Recently-minted Youth Olympic Games discus champion Connor Bell is one of New Zealand’s most exciting teenage sporting talents. On his return following his success in Buenos Aires, Steve Landells found out more about his road to gold and future plans.
From a “chubby kid” who was targeted by bullies during his time as an intermediate school student to Youth Olympic Games champion, Connor Bell has undergone a most remarkable transformation over the past four years or so.
Yet it was first picking up a discus as a 13-year-old which was to prove the trigger for the start of a remarkably rapid ascent for the gifted teenager, who looks all set for a career that oozes anticipation.
Living on a lifestyle block in the small town of Kaukapakapa just north of Auckland, Connor tried his hand at football, cricket, rugby and motocross as a youngster before giving up sport for a year.
One of the biggest kids at school and no longer immersed in physical activity, he piled on weight and suddenly school life brought with it new pressures.
“It wasn’t an awfully fun time,” he says of his stint studying at Intermediate School. “I had a hard time from some of the boys. Of course, many kids can experience difficulties, but I had an especially rough time.”
Salvation came in the form of discus. Recalling how as a primary school student at Waitoki School he had enjoyed shot put and discus he re-engaged with the sport as a year eight student.
It proved an inspired decision. On his athletics return, he impressed by winning a school competition and on the back of this joined North Harbour Bays Athletics, where he came under the coaching guidance of Sasha Pilkington.
Later making further improved under the tutelage of Didier Poppe by the end of 2016 he was making waves as a potential future star after securing discus gold at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships by wiping almost seven metres from Olympic shot putter Jacko Gill’s championship record.
In early 2017, Dame Valerie Adams took up the coaching reins – and the teenage discus thrower recalls with fondness their ninth-month period working together.
“She taught me so much about emotional resilience and being able to adapt to different situations,” enthuses Connor. “It was all about challenging comfort and finding comfort in the challenge.”
Last year, under Dame Valerie’s guidance, he passed his first major international examination with flying colours banking discus gold at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Bahamas, hurling the 1.5kg discus 63.17m – within a metre of his PB at the time.
It was a pivotal moment in the youngster’s development and an experience which significantly aided his gold medal assault at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aries earlier this month.
“Competing at the Commonwealth Youth Games exposed me to uncomfortable situations likes competing in front of large crowds and against top-class fields,” explains Connor. I really think Comm Youth Games set me up well for coping with the pressure I faced at Youth Olympics.”
Shortly after Connor returned from the Caribbean, Dame Valerie because of her family commitments (she gave birth to Kimoana in October) stepped away from coaching but the teenager found an ideal solution to plug the gap in the form of his existing strength and conditioning coach Mike Schofield.
With Mike aged in his ‘mid 20s’ and Connor possessing what he terms a “generational bond” with his coach – the pair have sought to made major advancements ‘technically, mentally, physically and emotionally’ since the coach-athlete relationship was formalised 12 months ago.
“It is a bit like being coached by a senior prefect at school,” explains Connor. “Mike has such an awesome personality. He’s just one of the boys; a cool dude.
“He knows the sport but is still learning. He’s doing a PhD in biomechanical rotational forces and trying to push the boundaries for the traditional view of throwing.”
Since taking up the coaching reins, Mike has worked on completely overhauling Connor’s technique. However, crucially the coach has not tried to overcomplicate the changes made to the Westlake Boys High School student’s throwing technique.
Naturally prone to ‘over-analysing’, Connor has been given several key phrases used to simplify critical technical input.
“I have a few trigger words to help explain what I need to do, which focuses the mind and keep me relaxed,” explains 17-year-old Connor. The phrases are ‘Left off the Back’, ‘Straight Line’ and ‘Buckle the Front’ and I definitely think this has allowed me to improve my throwing by allowing me to operate with greater smoothness.”
Since competing in the Bahamas, Connor has improved in other ways. He has put on between 8-12kg in weight – he now tops the scales at 110kg – which has been achieved through a combination of factors.
Improved work in the gym has played its part but he the 1.91m tall athlete has naturally become ‘broader’ while his wingspan has ‘widened’ – key for a rotational sport where radius is crucial.
He also upped his nutritional intake – lunch for Connor can include five filled rolls plus other snacks – all of which enables the teenager to take on board the required energy levels to allow him to train.
During the domestic campaign earlier this year the fruits of his labour were starting to bloom.
Connor added almost 2m on to his PB with a 1.5kg discus, throwing a best of 65.63m and retained both his New Zealand U18 and U20 titles.
Typically training four times a week at AUT Millennium - which includes three double sessions - in late August he set a massive new PB of more than four metres with 69.67m during a competition at his training venue. (Note, it was a mark not ratified as a New Zealand U-18 record).
“I was so happy with the performance but I knew I had to return to the bunker and prepare for Buenos Aries,” he said with a maturity beyond his years.
Leading into Youth Olympic Games, he also faced the challenge of a brand new format alien to anything he has previously experienced.
With the traditional qualification and final system replaced by a competition split into two stages of equal value - medals would be determined on a combination of the best throws in each stage.
Yet while understanding that the format would reward greater consistency, he once again returns to the phrase of challenging your comfort zone and in less than ideal conditions there is little doubt Connor kept his head.
“In both stages conditions were not great,” he explains. “It was a wet day for stage one, which delivered a level of tension and anxiety in the throwers,” he explains. “While for the second stage there was a shocking wind. It was all about being able to adapt and challenge comfort and fortunately I was able to throw well in less than ideal conditions on both days.”
In stage one he hurled the discus to a stunning New Zealand U18 record of 66.84m to finish more than 9m clear of the second best athlete. Before confirming his superiority in stage two by powering the discus out to 66.24m to finished well clear of the next best Gracjan Kozak of Poland (59.52m). His combined total of 133.08 –exceeded the silver medal winning athlete by more than 18m.
“It took a while to sink in,” he explains of his success. “For some time after I was still in competition mode and it was a difficult time for many of the athletes who hadn’t thrown as far as they wanted. I did feel for them. We are one big throwing family. However, once I got back to the Athletes’ Village seeing the New Zealand team perform a haka was a very special experience. It was magnificent.”
Connor, who says he enjoyed the wonderful range of food available in the Olympic Village, then enjoyed his ‘cherry in the cake’ when he was given the honour of being New Zealand flagbearer at the Closing Ceremony.
Returning to New Zealand on Sunday and back at Westlake Boys High on Tuesday he admits he is taking time to adjust to normal life again following the buzz of life in the Athletes’ Village.
However, he has already reset his goals for the coming months and is targeting a good showing at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Dunedin – where Connor will undoubtedly be one of the premier attractions.
The sixth-form student also hopes to propel the 1.5kg discus beyond 70m before the end of the year before switching his thoughts to fresh goals for the New Year and beyond.
“I’d hope to throw the senior weight (2kg) discus at the Classics (meetings),” he says. “I’ll be looking to throw well and depending on how I go having a crack at making the team for Tokyo 2020.”
There is little questioning Connor’s sense of ambition and confidence – with the 2020 IAAF World U20 Championships in Nairobi also on his radar – so how does he make sense of how his life has changed since his struggles as an intermediate school student?
“If you had told me then where I’d be now, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he explains. “I’ve come a long way in a short amount of time and I’ve surprised those around me. I’ve loved the journey so far and I’m really excited what the future has in store for me.”