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It’s cool to throw like a girl

The connotations of “throwing like a girl” are a long distance away from what they used to be.

In 2019, that girl is strong, powerful and not afraid to take on the world. She is a young woman like world junior shot put champion Maddison Wesche, or Commonwealth Games hammer throw gold medallist Julia Ratcliffe.

To ensure there are more girls like them, Athletics New Zealand have launched their #ThrowLikeAGirl initiative - to embrace all those qualities and encourage more young women to try throwing.  

Led by highly successful athletics coach and former javelin thrower Kirsten Hellier, the programme focuses on giving young women, aged between 11 and 18, coaching across all athletics throwing events - shot put, discus, hammer throw and javelin. They will also receive conditioning training.

Hellier is the former coach of multiple world and Olympic champion Dame Valerie Adams, and now coaches former world junior shot put record-holder Jacko Gill. But she also set the standard for women’s javelin throwing in New Zealand as a 1992 Olympian and a 1994 Commonwealth Games silver medalist.

Hellier’s father, Lionel Smith, was a champion hurdler who ran at the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland, and as a girl, she always felt she would be a runner too. But in the third form at Macleans College, in east Auckland, she was told that as a “bigger girl” she should do throwing.

It’s been Hellier’s aim to break down those stereotypes. The #ThrowLikeAGirl programme is something she’s dreamed about for many years.

“I started thinking about how we could give our young people, particularly young women, more of an opportunity to experience throws outside of school athletics. When I was working in the secondary school space, I saw participation rates in all sports drop off,” says Hellier, who spent 14 years in the sports departments at Macleans and then Howick College.

“‘Throw like a Girl’ came to mind in recent years, for me, looking at our own declining numbers within athletics.”

In her role as Athletics NZ high performance throwing coach, Hellier had the opportunity to share her ideas with the national sporting organisation. She admits once she said it out loud, the enthusiasm was there and it was “really positively received”.

“Are we looking for stars of the future? Absolutely. But, more than that, we’re actually looking to provide an opportunity for young women to come down and give throwing a go,” says Hellier.

“It’s very much around having young women training together in a safe environment, where they don’t feel threatened outside of their own competitiveness. It’s event specific, but it’s also around developing physical capability and fundamental skills.

“We want to help develop each athlete’s physical, mental, social and leadership skills. It’s about more than just throwing itself.”

The young women will be mentored by Hellier and athletics coach John Endean, but the hope is that other experts - in the form of nutritionists, endocrinologists, performance technique analysts and other sport science support staff - will also help.

Reigning Commonwealth Games hammer throw champion Julia Ratcliffe is full of praise for the new initiative, and welcomes the opportunity for more people to try throwing.

Throwing has given her a sporting outlet and provided her with much more than just physical health benefits.

“Throwing has taught me that as a strong girl I should be proud of what my body can do,” she says. “Obviously it will be awesome for other young women to have a go and gain confidence in who they are through this programme.”

Maddison Wesche on her way to winning gold at the world under-20 IAAF championships last year. Photo: Getty Images.

A large part of Hellier’s mission is to continue the rich history of New Zealand throwing.

The legacy began with our first field event queen Yvette Williams (Corlett), who won Commonwealth medals in the javelin, discus and shot put – to add to her 1952 Olympic gold in long jump. Then Val Young, who won five Commonwealth medals in discus and shot put between 1958 and 1974.

They were followed by world champion discus thrower Beatrice Faumuina, the phenomenal Dame Valerie Adams and our latest shot put star Maddison Wesche.

“This is important to me because of the influence of the trailblazers, people like Yvette Corlett and Val Young and how they inspired me as an athlete,” Hellier says.

“You can’t be what you can’t see. When you have role models like we do right now it creates a platform for others to believe they can too. We want to provide an opportunity where other women can thrive off that visibility.”

A pilot programme will begin later this month in two Auckland centres, providing a weekly after-school open training session free for any young women at both the Pakuranga Athletics Club (at Lloyd Elsmere Domain) and the Papakura Athletics Club (at Massey Park, Papakura).

The aim is to eventually expand the programme nationally, implementing what was learned from the pilot.

Hellier says the programme doesn’t want to disrupt the good work already being done in many communities throughout New Zealand. “We’ll work with established coaches and groups already successful in the community to help them develop,” she says.

And it’s not just about inspiring our next generation of throwers, Hellier says, but also developing the capability of coaches.

She gives the example of Manurewa High School athletics coach Dion Wagner, who built a hammer cage at the school, and the flow-on effect of having both the facility to throw in and a positive role model in Wagner.

“Manurewa High sent 12 athletes to the New Zealand secondary school athletics nationals in Dunedin last year, and 11 of them were hammer throwers, which is pretty cool. We want to support those who are already doing some really great work in the community."

Hellier acknowledges the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga - where she sees her role as a guardian, and is passionate about ensuring “there’s another generation of coaches coming through”.

“My hope is that we will see lots of young women having a go and developing into good athletes,” she says. "Not everyone will be a great athlete, but we can expose them to the whole picture of sport - aspects like coaching and other support roles - to open their eyes to what's possible both inside and outside the athletics track."

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