Above: Tommy Te Puni at the NZ Secondary Schools Championships in Waitakere. Photo by Temposhot.
Former New Zealand high jump record holder Roger Te Puni is now giving back to the sport in a coaching capacity. Steve Landells speaks to the former Kiwi high jump star about his involvement on the other side of the fence and why he would encourage others to make the same step.
Those of a certain vintage will recall a time when Roger Te Puni was the indisputable New Zealand high jump number one.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Roger snared 11 national titles, competed at two Commonwealth Games and raised the New Zealand national record mark by a massive 9cm from 2.15m to 2.24m over a nine-year period. He still stands number two on the all-time lists today.
Other keen observers of the sport might have recognised more recently the name Tommy Te Puni, who is making a noise as one of the country’s top junior boys sprinters. A multiple gold medal-winner at Colgate Games at the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Championships in Auckland earlier this month he defied a broken wrist to win bronze in the junior boys 100m and fifth in the 200m.
So, you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out the 6ft 3ins tall Tommy, who is still aged just 14, is the son of Roger – and that father currently mentor’s his son out of the North Harbour Bays Club on Auckland’s North Shore.
Born and raised in Wellington, Roger, was coached by Mike Beable for much of his career and furthered his knowledge and understanding of high jump and athletics by spending large stints of his career based out of London, where he trained alongside England’s 1998 Commonwealth champion and former European silver medallist Dalton Grant.
In more recent times he has used some of that knowledge to help the next generation. For a period, he advised 2015 World Championship heptathlete Portia Bing on her high jump and the sales manager has become even more closely affiliated with the sport once more by coaching his son and small group of athletes.
“Because I have a busy job paying the bills, I haven’t collected a big stable of athletes,” insists Roger, who also appeared at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. “I play more of a cameo role, where the club need some help. Tommy is also coached by Warwick Fenton and I offer a few pointers here and there with some of the plyometric and weights work.”
An unqualified coach, Roger is very mindful not to step on the toes of the many qualified and hard-working volunteer coaches who work at the club. However, where he can help he is happy to offer a few words of wisdom and he does gain a thrill out of helping other athletes achieve their goals.
“I get a real kick out of helping a raw athlete suddenly improve with a piece of advice,” he says. “I know I can make a difference with high jump technique and some of the explosive plyometric and speed work,” adds Roger, who in his younger days recorded a handy 10.87 for the 100m.
Coaching does present a different challenge for Roger from his days as a competitive athlete and he accepts he has to handle individual athletes quite differently. He also acknowledges there are certain complexities coaching his son, although, by in large, he insists this presents few additional problems.
“The funny thing with Tommy is he is aware of all my PB’s whether that is the 100m or even the 30m sprint and he wants to do better,” say his father, Roger, now aged 52. “When it comes to game day he is phenomenally competitive and strong mentally, as shown when he competed at nationals (secondary schools) with a pulled hip flexor and broken wrist. Although, he did complain recently after reading an Athletics NZ report which described him as the son of Roger Te Puni and I said, ‘well, you will be until you start running faster and jumping higher’!”
If time allows, Roger would certainly like a greater coaching involvement in the future and he urges other ex-athletes to pass on their knowledge and expertise in a similar vein.
“Anyone who competed to a pretty high level would have something to offer,” says Roger. “When I go to meets, I see the same coaches I’ve seen for years and the same officials who have been there, even since I competed. Eventually there will not be there, so they need to be replaced.”
He points to the likes of recently retired sprinter/hurdler James Mortimer and three-time New Zealand long jump champion Matthew Wyatt as good examples of younger coaches keen to give something back to the sport.
Yet after an affiliation with athletics spanning more than 35 years, his passion remains undimmed and he would encourage anyone to get involved.
“It is a cool sport with no arguments over who has won or not,” he says. “In an event like the high jump or pole vault you can attempt a world record and people know instantly whether you did it. But the really beauty of athletics, is there is an event for everyone. You might not be a great rugby player or a great footballer, but in athletics there are so many different types of disciplines to excel in.”