Honestly, Tom Walsh is one of New Zealand’s top athletes. At this stage he simply has to be. Perhaps he doesn’t look like Sonny Bill Williams when he takes the sleeves off but this guy is an athletic freak in his own right and as an added bonus he also happens to embody two other traits that kiwis quite fancy in their favourite athletes: one is that he’s a down to earth honest and humble bloke, the kind of dude that you just wanna share a beer with, the kind of dude who’s only now talking about having to take a wee sabbatical from the carpentry day job. Two is that he has this killer knack of rising to the occasion on the biggest stage.
Think about when he first announced himself as a genuine shot putting hero. It was probably those World Indoor Champs a couple years back when he unexpectedly took home a gold medal. A big throw in Portland and he had the gold, though by then he’d already had a fourth place in a World Champs. He’d already taken home bronze in the 2014 World Indoors. He’d already won silver at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Then of course there was the Olympic bronze medal that followed.
It’s only really been since those Olympics that Walsh has established himself in the top three of this sport… but how good are those tournament finishes? The throw that won him silver at the Comms was his best throw in all of 2014. His best throw at the 2015 Worlds was his second best all year. The Olympic success was one thing but he then went and broke his personal best three times in the space of ten days and the first thing he did at the 2017 Worlds was to waltz out there and hurl his first qualifying effort 22.14m – his best number of the season and an utter mic drop.
The feeling was still that Americans Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs would peak for the final but if Walshy could repeat that distance then there’s nobody else in the field who could catch him for a medal short of someone unexpectedly busting a massive personal best.
True enough, after the first round it was Kovacs that led Walsh by ten centimetres, the kiwi having hurled his weight 21.38m. It would be his shortest throw all competition. Next time up he tossed 21.64m and had himself a lead that he’d never surrender.
This was an insane competition. Nobody hit the distances that Ryan Crouser has been hitting since his Olympic gold – not even Ryan Crouser who was suspiciously hovering around the early 21s. Croatian Stipe Zunic sent his second effort 21.46m which is only two centimetres shy of his personal best and he’d hold on for the bronze despite tailing off with the rest of his throws. Tomas Stanek was probably the best dark horse candidate, as the only other bloke besides Crouser, Kovacs and Walsh to top 22m this season, but he couldn’t pass 21.41m, instead settling for fourth place.
Zunic is an absolute legend, by the way. His last throw was called foul and he chased it all the way down the lane with a forward roll to boot. Then he gave Tommy a big old scoop.
Five of Walsh’s throws were at least 21.63m, some crazy consistency there. His compatriot Jacko Gill had to settle for 20.82m which meant missing out on the final round by 7cm but still one to be proud of – again, there wasn’t the massive winning distance here but this was the first time ever a competition had seen seven different putters throw over 21m. Walsh, Kovacs and Crouser – regardless of what happened here – are the three dudes that everyone else is trying to catch, with Rio champ Crouser that further step beyond. However the depth beneath that top tier is growing by the tournament and they’re all young enough to leap into that top tier too, just as Walsh did a year ago.
Tom Walsh (NZL) – 25 years old
Joe Kovacs (USA) – 28 years old
Stipe Zunic (CRO) – 26 years old
Tomas Stanek (CZE) – 26 years old
Michal Haratyk (POL) – 25 years old
Ryan Crouser (USA) – 24 years old
Ryan Whiting (USA) – 30 years old
Konrad Bukowiecki (POL) – 20 years old
Jacko Gill (NZL) – 22 years old
David Storl (GER) – 27 years old
Darrell Hill (USA) – 23 years old
Andrei Gag (ROM) – 26 years old
And this is following the retirements of legends like Tomasz Majewski and Reece Hoffa. Walsh and Crouser especially are leading a new generation of shot putters. Crouser continued to disappear as the rounds went on while Walsh kept on dominating with regularity on his way to the gold. It wasn’t without controversy though…
Joe Kovacs and the USA team protested that decision, which drew the red flag on a throw which would’ve won him the title – in the same way that Valerie Adams lost Olympic gold in Rio too, if you’re paying close attention (last challenger’s last attempt having led most of the way). That protest was declined. Take a careful peak and you can just sorta probably see his foot scrape over the barrier and that’s enough to render the effort illegal. The tiniest margins at one end defying the biggest margin at the other end. Walsh then threw 22.03m in his last one to top things off and he was world champion.
Tommy becomes the third New Zealander to medal at the Athletics World Champs. This is a competition that’s existed since 1983 and since 1991 it’s been held every two years. Yet up until that day New Zealand had only won six medals and they’d come from the same two people. Beatrice Faumuina won gold in the 1997 discus event before Valerie Adams won silver in shot put in 2005 and then took the next four consecutive golds. Add Walsh (the first kiwi male, therefore, to win one) and that record reads seven medals – six of them golds. This is not an everyday occurrence. This is a massive, momentous achievement.
What happened to Ryan Crouser though? He was the no doubt favourite having swept damn near everything since the Olympic final (apart from the Diamond League but he wasn’t there for most of it, leaving the path clear for Tommy to triumph). Of the 11 throws longer than 22.00m in 2017 (before Walsh made it 13 in London), Crouser had thrown seven of them including four of the top five. His best was a 22.65m effort in California back in late-June – it’s been over 14 years since anyone threw further than that.
Yet in London he absolutely mashed it. There was nothing special about his qualifying mark of 20.90 – Jacko Gill topped it, in fact – but it was enough for a one-and-done finals ticket all the same. In that final, however, the undisputed king struggled to get anything going. 21.07m with his first attempt, he only beat that by two centimetres before fouling his next two. His fifth shot went 21.20m and then the final all-or-nothing attempt only travelled 21.14m. That’s a sixth place finish for a bloke who dominated the Olympics with a 22.52m throw in Rio.
To be fair to the bloke, he tossed one over 22 metres with his third go but it was called foul by the umps. Stepped over the back end of the ring. It was controversial enough that the US team logged a complaint about this one while they were protesting the Kovacs throw too but this one wasn’t overturned either.
22.31m unofficially… so it would’ve easily been enough to win the thing but, you know, gotta stay in that lane, bro. As to why he couldn’t find any consistency with his throws while Walshy was out there hitting distance on every attempt, maybe he was carrying a slight injury. Maybe he didn’t handle the expectation all that well. He was an explosive underdog at the Olympics and has only been doing that kinda damage the last two years, basically. He’s not got a lot of experience and coming in as the resounding favourite maybe didn’t help him.
But Crouser is still the main man out there… he’ll just have to wait a few more years to get his hands on a World Champs medal.
How much fun does it look like to be on that shot put tour? From Zunic and his acrobatics and celebratory lifting to Walsh’s kiwi blokeship to Crouser being a good bro (remember when he came to NZ to compete?) and going all the way down the list. There’s serious rivalry there but there’s no bad blood – it’s all in the right spirit and everyone seems like mates out of the circle. It’s may the best man win… and in London that best man was Tom Walsh.
Bloody love it.
Tom Walsh is a great chap, you can be a great chap/chapess too by clicking on an ad and supporting TNC in trying to emulate Walshy’s world domination.