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Teenage throwing talent Kaia Tupu-South is an athlete with very a bright future. Steve Landells chats to the gifted Aucklander to find out more of her sporting journey.
If you could combine the perfect set of ingredients for sporting success then New Zealand’s emerging throws talent Kaia Tupu-South hits the mark on every count.
Boasting a strong set of sporting genes, a highly motivated and intelligent demeanour and supported by a vastly experienced coach, it is perhaps little surprise the 17-year-old Aucklander has such an exciting future ahead of her.
Setting World U20 Championship qualification marks in both the shot and discus earlier this year elevated the Westlake Girls High School head girl to sixth and fourth respectively on the U20 world rankings.
And following the postponement of the 2020 World U20 Championships in Nairobi it is imminently possible the Takapuna Athletics & HC athlete could be even better placed to excel on the global stage should the event be rescheduled for next year.
Her strong sporting lineage can be traced back to her grandfather, Bob South, an American who played NCAA basketball for San Jose State University.
Bob later relocated to New Zealand had two children including Kaia’s mother, who played netball and basketball while her father was a former boxer.
To add further sheen to her sporting family her brother, Trey, is a three-time national boxing champion.
Of course it takes far more than good sporting genes to create a champion and it was clear from a young age she was desperate to compete.
Aged just four at the time she recalls enviously watching her older brother, Trey, compete at Takapuna Athletics Club itching to be part of the action.
She had to wait until her fifth birthday to get involved in her local athletics club and her eagerness was quickly rewarded.
“I definitely loved it from the beginning,” she recalls. “I was the best at long jump and sprints and started to set club records. I remember at the age of seven I had the club discus (age-group) record but then on the last club night of the year a girl beat my record by three metres. I was so hurt I started practising with my parents, that is when I first realised as long as I trained hard, I’d stay ahead of the opposition.”
Multi events maestro
From the age of ten, Kaia, a huge admirer of Great Britain’s 2012 London Olympic heptathlon gold medallist Jessica Ennis, switched her focus to the multi-events.
Boasting a good range of all-round athletic skills she was crowned Auckland age-group pentathlon champion only for her aspirations to perform as a future heptathlete to nosedive after picking up a foot injury in April 2017.
The lingering issue took a long time to diagnose and Kaia eventually underwent bone fracture surgery in November of that year.
However, if Kaia expected a trouble-free return to training post-surgery she was given a rude awakening after suffering persistent shin splints aggravated while running.
“It was super frustrating,” she adds of the period in 2017 and 2018 which was spent largely on the sidelines. “Previously I’d had a few growing pains but the foot problem was my first big injury. After surgery I then tried to train but it was hard with the shin splints.”
Unable to run without pain she wisely switched her emphasis to the throws and targeted the discus and shot at the 2018 New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Dunedin.
The decision proved a masterstroke as she secured a decisive discus gold with 44.88m and shot put silver – a performance which convinced her future life as a thrower.
“I was really happy with the performance,” she adds of the 2018 school nationals. “It was my first big competition back. It was really positive.”
Acknowledging the throws had been her greatest strength as a multi-eventer she returned from the championships fully focused on shot and discus.
Already coached in the throws since the age of eight by Walter Gill, who had coached his son, Jacko, and Maddison Wesche to World U20 shot put titles, Kaia could move from a position of strength. The pair form a tight bond and the teenager insists he has all the qualities to take her a long way.
“As a coach he is very knowledgeable and in the best part of a decade that I’ve known him, I’ve never had one argument with him,” she explains. “During competitions he is always very calm, positive and patient.”
At the 2019 New Zealand Track & Field Championships, Kaia was one of the star age-group performers winning three gold medals – in the U18 shot and discus and U20 shot – as well U20 discus silver.
It was a breakthrough competition for Kaia who believes she earned a lot of confidence from her efforts in Christchurch.
“It was an awesome weekend and it felt like the first time I’d produced a mentally strong performance,” she explains. “I don’t think I’d ever beaten Jaidyn (Busch) before, I was nervous and not the favourite but to throw 16.48m to win gold was massive for me. It was the first time I’d thrown further in competition than in training.”
Her confidence lifted, in the winter of 2019 she stepped up from two to three throws sessions a week and further developed her strength, speed and technique.
A naturally dynamic thrower, Kaia set herself the target of a place in both the shot and discus at the 2020 World U20 Championships in Nairobi, Kenya and in January had already achieved her target of a qualification mark in both events.
In Lower Hutt in mid-January, she heaved the shot out to 15.12m – to improve her previous PB by more than a metre.
One week later at the Potts Classic in Hastings she further demonstrated her dazzling form by hurling the 1kg discus out to 49.83m – for a near two metre lifetime best.
“It felt like a relief and the pressure had been lifted as I worked towards the World Juniors,” adds Kaia, who in December won discus gold and shot silver at the 2019 New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Wellington.
Yet it was at the 2020 New Zealand Track & Field Championships where she produced, arguably, the performance of her career with a 53.69m effort to win U20 discus gold in favourable conditions on the opening day at Nga Puna Wai.
“I was nervous going back to Christchurch after it has been so slippery and wet in the circle (at the 2019 New Zealand Champs),” she explains. “I actually had the world’s worst warm up and threw the first throw out of the sector. But I took myself away and in the final round threw 53.69m (to surpass Savannah Scheen the long-time leader). I tried not to react at that moment, and remember I didn’t only want a PB, but to win the competition.”
Later that day, Kaia came within 6cm of her shot lifetime best with a 15.06m effort to place sixth in the senior competition but on the final day she struggled to find her rhythm in the U20 shot and had to settle for silver behind Jaidyn Busch with a best of 14.49m.
Kaia intended to sign off her domestic campaign by competing at the Australian Championships in Sydney but she rolled her ankle in a training throw and picked up a small avulsion fracture. She was put in a moonboot, the Australian Championships were cancelled due to the pandemic and she spent much of her time in lockdown at the family home in Albany re-habbing from injury.
It was also during this period when Kaia learned of the postponement of the World U20 Championships in Nairobi. It was a decision she fully accepted, however she is still keen to feature in the re-arranged event.
“I was happy they decided at least not to cancel the competition as this gives me an opportunity to compete at a re-arranged competition,” she explains. “I’m not someone who looks at the world rankings, I prefer to focus on myself. But I think a realistic goal is to make the final in both events, to throw more than 16m in the shot and get the highest place I can.”
Currently back in full training, Kaia, who admits she is “a geek” who loves to study, has the long-term ambition to win an Olympic gold medal.
But should she one day go on to achieve her lofty goal the next question might be in which event does she see her future?
“I’m not too sure, I like both events,” she adds. “I like the fact if the shot is going badly then the discus is probably going well. I also like the way the discus flies but I also like the feel of the shot put.”