Above: Ryan Ballantyne in action at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in March 2018.
Ryan Ballantyne finished a solid eighth in the men’s shot final at the recent IAAF World U20 Championships in Finland. Steve Landells chats to the Christchurch-based athlete about his Tampere performance and why training alongside the very best is the right decision.
Ryan Ballantyne may not yet be able to match his illustrious training partner Tom Walsh in the shot circle but hear this - he can certainly shade him over the hurdles!
As part of a recent bet, the pair squared off in a 40m hurdles race with the loser forced to wash a collection of ten to 15 dirty white towels the training group had been using for some time.
The result however went the way of the younger thrower, who claimed the scalp of the World and Commonwealth shot champion in an intense hurdles battle between two men whose combined weight comes close to a quarter of a tonne.
“Tom was talking a big game but I knew I could outsprint him,” explains Ryan. “He made me work for it, but I beat him.”
While Tom was less-than elated to have to squeeze in his additional laundry duties before embarking on his annual competitive jaunt to Europe and North America, the little friendly wager offered a snap shot of life between the pair at their base at the Apollo Projects Centre in Christchurch.
Ryan, who was raised on a dairy farm in Te Awamutu in the Waikato, headed south to Christchurch to be coached by Dale Stevenson at the beginning of 2017.
He had just come off the back of a mighty performance at the 2016 New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Auckland, where he announced his exciting potential by hurling the 5kg shot out to 21.66m to top the world U18 rankings for the year.
Privileged to be part of Walsh’s world-class set up, he nonetheless took time to find his feet, living independently for the first time.
“Looking back, it was a big year for me,” he explains. “I moved away from home into a new training environment, it was definitely challenging and nothing came easily. I had to start fending for myself, I no longer had by mum and dad cooking for me. Time-management also became huge.”
Admitting the first months did not go as smoothly as he would have liked, the gifted North Islander still launched the 6kg and 7.26kg shot out to distances of 19.12m and 16.89m, respectively, in the 2017 domestic campaign, and also snared the New Zealand U20 crown.
As a young age-group thrower, Ryan also faced another additional challenge of flip-flopping between competing for the 6kg shot (used for U20 competition) and the 7.26kg senior implement, which is no easy task.
“It is part and parcel of being an age-group thrower, but it is quite a challenge,” he explains. “There are definitely some physical and mental challenges like timing issues and the bigger weights tend to throw me around a bit more, but I’ve definitely got stronger and more confident in the circle with the seven (7.26kg) kg shot.”
In July last year, as part of a brief overseas tour, he also extended his personal best (with the 6kg shot) to 19.98m in Jacksonville, Florida, which acted as a further boost his confidence that life under the guidance of Dale and with Tom as a training partner was working.
Training anywhere between four to five times in a week in the shot circle and three to four times a week in the gym, is demanding but he insists he could not wish to have a better coaching inspiration.
“Dale is an amazingly smart guy, but what he does better than any other coach I’ve worked with is the way he works with us as individual athletes,” he explains. “He treats all the athletes in the group differently. He is a very inspiring dude and it is a privilege to be on his team.”
Inspiration also comes by way of his training partners; Torie Owers, Nick Palmer and, of course, Tom Walsh – and it is something the 19-year-old athlete fully appreciates.
“It is an amazing opportunity to be training with a world champion, although I wouldn’t tell him that because I don’t want him to get too big headed,” he says with a smile. “I enjoy being a small fish in a big tank and constantly learning from him. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Under Dale’s astute guidance, Ryan has developed massively as an athlete both physically and mentally. He has put on more than 20kg in weight to now top the scales at 117kg and he hopes the additional power and strength can convert to longer distances in future.
He has also worked hard on utilising more of the HPSNZ support services on offer such as nutrition and sports psychology – although, as he insists, learning never stops
“I’ve gained a lot more knowledge about the sport (since moving to Christchurch), but you can never learn the whole novel, it just keeps on going. There is always something different to learn.”
During the 2018 domestic campaign, Ryan retained his national U20 title, matched his 6kg PB with a 19.98m effort in Hastings and set a senior implement best of 17.19m before heading off for the World U20 Championships in Tampere, Finland for his pinnacle event of the year.
Enjoying a good final planning period, Ryan entered the competition with high expectations but during a high-class competition he struggled to find his absolute best.
Requiring a third-round effort of 19.03m to smuggle his way into the final for ninth in qualification, in the medal round he threw a best of 19.39m for eighth – well down on the gold medallist Kyle Blignaut of South Africa, who fired the 6kg metal ball out to a world U20 leading mark 22.07m to edge a thrilling competition by 1cm from American Adrian Piperi.
“Qualifying is always brutal and something I need to work on,” explains Ryan who struggled with his first two efforts of 18.62m and 18.61m. “You don’t have time to ease into the competition - you have to roll the dice straight away.
“For the final I just felt flat. There was nothing there, it was just frustrating. I went into the competition with an open mind, so there were some positives, although at the same time it was not the outcome I would have wanted.”
Taking his personal disappointment aside, he found the World U20 Championships a great learning experience and later in the competition he got the opportunity to enjoy his fellow New Zealander Maddison Wesche strike gold in the women’s shot.
“It was awesome to see and if you could pick someone to win from the start just by looking at body posture, it would definitely be Maddi,” he explains. “It was great to see how she was so chilled and relaxed and enjoying every minute of it. It was definitely inspiring.”
Ryan plans to take a few weeks off before returning to training where he hopes to “get on top of the small things” and start the 2018-19 domestic season “on fire.”
The 19-year-old, who works two days a week at ANZ bank, says he has not yet discussed the possibility of competing at the IAAF World Championships in Doha, but further down the road he has some big ambitions.
“I haven’t really talked about it yet but Tokyo 2020 is something I will push for,” he says.