Connor Bell concedes he used to be a fat kid who spent all day on his Play Station. A handful of years later the Westlake Boys’ High School student heads to the Junior Commonwealth Games in the Bahamas as the top ranked Under-17 discus thrower in the world.
Bell has a personal best of 63.93m with a 1.5kg discus. His nearest rival from Great Britain has thrown 63.48m. The present games record is 64.14m.
“My grandad and Dad were both good athletes. Dad was a sprint champion at Dilworth College and ran a low 11 seconds for the 100m. One day I turned up to a discus competition and won by a big margin. I was recognised by a club coach and got into it after that,” Bell recalls of his original involvement in the sport.
Bell hails from Kaukapakapa just north of Auckland. He might have been harsh on himself when he said he was idle. He had tried a range of sports including football, rugby, cricket and even motocross attempting to find his niche.
“I had a couple of concussions in motocross and even managed to split a helmet open in a crash so I guess that wasn’t going to work,” Bell laughs.
It’s almost a laughing matter how far ahead of the discus throwing competition Bell is in New Zealand. The National Under-18 and 20 champion won the intermediate National Secondary Schools title in December by over 20-metres. He is also the Australian Under-18 champion.
How does Bell avoid complacency?
“I am training six times a week and always looking to improve. I guess you are competing against yourself sometimes, but I enjoy the challenge of always trying to improve.”
Any slacking won’t be tolerated by Bell’s coach, two-time Olympic shot-put champion Dame Valerie Adams. Bell has a special relationship with the three times Halberg award winner.
“Val is on a break from competition because she is pregnant, meaning I get to see her three times a week. That is awesome. She is so relatable, generous, passionate and professional.”
Bell has been working with Adams for the best part of a year after a connection with a previous coach.
Bell is unconcerned about the searing heat in the Bahamas saying he enjoys hot weather and his throw only takes a few seconds anyway.
The Junior Commonwealth Games are held from July 19-23.
“The first time I ran it I looked like I had been for a swim. I was able to squeeze a small puddle of sweat from my clothes,” Nick Moulai recalls of his first attempt running on a treadmill in a room surrounded by heat pumps delivering sweltering calidity.
Moulai is acclimatising himself for the sun of the Bahamas where he is headed on July 14 for the Junior Commonwealth Games. The Year 13 from St. Bede’s College, Christchurch will represent New Zealand in the 1500m and 3000m.
“I go to the treadmill twice a week now and can last over half an hour, but it’s pretty tough.” Moulai concedes.
Moulai earned the right to build up such duress at the National Secondary Schools Track and Field Championships in Auckland in December last year. He won the 3000m with a time of 8min 16.77sec, shattering a nine-year-old national record.
Moulai hasn’t been particularly active on the track since because there really isn’t a track in Christchurch he can train on during the winter, but is confident he can “build up the legs quickly.”
“There is a track in Timaru I have been to and will do so again. I will also find a track in the Bahamas,” Moulai assures.
Moulai’s winning time in the 3000m in December was more than 35 seconds faster than his time over 3000m at the same event in 2015. Before the start of the American and European seasons this year, Moulai was ranked first and third in the world for the under 17 age-bracket in the 1500m and 3000m respectively.
“I think I am ninth in the 1500m now. I was looking at the winning times last year and a Kenyan ran something like 3:39 which is world class and about ten seconds quicker than me. I will give it my best,” Moulai guarantees.
Moulai is an asthma sufferer making running in the winter with the cooler air tough. However, at the recent National Secondary Schools cross country championships he showed he was an all-season runner finishing third in an arduous race.
“I wanted to win, but you can’t all the time. Sam Tanner deserved his victory. Sam ran a smart race conserving energy at the start and picking his time to kick ahead. It was a narrow track and there was a lot of pushing and shoving which wasn’t ideal, but I guess I was pretty happy to medal.” Moulai reflects.
Moulai is aiming for a podium finish in the Bahamas and is still fundraising to reach the $6,000 required to go. His brother Tom is the National Secondary Schools 800m champion. Both boys aspire a US college scholarship next year.
The NZSSAA Cross Country Team to Travel to Hobart in August 2017 has just been announced. Congratulations to the following athletes:
Joseph Clark (C) Westlake Boys’ High School U20 Samuel Tanner Bethlehem College U18
James Uhlenberg St Kentigern College U20
Kalani Sheradin Nayland College U20
George Cory‐Wright King’s College U18
Joel Carman Wainuiomata High School U20
Stuart Hofmeyr Westlake Boys’ High School U18
Logan Slee Hutt International Boys' School U18
Jacob Holmes Sacred Heart College (Auckland) U20
Samantha Burke(C) Mt Aspiring College U20
Hannah O'Connor Sacred Heart Girls' College (New Plymouth) U18
Phoebe Mcknight Hutt Valley High School U18
Tessa Hunt Wellington East Girls' College U18
Bridie Edwards Waimea College U20
Jayme Maxwell Hutt Valley High School U18
Liliana Braun Cashmere High School U18
Navajo Prentice Villa Maria College U20
Grace Ritchie Waikato Diocesan School U20
Aimee Ferguson Rototuna Senior High School U18
Sofia Kennedy Middleton Grange School U18
Harriet Bush St Margaret's College U20
“We pride ourselves on being gritty. We love courses with hills because there’s lots of hilly terrain on the North Shore. The course in Christchurch had lots of hills and turns which suited us.” Joseph Clark of Westlake Boys’ High School says when reflecting on the National Secondary School cross country champions held over the weekend.
Westlake achieved the seemingly impossible when they won all six team events, a feat never achieved previously. Captain Clark explains Westlake’s simple approach.
“If we saw a Sacred Heart or New Plymouth singlet we wanted to stay with them because we knew they were the leading contenders.”
This year was one of the biggest years in terms of competition, with close to 900 entrants from all over New Zealand. Westlake sent a 33-man squad.
The Year 9 Boys six person team, consisting of Ben Ruscoe (3rd), Ettienne Piere (5th), Toby Saxby (11th), Sam Berry (15th), James Hopwood (46th) and Liam Hopwood (58th), had a dominant performance with a team score of 138, 100 points less than the second place team. Similarly in the three person event, Ruscoe, Piere and Saxby, scored an impressive 19 to win gold by 37 points.
Westlake defended their 2016 junior titles with all six runners finishing inside the top 50. Blair Hill was third, Jude Darby sixth, Arsh Kazi 16th, Max Johnson 20th, JJ Weston 24th and George Luty 47th.
In the 219 strong Senior Boys race, Westlake ran strongly with the winning six person team including four Year 11 boys, who were competing in the senior division for the first time.
The six person team of Joe Clark (6th), Murdoch McIntyre (7th), Stuart Hofmeyr (15th), David Moore (33rd), Daniel Robertson (55th) and Zach Keenan (75th) won gold with 191 points, 59 less the silver medallists. Lastly, the three person team won gold with 28 points, an incredible 39 points less the next team.
Clark’s effort was particularly brave as he missed a week of school beforehand with a throat infection.
“I felt mixed about my finish. I wanted to push for a medal, but my preparation wasn’t great.” Clark admits.
For three years Clark and Westlake have been preparing for a trip to South Africa and Kenya for observation and training.
“There are about 20 of us going, it’s cost nine thousand dollars each, but it lasts for four weeks and will be worth it. I am going to go into it with an open mind.” Clark enthuses.
Westlake’s win in the senior six man event also earned them a place at the World Secondary Schools Championships. Clark won’t be eligible, but attended with New Zealand last year.
“A lot of hard work as gone into our success. I am grateful for the opportunities.” Clark concludes.
They say the New Zealand Secondary School Cross Country Championships is one of the hardest events on the NZSS calendar to win. Just ask this year’s Senior Boys winner, Sam Tanner, Year 12, out of Bethlehem College.
“I knew there was going to be a heap of guys who were really fast and fit, but I was just preparing myself to push my body to its limit,” said Sam. “I didn’t have to quite do that, where I hit the wall, but it was a tough race.”
“I knew that I could win, it was just whether or not I wanted to win badly enough when I was out there racing and I did so I am pretty stoked with that,” after winning on Saturday at the Ascot Golf Course at QEII Park in Christchurch.
Sam headed a strong field of some 220 runners in the 6km, three-lap Senior Boys race, beating Hamilton Boys’ High School’s Isaiah Priddey by a second in a sprint finish and with local St Bede’s College’s Nick Moulai 10 seconds back in third, New Plymouth Boys’ High School’s Chris Devaney in fourth and MacLeans College’s Theo Quax in fifth.
Sam got himself well positioned in the leading group throughout the first lap. “I was happy to be right up the front there throughout the first lap and to get my frame of mind right for the second and third laps.”
“I really liked the track, with its corners and breakaway points, so was feeling good throughout the middle stages.”
It was a close racing well into the third lap. “With about 1km to go, Isaiah, Nick and I put on the pace. Isaiah pulled out in front and then we came out of a corner and broke the pack up. Isaiah surged ahead. Then on the last little finger with about 200-300m to go I passed Isaiah because I had the frame of mind that I had to be in front of him before the last two corners because it would be hard to get past him on the straight if he still had something left in the tank.”
In winning Saturday’s race, Sam drew on his recent experience running in the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships.
“Isaiah and I ended coming across together in a photo finish for first equal. Our time read 19 minutes flat.”
Finishing in a dead heat at regionals was really helpful for Sam. “I made a little mistake in the last corner, which gave me the right insight into nationals. The last two corners I ended up running outside and I didn’t have the time to sprint past him. My frame in mind heading into nationals was that I had to take the front before those last two corners and I will win.”
On Sunday Sam, Isaiah and three others teamed up together for Waikato-Bay of Plenty to win the provincial Senior Boys 5 x 2km relay event. Waikato-BoP were near the front of the boys race with Canterbury over the first three laps, but moved ahead on lap four and by the time Isaiah took over for the final lap the victory was never in doubt.
Sam ran the first lap for his team, running with Nick Moulai who took the first lap for Canterbury. Sam and Nick finished in front more or less together and Sam’s Waikato-BoP carried on to win.
It was also a family affair over the weekend, with Sam’s younger brother Logan finished 10th in the Junior Boys race. The brothers get their talent from their mum Krissy Tanner, a former NZ 400m champion on the track.
This was Sam’s fourth NZSS Cross Country Championships. Last year in this first senior race he had a “bad race” and came 16th. In 2015 he came third in the Junior race, behind Isaiah and Nayland College’s Kalani Sheridan. In 2014 he won the Year 9 race.
He also thanked his coach, Craig Kirkwood. “He’s a great coach and pushes me to my limits and makes me run really well so I’m really thankful for him.”
Sam hasn’t got an extensive track background, but hopes to get into it more in to the future. Last year he came third in the road race at the NZSS Track and Field Championships in Auckland.
He enjoys other individual sports such as surfing, kite surfing and skateboarding and snowboarding. “Pretty much anything to do with a board I love.”
What’s coming up for Sam?
“My next big race will probably be the club cross country nationals in Auckland at the end of July and then hopefully the Australian Cross Country Nationals in Hobart and the National Road Racing Champs in Christchurch and then going into track.”
Sam Tanner from Bethlehem College in Tauranga and Hannah O’Connor from Sacred Heart in New Plymouth were the big winners at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Champs in Christchurch.
Tanner took out the senior boys title after a sprint finish with Isaiah Priddey (Hamilton Boys), while pre-race favourite Nick Moulai (St Bede’s, Christchurch) came in third.
A big leading bunch stayed together for much of the senior 6km, with a number of athletes in contention well into the race and the lead changing often.
Priddey made a big move inside the last 1000 metres and the leading bunch broke up quickly. Tanner responded and went past Priddey with 200m to run and went on to take the win in 18:40, just a second ahead of the Hamilton athlete with Moulai coming through for third, another ten seconds back.
“It was pretty hard today. The boys put in a big effort and I was pretty stoked to get the win”, said Tanner. “My coach Craig Kirkwood and I discussed strategies before the race and I knew there were quite a few who could really push me but I wanted to give them a surprise.”
Chris Devaney, Theo Quax and Joseph Clark filled the next placings.
The senior girls 4km turned into a two-horse race with pre-race favourite Hannah O’Connor from Sacred Heart, New Plymouth being pushed all the way by Phoebe McKnight from Hutt Valley High School.
O’Connor, winner of the junior race in 2015 and 2016 was made to work very hard by McKnight who won the Year 9 contest in 2015. The Taranaki athlete had to call on all her reserves to drop the Hutt Valley runner over the final stages of the race, winning in 13:49 by three seconds with a gap of 29 seconds back to defending champion Tessa Webb from Fielding High School.
“Phoebe pushed me really hard today “, said O’Connor. “She is in good form but I knew I had a good sprint and I had to rely on that today.”
O’Connor, along with boys minor medallists Priddey and Moulai are off to the Bahamas for the Youth Commonwealth Games in July.
Tessa Hunt, Bridie Edwards Jayme Maxwell filled the next three senior girls placings.
The junior Boys race saw another good race with Andres Hernandez from St Bede’s, Christchurch running into a handy lead at the half way mark, but Liam Back from Wanganui Collegiate chased him down and made a decisive move with 500m to run, going on to win in 12:50 by four seconds.
Blair Hill from Westlake Boys in Auckland come in third, ahead of William Taylor, Mitch Snell and Jude Darby.
Charli Miller from St Peters, Cambridge had the biggest winning margin of the championships, winning the 3km junior girls race in 10:43, 18 seconds ahead of Esther Kozyniak from St Catherine’s in Wellington.
Maia Ramsden from Fiji finished third, while Brianna Lee from Napier Girls took the third place championship medal, ahead of Rebecca Baker and Tillie Hollyer.
The Year 9 boys 3km medals went to William Anthony (Scots College, Wellington) from Sam Idiens (Christs College, Christchurch) and Ben Ruscoe (Westlake Boys Auckland).
Arabella White (Diocesan, Auckland) won the girls Year 9 3km race from Zoe Smith (Aspiring College) and Maia Flint (Tauranga Girls).
Westlake Boys from Auckland showed total domination in the boys team races, winning all six gold medals on offer, the 3 person and 6 person contests across all three grades.
Waikato Diocesan (3 person) and St Cuthbert’s Auckland (6 person) were the top senior girls schools, while Baradene, Auckland won both teams titles in the junior girls. St Cuthbert’s and Auckland Diocesan won the Year 9 girls team titles.
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