Ham­mer time: How Bruce’s ca­reer went full cir­cle

The Timaru Herald - - Sport - Marc Hin­ton

Two years ago Lau­ren Bruce nearly walked away from her sport be­cause she had ma­jor doubts about the path it was tak­ing her on. Now, on the cusp of a place at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, the lat­est sen­sa­tion of New Zealand ath­let­ics feels a re­newed sense of iden­tity and pur­pose about a jour­ney that might just be get­ting started.

Bruce last Sun­day lit up a seem­ingly in­nocu­ous off-sea­son meet in Hast­ings. The 23-year-old Christchur­ch-based Ti­maru ath­lete, com­pet­ing solo in the ham­mer throw, pro­duced a stun­ning se­ries that yielded, not just five of six tosses be­yond her pre­vi­ous per­sonal best, but eclipsed Ju­lia Rat­cliffe’s New Zealand record by more than a me­tre.

It was some day out for a young woman who had not so long ago ques­tioned her very rea­son for do­ing what she does. Four times she sent the ham­mer sail­ing past the 70m mark (her per­sonal best had been 68.14). On her fifth at­tempt, she nailed 73.47m, which not only shaded Rat­cliffe’s New Zealand and Ocea­nia record of 72.35, but was the sixth best throw on the planet for 2020. She is now less than 2m be­hind the world leader, Be­larus’ Hanna Malyshik, at 75.45m.

It would also have been an au­to­matic Olympic qual­i­fy­ing dis­tance too (the stan­dard is 72.50m), but for the mora­to­rium on Games marks un­til De­cem­ber 1. Bruce will have to re­pro­duce her Hast­ings ef­fort post that date to con­firm a spot in Tokyo, and is al­ready tar­get­ing twin pre-Christ­mas meets in Christchur­ch to do so.

If you haven’t fol­lowed Bruce’s story thus far, the threads are cap­ti­vat­ing. For starters she has emerged as a world-class ham­mer thrower on the back of a child­hood ded­i­cated to gym­nas­tics. It was only a se­ri­ous in­jury that sent her tum­bling down the ded­i­cated track and field run­way.

Then there’s her path. She grew up in Ti­maru, was coached from a young age by lo­cal field events iden­tity Ian Baird, tried her hand at mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines and even­tu­ally moved to Christchur­ch to fur­ther her ca­reer, where she came un­der the wing of na­tional throws coach Dale Steven­son.

If that sounds a fa­mil­iar pro­gres­sion, that’s be­cause it is. For­mer world and cur­rent Di­a­mond League shot put cham­pion Tom Walsh blazed ex­actly that trail five years prior and is now a train­ing squad part­ner of Bruce’s.

Steven­son, the for­mer Aus­tralian shot put Olympian who has forged a suc­cess­ful coach­ing part­ner­ship with Walsh since mov­ing to New Zealand in 2014, calls Bruce ‘‘the real deal’’. He has no doubts he has an­other world-beater on his hands, with so much up­side in terms of strength and tech­nique.

‘‘She’s got all the at­tributes to do what Tom’s do­ing, and more,’’ Steven­son said. ‘‘She’s got the right per­sona, she’s phys­i­cally in­cred­i­bly tal­ented, she’s con­fi­dent and strong and bor­der­line stub­born, but with high lev­els of con­vic­tion. And she’s got the de­sire and pas­sion.’’

Same but dif­fer­ent. Whereas Walsh is an ex­tro­vert who dines out on the ca­ma­raderie and blus­ter of his sport, Bruce, says Steven­son, is ‘‘a bit more quiet and de­ter­mined in her de­meanour, but in­cred­i­bly strong in her own way’’.

Not that Bruce’s rise has been in­ex­orable. It was nearly over be­fore it had barely be­gun. She had moved to Christchur­ch in 2015 to be­gin study­ing for a Bach­e­lor of Sci­ence at Lin­coln (she has ticked off her de­gree) and had ini­tially con­tin­ued train­ing un­der Baird from afar. Even­tu­ally, in 2017, he di­rected her to Steven­son, with the ad­vice he had ‘‘taken her as far as he could’’.

Be­fore long Bruce ar­rived at a cross­roads. ‘‘I took three months out at the end of 2018, try­ing to fig­ure out am I do­ing this be­cause I’m good at it or do I ac­tu­ally re­ally want to do this? I had to fig­ure that out to come back and ac­tu­ally make some progress in the sport.

‘‘The best thing was not hav­ing any­thing to do with ath­let­ics and find­ing an iden­tity out­side of it which I didn’t re­ally have at the time. That was helped by Dale telling me he was OK with what­ever de­ci­sion I made and to only come back when I was ready. Hav­ing that space to fig­ure that out for my­self was the big­gest thing.’’

Ini­tially, the im­prove­ments were slow to come. But the en­joy­ment was there again, and even­tu­ally the ath­lete we see today be­gan to emerge. ‘‘Last week­end kind of made cer­tain in my mind that I did make the right choice,’’ she says with a smile.

Choice has been a theme of Bruce’s ca­reer to date. Gym­nas­tics had been her first sport­ing love through to age 14 – she still coaches the sport in her spare time – be­fore stress frac­tures in her back forced a de­ci­sion to step away and con­cen­trate on her ath­let­ics. ‘‘I’d been train­ing through a fair bit of pain, and that was prob­a­bly a good time to leave it there,’’ she says.

She was also some­what of a multi-tasker as an ath­lete through the school ranks, com­pet­ing at na­tional level across a range of dis­ci­plines from triple jump and hur­dles through to the ham­mer, dis­cus and shot put.

Right up un­til late last year she had been en­ter­tain­ing the prospect of at­tempt­ing to qual­ify for Tokyo in both dis­cus and ham­mer. But Steven­son had been preach­ing the need for spe­cial­i­sa­tion and a badly sprained an­kle in Novem­ber, close to the start of the do­mes­tic sea­son, forced her de­ci­sion. ‘‘There are no re­grets on that, for sure,’’ she adds.

What has emerged, thanks to Bruce’s dra­matic im­prove­ment, is a fab­u­lous ri­valry. Rat­cliffe, the 27-year-old Hamil­to­nian, Com­mon­wealth Games gold medal­list and now for­mer na­tional record-holder, was clearly pay­ing at­ten­tion.

Bruce: ‘‘She mes­saged me af­ter [Hast­ings] and kind of said ‘it’s on’ which is ex­cit­ing. Up to this point

I’ve been chas­ing . . . now I’m the one be­ing chased. To have some­one to go toe to toe with ev­ery com­pe­ti­tion has got to be cool. She wants her record back and I want to keep it.’’

In terms of the ham­mer dis­ci­pline, Bruce is some­what of an enigma. She is right-handed but chooses to un­leash the im­ple­ment (a 4kg shot at the end of a chain) as if she was left-handed. She puts this down to the clock­wise mo­tion of a left-han­der be­ing her nat­u­ral move­ment from gym­nas­tics.

Bruce be­lieves her gym back­ground has helped her throw­ing in terms of body move­ment, co-or­di­na­tion and work ethic. ‘‘Pos­ture, rhythm and tim­ing pretty much sums up the ham­mer,’’ she says. ‘‘You’re try­ing to move the ball as fast as you can, but you’ve got to stay re­laxed and long, and you can’t just mus­cle it.’’

Adds Steven­son: ‘‘We talk about rhythm and or­bit. The or­bit is the path the ham­mer takes and within a throw rhythm is a huge com­po­nent to get­ting tim­ing right. It’s a beau­ti­ful thing . . . the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of grace, tim­ing and ex­plo­sive power.’’

Steven­son isn’t in­ter­ested in di­alling back ex­pec­ta­tions. ‘‘I want to put pres­sure on her be­cause she is tal­ented and with tal­ent comes re­spon­si­bil­ity,’’ he says.

‘‘She’s start­ing to get the spi­ral of self-be­lief work­ing in the right di­rec­tion. The world’s her oys­ter. She’ll throw as far as she wants to throw now.’’

‘‘I took three months out at the end of 2018, try­ing to fig­ure out am I do­ing this be­cause I’m good at it or do I re­ally want to do this?’’ Lau­ren Bruce

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