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Feature05 Aug 2023

Self-belief the key to Rose coming into full bloom


Samoan discus thrower Alex Rose at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 (© Getty Images)

By day, he’s a sales engineer and a father to a ninth-month-old son. By night, he’s one of the world’s best discus throwers. For Alex Rose, that’s just the way it has to be.

“Once my son is put to bed, I try to knock out a few hours (of training),” he says. “I haven’t been sleeping the greatest, but it’s incredibly motivating. When I’m spending time on discus, it’s time I’m not with him so I have to utilise it and be efficient.”

Juggling a full-time job with fatherhood and a world-class throwing career isn’t easy, but it is worth it. Maybe not in a financial sense, given Rose is not among his event’s few high earners, but more in terms of personal fulfilment.

“If I was doing some other events and ranked as highly as I am, I might not have to be working right now, but there’s something to be said about competition purely for competition’s sake,” he says. “I train by myself with a video camera, not because someone’s paying me or I have sponsorships or because there’ll be a million people who’ll know my name. I’m doing it because I love it, and I’m getting better at it.”

That’s certainly true. The 31-year-old Samoan smashed the Oceanian discus record in April, throwing 70.39m in Oklahoma, USA, which puts him fifth on the 2023 top lists as the countdown continues to the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23.

“It really was a dream, a crazy moment I’ll never forget,” he says. The conditions that day were the kind a discus thrower dreams of. “It was the best wind I’ve ever thrown in in my life, everything lined up and I felt fantastic.”

The wind blew diagonally towards him from the right sector line, a breeze that’s ideal for a right-handed thrower, and having thrown 69.41m the previous day, his jump to 70.39m meant he added almost three metres to his lifetime best in a single weekend.

“It still doesn’t feel real that I actually threw 70 metres,” he says, though now the trick is to get close to it again. “It’d be fantastic to put more throws in the 67-to-68-metre range. If I can capture some of that energy in a stadium, I can compete for a medal.”

Samoan discus thrower Alex Rose at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22

Samoan discus thrower Alex Rose at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 (© Getty Images)

Rose was born and raised in the US – in West Branch, Michigan – and these days he lives in Grand Rapids with his wife, Sam, and baby son Aleki (the Samoan for Alex). His father, Ross, grew up in Samoa, and travelled to the United States with a church band at the age of 20 before deciding to make it his new home. “He wound up in northern Michigan, a very cold state,” laughs Rose. “The whole first winter, he wore two winter jackets every day; he’d never seen snow.”

In high school, American football and basketball were Rose’s main sports, but in his junior year his chemistry teacher – who was the school’s track and field coach – approached him and put a disc on the table. “He said, ‘hold this, and spread your arms out’,” recalls Rose. “He saw I had a very long wingspan and he said, ‘you’re going to try out for the track team’.”

Rose stands 1.88m (6ft 2in), but his wingspan is 2.08m (6ft 10in). His chemistry teacher clearly knew enough about physics to understand the advantage such biology conferred, and Rose took to the shot put and discus well once he grasped the technique. When he enrolled at Central Michigan University, he chose to jettison American football and basketball and focus on throwing. “Track was more my style, it’s an individual event, all about you,” he says.

But that can also make it a lonely path, especially in the post-collegiate years.

“I’ve almost quit numerous times, it’s very tough to keep going,” admits Rose. “You think, ‘I’m going to be a husband, a father,’ but then you find ways to keep going. It’s something I love and it’s something I love more and more each year, such an intrinsic part of who I am.”

In 2015, Rose was training by himself, with little guidance or support, when he came across a friend on Facebook selling protein supplements. Dane Miller was a well-regarded strength coach who ran the Garage Strength gym in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Rose fired him a message, hoping to get some sponsorship in the form of free protein.

“He said, ‘yes, but you have to let me coach you’,” recalls Rose, who felt like he had little to lose. In their early months working together, Rose resisted Miller’s input on technique, but eventually he got on board, and the results vindicated Miller’s methods.

Alex Rose at the Olympic Games in Tokyo

Alex Rose at the Olympic Games in Tokyo (© AFP / Getty Images)

In 2016, Rose improved to 65.74m and qualified for his first Olympics in Rio, representing his father’s home nation. Three years earlier, he’d completed his transfer of allegiance from the US, and the decision to represent Samoa allowed him to visit the Polynesian island for the first time, connecting with his family’s roots.

“My father went through so much in his life and he experienced things I’ll never understand,” he says. “So representing Samoa is a way for me to connect with him on a level I couldn’t otherwise. It’s given me the opportunity to meet my aunt.”

He has visited Samoa several times in the past decade, and it always feels a world removed from the fast-paced life in the US. “It’s an incredible place, I wish I could go there more often,” he says. “It’s relaxing in that the things that seem very important in the United States, grinding in your nine to five, become secondary. They’re a very family-centred culture – honest, happy, peaceful individuals – and it gives you a chance to reflect on what’s important in life.”

In 2021, Rose was given the ultimate honour by the nation when he was selected to be the Samoan flagbearer at the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics. “It’s one of those moments that doesn’t feel real, I can’t believe it was me,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky to have a few staple moments that I’ll never forget.”

Alex Rose carries Samoa's flag at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony

Alex Rose carries Samoa's flag at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony (© AFP / Getty Images)

Unfortunately, the competition itself in Tokyo was one he’s not keen to remember, Rose bowing out in qualification with a best of 61.72m, having thrown a national record of 67.48m earlier in the year. “I had three meets over 67 and was in great shape, but I got a little sick heading to Tokyo. I had a sinus infection I couldn’t shake, my energy was down, my technique was suffering. It was a tough experience.”

The let-down forced Rose to look within, asking himself if he truly wanted to continue.

“Having to suffer through failure and having to face that every day for the next year and find a way to triumph, it teaches you a lot about yourself and how to deal with pressure and expectations and why you’re in the sport to begin with. Is it for someone else, for recognition, or for yourself? I started throwing because it was fun to chuck a metal object farther than other people and if you take a deep breath, step back, you’ll always remember that.”

That’s exactly what he did as he prepared for 2022, and Rose approached last year’s World Athletics Championships in Oregon with a different attitude. For the first time at a major championships, his mother, wife and sister were all there watching him, with Rose looking their way and giving a little nod as he entered the ring for each throw. He qualified for the final – his first time doing so at a global championships – and finished eighth, throwing 65.57m, and walked away proud.

“It really meant a lot to me. It was the culmination of so much pent-up hope.”

Samoan discus thrower Alex Rose at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22

Samoan discus thrower Alex Rose at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 (© Getty Images)

Weeks later, he finished fourth in the Commonwealth Games final, coming up just 59 centimetres shy of a medal. This year, he feels bigger things are coming. “I’m not going to say I can throw 70 metres in dead wind conditions but I do think I can throw in the high 60s and if I can stay healthy, train at the level I’m capable of, then I think I can surprise some people,” he says.

Despite the time demands, he’s working as hard as ever, typically doing four days a week throwing and three days in the gym. He eats about double the amount of the average man and he can bench press 226kg (500lbs), squat 285kg (630lbs) and snatch 133kg (295lbs), though the nature of his job means Rose is often squeezing in workouts whenever he time or energy.

“I learned less is more as an ageing athlete trying to stay healthy,” he says. “I don’t push for huge weight room PRs very often.”

He offers huge credit to his wife, Sam, for the load she carries at home. “I’m very lucky she understands my drive and passion,” he says.

Rose credits his breakthrough this year to “staying healthy,” given he’s put in the longest period of consistent training for several years, the past couple of seasons blighted by the injury he sustained in 2020, when he tore his abs and adductors off his pubic bone, which required surgery.

But now he’s back healthy, better than ever – Rose’s journey offering proof, above all, of the value of persistence.

“I’d never have imagined I’d be competing at this level and I’ve been able to travel and do things I never knew were possible,” he says. “If you believe in yourself, you can do anything.”

Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics

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