Nicole Bradley in action at the Potts Classic in Hastings. Photo by Mark Roberts.
Four-time national hammer champion Nicole Bradley has just come off the back of the best season of her career and as the Auckland-based thrower tells Steve Landells, she believes her best is yet to come.
So often in life it is during times of adversity when we find out the most about our resilience – a fact very true of Nicole Bradley.
It was during 2016, and set for a lengthy period away from the sport after suffering an annular disc tear of the lower back, the North Harbour Bays Athletics thrower faced some big decisions on her future.
Suffering intense pain, Nicole was also forced to take time off from her job as a radiographer but rather than fold like a pack of cards, the injury setback only added to her resolve.
“I attended the national championships that year (in 2016) in Dunedin and to watch both the women’s hammer and be in (physical) pain was tough,” she explains. “But suffering that injury was when things changed for me. It allowed me to grow as a person. It was the time I discovered, all I wanted to do was throw the hammer.”
Fast forward to 2018 and the 26-year-old Nicole has emerged a different athlete. Coached by Mike Schofield for the past two years has proved the perfect elixir.
In January, she hurled the hammer out to a lifetime best of 66.07m - within less than one-and-a-half metres of a Commonwealth Games nomination standard – to advance to number two on the all-time New Zealand rankings behind Commonwealth champion Julia Ratcliffe.
She is an athlete re-born with clear ambitions.
“I would like to one day put on the Black Singlet,” she insists. “Watching what Julia achieved in Gold Coast (winning the Commonwealth hammer title) was inspiring and that has made me believe it (representing her country) is possible and achievable.”
Born and raised in Dunedin, Nicole’s gift for athletics was first spotted by her school principal at Caversham Primary School. However, aged just eight at the time, it was not as a thrower she first identified but as a sprinter.
“He noticed I could run really fast, so signed me up for Leith Harrier & AC,” she explains.
Nicole, the youngest of four siblings, achieved some sprinting success at a regional level but after going through puberty aged “12 or 13” she became heavier and gravitated towards the throws – initially shot and discus.
As Otago was known as a hotbed for hammer throwing, club coach, Malcolm Giles, introduced her to the discipline aged 14. Juggling all three throws and coached by Raylene Bates at the time, she achieved some success as a schoolgirl athlete winning hammer bronze as a Year 10 student and shot bronze in Year 13, but back then she was no superstar in the making.
It was only after making the move north to Auckland to study a Bachelor of Health Science seven years ago did her career started to advance. Linking up with Didier Poppe as her coach, the Frenchman convinced her to ditch the shot and discus and focus on the hammer - an event he told her ‘you can be brilliant at’.
Happy to support her former coach’s decision, in 2012 she improved her hammer best by almost four metres to 57.35m. The following season she hurled the 4kg implement out to a best of 59.52m and also collected her maiden national senior title in her new-found speciality.
“It was quite emotional (to win my first national senior title) because Raylene Bates awarded me the medal,” recalls Nicole. “She has been like a life coach for me and one of my number one supporters. It was special.”
Progress continued. She went on to complete a hat-trick of New Zealand hammer titles with victory in 2014 and 2015 and later that year achieved her landmark first throw over 60m with a mighty hurl of 62.32m on Auckland’s North Shore.
“With the hammer you know (it is a long throw) as soon as you let go,” she explains. “That throw felt different. It just flew. When all that training comes together and you are in that moment, you just love the hammer.”
However, her upwardly mobile career was stopped in its tracks after suffering that serious back injury during a weightlifting session in February 2016.
Out of the disappointment and reassessing her role in the sport, she decided to change coaches to link up with Mike Schofield, who at the time served as her strength and conditioning coach. It was perhaps a leftfield choice as Mike had no previous experience of coaching hammer but it was, Nicole insists, the right decision.
“I liked his coaching style, so when I asked him to be my hammer coach, he replied, ‘for real? I’ll only take it on if I can get two quality mentors like Tim Driesen (Athletics NZ HP Athlete Development Leader and former Commonwealth Games hammer thrower) and Dale Stevenson (Athletics NZ Lead Coach – Throws) to teach me more about the sport’.”
Facing a year out of competitive throwing because of the back tear, her initial progress under Schofield was understandably slow but the pieces to the puzzle started to fit into place last winter and she hit the ground running during the 2017-18 campaign, achieving a personal best of 64.44m in Christchurch in December.
The following month came her 66.07m effort in Hastings but what does she feel – aside from the input of Mike – has contributed to the best form her career?
“I’ve had a huge change in mindset,” she says. “I’m no longer scared of what other people think, I am fearless in my approach. I’ve been working hard so I knew I deserved to throw a bomb (she says of her 66.07m personal best).
“I’ve also become more accountable for my processes. In the past my strength and conditioning could have been smarter and better. My training environment has also changed and I’ve become a lot more willing to learn and change.”
Yet perhaps the one area which has had the biggest impact has been the overhaul of her nutritional programme.
“Because of past issues with my stomach (she lost 4kg with a stomach issue in 2017). I’ve been on a modified diet with no gluten and very little lactose to stop my body reacting,” she adds. “I’ve also tailored my nutrition to make sure I eat more regularly throughout the day. As a radiographer, I’m on my feet a lot of the time and it is quite physical. I now make sure I have adequate carbs every few hours, which means I now have a lot more energy throughout the day.”
Huge improvements may have been made over the past 12 months but she is still far from satisfied. “Disappointed” to miss out on qualification for the Commonwealth Games she has already adjusted her training programme with the help of HPSNZ physiologist Angus Ross, who has been working with Nicole’s coaching team to adjust her periodisation.
Other tweaks have also been made to her weekly programme of up to ten sessions a week in the quest to find more metres.
Nicole has set herself some ambitious goals in the future. She may have snared four national titles but none of those have been achieved with New Zealand record holder and Commonwealth champion Julia Ratcliffe in attendance – a particular statistic she would like to end in the coming years.
Meanwhile, her desire to represent her country on the biggest stage burns strongly.
“We have already started hardcore training to try and make, no, sorry, that should be when I make the next World Championships (in Doha 2019),” she says with a smile. “After that I hope to make the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.”
Long-term her dream would be to coach – last season she dabbled with helping a couple of 12-year-old throwers out of her North Harbour Bays club – but whatever happens in the future her passion for hammer, she believes, will remain undimmed.
“I always feel good in the circle even if I have a bad day,” she explains. “I know it sounds stupid, but everyone has a place that they feel at home, and my place is the hammer circle.”