Tom Walsh builds his legacy his way
Shot put sensation Tom Walsh - who hopes to have a hand in building his own house - believes only time stands between him and a world-record throw
There have been times when world champion Tom Walsh thought he’d found perfection.
Now he’s not so sure.
For Walsh, the holy grail of shot put is “the perfect throw”. It’s what he’s always aimed for, and what his rivals – a tight bundle of burly strongmen he calls friends - focus on too.
It’s that moment when, having spun smoothly and slickly through the throwing circle, all the while gathering speed, the 7kg metal sphere fires effortlessly from their hand. And they know immediately that it will sail far.
In the past, Walsh has said he’s released the shot perfectly “maybe five or six times”, since stepping on to the world stage as a naïve 17-year-old student from Timaru Boys’ High. But now, he wonders if he has ever truly experienced that definitive moment of precision.
It’s three weeks since Walsh - part-time builder, professional athlete – won gold at the world track and field championships in London. He’s sitting in a restaurant in Cambridge, (the English university city), having met up with an old builder mate, and is trying to explain down the phone line what the perfect throw actually feels like.
“Look, perfect throws are very hard to come by,” the Olympic bronze medallist says. “And they’re very hard to work towards. But it’s obviously what we’re all chasing, and that’s one of the things I love about my sport.
“A lot of my throws are very close to the perfect throw, but I don’t think I’ve had one yet. It’s hard to explain what it is... I don’t think you can explain it. It’s just a feeling - as soon as its leaves your hand, you know it’s gone a long way.”
So it’s the feeling he expects to have when he heaves a world record distance, his next big, hairy, audacious goal?
“Exactly,” he says.
He’s not unlike a golfer trying to find the perfect swing; in fact, that’s another of his ambitions. He’s pretty respectable at golf, playing off a nine handicap in between athletics meetings around the globe.
“Me and Dale [coach Dale Stevenson] take our sticks on the road now. There’s only so much time that you can spend training, so it’s another thing to escape to. We’ve been to a few great courses around the world, and hopefully there will be a few more to come,” he says.
Time is on his side to do all that. At 25, Walsh sees himself as “mid-pack”, in the age range of the world’s elite shot putters. “You can throw till you’re 33, 35 generally. So I have a few years up my sleeve yet,” he says.
Walsh continues his winning ways as the European track and field season winds down; his latest victory was at the Zagreb World Challenge in Croatia.
He enjoys Croatia: “It’s cheap, They have great food and there’s plenty to see there; it ticks all the boxes. You know, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have a good time.”
But there’s something else about Zagreb that keeps Walsh coming back. In 2015, he won the World Challenge with a personal best effort of 21.62m, and last year he returned to throw 22.21m – which still stands as the furthest he’s ever thrown. At this year’s event, he threw a shorter 21.5m – but it was still 15cm better than his nearest rival.
The world record for men’s shot is 23.12m – set by American Randy Barnes in 1990 during the drug-riddled era of the sport. That same year, Barnes was banned for over two years for anabolic steroids; then the 1996 Olympic gold medallist was banned for life for using over-the-counter supplement androstenedione. (He later made a new name for himself in longest-drive golf).
Walsh has already spoken out against the proposal to reset all of the world’s athletics records, saying it wouldn’t be fair to those who’ve set world times and distances without the assistance of drugs.
He’d rather wipe those records off the board with legitimate performances. And he believes he has the power and ability to scrub out Barnes’ mark.
“I don’t like to put a timeframe on it, but I think I’m capable of throwing the world record,” says Walsh, even though none of the current crop of champion throwers have yet broken the 23m mark.
“I think it’s close. Whether it’s next year or the year after, I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to breaking it.”
He’s feeling good for the Diamond League final in Brussels this weekend, his last event before returning home to Christchurch. He reckons he should be back to “100 percent” fitness, having recovered from the painful groin injury he suffered on the eve of the world championships and carried through the event.
“The day before the comp, I tweaked my groin on the third throw of the session. So I stopped straight away, and went straight to the physio. I didn’t even want to know what was wrong with it; I just wanted her to get me in some kind of shape so I could at least compete,” Walsh recalls.
“But that took the some of expectation away from me - I was more worried about whether I could throw at all. And that kind of made it slightly easier.”
He gritted his teeth through the pain, and then had to hold his mettle while two of his greatest rivals, Americans Joe Kovacs and Ryan Crouser, both lodged protests over foul throws; Crouser’s challenge coming just as Walsh lined up to climb the medal podium.
“It was the weirdest thing,” he says. Although he does a lot of mental strength work, it wasn’t something Walsh had primed himself for.
"What I really wanted to do was to compete like a world champ - and if I did, I knew that I’d be fine."
But Walsh doesn’t hold grudges, and he’s since been out to dinner with Crouser. He says the cluster of competitors at the top is as thick as thieves. “We all get on well, we have a few drinks together and enjoy each other’s company. We’re away from home and on the road together too much to not do that,” he says.
“In men’s shot at the moment there’s a handful of us who are really competitive; [only] so many of us can throw far and be good enough to win.
“And that’s what makes everyone better, the pressure of competition. It’s so great to see men’s shot going from strength to strength. It makes my job harder, but when you do well, it makes it even more worthwhile.”
Life has changed little since he won his first outdoor world title (he’s defending his world indoor title next year). He says he felt no different a week ago, when he stepped into the circle at the Birmingham Diamond League meet, his competitive streak still strong, and outgunned Olympic champion Crouser once again.
“What I really wanted to do was to compete like a world champ - and if I did, I knew that I’d be fine. That’s what I’ve done so far,” he says.
What has changed for the better is Walsh’s bank account. He’s collected close to $115,000 this international season, and he admits the bigger purses that come with victory are gratefully received.
“I do the sport because I love it, but money brings another side to it. It allows me to do it for longer, and be comfortable doing it as well,” he says.
To your average sportsman or woman, it would also mean not having to work part-time to keep competing. But Walsh reckons he’s looking forward to returning home and donning his tool belt.
Part of the reason is because the house he’ll be building is his own – the first house he’s ever owned. The Christchurch company he’s worked for over the last eight years, Mike Greer Homes, has been building it while he’s been away, and he’d like to “hammer in a few nails, so I can at least say I built it,” he laughs.
Walsh and his partner, Dana Mulcahy – an occupational therapist – would like to move into their 240sqm house, on a 650sqm section in the new north-east Christchurch suburb of Prestons Park, before Christmas.
“I build because I enjoy it. It’s good to get away from throwing the shot sometimes. It’s a good freshener for my mind,” he says, before he repeats:
“I would never do anything I don’t enjoy.
“There will be less building going on every year now for me from now on. But I still see it as part of my life to be there.”
How many world champions would say that?