Above: Ben Langton Burnell winning his first NZ senior javelin title at the 2017 NZ Championships in Hamilton Photo by Alan McDonald / Macspeedfoto.
Following his impressive new PB of 82.44m Ben Langton Burnell has opened the door to a potential World Championship appearance in London. Steve Landells found out more about the development of the latest Kiwi throws star.
With a naturally fast arm and an ability to hurl a cricket ball 100m aged 13, Ben Langton Burnell has long acknowledged a predisposition to throw far.
Yet it was only after watching New Zealand record-holder Stuart Farquhar compete at the 2008 Beijing Games on TV as a 15-year-old schoolboy did he first entertain thoughts of throwing the javelin.
“I thought it looked pretty cool and clearly you can go places with the javelin, so, why not?” he explains.
The hunch proved correct. Some nine years on the Manawatu-raised thrower has succeeded Farquhar as New Zealand champion and after a hugely impressive personal best of 82.44m in Hamilton earlier this month Ben now stands on the cusp of making his World Championship debut.
Raised on a dairy farm just outside of Levin, Ben always possessed a natural aptitude for sport. A rep soccer player and under-17 New Zealand badminton player he could have pursued a range of sporting options before plumping for javelin.
Remarkably, just several weeks after taking up the sport he was crowned the 2009 New Zealand under-18 champion with 54.61m and a career was launched.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” he says of his spectacular early success in the sport. “I was only hoping to get in the top eight.”
Later that year he won a silver medal at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Track & Field Championships and under the coaching of Wanganui-based Richard Drabczynski he continued to progress. In his final year at Palmerston North Boys’ High School he advanced his PB to 69.20m with the school-weighted (700g) javelin.
Moving on to study AgriCommerce at Massey University he made small javelin gains in 2011 and 2012. However, keen to expand his horizons in pursuit of his dream to one day represent his country at the Olympic Games, he wrote a formal letter to Debbie Strange, coach to Farquhar, requesting if she could coach him. She accepted and in early 2014 Ben relocated to Hamilton to be by his new coach.
“I wanted to be coached by Debbie because she knows how to get athletes to an Olympic final and at that point in my career I was 10-12m away from the Olympic level,” he says. “I wanted to write a letter and ask formally because I knew Debbie had a lot on her plate with Stu. The fact Debbie replied and said yes was cool.”
Undergoing major changes to his technical model under his new coach proved a “difficult adjustment” for the Palmerston North athlete and for the first couple of seasons he suffered injury setbacks as he tried to come to terms with the new demands on his body.
“I knew I had to be a lot better when executing the block because I simply used to sprint in and try and rip the crap out of the javelin as opposed to holding back and being a lot more patient,” he explains
Despite a challenging start to life in Hamilton in 2014 he hurled the spear out to 74.69m and in 2015 be placed tenth at the World University Games in Korea. It was a respectable first international competition for Ben, who had set a lifetime best of 75.54m during qualification.
Yet besides the positive influence of his coach there was another hugely influential element at play every day in training and that was the presence of Stuart Farquhar, the 2010 Commonwealth Games silver medallist, a four-time Olympian, who retired from international competition last year.
“Stu was a huge inspiration,” he says. “It was amazing to hear of his experiences of competing at the major championships. He taught me a lot about the mindset of going into these big events and also during training that it is sometimes necessary to go one step back to go two steps forward.”
Improvements continued in the 2015-16 domestic campaign as he advanced his lifetime best to 77.97m at his home track in Hamilton but a nagging back problem and the removal of his appendix compromised his ambitions to make the New Zealand team for the Rio Olympics.
“The appendix was a massive setback and it took a lot longer than anticipated to come back from that,” he explains. “It badly impacted on my core stability and I remember coming back from that and only being able to throw 20m because it felt like my stomach was about to tear in half.”
Yet despite missing out on his dream of qualification the ever-positive thrower chose to treat the disappointment as a “blessing in disguise” in that it allowed him to train through the Olympic period.
He emerged for the 2016-17 season a more powerful and technically proficient thrower and backed that up in Hamilton last December with a new PB of 79.80m.
Further progress was made on his home track at Porritt Stadium in February as he smashed through the landmark 80m barrier for the first time with an 80.38m effort before banking his first national senior javelin title in March.
Ben admits since the domestic campaign he has made more training gains working on the eccentric bike – a machine in which the pedals spin backwards leading the athlete to constantly resist the bike in short, sharp bursts - at Cambridge’s Avantidrome.
“This has really helped build the power through my legs,” says Ben who now lives in Cambridge where he combines training with working 33 hours a week as a chartered accountant. “I’ve had 70m power through my legs and 90m power through my upper body so we are trying to get the lower body to catch up.”
The training change has unquestionably reaped rewards after Ben hit the javelin out to a massive new personal best of 82.44m in Hamilton earlier this month – well in advance of Commonwealth Games nomination standard and just 54cm shy of the World Championship B qualification standard.
“It wasn’t a fantastic throw,” says Ben slightly surprisingly. “I knew it has gone a long way but I didn’t have a very solid block on it. If I’d have been more solid on my block, it would have gone a lot further.”
Despite missing out on a formal qualification mark the 82.44m throw has elevated him to a current IAAF ranking of 22 and with 32 invited to compete in London he is optimistic of selection.
Nonetheless, the 24-year-old is taking nothing for granted and plans to compete for New Zealand at the Oceania Championships in Fiji – which begin today – for another opportunity to bank the World Championships qualification mark and potentially strengthen his selection case by landing an area title.
So, should he secure qualification for the London World Championships what does he hope to achieve in the British capital.
“Well, if I was to throw my PB of 82m in London that would most likely be good enough for the final,” he says. “My hope is a top 16 place.”
Later in August he will be competing at the World University Games in Taipei where he is seeking to improve his tenth-place finish at the previous edition by this time taking a medal.
While next April he has important date – should be formally selected by the New Zealand Olympic Committee – at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast where he would face the likes of 2012 Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad & Tobago and the 2015 World champion Julius Yego of Kenya.
“I know I need to be in 85m form next year to be in medal contention,” says Ben, who does not lack ambition, of his aims for Gold Coast.
“There is definitely a lot more room for improvement and hopefully in the next couple of years I can be in the high 80m and 90m range. I’m not very powerful like a Johannes Vetter (the German 89m thrower and Rio Olympic fourth placer) or lots of the other guys.
“But I know if I can keep developing my power and working on my technical model, which is not that great, I have a lot more to come.
“I enjoy the challenge of the event and I know in Tokyo (2020) I can definitely be up there competing for an Olympic medal.”