Sarah Cowley Ross catches up with three Olympic track and field hopefuls – Camille Buscomb, lifted up by a flock of Kiwi runners, and hammer throwers Julia Ratcliffe and Lauren Bruce, pushing each other to reach Tokyo.  

It’s often a lonesome journey for an individual athlete.

Gruelling solo training sessions sometimes joined by a dedicated coach, in all kinds of weather, are the norm.

So, when a group of middle and long distances runners joined forces for a training camp in Canterbury this month, magic happened.

The 130km training week was based around world championship representative Camille Buscomb – with 12 other athletes helping her in her preparation for next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games.

Among them were Rio Olympian Angie Petty, Commonwealth Games runner Katherine Camp and up-and-coming juniors Liliana Braun, Samantha Burke and Eva Pringle.

Athletics New Zealand distance performance coach, Maria Hassan, set up the camp knowing Buscomb, who’s usually based in the English city of Bath, was in back in New Zealand because of Covid-19 and needed strong training partners around her.

“Training can be lonesome, so training alongside a group of girls who have big goals but are also at a similar stage of life was hugely rewarding for the group,” says Hassan. “It was fantastic to see the strength in numbers.”

Buscomb, 30, is a member of the Melbourne Track Club and is used to both the environment and benefits of training camps – regularly completing blocks of time with her international team-mates (often at altitude).

Hasssan acknowledges that our male distance runners have led the way in working with each other in training camps to get the best out of one another, and she hopes more camps  for female athletes will be held in the future.

For Laura Nagel, who went to world junior champs in 2010, the camp was bigger than just the ability to train in a group of talented and fast female runners. 

“When you’ve on your own training all the time it can be quite isolating. Surrounded by people moving together, it’s motivating,” she says.

“We talked a lot about running but also how running fits into life. It was refreshing to hear from the other girls about their own stuff they’re dealing with and know you’re not alone in juggling your running dreams.” Nagel is now the digital and events manager with Hockey New Zealand.

Camille Buscomb’s running group incorporated off-road running into their training. Photo: supplied. 

Buscomb says the ability to link up with some old friends and be around people with a similar mindset and focus was hugely rewarding. An advocate for all athletes to feed off each in a training camp environment, Buscomb says she’s seen the benefits of prolonged training camps with her Melbourne team-mates.

“I think it’s really positive to be an environment where women work together to help make each other better,” she says.

“I always feel inspired by women who push their limits athletically and off the track in their workplaces.”

Nagel admits she wondered whether she’d be able to keep up with some of the other women, but was pleasantly surprised during the long runs by the pace Buscomb would keep and the way she raised the intensity for the key workout sessions.

One of those sessions was a higher intensity workout around a 1.6km loop. “We all jumped in and out and it was phenomenal to see what Camille could do in training,” Nagel says.

Towards the end of the week, the athletes linked up with the annual Athletics NZ development camp in Hamner, where 30 teenage athletes heard from Buscomb about what she’s learned.

Hearing that the road is not linear and is full of challenges that can be overcome was a highlight for Nagel.

“It made me realise that I too, can dream,” Nagel says. “I’m 28, but after the week, I’ve set some lofty goals and I’m surrounded by a group of women also aiming high.”

Hammer rivals light a fire

Two other Kiwi athletes feeding off each other are hammer throwers Julia Ratcliffe and Lauren Bruce.

Both are on the brink of throwing qualifying distances for next year’s Olympics, and both are pushing each other along.

Ratcliffe, the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, says Bruce’s dramatic improvement – setting a new national hammer throw record of 73.47m in Hawkes Bay last month – has been the fire she needed to take another step up towards her first Olympics.

“Having Lauren break my New Zealand record is the best thing that could have happened for me,” says Ratcliffe.

“It’s been a lonely road for most of my career and domestically, I’ve had to be the one to push myself, which has been hard at times.”

And naturally, 23-year-old Bruce admits Ratcliffe has set the standard in their event and she’s spent her hammer throwing career trying to beat all her records.

During the early stages of Bruce’s career, Ratcliffe was based in the United States on scholarship at Princeton University where she won the NCAA title.

“She’s been a huge influence on me, she’s set the target to aim for,” says Bruce.

Before Bruce broke the record at the spring meeting, her previous best was 68.14m.

“The hammer came out really easily and I just knew it was a good throw coming out of the circle. It was a huge relief when they read out 73m,” she says.

That breakthrough performance met the Tokyo Olympic Games automatic qualifying standard of 72.50m – but due to the qualifying period being suspended until December 1 thanks to Covid, she will have to repeat the standard after that new date.

“I’m targeting some local meets in December to get it ticked off. I know I can do it now and there’s a strong belief now I’m ready,” Bruce says.

Growing up in Timaru under the guidance of iconic coach Ian Baird, Bruce didn’t dream of being an Olympian.

“The Olympics have never been a massive driver for me, which is a bit different to most,” she says.  

Bruce came to the sport from a gymnastics background – she still coaches gymnastics part-time in Christchurch. But diagnosed with a stress fracture in her back at 14 led her to reevaluate her sports career.

With Baird’s influence, Bruce tried many athletic disciplines and admits she wasn’t naturally drawn to throws. But she’s now settled into the hammer circle, having only decided to solely focus on it last year.

“Over the last couple of years, I’ve realised I could throw a very long way. The tape measure is endless, but I want to throw over 80m,” she says.

Bruce, who holds a bachelor of science from Lincoln University, now trains under Athletics NZ high performance throw coach, Dale Stevenson (who’s also coach of Olympic shot put medallist Tom Walsh).

“I’m lucky to have a great training group and we have a really great throwing environment in Christchurch based out at Ngā Puna Wai,” Bruce says.

Hammer thrower Julia Ratcliffe won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games with a throw of 69.94m. Photo: Getty Images

Meanwhile in the Waikato, 27-year-old Ratcliffe has been diligently throwing either in her home circle on her parent’s lifestyle block just outside Hamilton, or down the road at Porritt Stadium.

She completes her strength training at the High Performance Sport New Zealand training centre at the Avantidrome in Cambridge, alongside fellow carded athletes.

Before Covid struck, Ratcliffe also had a strong chance of making the limited Olympic field – narrowly missing the automatic qualifying standard of 72.50m.  

While the two elite hammer throwers don’t train together, they will face off at domestic meets in New Zealand – building throughout the summer to a showdown at the national championships back in Hawkes Bay in March.

“I’m fizzing to get out to compete against Lauren and the other girls and see what I can produce now I’ve had a fire lit under me,” Ratcliffe says.

In the meantime, her days consist of “lift, nap, throw, repeat” – as well as part-time work remotely for the Reserve Bank as an economist.

Having narrowly missed the selection standard for the 2016 Olympics, Ratcliffe is excited about the growth of the event and how women have the power to push each other to great performances.

“We’re showing that we can compete fiercely against each other, but still support and celebrate each other’s achievement,” she says.

“We support our fellow sportswomen to turn up as their best selves to compete with a vengeance – anything less is disrespectful.

“The women in New Zealand sport are absolute beasts.”

Leave a comment