Nneka Okpala created New Zealand athletics history by smashing Tania Dixon’s long-standing national triple jump record in Melbourne last month. Steve Landells chats to the Aucklander about her long journey to the milestone achievement.
In the modern world of track and field, a whole multitude of factors and can play their part in fostering success. Technical and tactical knowhow, mental strength and scientific support have all become key ingredients as an athlete strives to maximise their potential.
Yet a vital piece to the puzzle which is often overlooked is the age-old relationship between coach and athlete - that sometimes indefinable human connection between two people which can - given the right combination - spark magic.
Think Peter Snell and Arthur Lydiard. Think John Walker and Arch Jelley or more latterly Valerie Adams and Jean-Pierre Egger.
New Zealand triple jump record holder Nneka Okpala would be the first to admit she is some way short of being in such esteemed company, but she firmly believes the relationship she has with her coach, Vasily Grishchenkov is something special.
On the face of it the pair would appear to be an unusual match. Nneka is the bright, personable and articulate South Aucklander. Grishchenkov the gruff, tough and demanding Australian-based Belarussian. Yet somehow, the combination has flourished.
The pair first started working together in September 2012 when Nneka left her homeland in an effort to fulfil her potential. Yet if she expected an easy ride she received a rude awakening from day one when the 1982 European triple jump silver medallist made a blunt and pointed reference to her weight.
“Being Russian he wasn’t afraid to say what he thought,” adds Nneka. “Initially I was mortified but he was just being honest. I was a little heavy for triple jumping. I took on board what he said and lost 8kg weight. That helped my body composition, has given me more speed and made me lighter on my feet.”
In short, Grishchenkov provided that spark of inspiration which has helped reinvigorate her career.
The daughter of Nigerian immigrants who arrived to settle in Auckland in 1987, Nneka was introduced to the sport through the Papatoetoe Athletics Club aged six. She flirted with netball and soccer, but athletics has steadfastly remained her true passion.
A promising sprinter as well as high and long jumper in her youth it was Paul Lothian – a former coach - who spotted the then 15-year-old’s potential at the triple jump and persuaded her to give the event a go.
From her first session she instantly bonded with the discipline, relishing the challenge.
“I love the fact that a small technical change can make such a huge difference to the overall distance,” Nneka explains of her enduring passion for triple jump. “If you catch a particular movement it feels like you are flying through the air or you can also easily screw it (the jump) up (technically). I like the fact that you can improve by an insane amount just my making a small (technical) change.”
She quickly adjusted to her new event and competed for New Zealand at the 2005 World Youth Championships in Morocco - finishing 18th and setting a national under-17 record in the process.
Nneka later added the national under-20 record but her triple jump career stalled as she focused on the sprints (she is a 11.98 100m sprinter at her best) for a couple of seasons and also suffered a frustrating spell on the sidelines with knee issues.
Nonetheless, the persistent Pakuranga AC athlete refused to give up on her triple jump dreams and in September 2012 hopped across the Tasman Sea to relocate to live and train in Melbourne.
“I saw how good those girls were at Aussie Champs and that convinced me to move over,” says Nneka, who is now in her final year studying a part-time post-graduate diploma in international health. “There wasn’t much in the way of competition in New Zealand and my aim was to make the team for Glasgow (Commonwealth Games).”
It was then the coach-athlete relationship with Grishchenkov was born and the New Zealand triple jump No.1 immediately heeded his advice to shed the pounds.
She decreased her portion sizes, cut out the carbs and ditched the lollies. To further accelerate the weight loss she ran 5km four times a week and has managed to trim 8kg from her frame.
A lighter Nneka feels her speed has improved but under the tutelage of the uncompromising former Soviet athlete - who leapt a lifetime best of 17.55m in 1983 – she also believes she has improved in a range of other areas.
“He’s also helped me change quite a few things with my jump in terms of my flexibility and ground contacts,” adds Nneka. “He has helped with my sprint technique, but he has also improved my mental toughness, allowing me to push through the pain barrier and not put limits on myself.”
She says in the gym, for example, there is now no time for self-doubt to creep in as he simply piles on the weights and asks her to lift.
“He will say, ‘how do you know you can’t lift them, if you won’t even try?’ I will then lift them and surprise myself. He has a way of getting his message across.”
Faster, stronger, lighter more technically adept not to mention mentally more resilient a knee injury frustratingly sidelined her for the first two months of the summer season. However, after some promising mid-season competitions in Australia through February and March she really found her rhythm at the fag-end of the campaign.
In late March she secured a fourth successive New Zealand title in Wellington by adding 0.13cm to her previous lifetime best – which was set in 2011 – with 13.24m.
Then the following weekend all her stars aligned as she made another huge leap forward - by achieving a distance of 13.55m to better Tania Dixon’s 17-year-old New Zealand record by 0.07 to finish second at the Australian Championships in Melbourne.
It was a sweet and long-awaited moment for the 26-year-old.
“One of my aims was to claim the national open record because I already had the under-17 and under-20 records,” she explains. “The funny thing was the 13.55m didn’t feel that long. I felt I collapsed in the middle phase, but as soon as I saw the distance flash up I was ecstatic and did a little bit of a dance. I am honoured to be No.1 (all-time New Zealander).”
The only downside of Nneka’s breakthrough season is she fell some 0.25cm shy of the Commonwealth Games B standard which would have booked her ticket for Glasgow.
Nonetheless, she has already set her focus on next season where she hopes to compete at the World University Games in Korea and has not ruled out a crack at making the qualification mark for the World Championships in Beijing.
“I think 13.80m was a viable target (for 2014) and I think 14m is possible,” she says of the future.
Yet one thing has never wavered in her 20 years involved in the sport – her passion for athletics.
“I love training and seeing the results”, explains Nneka who also works four days a week in the admin office for the Victoria Police. “I love the social aspect, the spectators and watching other people perform. I love the sport and I can imagine myself doing it for a very long time.”
And with a strong coach-athlete relationship in place this has to be hugely encouraging news for the future of New Zealand triple jumping.