News & Updates

29 June 2021 • General

De Vaal’s stock on the rise

Christian De Vaal leads the charge to the finish line on his way to securing the 2021 New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country senior boys title (Photo: Gary Nesbit)

Humble, self-reflective and a genuine team player, the 2021 New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country senior boys winner Christian De Vaal is an athlete on the rise.

For several years, the 16-year-old East Aucklander has been among the cream of endurance runners in his age-group.

However, it was last month’s performance in the mud and hills of the A&P Showgrounds in Hawera when De Vaal truly came of age as an athlete.

Refusing to lose faith despite the rapid start made by New Zealand U20 5000m champion Will Anthony, Christian opted to bide his time.

After sensibly opting to bridge the gap gradually, in the final 600m he called upon his prodigious reserves of energy to open a clear advantage on the final hill. A lead he would not surrender as Christian secured the biggest win of his career to claim the national secondary schools senior boys’ title by a six-second margin from Will.

“I felt really happy to win the title, but I didn’t want to celebrate excessively out of respect for the other runners who also trained very hard,” adds Christian.

A comment which perhaps neatly sums up the personality of the Macleans College Year 12 student.

Born in New Zealand to South African parents, Christian recalls performing well but “just for fun” in cross country races at both primary and intermediate school.

However, inspired by older brother, David, who had finished sixth in the Year Nine race at the 2017 New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships, Christian opted to take running more seriously after starting life as a Macleans College student.

“My brother, who was one year older than me, was quite involved in cross country running, so I thought I would join the team as well,” explains Christian.

It was Christian’s good fortune that he was able to jump in a school training group led by Theo Quax – the 2017 national U20 1500m champion and son of Dick, the 1976 Olympic 5000m silver medallist.

Theo effectively acted as Christian’s first coach, offering sound guidance and a good foundation in the sport before the former headed off to the US later in 2018 to take up a college scholarship at North Arizona University.

Following Theo’s Stateside departure, Christian was left without a coach for a period but competing in the road race at the 2018 New Zealand Secondary Schools Track & Field Championships opened the door to a new coaching relationship.

“Nick Codyre, (a coach at Pakuranga AC), was there supporting his son in the road race,” explains Christian.

“Before the race he told me to go ahead if I wanted to win. It was clear to me he knew what he was doing, so I ended up joining his training group.”

Part of a strong training group which includes Luke Hitchcock, the 2021 national U20 800m silver and 1500m bronze medallist and Nick’s son Ronan, a handy 4:03 1500m runner, has been a hugely positive move.

Thriving in the high-quality and dedicated running group, Christian has gone from strength to strength and acknowledges the key role coach Nick has played.

“Firstly, Nick is a really nice guy who coaches out of the kindness of his heart,” he explains. “People want to train with him and he is so welcoming to anyone who wants to be coached by him. He offers consistent training and prepares me really well.”

Running track seriously for the first time, he started 2019 with a bang striking 3000m gold at the North Island Championships.

However, later that year while competing at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships in Timaru he was given a rude awakening, finishing seventh in the junior boys’ race.

“Although I was up against a lot of year 11 guys, it was a shock for me and I was upset with seventh,” he explains. “I thought I would do better.”

“For me, it was a humbling experience. I realised I was not as good as I thought I was, and I needed to do something else to improve.”

In an effort to make those advancements he became more focused on each training run. Working hard on what he wanted to achieve out of every run, he resisted any complacency and the approach clearly worked as he ended the year on a high – winning 3000m silver in a PB and posting his first sub-nine-minute time of 8:56.10 at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Wellington.

The global pandemic in 2020 created what Christian describes as “a weird year.”

A number of key events such as the Auckland Cross Country and National Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships were cancelled.

However, benefiting from periods of lockdown – which allowed Christian to train with greater flexibility – saw him emerge in good shape.

In his home city of Auckland last November, he secured the U16 national road race title by a comfortable margin of 18 seconds from Takapuna’s Cameron Maunder.

One month later, however, Cameron exacted revenge to take gold in the junior boys’ 3000m at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships, with Christian settling for the consolation of silver.

“After beating Cam at the national road champs, I was feeling pretty confident (at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Champs), but he was better than me on the day,” he admits.

Christian enjoyed an eye-catching 2021 track and field campaign, highlighted by his performance at the North Island Secondary Schools Championships in Hamilton. There he impressed by shattering his PB by more than 13 seconds to land 3000m gold in 8:33.94. Meanwhile, he achieved another season-long goal at the championships by dipping below the four-minute mark for the first time with a 1500m best of 3:59.98 for silver.

Training between 60-80km a week, his main target for the winter campaign was the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships. However, facing the prospect of taking on the classy Will Anthony – an 8:16 3000m runner – was initially daunting.

“Nick continues to challenge me to keep up with the older and faster runners, but I also focus on running my own pace in these races,” he explains. “He challenged me that Will was going to be the goal, although at first I thought, I don’t know if this will be possible? But then as we came closer to the event, I thought maybe I can stick with him for 4 or 5km.”

On the day he did much, much better. Christian not only stuck with Will, he out-slogged his key rival to claim a memorable race win and bank the national title in Hawera.

Christian’s next big outing will come at the New Zealand Cross Country Championships in Dunedin in August, where he will contest the U18 race. Beyond that, the New Zealand Road Race Championships in Hamilton are another target as well as the New Zealand Road Relays Championships in Christchurch – where he hopes to guide Pakuranga AC to a second successive national U20 title.

“It was a pretty fun event,” he recalls. “I didn’t run a very good leg because I’d come off a leg injury two weeks prior, but it was inspirational to see the rest of the team catch and win the race. To be part of a winning team was special.”

Inspired by his former mentor Theo Quax, in the longer-term Christian hopes to further develop his career by winning a US scholarship.

Possessing good natural endurance – “I have to work a lot harder on my speed” – Christian, who cites world marathon record-holder Eliud Kipchoge as his idol, is clearly in the sport for the long haul, and there is little doubt what most excites him most about running.

“I just really like racing,” answers Christian, who says his brother, David, still competes but is more focused on his academic studies. “When you are racing you don’t think about how tired you are because you are just so focused on the race.”