Above: Jess Hamill on the dais after receiving her F34 shot put silver medal at the IPC World Championships in Doha. Photo by Francois Nel / Getty Images.
Jess Hamill won an outstanding silver medal in the women’s F34 shot at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha last month. Steve Landells chats to the Kiwi thrower and discovers her success in Qatar was against all the odds.
It was on Labour Day 2014 when the second chapter of Jess Hamill’s athletics life began.
The first chapter had been chock-full of highs and rich in promise. Aged just 16 she banked a World silver medal in Assen in the Netherlands. Two years later she competed in three event s at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics before winning a silver medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Yet the success dried up and after missing out on qualification for the London Paralympics her career faced a crossroads.
“I needed to figure out what I wanted,” she says. “I was unhappy in my life at that point. Sport had meant I did not have the opportunity to live life like a regular teenager. I took a chance and said ‘I am going to have a break from sport and figure out what I want in life’.”
She moved from Dunedin to Christchurch took on a regular job, spent time with her friends and spent a little more time partying. Yet in the spring of 2014 the urge to re-start athletics proved irresistible. Last October she informed her former coach Raylene Bates of her desire to return to the sport. Bates was “ecstatic” and on Labour Day last year she re-started training.
“I don’t think I realised quite how much I missed athletics,” she adds.
Born with cerebral palsy, Jess was born and raised in Invercargill. She quickly discovered a talent for sport excelling in swimming only for a succession of ear infections to prove a barrier to her progress. It was her school PE teacher that encouraged the Southlander to try the throws and it proved an inspired decision.
“I’ve always been quite strong, but I found that I also enjoyed the technical side (of throwing) as well,” she adds. “Then the more I understood the events, the more I got into the dynamics of throwing.”
Within a year of taking up the sport “thing moved quite fast for me” Jess won the 2006 World Championship silver medal in the shot put in Assen.
She admits feeling “overwhelmed” by the experience but bolstered by her international achievements two years later she competed in the discus (eighth) shot (11th) and javelin (13th) at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. She “loved” competing inside the Bird’s Nest Stadium but also suffered her first disappointment of her career by falling short of expectations in her favoured shot put event.
In early 2010 she had moved up from her home town of Invercargill to Dunedin and later that year described winning Commonwealth Games silver as a “very big career highlight.”
She went on to place fifth in the shot put at the 2011 IPC Athletics World Championships in Christchurch but the following year suffered a huge blow when she missed out on qualification for the London Paralympics. In the wake of this disappointment Jess then decided to take a break from the sport before returning in October 2014 her life in a much happier place.
“I had a lot more stability in my life again,” she adds. “I have a wonderful partner in Dale, I loved moving down to Dunedin and I was happy where I was living.”
She also discovered her event the F34 shot had moved on during her time away from the sport. The classification rules had altered to make things fairer, which was to her advantage. The new rules stated athletes must sit while throwing a change which she approved of because she had “greater control of her body.”
Jess has also been giving a much lighter throwing frame which significantly eased transportation concerns and she found that although she had lost much of her base fitness, it quickly returned under the coaching of Raylene whom she describes as a “special person.”
Jess had been back in the sport for nearly two months and looking forward to the summer season only for disaster to strike the week before Christmas following a horse riding trip with friends.
“A horse bucked me off and I fractured two vertebrae,” laments Jess. “I was very lucky I didn’t have surgery but I faced 14 weeks out of training waiting for my bones to heal. I thought my hopes of making the team for Doha were over.”
Yet possessing a steely determination and an innate desire to prove people wrong she returned from the injury and despite limited preparation time threw 6.85m at the Oceania Championships in Cairns to qualify for Doha.
Since then the hard work has really started to pay dividends for Jess who trains an average of nine sessions per week. Both her strength and technique have developed and she went into the IPC Athletics World Championships brimming full of confidence after a personal best of 7.14m gave her a pre-championship world ranking of number three.
She went into the competition inside the Suhaim Bin Hamad Stadium confident she could climb the podium but the level of her performance left her “shocked and overwhelmed.” She set lifetime best performances of 7.45m and 7.68m with her first two throws before saving her best until last - registering a national record 7.83m to secure a silver medal in round six.
“I knew in my heart I was capable of a medal, but I never thought I would get silver or throw as far as I did,” she admits. “My PB was 7.14m and I was hoping if I had a good day to hit 7.40m or 7.50m, so to get 7.83m blew my mind.
“When I saw Raylene I burst into tears and gave her a big hug. Winning the silver medal was probably extra special given everything I have been through. Coming back from that injury last Christmas, I can’t believe it all came together. I’m so proud. My parents have been so supportive and it proves all the hard work has been worth it.”
Describing herself as a passionate athlete with an inner-desire to prove people wrong she has now set her gaze on the 2016 Rio Paralympics and after finishing within 54cm of gold medallist Lijuan Zou of China in Doha there is only one goal for Brazil.
“It is to go one better and take the gold. I’m around 50cm away, so I know I have to go up to a whole other level but that is my aim.”
Yet having emerged so strongly in her time back at the sport does she have any regrets she took a break from the sport?
“I don’t regret anything I have done,” she explains. “I went through some bad times. I had no job for a while and I struggled financially but it made me a stronger person and I have been lucky enough to meet some amazing people along the way who have influenced my decisions.”