UPDATE: Kiwi javelin star Holly Robinson has clinched gold at the Tokyo Paralympics, with a massive final throw of 40.99m propelling her from the bronze position. Here’s our story on Robinson’s special bond with her coach Raylene Bates, that first ran just before the Games.
In the second of our Paralympic Bonds series, javelin star Holly Robinson and her coach, Raylene Bates, are as close as family. As they’ve grown together, they’ve reshaped their relationship, Ashley Stanley discovers.
Holly Robinson was exhausted. She just didn’t realise how exhausted she was.
The Kiwi javelin champion, a silver medallist at the Rio Paralympic Games, was battling niggly injuries and the demands of constantly competing on the world stage.
So when the first Level 4 lockdown hit New Zealand early last year, Robinson and her coach and confidant of the last 10 years, Raylene Bates, came up with a new mantra.
If it didn’t concern them, and it didn’t matter, they would simply “Roll with it.”
It’s a mantra that should serve them well in Tokyo for these very unorthodox Paralympics, their third together.
“Actually being forced to slow down and chill out during lockdown showed me I was shattered,” says Robinson. “For a few weeks I just slept and did nothing.
“I was struggling a little bit so the postponement of the Games gave us time to reflect and see what we really needed to do to get to Tokyo and win that gold.”
Bates and Robinson, who was born with a shortened left arm below the elbow, decided to strip everything back completely and start afresh. It was a defining moment in their coach-athlete relationship, that came from years of working together, but also knowing each other like family.
Their track record goes back to when Robinson was just 16, and she decided to move from her home on the West Coast to Dunedin to be closer to Bates, already one of the top athletics coaches in the country.
In the lead-up to the 2011 Para athletics world championships, Robinson was identified as a potential future Paralympian and offered a scholarship to move to anywhere in New Zealand to access better facilities.
Bates and Robinson had met at competitions, so the choice was a no-brainer for the aspiring athlete.
Bates was also coaching Paralympic shot putter Jess Hamill (now Gillan) at the time, someone Robinson looked up to.
Robinson ended up being welcomed into the Bates household. She lived with them for her final secondary school years before studying for a bachelor of applied science and PE at the Otago Institute of Sport and Adventure.
Robinson was treated like one of the family members, no different to her two sons. Bates laughs: “My eldest son says ‘I moved out, I don’t even think the bed was even cold, and she moved in’.
“They fought like brothers and sister but they had each other’s backs. They’re very close – Holly was Todd’s best grooms-woman in his wedding party and Holly is now my grandson’s godmother.”
Bates says when Robinson initially moved south she was still a “young naive schoolgirl.”
“It was a huge thing for her family to entrust us with her,” she says. “I mean, it’s critical years of your development as a teenager, coupled with trying to be a high performance athlete. So her family really supported her and basically said, ‘You’re on the ground, go for it’, which was great.”
Bates has been involved in sport for nearly 50 years, as an athlete who reached Oceania championship level and eventually as a coach – after a couple of parents asked if she could help train their children. She was awarded a Member of New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to sport, particularly athletics, in 2017.
“Athletics has always been my passion so it doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s competing, being a coach, an official, I’ve probably got my hands in every pie. Sometimes too many,” laughs Bates, who’s off to her fourth Paralympic Games. “But the Para programme is my real passion.”
Over the years, the relationship dynamic between Bates and Robinson has changed.
“It’s so different from when she was a 16-year-old, to now as a 26-year-old,” Bates says. “It’s a whole different ball game. She’s a mature young adult so my coaching practices are totally different.”
In the beginning it was almost “dictator- like”, because it was about welfare, safety and learning new things. “Whereas now, everything we do, we discuss together and we look at options,” says Bates.
Robinson agrees she was “so green as an athlete” when she moved away from her small town of Hokitika on the West Coast, and her parents and twin brother Jonathon.
“Even just to have a track to train on was a huge difference for me, like a proper athletics track,” says Robinson, who was used to a grass field, some painted lines and a concrete slab to train on. “It was such a big step and I was really lucky that I had Raylene and her family.
“I think my journey would’ve been quite different if that period of my life hadn’t happened.”
Years later, after a conversation with Robinson’s grandfather, she found out there was a link between her Māori ancestry and the Bates family. “So we’re distantly related through Raylene’s husband, and it was quite funny because we always got along quite well and then we found that out,” says Robinson, who’s of Ngāi Tahu descent.
Their level of closeness is what they both bring to the relationship.
“Raylene knows when to push me and she knows when not to,” says Robinson. “And I’m the type of athlete that needs that support. I think some athletes can just be like, ‘Just go and do it’, but I think that relationship has made us successful because we know each other so well.
“Raylene knows when I’m not right, and I know when she’s not right.”
It all works great in the good times, but it can be a double edge sword in the difficult times too.
“The difference with Holly and I is that I’ve got to hide it even more because I’ve just got to support her,” says Bates says. “That’s hard sometimes because she knows me so well. She actually knows that I’m hurting just as much as she is.”
The shift and evolution of their relationship came about three years ago when they both knew boundaries needed to be set.
“We had to say when we’re at training, ‘I’m the coach’ and my job is to get the best out of you as an athlete,” recalls Bates. “And sometimes that means pushing your buttons. But when we’re at home, we’re family.
“It’s become a very professional relationship now, a true high performance relationship is what I would say, and that’s the maturity of both of us.”
Robinson adds: “We had to figure out how we would fit best because we do have a slightly different relationship to other coaches and athletes.
“So it was figuring out what we needed to do to make it work, have a few hard conversations and change some things so that we could get to where we needed to go.”
Both believe the shift has been the difference in Robinson’s improved performances in the last couple of years.
Bates says they also have a really good “squad” around them. Having a solid team supporting, takes the load off Robinson and helps “with the big picture.”
“Holly has got three or four training partners and a couple of them in particular have grown together almost, not over that same length of time but definitely over the last four to five years. They all have respect for each other and help each other out.”
In the moments before Robinson throws in competitions, Bates is usually hiding, she can’t watch her. “Whereas if it’s anybody else, I would be able to,” she says.
“It’s that old saying, it takes a village to raise somebody and I think Holly has two villages. She has a village on the west coast who absolutely adore and love her and she has another village here in Mosguiel, Dunedin who again absolutely love and adore her.
“She’s very much a person who is part of the community, she gives back as much as she gets out by going into schools and talking to groups and things like that. That’s also a big value of mine.”
Robinson on the other hand is not thinking about much in those big moments. “Because at the end of the day, when you get there, you’ve done all the work, you’re not going to change much in 10 minutes,” she says.
“My body has done all the work that it needs to do so it’s just going out there, enjoying the moment and having fun.”
Bates and Robinson will get to see all their revamped work on display when the Paralympics start in a couple of weeks.
“We had to change a lot of things because of injury,” says Bates. “But Covid provided us with an opportunity to actually do some things that we probably wouldn’t have had time to do.
“So, I’m super excited to go to Tokyo because we’ve totally hit another level. It’s a different feeling to what I’ve ever had before.
“I think for both of us, we’re going in with a totally different look, we’ve decluttered our life as far as our focus is and we laid that plan out after we got back from world champs in 2019.”
Robinson’s feelings mimic Bates. “Raylene touched on Covid actually being a blessing in disguise for me because I wasn’t in a great place last year, and towards the end of 2019.”
“We stuck to our plan and we’re just really reaping the benefits at the moment,” Robinson says. “I’m almost surprised at how well things are going. I don’t feel like I’ve ever gone into a Games feeling this good and having all these things going so well.
“So I’m really excited and I can’t wait to just get out there and show what I’m actually capable of.”