Shot putter Valerie Adams is arguably New Zealand’s greatest sportsperson.
With her magnificent record of Olympic gold medals and world titles, Adams deserves to be placed at least alongside legendary sports figures such as Peter Snell, Richard Hadlee, Richie McCaw, Susan Devoy and Anthony Wilding.
For more than a century, track and field has been a central part of New Zealand’s Olympic tradition.
From the days of walker Harry Kerr, New Zealanders have excelled in a range of athletics events at the Olympics, but none have dominated their branch of the sport as has Adams.
By the end of the 2013 season, Adams had won two Olympic gold medals, four world titles (plus two more world indoor championships), and two Commonwealth Games gold medals.
Adams was born in Rotorua in 1984 to a Tongan mother (Lilika Ngauamo) and an English father (Sydney Adams). She showed potential at several sports, because not only was she exceptionally tall and strong, but she was nimble and athletic as well.
She met Kirsten Hellier in 1998 and this proved to be a turning point in her life. The pair combined for the next 11½ years until their relationship broke up in 2010. In that time Hellier, a former javelin champion, was Adams’ friend, mentor, adviser and coach.
Adams improved exponentially after breaking into the international scene by winning the world youth title at Debrecen, Hungary, in 2001. She really had the athletics world taking notice when she won the much more important world junior title in Kingston, Jamaica, the next year, even though she was just 17 and was competing against shot putters three years older.
Shortly after, she took the silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Her potential seemed unlimited.
Since then, her career has been one of almost unbroken success. In 2003, when still a junior, she was fifth in the world championships in Paris. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Adams finished eighth, while still recovering from an appendectomy just weeks before. She was unlucky in Athens. After her first three throws in the final she was ninth, so she didn’t qualify for a further three throws. Only later was one of those ahead of her disqualified for a drugs infraction. By then it was too late for Adams to get the extra throws she deserved.
The following year, Adams earned a place in the international elite, finishing third at the world championships in Helsinki with a personal best throw of 19.87m. She was later elevated to the silver medal position after Belarusian Nadezhda Ostapchuk was disqualified for failing a drugs test.
At the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games the 1.96m-tall Adams won the gold medal, breaking the 20-year-old Commonwealth Games record of 19.00m with a throw of 19.66m. She finished the year ranked No 2 in the world.
From 2007-09 she was the world’s No 1 shot putter. She won the world titles in 2007 and 2009, and in 2008 was a convincing winner of the Olympic gold medal in Beijing, where she stamped her authority early on the field.
Adams had a troubled year in 2010, splitting with Hellier and taking on Didier Poppe as coach. Nevertheless, she retained her Commonwealth Games title in Delhi and finished the year ranked No 2 in the world in the shot put.
Into 2011 Adams changed coaches again, this time linking with Jean-Pierre Egger. She struck consistently good form and capped off a great season by retaining her world title, throwing a personal best 21.24m at Daegu, South Korea.
In 2012 Adams won her second Olympic gold medal in dramatic fashion. An error by an official had caused Adam’s name to be left off the start-list the day before competition and that caused her unnecessary stress leading into the event.
Adams was below her best. She qualified second with a throw of 20.40m, well behind her long-time rival Ostapchuk. And in the final, Adams’ best of 20.70m was dwarfed by four Ostapchuk efforts in excess of 21m.
However, within days, the Belarusian was disqualified for testing positive for banned-substance metenolone, and Adams was promoted to the gold medal position.
Two months after the games, Adams was awarded her Olympic gold during an emotional ceremony in Auckland.
In 2013 Adams became the first woman in track and field history to win four successive world titles when she won the world crown in Moscow, Russia.
Adams’ standing can be seen in other ways besides her medals and titles.
She has several times been a finalist in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) female athlete of the year. She won the Sportswoman of the Year category at the Halberg Awards every year from 2006-12 (seven times) and was three times (2007-09) the overall winner of the Halberg Award. She has also won the Lonsdale Cup, awarded annually by the New Zealand Olympic Committee, four times. In 2009 she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM).
Adams’ youngest brother, Steve, is an NBA basketball player.