Tori’s story: How she gave the javelin wings

After years of injury and little headway, javelin thrower Tori Peeters has finally found her mojo and is just a javelin's-length away from making the Tokyo Olympics. 

Tori Peeters sat in the middle of the track in Sydney’s Olympic Park, dazed by the javelin throw she’d just let fly.

As she undid the laces of her spiked throwing shoes, the numbers repeated over and over in her mind. 62.04. Sixty-two metres. So much further than she'd ever hurled a spear before. 

And then above the din at the Sydney Track Classic, she heard a voice call out from the stands: “Way to go, Flossie!”

“I thought ‘I know that voice. It’s the voice that I’d hear when I was playing netball, yelling from the blimmin’ grandstand’,” she says.

“I just burst into tears.”

It was her dad, Harry, a dairy farmer from Gore; her mum, Colette, was next to him. Until that moment, Peeters had no idea her parents were there.

“I just cried, because they’d never seen me throw far. They didn’t tell me they were coming; they hid in the crowd,” she says.

“It meant so much to me because they knew what I’d been through, how much work I’d put in, even sacrificing Christmas in Gore with them, to do this.”

What Peeters had done was break her own New Zealand record by 2.79m; the record she had set just a fortnight earlier in Canberra.

In two weeks, the 25-year-old had bettered her personal best javelin throw by a significant 5m. After months of shaking off niggling injuries - the result of competing in one of the most physically demanding track and field events - suddenly her chances of throwing at the Tokyo Olympics in July became that much greater.

Peeters has no doubt she has it in her to throw the automatic qualifying mark of 64m in the next few months.

“I’m in a new realm now, where 64m has my name on it,” she says, without a hint of arrogance.

Her coach, Debbie Strange, shares her confidence. “I believe in my bones Tori will be at the Tokyo Olympics, and she will be competitive too,” she says. Strange should know; as one of New Zealand’s leading throwing coaches, she’s taken athletes to four Olympic Games.

And it may all come down to a New Year’s resolution the Southlander made just two months ago.

Every throw Tori Peeters released at the Canberra Track Classic broke her national record. Photo: supplied.

On January 5, Peeters wrote on her Instagram page: “New Year // new goals. Whatever 2020 entails, it’s a year to smile more, worry less and enjoy wherever the year takes me.”

Sounds like the kind of resolution a lot of us might make, right? But when you’re No.1 in the country in your specialist event, and it’s an Olympic year, that wouldn’t be so normal.

“I’m a super competitive person and, in the past, I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to perform and succeed,” Peeters explains. “Honestly I think it burned me out.”

Peeters has been the New Zealand open women’s javelin record-holder since March 2014, when she was just 19. But for the last five years, her best throws have hovered around 55m and 57m. Injuries have plagued Peeters on and off – stress fractures of her spine among them.

Frustrated and anxious, she’d got to the point where she didn't enjoy competing anymore.

And in an Olympic year, training at the High Performance Sport NZ centre in Cambridge, she knew there would be a lot of pressure around qualifying.

“I’m in an environment where I train amongst all kinds of athletes, and you’re not going to be able to escape their noise. You’re surrounded by people who’ve qualified, and those who miss out. I knew that was going to play a part in whatever happened this year,” she says.

“So I decided to just go into these competitions and have fun, enjoy competing. It’s helped change my mindset - how I approach the season and the sport that I love.”

There was one other hurdle Peeters had to overcome if she wanted to improve – a fear of pain.

Going into a series of international competitions in Australia this month, she knew she had the ability to throw further than 57m. But she admits it was a half-hearted belief.

“I didn’t have the confidence in my body. I just didn’t know how to get it into the positions it needed to be in. Essentially it was a fear that everything was going to hurt," she says.

Javelin is one of the most demanding and technically challenging events in track and field. In the run-up, throwers accelerate to 6-7m per second, then have to come to a halt in a matter of metres. The momentum is transferred into the javelin, which naturally takes its toll on the athlete's body. 

"In the past I’ve had niggles, and stress fractures, so things have hurt. But I just had to fully believe I’d be fine.”

She introduced new drills to her warm-up that “gave me the confidence that I could throw it really hard and fast and it wasn’t going to hurt". 

Debbie Strange, whose title is Athletics New Zealand's high performance throws coach, also saw Peeters turn a corner.

“I’d printed off the forms you fill out when you’ve broken a New Zealand record before we went to a training camp in Brisbane in January,” she says. She copied a set for Australian javelin coach Mike Barber – husband of reigning world champion Kelsey-Lee Barber - who Peeters would stay with in Canberra.

“Tori didn’t know this, but I said to Mike: ‘It’s going to happen’. When she relaxes and doesn’t worry about it, concentrates on her process ... it will happen without her even realising it,” Strange says. “And when it pops, it’s going to pop a biggie. And it happened. It sure did.”

At the Brisbane camp, Peeters spent time talking with Kelsey-Lee Barber and world discus champ Dani Stevens about the mental side of the sport. At the same time, she started to put out big throws in training.

At the first meeting in Melbourne, she was 18cm short of her personal best. A week later, at the Canberra Track Classic, she broke the NZ record with every one of her throws – setting the new mark at 59.25m and winning gold.

Afterwards she called her strength and conditioning coach back home, Angus Ross, and told him every time she picked up the javelin, she knew every throw would be "an absolute rocket". It had never felt that way before.

"Gus said: ‘Remember what that feels like’. For the next few days, I held on to that feeling and did a lot of imagery around what that looked like.

“Emotionally it’s a real relaxed and a happy Tori. And technically, it’s all from my hips. I'd never thought about it that way, and that made a difference.”

On a roll, Peeters decided to stay on for the Sydney Track Classic, which carried important points towards Olympic selection. 

She spent another week with the Barbers – and thrived in the company of a driven, ambitious and generous world champion (Barber won the world title in Doha last year with a throw of 66.56m). “The throwing community is so cool. No one has anything to hide," Peeters says.

Barber, 28, gave the younger thrower some sage advice – after throwing big, don’t ignore your body.

“She said, ‘Keep an eye on how you’re feeling because it takes a little bit longer to settle after a big throw’,” says Peeters, who then spent more time in recovery, went to bed earlier and "cooked up a storm" with the world champ.  

Relaxed and happy, Peeters felt good approaching the javelin runway in Sydney last weekend. Gone was the apprehension, the fear of hurting or failing to perform.

She eased herself into the competition with a throw of 55m. But her second attempt felt different the moment the spear left her right hand.

“When I let it go of it, and I saw the flight of it, I knew it was big,” she says. “I was expecting them to say 60, but not 62. It was so crazy.”

Tori Peeters holds the board with her record score at the Sydney Track Classic. Photo: supplied. 

Peeters is back home in Cambridge now, at her job co-ordinating the sporting excellence programme at St Peter’s College. She's about to work with a group of girls who want to take up javelin this year.

She’s also going to give her coach a massage (Peeters got her diploma in massage last year) and prepare quietly for the national track and field championships in Christchurch this weekend. In a fortnight, she’ll head to another international meet in Brisbane.

The number 64 is now on repeat in her mind.

That’s the automatic Olympic qualifying mark, but it’s not the only road for Peeters to Tokyo. If she's ranked in the top 40 in the world by April 2, she can carry on attempting to qualify. As of the end of February, she was No. 40.

If she hasn’t reached 64m by the end of June, she could squeak in on her world ranking (determined by points) to make up the 32-woman field.

“We’re still going to play the points game, but there’s more focus on hitting that auto qual now,” Peeters says.

Words, she says, can’t describe how it would feel to compete in Tokyo. For the girl from Gore, who first picked up a javelin at high school, it’s been seven years of serious training to get this close.

“It would be the real start of my life as a professional athlete,” she says.

“That’s what’s so cool about javelin - all these women are still doing it over 30 years old.” Women like Australian Kathryn Mitchell, who won the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold with a throw of 68.92m at the age of 35.

“Javelin is like this big puzzle. Everyone is a different shape and size so there are different pieces for everyone. I’ve had a missing piece that I’ve finally found,” says Peeters.

“After my previous PBs I’ve thought, ‘Wow, awesome’ and I’ve just settled for it. But I don’t have that half-hearted confidence anymore. Now I’m an athlete who’s so hungry for more.”

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