August 16, 2008. Valerie Vili is holding back tears as God Defend New Zealand draws to a close in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium.
One of the most emotive moments in New Zealand’s sporting history seems like only yesterday. But in four years a lot has changed for this Olympic champion. Not least her name.
Since “Super Saturday”, Valerie Adams has been through divorce, two new coaches, allegations she was “past it” and nine months of virtual solitude living on a mountain on the other side of the world.
Almost four years from the major high of Beijing, the 27-year-old is ready to do it all over again in London off the back of an outstanding 2011 season. But also off her fair share of trials in between.
“I suppose a lot of people questioned me because I’d made so many changes, but I asked people to trust me in my choices and what I thought was the right thing to do,” Adams said.
“I think a lot of people wrote me off after 2010. A lot of people thought it was the end of my time and it was the end of me. I wanted to prove them wrong, but also, prove myself right that I still had it in me.
“To be honest, if there was a time for that s— to happen, it was 2010. It wasn’t an Olympic year, it was a Commonwealth Games year and I didn’t have that much competition.
“None of it was planned, but it worked out to be perfect timing.
“In 2011, I was able to give it my all, without the baggage, without being anchored down. That’s what it felt like. Changing coaches and my personal life, it lifted that anchor off my back.
“I’ve had a pretty dream 2011 season, particularly after going through a lot of change at the beginning of the year. The move to Switzerland, the change of coach, change of marital status. Everything has worked out. I couldn’t have asked for a better season.
“I’ve been able to move forward. I’ve become a better athlete.”
After a third straight world title with a career best “ and championship record “ 21.24m in Daegu, South Korea, Adams, who last week was nominated for the 2011 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year, is right on the money with her self-assessment.
If ever she went away, as some suggested after she “only” won silver at the 2010 world indoor championships, then Adams is back.
Happier than ever under veteran coach Jean-Pierre Egger, Adams has made huge personal sacrifice in relocating to Egger’s native Switzerland. It’s been lonely and gruelling for nine months of the year. But absolutely worth it.
“I’ve been away most of this year. Being away from New Zealand is really hard,” Adams said.
“I have such a close relationship with my two sisters, my niece and my nephew that it’s difficult being away from them.
“The first few months when I was in Switzerland was pretty depressing. It’s pretty much just me, alone, in an apartment.
“During the day I’m training, and only get an hour off here or there. By the time you get home, you’re totally screwed from training. You go to your room, take a shower, watch a bit of TV and go to sleep. It’s pretty boring.
“I eventually found a Kiwi family who live at the bottom of the mountain in Biel. I’ve latched on to them and become part of the furniture. That’s helped a bit.
“It was tough. I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. The season hadn’t started and my first competition in Europe was still two months away. Every day, every week, was a grind.
“But I knew I was there for a reason. There was purpose.
“Jean-Pierre has refined me into a powerbox athlete. I’m a lot more dynamic, more athletic and I recover faster.
“All the changes he’s made have been positive. Change may be hard to accept, but change is good. Change is very good and it came at a good time.
“He’s made me stronger and made me confident with my technique. Before I wasn’t so confident and I was reliant on strength to win. With JP it’s all about technique. As strong as you may be, technique is always going to get you further.
“He’s such a lovely man that I’m always alert and taking in what he says to me. I have so much respect for this man. He’s such an amazing person.”
Preparing for her third Olympic campaign, Adams concedes she’s more relaxed than ahead of Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008.
But she also acknowledges the increased pressure of being No1.
“There’s definitely more pressure when you’re the reigning Olympic champion. There’s the expectation that you’re going to win and also expectation that someone’s going to beat you, because that’s sport.
“There’s also more pressure from myself, from the public, from everybody. But that’s the goal and Jean-Pierre and I will be working our butts off going in to London.
“It’s a big year, it’s a very big year. But I know what I’m in for as far as Switzerland because I’ve been there all year this year. It’s not like I’m walking in blind.
“While there’s more pressure I’m actually less stressed leading up to this Olympics. I don’t have as much baggage, plus I can feel genuine support from the public. Training is more fun and exciting “ that makes a big difference.”
Adams’ 21m final throw at this year’s world championships serves as an ideal snapshot of her 2011 season and progress under Egger.
In addition to destroying Belarusian main rival Nadzeya Ostapchuk yet again, it also appears, in that moment, a long wait for Team Adams was finally over.
“I always felt there was 21m there. It was just a matter of when. When, when, when?” Adams said.
“I threw 20.72m on the fourth round and really had nothing to lose on the last round. Everyone had thrown and I was up last.
“So I thought `what the hell’ and when I unleashed the bloody shot I smacked the crap out of that thing and off it flew.
“It was the most amazing feeling, not only breaking 21m but also breaking the championship record, which had stood for such a long time.
“And also beating Ostapchuk by such a long margin. It was a very satisfying competition.”
As the reigning Olympic, Commonwealth and world champion, Adams has now set her sights on regaining the world indoor title – a score she’ll look to settle with Ostapchuk in March.
But Adams’ progress this year raises a bigger question than the world indoor title.
How much further can she go?
“I really don’t know. I’m 27, I’ve been in the sport 12 years and I’m still throwing personal bests. That’s got to count for something,” she said.
“It’s a matter of waiting and seeing. But if I can consistently get into those late 20s, early 21m region then the jump to the next level is there.”
A truly “next level” mark is the current women’s world record of 22.63m, set in 1987 by Soviet Natalya Lisovskaya – a mark which remains the source of drug-enhanced allegations.
Asked for her opinion of the mark, Adams acknowledges the debate in typically honest, no-nonsense style.
“I don’t really give a damn about the world record,” Adams said.
“It’s there in my event, but I’m not motivated by it. I’m motivated to beat my own best.
“It’s another metre-and-a-half on top of my PB. That distance in shot put is a very long way. When you’ve advanced through your career to the point where I am now, progress isn’t 40cm.
“We’re counting single centimetres.
“There has been a lot of things said about the women’s shot put world record, 22.63m. That’s a fricking long way. So fricking far.
“Things happened in those days for a reason and people did things for a reason. We can’t go back in time and change that. It’s happened. My take on it is that the world record stands and it will always stand. I don’t train all day every day to break that world record. I train all day every day to win the Olympics and break my personal best.
“Even cracking 21m these days is an awesome throw. That just goes to show the level, and what was happening back then as opposed to now, whether or not they were stronger back then.
“My aim in 2012 is to throw further than 21.24m and my goal is to win the Olympics.
“Success in London would mean the world. It’s just like a new chapter. When I won the 2008 Olympics there were a lot of other things going on in my life which overbeared that success.
“I want to write another chapter. I want to go to another Games in the best shape of my life and win that medal. It would mean so much to me, and I know so much to the country.
“But we haven’t won yet. We’ve still got to do the work and then deliver on the day. There’s still a long way to go.”
At 27, time is on Adams’ side to become the greatest Olympian New Zealand has ever produced.
But, for the time being, Rio 2016 is not on the agenda.
“I would love to go to Rio, but that’s all down to whether the body and mind can continue,” she said.
“I can see a lot of people talking about it already, `you’ve got to go to Rio’ and I would love to, but let’s focus on London.
“People have to realise training regimes are not easy. They take a lot of toll on your body. As long as I’m still enjoying my sport and I can still do it well, I’ll be competing. But I have high expectations, I will never be just a participant.
“I will know when my time is up and as long as I stay injury-free, you’re going to keep seeing my face around.”
Source: SIMON PLUMB