulders. He’s a large man who can move. He competed in the martial arts and was a fine javelin thrower. I wouldn’t want to get in his way, but fortunately, he’s a great guy too. He seized his opportunity to get on the podium, and good on him.