News & Updates

7 December 2023 • Track and Field

Athletics legends share their NZ Secondary Schools memories

Three athletics titans share their memories of competing at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Track, Field and Road Championships. Credit: (supplied and Getty Images).

Fifty years of the New Zealand Secondary Schools Track, Field and Road Championships have unearthed a raft of winners who have gone on to enjoy major international success. Ahead of the 50th anniversary edition in Christchurch here we speak to three big names in the sport who fondly recall their time competing at the annual national championship.

Tom Walsh

From a raw 13-year-old through to a highly promising 20m thrower, Tom’s New Zealand Secondary Schools Championship journey formed the platform for his future success.

As a two-time Olympic bronze medallist, the 31-year-old Cantabrian has been well-established among the global shot put elite for the best part of a decade but he recalls being no world-beater when he made his debut secondary schools appearance as a 13-year-old Timaru Boys’ High School student.

The 2005 event at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland proved an overwhelming experience as he finished ninth in the junior boys shot and 22nd in the discus.

“I just remember I was up against these massive guys wondering if I would ever grow to be that big,” says Tom. “I was in shock. I was a smalltown boy coming against the big fish in Auckland.”

On his return 12 months later and under the wily coaching of Ian Baird he was a much-improved athlete. He took out silver in the junior boys shot and fifth in the discus before securing the junior boys shot gold in Whanganui in 2007 along with discus silver.

“Winning my first national title in Whanganui was pretty cool,” he says. “I used to have some big battles in shot and discus with my now coach Hayden Hall – and I think he won more than I did!”

Tom nabbed further senior boys shot gold medals in Hamilton and in 2009 at his final New Zealand Secondary Schools Track & Field Championships, which were staged in his home city of Timaru.

Supported there by family and friends he hurled the shot 20.21m to become the first New Zealand male to throw any implement size shot beyond 20m – only for Jacko Gill to match the feat the following day in the junior boys’ event.

“Timaru was special,” he recalls. “The track was very new and it was great having Ian Baird there. He was a very calming influence.”

So what advice would he pass on to the competitors at the 50th anniversary event in his adopted home city of Christchurch this week?

“Just enjoy it,” he adds. “There are not many comps like it in New Zealand with such a festival atmosphere. It is a really fun time supporting athletes from your school and watching how all the other athletes from around New Zealand compete.”

Eliza McCartney

From being serenaded ‘Happy Birthday’ to on the podium in Dunedin to forming the confidence and belief that she could successfully develop her athletics career on home shores, the New Zealand Secondary School Track, Field and Road Championships hold a special place in the heart of Eliza McCartney.

Making her debut as a 14-year-old Takapuna Grammar student at the 2010 edition in Hastings, Eliza finished fourth in the junior girls’ high jump and fifth in the pole vault – just two months after taking up the latter discipline.

“I was reasonably pleased with my performance, but I was just a young kid in awe of everything,” she says. “I felt really young and small looking up to these other kids doing some great things around me.”

With more experience behind her 12 months later she returned for her second crack at the event, this time striking high jump gold with 1.62m and banking a pole vault silver medal with a best height of 3.60m.

“I remember Wellington very well because I did the comp on my birthday and the crowd sang happy birthday to me,” she says with a smile.

In 2012 in Dunedin, Eliza claimed senior girls pole vault gold with a best of 3.85m before retaining the title in Hamilton 12 months later with a championship record of 4.10m. She signed off her New Zealand Secondary Schools career with another pole vault gold in Whanganui (4.00m) at the 2014 edition.

“I fondly remember Dunedin. The 3.85m was a record until I broke it the next year but more importantly that 3.85m qualified me for the World Youth (U18) Championships in Donetsk in the Ukraine, which was my first big international competition.”

Sad to conclude her time competing in the very special event she warmly recalls the fantastic atmosphere of the New Zealand Secondary Schools coupled with the enjoyment she experienced being part of the close-knit pole vault community.

A little over 18 months after winning her third and final national secondary schools pole vault title, Eliza claimed Olympic bronze in Rio and competing in the former event played a part in that journey.

“Competing at Secondary Schools fostered a feeling that I was able to make great progress in New Zealand and that I didn’t need to go overseas to an American college to achieve that. I had the competition and training here, so there was no need for me to go elsewhere.”

For anyone competing in this year’s 50th anniversary event in Christchurch she has a simple message.

“Just enjoy it. The Secondary Schools champs is one of the best competitions we have in New Zealand, so it is worth soaking up the atmosphere and experience while you can.”

Dame Valerie Adams

Two-time Olympic champion Dame Valerie Adams boasted a proud record as a Southern Cross Campus School athlete at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Track, Field and Road Championships. The New Zealand sporting icon, who still holds the New Zealand Secondary Schools junior shot put record, reflects on her time competing in the annual event.

What was your first New Zealand Secondary Schools experience?

My first secondary schools experience was 1998 in Papakura, it was quite nerve-wracking for me. It was the first time I’d ever competed at nationals, and I was very nervous due to the fact Monique Taito from Invercargill was my biggest competitor. I sprained my ankle about a week before the event and Monique ended up beating me (in the junior girls shot). I was very disappointed but there was a lot to learn from that comp.

What were some of your favourite memories from a non-competition point of view at the NZ Secondary Schools Champs?

I loved New Zealand Secondary Schools because everyone came together as a sport. A lot of team sports come together more regularly, but I loved it when we came together because we were all really passionate about the sport and it was also good fun.

What was your proudest accomplishment competing at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships?

My proudest achievement came in Dunedin in 2001, where I won the senior girls shot, hammer and discus titles. But one of the best things I recall about the event was I had the opportunity to try the shot put from a chair. A young wheelchair athlete let me have a turn, and that is when I first discovered the complexities of throwing a shot put from a static position. It was a wonderful championship not only from a performance point of view but also an experience.” 

Looking back on your career development how significant were your experiences at NZ Secondary Schools Champs?

From year nine until I left school, I became more confident. I familiarised myself with the environment and as well as my career at schools my athletics career took off from at national and international level (in 2001 Dame Val won the World U18 shot put title). It was awesome to come back into that environment, still felt the nerves and the importance of these championships.

What advice would you give any competing athletes at this year’s 50th anniversary New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships?

Firstly, have fun and enjoy the experience, but more importantly focus on what you have got to do, focus on your competition. There is going to be a lot of noise, it’s going to be exciting but just focus on why you are there. Also, don’t forget to thank the officials, thank you competitors and enjoy the rest of the championships.

***To follow the livestream of the action at the 2023 New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Christchurch go here XXX