Hammer time: How Bruce’s career went full circle
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