“...but I’m technically better now.” Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams has gone through some big changes in the last two years. One thing has remained constant: she’s still the best in the world.
Not many men could tell a woman the quality he admired most was her constitution. But Jean-Pierre Egger manages to get away with it because in his heavily accented, broken English it sounds like he’s giving a compliment. It also helps that he’s 1.96m tall and rocks a Tom Selleck-style ’tache. But mainly he gets away with it because the woman he’s talking to also happens to be 1.96m tall and her constitution (her impressive physical and psychological make-up) has helped her to become the best shot putter in the world.
Egger has been coaching Valerie Adams since the end of 2010, but they first met in 2002 when Egger was in New Zealand working as a conditioning coach for America’s Cup winner Alinghi. Adam’s coach at the time, Kirsten Hellier, invited Egger to watch her protégé throw.
“I thought she had great constitution but she was also very coordinated,” remembers Egger. “Sometimes big people when they are young are very, how you say… unco…” “You mean uncoordinated?” suggests Adams, who is sitting opposite Egger after a training session at the Millennium Institute on Auckland’s North Shore.
“Yes, that’s the word,” says Egger, “but Valerie had a very athletic figure. I thought if she has the motivation she could be very good. I said to Kirsten, ‘You must pay attention because you have gold in your hands.’” Under Hellier’s guidance, Adams won gold at the World Youth Championships in 2001 and the world junior title the following year. She won two World Championships (2007 and 2009) and the Olympic title in Beijing (2008).
Then in March 2010 after 12 years together, she tearfully announced the end of her working relationship with Hellier. Adams credits Hellier with helping her in her quest to become a world-class athlete but she reflects: “People just grow apart and I’ve no regrets about what happened.” Didier Poppe took over from Hellier in April 2010. That same year, Adams divorced her husband and was beaten seven times by her closest rival, Nadzeya Ostapchuk from Belarus. The doubters started questioning her form and resolve.
“I knew I still had it in me,” says Adams, “but Didier wasn’t able to bring out the best in me. Change is hard and the first change I made didn’t work out but I kept looking and I found this guy,” she says, smiling at Egger.
In his defence, Poppe says Adams’s divorce created a lot of stress. “Valerie was very touchy and sensitive so we were not in a calm, peaceful situation. She didn’t feel comfortable with me and I didn’t feel comfortable with her, but I would have liked a few more months to work with her to try and make her better.”
Adams insists it wouldn’t have made a difference. “I hoped Didier would be able to help me but it didn’t work out,” she says. “Yes, the divorce was hard but after six months working with Didier, I struggled to throw 20m. Then after 10 days with Jean-Pierre I threw 20.86m, the second-best throw of my career.”
It was Poppe, though, who suggested Adams should travel to Switzerland with Egger in August 2010 for a training camp – a decision that cost the Frenchman his job. “Afterwards Didier asked me, ‘What have you done?’” says Egger. Egger’s training sessions with Adams were based on the same principles that helped Swiss shot putter Werner Günthör win three world titles. Poppe describes Egger as a “revolutionary”, one of the first throwing coaches to emphasise speed as well as strength. Poppe also claims he and Egger shared the same coaching methods.
“No, not true,” says Adams. “Didier wanted to change what had worked for me for 12 years and turn me from a truck into a Ferrari. But Jean-Pierre told me: ‘You’re not a Ferrari. You’re Valerie Adams.’ I relied on strength and aggression before working with JP. I’m 50-50 [between strength and speed] now.”
Adams persisted with Poppe until the end of 2010 when she asked Egger if she could move to Switzerland to work with him. It was a difficult decision for the 68-year-old, who hadn’t worked as a full-time coach since 1993.
“Other athletes wanted to work with me but I couldn’t do it because there was no connection there,” says Egger. “With Valerie I could feel that connection. I could see she needed a change in her life.”Adams ended up spending nine months in Switzerland working with Egger. He put her on a plyometrics regime to make her more dynamic. On his advice she lost 15kg and she credits her new physique to an injury-free year in 2011. “I’m in the best shape of my life,” she says. “I’m a way different athlete. I was always very confident physically – as strong as an ox and I could smack the crap out of the shot. I still smack the crap out of it but I’m technically better now.”
Read the full story in March's issue of The Red Bulletin.