Above: Connor Bell in action at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships. Photo by Alan McDonald / Macspeedfoto.
Commonwealth Youth Games bound Connor Bell is another immensely talented young thrower coming through the ranks here in New Zealand. Steve Landells chatted to the gifted 15-year-old to find out more about his rapid ascent.
When Connor Bell first discovered discus as a 13-year-old and began training at North Harbour Bays club his mum, Jenette, describes the uber-talented teenager as finally finding “his herd” and it is easy to see why.
Always the biggest kid in class the youngster from a lifestyle block in the small town of Kaukapakapa just north of Auckland, Connor tried a range of sports from football to rugby and cricket but struggled to find his niche.
He also tried his hand at motocross but a couple of concussions brought an abrupt end to his time competing in the two-wheeled motorsport.
“I gave up sport for a year, played video games and became overweight,” he explains of his time as a year seven student at Northcross Intermediate School. “I remember some kids gave me a tough time for a few months.”
Yet salvation was to come in the form of athletics. Back as a youngster at Waitoki School he had always enjoyed “throwing things” and he enjoyed some success in shot put and discus.
So, in year eight he gave the discus another crack. He won his first competition at school and followed this up with victory in the North Harbour competition. Under the encouragement of his father, Stephen, himself a former 13m schoolboy shot putter and sub-12 second 100m sprinter, he joined the Bays Cougars and trained initially with Sasha Pilkington.
“I was big, I had the right build for a discus thrower and a lot of people saw my potential,” explains Connor, who today stands at an imposing 1.91m (6ft 3ins). “A big motivation for me was the support I received from family and friends who were really excited to see me throw discus.”
After several months under the coaching of Pilkington – whom he praises for teaching him the basic throwing skills - he moved on to be coached by Auckland-based Frenchman Didier Poppe, where he made startling progress advancing from a 35m to a 65m in less than two years.
“Didier saw the potential in me and really wanted me to achieve my goal of becoming a 65m plus thrower,” explains Connor. “He taught me about the mindset and discipline needed for throwing and I improved an awful lot in a short period of time because of the technical work I did with him.”
With a new-found passion for the sport he pored over hours and hours of frame by frame video footage of German discus legends Lars Riedel and Robert Harting and Estonia’s 2008 Olympic champion Gerd Kanter of Estonia.
In his first full year in the sport he was third at the 2015 Auckland Championships - and despite missing out on the North Island Secondary School Championships due to a broken toe - in December he claimed gold at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships with a 48.75m effort. He had truly arrived.
Progress continued under Poppe’s guidance and in July of 2016 he hurled the 1.25kg implement beyond 60m for the first time which he describes as “a big milestone.”
In December, he secured back-to-back New Zealand Secondary Schools title in style with a monster 65.00m effort (1.25kg) to wipe almost seven metres from Jacko Gill’s championship record - an achievement Connor, quite rightly, reflects on with immense pride.
After deciding to part ways from Poppe at the beginning of this year the search was on to find a new coach. On the recommendation of his strength and conditioning coach Mike Schofield he was asked to carry out a training session with “the big dogs” Valerie Adams and Jacko Gill. He enjoyed the experience and Connor, in particular, enjoyed a great rapport with the two-time Olympic and seven-time world shot put champion.
“After talking to Valerie I realised we shared similar values,” he says. “I think she saw the potential in me - like a mini version of herself - and she was really easy to talk to.”
After Mike invited him for a training session at AUT Millennium he found Valerie waiting for him. She gave him some technical advice and in March the pair formalised a coach-athlete relationship, which was a little surreal for the student, who has recently transferred from Long Bay College to Westlake Boys High.
“At first you are in the presence of a living legend”, says Connor of first being guided by Valerie, who is currently pregnant and taking a competitive break from the sport.
“But as I’ve got to know her more on a personal level we get on really well. We talk about subjects not related to discus and we have good banter. As a shot putter she maybe doesn’t have the same technical background as Didier but because she can relate to me through her values, aspirations and vision - it has worked really well and she understands me more as she is an athlete as well”.
“Her qualities are her communication and her calm nurturing style. She is also very passionate and she really motivates me to discover my potential.”
After winning both the New Zealand Under-18 and Under-20 title with throws of 60.47m (with the 1.5kg implement) and a throw of 54.38m (with the 1.75kg) – a fantastic achievement for a 15-year-old - he then went on the Australian Championships in Sydney and banked under-18 gold with a new PB and world under-18 leading throw of 63.93m.
Despite only being under the coaching influence of Valerie for a relatively short period, Connor is already seeing the benefits of the combination. Working on a ten-week training plan in the countdown to July’s Commonwealth Youth Games in Nassau, Bahamas – which typically combines three throws sessions with two strength and conditioning sessions – the 102kg thrower is excited at the progress made.
“I think I’ve improved in terms of my technique and my consistency,” he admits. “I’m now throwing a little further in training – at around 60-65m – and I’m doing so consistently. Valerie has also improved my confidence, my determination and my understanding. I am really enjoying it.”
With the immediate goal on the horizon the Commonwealth Youth Games, Connor is already focused on his first major international competition and is looking forward to his appearance at the Thomas A. Robinson Stadium – the same venue which has staged the past three editions of the IAAF World Relays.
“I expect to have fun and throw as well as I can,” he explains. “I hope to come out with a gold medal, but I don’t think I’ll be disappointed whatever I do as this is my first international competition.”
Describing his technique as his strong point, but with lots of scope to develop his strength and technique more he is excited by his potential room for improvement with some big ambitions for the future.
Next year is looking at winning gold and smashing the Games record (of 64.14m) at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires – should New Zealand opt to send a team.
“I would like to finish my time with the 1.5kg (discus) as a 70m thrower, which would put me second all-time, he says. Then I have high hopes of achieving the World U20 title (in future).”
Olympic Games and World Championships are the long-term goals and with Valerie Adams in his camp he will have all the expertise and knowledge required to scale such heights. Yet beyond gold medals and world records, discus means something far simpler for the Bays athlete, who celebrates his 16th birthday later this month.
“I just love to throw,” he says. “It is fun.”