Above: Nick Palmer in action at the 2018 NZ Track & Field Championships in Hamilton.
World U20 Championships-bound Nick Palmer is the latest athlete to emerge from the thriving production line of New Zealand shot put talent. The Hawke’s Bay teenager chats to Steve Landells about his journey into the sport, training with world champion Tom Walsh and his aspirations for his global championship debut.
It was throwing a rock on the beach in Napier eight years ago which provided the catalyst for Nick Palmer’s shot put ascension.
Nick’s father, Bob, himself a former schoolboy shot putter, was impressed by his ten-year-old son’s raw ability and enthusiastically directed him to start training at Hastings AC.
It proved an inspired decision. Last year, Nick ended 2017 as the world U18 number one as he launched a mighty 21.27m with the 5kg shot.
And in Tampere, Finland next month, at the World U20 Championships, he faces the finest under-20 athletes on the planet with nothing to fear and confident he can mix it with the best.
Growing up the youngest of four children on an orchard just outside of Hastings, Nick says his family have a long tradition for performing well in strength and power events.
“My dad was a former 14 or 15m shot putter at a schoolboy and my mum’s family are all very powerful,” he explains. “I’m lucky that I have two families that are physically inclined and I have a good mix of both of them. My great-grandfather Don Oliver was a former All Black.”
Initially coached by his father, Bob, Nick, has tried discus and hammer but preferred the more “aggressive” nature of shot put,
Translating this power and strength to the shot circle was in the early days of his career a relatively straight-forward process. He enjoyed a blizzard of early success with a key staging post of his early career coming at the 2014 Colgate Games in Wellington.
“I won (the shot) by metres that day, and I wasn’t even throwing that well,” he explains.
“That is when I first realised I was pretty decent, and I could give shot a good go.”
The next key moment in Nick’s career development came in late-2015 following his first meeting with Dale Stevenson, the coach of World champion shot putter Tom Walsh.
The two started talking and as Nick explains: “Dale gave me a few pointers before I then asked him, if he would be interested in coaching me.”
Dale said yes and their formal coaching relationship began in early 2016, although it has presented its challenges. For much of the year, Nick, now a Year 13 student at Karamu High School, is based in Hastings with Dale down in Christchurch. Communication is delivered via phone, email and text message and Nick frequently sends coach video of his training sessions.
“It is not ideal, but it does the job,” explains Nick of his long-distance coaching relationship with Dale. “But I’m keen to be the best and as Dale is the best from a coaching perspective, I’ll do anything to make that work.
“He asks a lot of us, but we also ask a lot of ourselves. The whole idea is we try and strive for perfection and be 100 per cent honest – and I think it is working.”
Two or three times a year he will head down to Christchurch for short training blocks where he will train alongside Walsh – a hugely inspiring experience for Nick, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Tuesday.
“It is amazing to be in that elite training environment and it always brings the best out in you,’ he says. “To see how Tom trains and to take the pieces out of his game is incredible.”
Despite struggling with a niggly lower back injury – a hangover from his days playing as a promising rugby prop – in 2016, Nick made noticeable progress. That year he won a national under-18 bronze medallist and by the end of the campaign launched the 5kg shot out to 18.28m.
Yet if he showed promise in 2016, under the astute coaching of Stevenson, his 2017 campaign saw his career rocket to a whole new stratosphere.
During the domestic campaign, he enjoyed a major breakthrough. He won the New Zealand U18 crown with a best of 19.20m took silver in the U20 competition with 17.82m (with the 6kg shot). Before later that season striking gold across the Tasman Sea to win the Australian U18 title with a mighty PB of 19.97m – in what was a pivotal performance for the teenager.
“That was the moment I realised I could make a career and life out of shot,” he explains. “I think the throw had been a long time coming. Everything had finally come together with Dale. I started to be more honest with myself and made a commitment that this was what I wanted to do, and it paid dividends.”
Last July Nick earned the honour of making his New Zealand debut at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Bahamas. However, despite having design on gold he had to settle for silver with a best of 19.57m to finishing 19cm behind Alexander Kolesnikoff of Australia.
It was not the performance he craved but he took many learnings from his Caribbean experience.
“I went into the competition maybe too relaxed and not switched on enough,” says Nick. “I didn’t go into the competition with the right mindset to attack. If I had thrown what I should have, I would have won but I didn’t and that is the name of the game. He (Kolesnikoff) was a good competitor and he pulled it out on the last throw.”
Returning to a training regime of four throws sessions and three gym sessions a week with renewed vigour he ended his campaign on a high with a monster throw of 21.27m in Timaru to sign off his career with the 5kg shot as world U18 number one for the year.
“In my mind (that throw) meant I was a major player in the game – it was like a coming out party for me,” he adds.
In recent months, he insists he has “matured technically” his timing has improved as well as his strength and speed and this year he has continued to impress, setting PBs during the domestic campaign of 18.82m with the 6kg shot and 16.72m with the senior 7.26kg implement.
Yet does flip-flopping around the different size shots present its difficulties for the developing teenage athlete?
“The heavier implements slow you down and knock you out of your rhythm,” he explains. “With the lighter weights you can bully them into position whereas as with the heavier weight you need to be more technically on point.”
In his most recent outing in Hastings he added 1cm to his lifetime best (18.83m) with the 6kg shot, which while pleasing was not wholly satisfying as he expected a lengthier throw.
Departing for Europe on June 23, where he will join the New Zealand pre-competition training camp in Cardiff he hopes for a couple of warm competitions before flying out to Tampere to compete at the IAAF World U20 Championships, where he holds some big ambitions.
“I’m always aiming for 20m, that is the goal,” says Nick who currently sits 14th on the world rankings. “I do believe I can achieve that and if I can get into the final, then who knows.”
Believing his strengths are his “explosiveness” coupled with his work-ethic longer term his goals are to represent New Zealand and to “have a go at being the best in the world.”
Yet why is it, that the teenager puts himself through gruelling training session after session in pursuit of hurling a metal ball as far as possible?
“Apart from the pure adrenaline rush I enjoy being in an individual sport because I know that all the work I put in will come out as a win or a loss”, he says. “i also enjoy chasing perfection, which I know is something I’m never going to realistically attain in the shot put.”