UPDATE: Dame Valerie Adams has done it – she’s won a bronze medal Sunday afternoon in the women’s shot put at the Tokyo Olympic Games, adding to her career total of two golds and a silver. In the buildup to the Games, she told Suzanne McFadden of the special bond she has with a woman who has been there for her in the lows, and highs of a great career.
Behind every Olympian are their often-unsung supporters, who help them turn up to training every day and to compete on the world’s highest sporting stage.
In the first story of LockerRoom’s Olympic Bonds series, Suzanne McFadden speaks to Dame Valerie Adams and physio Louise Johnson – the double Olympic champion’s right-hand woman through the extreme highs and lows of her athletics career.
Dame Valerie Adams’ voice falters and her eyes spill tears as she reflects on one of the most important relationships in her life.
She’s talking about someone she’s had a connection with for more than 20 years, a woman she calls “My Louloubelle”.
“I owe Lou for a lot of things. For her physio expertise, sure, but also as a person,” Adams says of physiotherapist Louise Johnson, who’s treated the shotput legend through four of her five Olympic campaigns.
“She’s been the only person I can really trust wholeheartedly with everything. The only person who has outlived every relationship I’ve had in my life. And that’s marriages, coaches… she’s the only one still standing strong. I love her.”
We’re on a three-way Zoom call – Adams in her final week in Christchurch, where she’s been training with new coach Dale Stevenson; Johnson at work at High Performance Sport NZ in Auckland, where she’s a senior performance physiotherapist.
Theirs is a unique relationship. As well as helping to repair the two-time Olympic champion’s shattered body, Johnson has been a sounding board for Adams. A confidant. Even a bodyguard.
“When I’m in the zone, with my dark glasses on, Lou folds her arms or puts out her hand and says ‘No, stop’ to anyone who approaches. She’s great,” Adams says.
Johnson even cooked dinner for one of the world’s greatest field athletes every night when she went to work with her in Switzerland, when Adams was coached by Jean-Paul Egger.
“Don’t think I’m a ‘Yes’ girl,” Johnson is quick to point out. “I say no to Val, but probably only twice a year.”
It’s a partnership built on trust and understanding, Adams says. “Sometimes I don’t like to put things on Louloubelle, but sometimes I have no choice. I have to talk to someone who understands me as a person and understands my needs and how I operate” she says.
“From there she’s able to navigate through how I get those needs met. I have an athlete’s body, but I also have a mother’s body, with the complications I had after my second birth.
“Sorry for getting emotional…”
The emotion flows both ways.
“It’s been a huge privilege,” Johnson says. “Dame Valerie has had such an influence on my children – just knowing you can be a superstar and not be a dick. There have been highs and lows, but we’ve all really enjoyed the journey.”
They both have a clear memory of when they first met – Adams was an incredibly shy 16-year-old and Johnson, a former Black Stick, had a physiotherapy clinic in Pakuranga. Adams came to her with an ankle injury, accompanied by coach Kirsten Hellier.
“I remember you were so quiet. I knew straight away that you needed a different type of care, because you didn’t say a word, Kirsten spoke for you,” Johnson says. “It took three treatments before you started talking to me.”
“So I lay down on a slab and Lou gave me a good rub. And I cried and I talked and I cried and I talked” – Dame Valerie Adams
Adams’ first impressions of Johnson? “Well, she was small. Really tiny.” Johnson is 1.57m compared with Adams’ 1.93m height. “But I remember Louloubelle making me feel really comfortable.
“I’d come from an environment where you don’t go see medical people – you kind of deal with it at home. And going to someone in a clinic, I’d feel very intimidated and very shy; I felt it was a waste of their time trying to help me.
“But I remember her making me feel like I wasn’t wasting her time but getting the help I needed. That made me relax and do what I needed to do.”
Johnson realised straight away she was dealing with an astute and smart young woman. “That’s street smart as well, Sunshine,” she says to Adams.
“She knows her body really well and she understates some of her issues… she’s as tough as nails. She would be really sore – and it’s not until she’s on all fours in an airport that she’d tell people how much pain she was in.
“So I knew instantly with Val’s intellect that she needed to be part of her treatment. We needed to have really good communication and know what she’s feeling.”
She also saw how Adams moved differently to others and with her body awareness, was quick to learn movement patterns.
“And I found out that you hated needles,” Johnson says to Adams. “When I offered you acupuncture, or suggested you get an injection in the back of your ankle, you were out. I thought you might never come back.”
Adams throws back her head in laughter. “I’m still a pussy when it comes to needles. But I have a technique now to cope with it – through singing,” she says.
“Well, when I say singing, it’s more like ‘Dah, dah, dah, dah’. I’m holding onto Lou’s hand for dear life while they’re jabbing me and sound comes out my mouth.”
One of the obvious reasons their relationship has stood the test of time – and the intensity of competition at the very highest level – is sticking to their defined roles.
“I’m not her mother or her coach,” Johnson says. “It’s such an amazing journey to be around Val, and I needed to be careful that I wasn’t being sucked in personally. Because I’ve seen that with people as well; they latch on to her.
“So I make sure I differentiate between business and personal life. That I give to Val, but still have my own life. And she has her own beautiful family now too.
“We fell into some really good habits. Like working in Switzerland, we had very distinct, separate time. So you can’t flip from work to personal, and hang out watching Jeremy Kyle.”
Adds Adams: “It worked because we were both on a mission. Lou would be there for five days to fix my ongoing injuries or niggles. As soon as she turned up, I was hanging out to see her from a physical point of view, but also cause I love Louloubelle and I needed to see someone from home.
“But as soon as Louloubelle touched down, it was work and train. We know where the boundaries are, and she’d go off for her walks or whatever she needs to do to fill her cup.”
“I love watching you play the game – the Tongan stare-down, being friendly with your competitors, because you know it unnerves them.” – Lou Johnson
Adams has had her fair share of injuries over 20 years – she’s undergone eight surgeries (not counting her caesarian sections). Johnson has been there for every one of her sporting operations. “She takes me to the hospital, sometimes she’s in the theatre with me, and then she takes me home,” Adams says.
She grateful to Johnson for connecting her with other medical specialists or seeing other opinions when she’s treating her.
“I love the fact Lou is never threatened by other medical people. She has no ego. She knows when to tap into the resources we have. Ultimately, it’s about helping the athlete, not benefiting the physician.”
“I’d say I’m a health navigator,” Johnson leaps in. “I’ve always said Val is too big a job for one person. You always have to seek peer reviews, and Val knew they were people I trust – a shoulder expert, a lower back expert, a hand therapist.
“It’s important you have a good strong network of people, otherwise we would both be sucked dry.”
Johnson has gathered some “unbelievable” memories working alongside the four-time world champion, including 2009 when Adams successfully defended her world title in Berlin.
“Here you were, a young beautiful Tongan woman in Hitler’s stadium, and I was with my gay sister and her wife. It was like ‘Oh, how the world has changed’. That was an incredible high,” the physio says.
And then Adams’ silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2018, after the birth of her second child. “My legs were like jelly, because I knew what she’d come back from,” Johnson says.
But the greatest achievement Johnson has witnessed is Adams’ personal growth.
“You are the GOAT of shotput, but the way you’ve grown as a person, the autonomy you’ve gained, and the influence you’re going to have on your community for decades to come is what I’m truly proud of,” she says.
“And the fact you’ve bought a house. That you made some money through it, because you deserved every cent.”
Adams chips in: “Because there’s no money in throwing.”
The two-time Olympic gold medallist remembers the moment in 2012 she discovered an administrative bungle meant her name wasn’t on the start list at the London Olympics, just hours before she was to compete.
“I ran into Lou’s room first. I felt very lost, nervous, upset and angry. I wasn’t in a good way physically or mentally and then I had to face the media. So I lay down on a slab and Lou gave me a good rub. And I cried and I talked and I cried and I talked. I gathered myself together to go out and deal with whatever came my way,” Adams says.
“It goes to show just how open and honest and trusting our relationship is. Special people you hold on to and they are still on the bus for a reason”
Then Adams poses a question to Johnson, something she’s never asked her before. “Do you ever get nervous when I’m competing?”
“A little bit,” says Johnson. “The time I love the most is when you walk into the call room [where athletes go before they walk out to compete]. Up to the moment you walk in there, I’m still on duty; you could stub your toe and need me to get a Bandaid. But the minute you’re in that room, you’re about to go on stage – no different to Alicia Keyes. And I just go ‘what will be, will be’.
“I’m a little nervous sitting in the stand. But I love watching you play the game – the Tongan stare-down, being friendly with your competitors, because you know it unnerves them. What people see on TV – 1.3 seconds of explosiveness – is only a fraction of what goes on at a competition.”
When Adams looks up and sees ‘Louloubelle’ at the end of an event (six world championships among the many), she feels relief.
“Celebration comes later. But then, unfortunately, no matter how good the competition has gone, Lou has the tough job of fixing me the next day, which is when I get worse. The anti-climax as my back seizes up,” she says.
The Tokyo Olympics will be Johnson’s sixth Games – her third with Adams, who leaves this weekend for the United States to prepare for Tokyo. Johnson doesn’t expect the myriad restrictions brought about by Covid-19 will affect Adams’ performance. She’s had the best throw in the world so far this year. “And Val loves a bubble,” she says.
This could be their last big show together, but that will be Adams’ decision, it seems.
“I made a personal pact with Val,” Johnson says. “I tried to quit a couple of times. Not seriously. But every year I’d say ‘Right I’m out… I need to reapply for my job, do you still want this?’ Val got sick of it one day and said: ‘You retire when I retire’.
“It’s so important not to take this relationship for granted. The key is to have that trust but be able to step in and step out. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of. It’s been really good fun.”