A shadow of doubt
An American from Boring threatens to derail Tom Walsh’s bid for glory at the world athletic championships. Marc Hinton reports.
Alarge, unmistakable shadow hovers over Tom Walsh ahead of next month’s world athletics championships in London.
No matter how much the burly Cantab ducks and dives, New Zealand’s leading hope for a medal in London can’t shake the omnipresent gloom cast by staunch rival and giant American Ryan Crouser.
Crouser, born in, would you believe, Boring, Oregon, has morphed quickly into the No 1 hurler of the silver sphere on the planet: Olympic champion, unbeaten in 2017, riding a 10-event win streak and regularly blasting past the 22-metre mark.
A long, long way from Boring. Not that you’ll catch Walsh, the 25-year-old world indoor and Diamond League shot put champion, and Olympic bronze medallist, getting hung up on Crouser’s remarkable feats. The pride of Timaru, and part-time builder, has his own stuff to worry about, and is not about to let the 2.03m American live rent-free in his head.
Never mind that all four of Walsh’s defeats in 2017 have come at Crouser’s expense. The American nudged him into the runner-up spot in Christchurch and Auckland in New Zealand in February, and then again in Diamond League meets in Eugene and Lausanne. Each time the big fella topped the 22-metre mark.
Crouser’s consistency in 2017 has been uncanny. He threw 22.05 to win in Christchurch; 22.15 to prevail at the Auckland Track Challenge; then 22.11 to top a meet in Kansas; an off-key 21.79 in Guadeloupe; 22.43 in Eugene; a world-leading and PB 22.65 in Sacramento; 22.39 in Lausanne; and 22.47 most recently in Rabat.
Given that Walsh’s best for 2017 is the 21.97m he tossed to finish second in Lausanne, and that only two other throwers in the world have even topped the 22-metre mark this year (Joe Kovacs and Tomas Stanek), it would be perhaps understandable if Walsh’s mindset wandered into the silvermedal-best-case-scenario territory. Are you kidding.
‘‘He’s not unbeatable,’’ says Walsh ahead of his final stateside shakedown in Athens today. ‘‘He’s in a hell of a good rhythm. Guys in the past have had years like this, where they’ve been over that 22-metre line more often than not.
‘‘But you can’t have that mindset. If you go into a competition thinking I’m only here for second place, then you’ve lost already. He knows that I’m coming for him, put it that way.’’
It’s not like Walsh doesn’t know what it’s like to sit Crouser on his backside. After the American’s memorable gold in Rio last year, the Kiwi exacted revenge in Paris and Zurich en route to his first Diamond League crown. Both times he was in the 22m-plus area.
‘‘You can’t get caught up in trying to throw further than him, just because he’s going so well,’’ adds Walsh. ‘‘If that sneaks into your training it can be detrimental to your own work. So you’ve got to stay out of that. But a few reminders of how well he’s going doesn’t hurt things.
‘‘The competitions I’ve thrown against him this year, I haven’t been in tip-top shape. That’s not making excuses: he’s been better than me on every occasion. But I’m starting to get closer and closer. I will have to do something pretty special to beat him, but I fully believe I can.’’
This is the thing about Walsh. He has figured himself out. He knows his strengths (he’s a rhythm and timing thrower) and his weaknesses (‘‘If it was a strongman contest, I’d be out the arse-end,’’ he adds, with a smile).
But he has found his best method, has refined it to something that works well for him, and has developed the competitive mindset that takes you a long way in top sport.
‘‘I’m going to win it, no doubt about that,’’ says Walsh of his world champs campaign, which starts on opening day (August 4) with qualifying. ‘‘I’m throwing better than I ever have at this time of year and I’m in the best shape I’ve been. When I do line things up at the world champs, a few people may be changing their tune about me.’’ Changing tunes. Is that a chip on his well-rounded shoulder? Walsh admits he does feel underrated.
‘‘That’s because Crouser is going so well, and it’s all about Crouser this year, which is fair enough. He deserves it. But sometimes it’s good to be an underdog. I know how far I can throw and I know I can beat him, because I’ve done it a few times.’’
To do that, Walsh figures he will need to climb up into the mid22m area (his PB is the 22.21 he threw in Zagreb last year). He’s convinced his training in Athens has him right on track to achieve that.
‘‘I’m capable,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m in better shape than last year. I feel like my technique is better and I know I’ve got more gas in the tank.’’ Walsh is nothing if not a learner.
In Rio last year he threw well below his best, while still picking up the bronze medal with a modest 21.36m. But within weeks he was busting up around the 22m mark in Europe, mopping up that inaugural Diamond League title.
Basically, he peaked too late. So this year the schedule has been moved forward to allow him to find those big bombs when it really matters.
‘‘Now I’m close to a Rio kind of freshness, so I’ve got another two weeks up my sleeve to get used to all that extra rhythm and timing that I need.
‘‘I’ve got all this extra horsepower. All my gym numbers have gone up and my power output has gone up. It just sometimes takes a while to line it all up.’’
Ryan who? Right now it’s all about Tom Walsh being the best Tom Walsh he can be. The rest, he knows, will take care of itself.