The West Coast of the South Island is known for its foundational minerals, minerals that built New Zealand. Gold, coal, and timber. However, there are also rare deposits of sporting talent that have been extracted, developed and then flourished into world class athletes.
Dave McKenzie, 1967 Boston Marathon winner; Tony “Butch” Coll, 30 tests for the Kiwis and inducted into the Kiwi’s Hall of Fame; Phill Jones, 14 years playing for the Tall Blacks; Eddie Gray, 3rd at the World Cross Country Championships in 1971; Quentin Pongia, 35 tests for the Kiwis.
These names and many more have paved the way for the current West Coast high performers.
Paul Coll, former world number one squash player - current world number two, 2 times Commonwealth Games gold medallist; Ruth Croft, world class ultra-runner and winner of this year's Western States 100 mile - the most notorious ultra-race in the world; Tim Bateman, former Crusaders and Hurricanes Rugby player and New Zealand Māori captain; Griffin Neame, North Queensland NRL player; Holly Robinson, gold medallist at Tokyo Paralympics and multiple medallist at World Champs and Commonwealth Games; Ruby Tui, Olympic gold and silver medallist and current Black Ferns star and World Cup winner.
These are just a few of the many that are shining bright as gold on the world stage.
What makes the West Coast a breeding ground for such a remarkable calibre of talent from such a small population?
I grew up on the Coast, Greymouth to be exact. The environment is challenging, and the weather can be harsh. To extract those rare minerals you have to be willing to work, work in any condition that's thrown at you. Greymouth is a foundational town to build resilience.
The town doesn't offer the shopping malls and commercialism of the big city. However, if you choose to partake in sport on the Coast you're all in, the fields can turn into a lake, the athletic track is a balancing act to stay stable on your feet. Winter can be tumultuous, the harsh barber (katabatic wind) blowing through the valley can bring the heartiest coal miner to their knees.
Though every Saturday you have every parent, coach, supporter, relative, volunteer standing tall like the native matai tree cheering on the side-line, as if they are out there playing with their child.
Community, this is where confidence starts.
Access to multiple sports is as easy as putting your hand into a bag of liquorice allsorts. I remember finishing my paper round, biking to rugby training, then to basketball, league training the next day. League and rugby games both on the same Saturday. The energy you possess is as dense as the Paparoa coal seam.
You learn to be adaptable, new techniques from numerous coaches, the mind body awareness develops from an early age. Different movement patterns enable the young athlete to be fully functional.
As the saying goes ‘pressure builds diamonds’. Eventually these rare sporting minerals get noticed from bigger cities, just like our gold, coal and timber gets shipped away. The foundational talent is nurtured, guided, competing against the best.
We all know it rains a lot on the Coast, and it's raining talent, sporting talent that's shining bright on the world stage.
There is nothing magic in the water on the West Coast, but what the Coast does offer are no excuses, a relentless attitude, perseverance and hard work. And if you want something bad enough, you will keep digging until you find that gold nugget!
“The West Coast makes you tough. I remember going to a cross country race between Greymouth and Hokitika, it was a real cross-country race on a farm. The farmer had forgotten to turn off the electric fence. Then you would go to regionals in Christchurch and it would be in Hagley Park. I used to think that it was not even a real cross-country. I always mentally drew on the conditions I had been training in at home, it would always bring me confidence knowing that my competitors hadn’t been running in horizontal rain on a rugby pitch by the ocean because the track was in flood.”
“I played every sport I could over on the Coast. Rugby, league, soccer, basketball, cricket, tennis, athletics, and then lots of social sports like netball and hockey too. All of these sports helped me in rugby in so many ways, especially basketball. The speed, footwork and skills (hand eye, vision etc) that basketball helped me develop absolutely made me a better rugby player. Getting smashed in league most weeks by bigger and stronger players also helped!”
"(Growing up in Greymouth) I played everything: Netball, soccer, rugby, squash. I'd spend all day at the courts, reffing, jumping into other games.
"Mum's brother, Uncle Neil, was a father figure. He ran a horse farm and cottages on family land at Punakaiki. He built the cottages himself, he showed me what hard work can do.”
“Family was everything for me. Mum and Dad were very good sportspeople but never forced me into anything, they were just the best role models through their actions. Me and my brother also competed in everything so from a young age we learned how to win! Also my uncle Tony Coll was my sporting hero playing and captaining the New Zealand Kiwis.”
“Greymouth installed hard work, toughness and being a competitor. This in my opinion is the DNA of a Coaster. That’s not just in sport but in life, with work, raising children, the day-to-day business, so you grow up with those values around you every day.”
“I’m from Hokitika on the West Coast and we don’t have the facilities like the big centres around the country. However Coasters seem to improvise and make do with what they have.
“I remember my grandad getting the ride-on mower and mowing a strip of grass down the hay field across the road from our house and that became my javelin runway. It was a huge talking point for our wee town.”
This is not an exhaustive list of West Coast sports stars (past or present), there are just too many names to list. Questionnaires were sent to five current high achieving West Coast athletes (one recently retired) to determine shared themes on how growing up on the Coast has contributed to their development into world-class athletes.
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