New Zealand pole vaulter Nick Southgate is returning to his best form after a couple of challenging years. Steve Landells speaks to the Aucklander about his ambitions for the forthcoming Sir Graeme Douglas International and his plans for the rest of the season.
Perhaps no athlete enjoys the Sir Graeme Douglas International more than Nick Southgate. In the five previous editions of New Zealand’s most prominent one-day track meet, the Auckland vaulter has banked top spot on each and every occasion and he will be looking to maintain his sequence, when he takes the runway in West Auckland on February 23.
The task, however, will not be easy as organisers have assembled a top-class field, led by Commonwealth champion Kurtis Marschall. The Australian is a rising star of the sport, a 5.87m vaulter at his best, who bounced back from an injury-plagued 2019 season, to clear the Olympic qualification height of 5.80m in Perth last month. Marschall, whose PB is 40cm in excess of Nick’s, understandably starts clear favourite, but Southgate is relishing the challenge and the prospect of once again competing in his home city at a meet where he has enjoyed so much success.
“In the past the meet has attracted some high level athletes but now because of the points system adopted by World Athletics, it has made it an even more significant meet,” explains Nick. “It (Auckland) is a major drawcard, one in which athletes are looking to compete at to help them qualify for major events. It is awesome to have Kurtis here, he is a world-class athlete. The meet has attracted world-class shot putters and Eliza (McCartney) in the past, but it is great that the event is now bringing in a range of different characters and athletes” says Nick.
Marschall may be buzzing after his 5.80m clearance in Western Australia but Nick, the six-time national senior champion, has shown recent signs that he is returning to his best, having endured some troubled times through injury. A 5.40m clearance to win the Potts Classic in January, was the joint-second best clearance of his career and despite a recent achilles niggle, which has caused him to withdraw from a couple of recent competitions, he appears well set for a good showing at the Sir Graeme Douglas International.
“I’ve put in a good foundation in the winter and got a lot of things right. I feel I have put in place a lot of the right tools which will allow me to have a shot at the national record” explains Nick.
Nick, who sits number three on the all-time New Zealand lists with a best of 5.47m, just 4cm behind Paul Gibbons’ 28-year-old national record, may be on an upward trajectory once more, but the past couple of years has presented its challenges. Elated to have won selection to compete for New Zealand at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Nick unfortunately no-heighted while attempting 5.20m, to prematurely crash out of the competition. The early signs of the niggling Achilles injury were evident in the weeks leading into the Commonwealth Games, while other factors also contributed to the disappointment.
“I hadn’t quite found consistency with my poles and I just wasn’t able to execute,” he explains. “I had felt like I might have been able to jump very high, but no heights happen, it is a very real thing for pole vaulters.”
Nick sought a re-building phase in an effort to improve his consistency but Achilles and hamstring injuries blighted much of rest of 2018. He canned plans to compete in Europe and a lack of consistency in training meant that he was playing “catch up” during the 2018-19 domestic campaign.
“The season was a tough one for me,” explains Nick. “I was competing hand to mouth, battling with myself and my body from competition to competition.“I couldn’t quite put in the work that I wanted to allow me to step on the runway and give it a half decent crack. It was tough.”
During an up and down season he cleared a season’s best of 5.30m to win at the Sir Graeme Douglas International but surrendered his national title to training partner James Steyn and trailed home a distant seventh at the Australian Championships. Nick managed to later place third at the Oceania Championships in Townsville, by equalling his 2019 best of 5.30m, before finishing ninth with a best of 5.21m at the World University Games in Naples, Italy.
Over the past year or so, he has put in place what he believes are the tools to jump big. Besides continuing the technical improvements under the tutelage of his long-time coach Jeremy McColl, he has had better success managing his injuries with the help of physio, Lauren Shelley. Meanwhile, he also praises the work of strength and conditioning coaches, Angus Ross and Simon Chatterton, who have contributed to a better all-round balance to his physical well-being.
“I’ve moved away from weight-based work in the gym to a good balance between strength in the weight room, body weight and gymnastic strength. I feel I’m strong, running fast and hitting some good speeds” Nick explained.
A recurrence of his Achilles problems has put the brake on his season but after what he hopes will be a good performance at the Sir Graeme Douglas International, his primary goal of the domestic season is to regain his national title next month from James Steyn.
“James and I have a good rivalry and some people like to play it up, but we are more friends than rivals,” Nick adds of his training partner. “We like to compete and see each other perform. To have that competition among two New Zealanders has been awesome for both of us. He took my national title last year and I’d like to get it back. But honestly, it is more about performing well and pushing each other – and, in an ideal world, we will both go on to break the national record.”