Above: Tayla Clement at the Victorian State Championships in Melbourne.
Seldom does an athlete progress from complete novice to world number one inside six months but that is the remarkable journey enjoyed by Tayla Clement. Steve Landells chats to the fledgling Para shot putter about her meteoric progress and aspirations for the future.
When Tayla Clement stepped into the shot circle for the first-time last October she had no clue what to expect.
Always strong, broad and muscular, Tayla had a hunch she might have a talent for throwing, but when the shot flew out to beyond the existing New Zealand F43 record she was gobsmacked.
“Hamish Meacheam (the now Athletics NZ Community Manager) was watching and he said straight away, ‘I think we now need to get you a proper coach, you’re too good a talent to waste’.
“The throw ((which was around six to six-and-a-half metres) definitely surprised me. Since then, I’ve just gone with the sport and I’ve loved every minute.”
In March – her first official competition with a classification – she formally set the NZ record of 8.28m at the Victorian State Championships in Melbourne – a performance which currently ranks her number one in the world.
The modest Tayla talks of “the guilt” associated with a complete rookie achieving the status but few could deny her the success particularly when fully understanding the many obstacles the articulate 20-year-old has faced in so far in her life.
Born with club feet (the reason why she qualifies as a para-athlete) she also has moebius syndrome – a rare condition that causes facial paralysis. Bullied at school, she has suffered prolonged bouts of mental health issues, severe depression and also tried to take her own life on numerous occasions.
Yet over time she has brought the illness under control. seeking ‘balance’ in her life partly through sharing her story as an impressive public speaker. She hopes to use her experiences to dissuade others from contemplating suicide.
Born into an athletics family, her mum, Nicky competed for New Zealand at the Pan Pacific Games in swimming while her younger sister, Georgia, plays hockey for North Harbour, sport has always played a central role in Tayla’s life.
At the age of “ten or 11”, Tayla took up competitive swimming and was good enough to represent her country at the 2014 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships in Pasadena, but lacking in motivation quit in early-2017.
“At that point my mental health was starting to get better and I think it was the swimming that was holding back,” she explains. “My heart was no longer in it and I always said, if I don’t love a sport, I’m not going to do it.”
After quitting the pool, she maintained fitness by going to the gym but in September last year she had a desire to return to competitive sport.
“I knew I was not going back to swimming, but I had this drive inside of me that I only knew would come from sport,” she explains. “I had kind of played around with the idea of trying the shot put. My mum also said I would be good at it, and she was right.”
It was then she got in touch with Hamish – who back then was working at Chief Executive of Parafed Auckland. She then enjoyed that spectacular first try out from which her athletics career has taken off a rapid pace.
After competing several times in New Zealand as an unclassified athlete – she went to Melbourne to be formally classified before her Victorian State Championship appearance.
“I was so nervous, I still didn’t real know what to do and I was struggling with a bit of anxiety,” she recalls of that competition in Australia. “I was told just go out there and throw as far as I can, and I ended up throwing almost a metre further than I had done (with 8.28m) to break the New Zealand record and win silver overall.”
On her return home and feeling a little fatigued from her efforts in Australia, she slightly disappointed at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Hamilton winning bronze with a best of 7.50m, but having time to reflect on her performance she adopted a more philosophical attitude.
“I think my performances are going to be up and down for a while, until I fully understand what I’m doing,” she explains. “I am very hard on myself and I expect to do a lot better, but I need to chill out and relax and take each day as it comes.”
Since her breakthrough debut season in April she joined her current coach, Kirsten Hellier, the women who guided Valerie Adams during the first half of her international career and who currently coaches former World U20 shot put champion Jacko Gill and Commonwealth discus fourth-place finisher Siositina Hakeai.
The young woman who lives in Murrays Bay on Auckland’s North Shore has taken a lot of confidence from the move and is hugely impressed by Kirsten’s qualities.
“She is such an amazing person and so dedicated to helping get the best out of athletes,” she explains. “It was a new experience for me to work with a female coach but we clicked from the beginning. I said I wanted her to treat me like any other athlete and not someone with a disability and she fully understood that.
“She knows when to push me and when to give me a breather - her knowledge of the sport is incredible as a top coach and she is also someone who has performed at the highest level as an athlete too.”
Highly motivated to be training alongside established New Zealand internationals Tayla has had to absorb a lot of new information in her short time in the sport.
Formerly an endurance swimmer it has proved “quite interesting” for her to learn how to use her power more explosively in the shot circle. Yet under a training regime of three throws sessions, several weight sessions plus some cardio work including boxing sessions Tayla is putting in the hard work to hopefully make a big impact in the forthcoming season.
Ranked number one in the world in the F43 and number six in the world when combined with F44 – the combined classification used at the World Para Athletics Championships - puts her current lofty status into perspective.
However, after receiving the news the F43/44 shot put has been removed from the programme for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, it has led to a re-think in strategy
“I was really upset at hearing the news (about the F43/F44 shot being removed from the programme) so that is why I have been training more for the discus (which is on the Paralympic programme) at the moment. It has not come as easily too me as the shot, but it is still early days and I have thrown around the 20m mark.”
In the shorter term, Tayla hopes for a prominent showing in the next domestic track and field campaign leading into the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, where she hopes to qualify for both shot and discus.
Combining a healthy dose of both inspiration and perspiration in her incredible journey, Tayla can clearly look forward with optimism to the future. Boasting a naturally competitive nature and with a whole-hearted desire to give of her best she feels blessed to have discovered the sport of athletics, which appears the perfect vehicle for her gifts.
“I know with shot and discus it is still very early days, I just want to be in a position mentally where I can produce my best,” she says. “It is a very exciting time for me in terms of both sport and my life.”