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Feature06 Jun 2022

Kerr looks to put New Zealand on the map as a jumps nation


New Zealand high jumper Hamish Kerr (© Getty Images)

For world indoor high jump bronze medallist Hamish Kerr, his return to the Oceania Championships this week in Mackay acts as a strong reminder of his emergence into world-class.

It was at the previous edition three years ago in Townsville, Australia, where Kerr made a giant leap forward by bettering his PB by five centimetres in one competition to equal the New Zealand record with a leap of 2.30m.

Describing the competition as “a blinder”, the 1.98m (6ft 6in) tall high jumper was elevated to a new level, which has since taken him on a journey which includes an appearance at the 2019 World Championships, a final spot at the Tokyo Olympic Games and a magnificent bronze medal in Belgrade in March.

“Townsville was definitely a pivotal performance,” he recalls. “We enjoyed great conditions and to jump a big PB, get the auto standard for the World Champs and gain big world rankings points has stood me in good stead for the past two years.

“To come back to the Oceania Champs is important for me. I never take representing New Zealand for granted, so if I’ve got an opportunity to put on a black singlet, I’m going to take it.”

Hamish Kerr in the high jump at the World Athletics Indoor Championships Belgrade 22

Hamish Kerr in the high jump at the World Athletics Indoor Championships Belgrade 22 (© Getty Images)

Kerr’s Instagram handle – @therealflyingkiwi – is a nod to his high jumping prowess and New Zealand’s national bird, which happens to be flightless. But his athletics journey initially took flight as a middle-distance runner.

As a tall, skinny kid, the Auckland-raised athlete – who joined his local athletics club at the age of 10 – quickly gravitated to the high jump.

Kerr annually made 10-centimetre improvements in what he described as his “fun bonus event”. He gradually lost interest in endurance running and the high jump became the priority through his teenage years.

He jumped 2.14m as an U20 athlete but after leaving for university he lost motivation and focused more on his studies for an 18-month period.

However, athletics was an itch he couldn’t scratch and he returned in time for the 2016-17 domestic season. So what changed his mind?

“I’ve always loved athletics and even when not motivated to compete, I still loved watching all the events and supporting the athletes,” he says. “I had heard from a few people who have given up the sport prematurely saying they’d wished they’d kept going. Being quite stubborn, I did not want my narrative to be like that. I wanted to walk away from my time in high jump knowing I’d done everything to reach my full potential.”

In 2017 he competed at the World University Games in Taiwan (he finished 13th in qualification with a modest best of 2.10m) and while there he met New Zealand team leader Terry Lomax – the man who has gone on to transform Kerr’s high jumping life.

The Kiwi coach had spent nearly a decade as part of the British Athletics system, coaching the top high jumpers. After chatting to Lomax in Taiwan, it was clear Kerr needed to tap into his knowledge and experience to deliver his high jump potential.

“The thing that drew me to Terry is he’d coached at the top level of high jump before,” explains Kerr. “He knew where my weaknesses were and he was able to really spell them out for me, which is something I’d never had before. We speak the same language, we are both very analytical and he has a vision and understanding of the event.”

Hamish Kerr in action at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Birmingham

Hamish Kerr in action at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Birmingham (© Getty Images)

In early 2018 Kerr relocated from the North Island to New Zealand’s South Island to be based with Lomax in Christchurch.

The pair quickly prospered. In 2019 Kerr made that seismic improvement in Townsville before going on to make his World Championships debut in Doha. The experience, however, did not go according to the script for the Kiwi as he achieved a best height of 2.22m to place 22nd overall.

“It was a reality check,” explains Kerr. “I’d assumed that when I’d be competing at a World Championships, I’d be injury-free and in the form of my life, but I was injured (he had an ankle injury) and I’d been overseas for so long I was homesick. It was interesting to come to the realisation that you are going to experience low points on tour and many things go less than ideally.”

The pandemic and the travel restrictions placed on New Zealanders made life challenging for Kerr from early-2020 but he refused to dwell on the negatives. After all, New Zealand was able to enjoy a virtually Covid-free existence for much of 2020 and 2021, which was something of a silver lining for Kerr.

“The first year (of the pandemic) I could get into big training blocks and work on some things which could really develop my jumping,” he explains. “Maybe the second year was a bit harder leading into Tokyo because of the lack of overseas comps, but I think the time we have largely spent away from Covid (until this year) has stood us in good stead moving forwards.”

Kerr, who set an outright national record of 2.31m in Wellington in February last year, went on to perform with pride at the Olympic Games. Clearing 2.30m in the final, he placed a highly respectable 10th and he looks back fondly on the experience.

“I was so stoked, it was definitely the highlight of my career so far,” he explains. “I knew I was capable of a good performance but up until that point I’d never been able to deliver that performance on such a big stage. I was super proud.”

Hamish Kerr at the Tokyo Olympic Games

Hamish Kerr at the Tokyo Olympic Games (© Getty Images)

Little more than seven months later at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Kerr became the first athlete from New Zealand to win a global medal in the high jump, matching his national record height of 2.31m. But he still considers his Tokyo Olympic experience to be his career highlight to date.

“Don’t get me wrong, Belgrade was a close second and it was awesome to win a medal,” he explains. “But I knew (in Belgrade) a number of the top guys were missing because of injury and politically-related stuff. It meant I went there as one of the higher ranked guys, and I knew if I jumped well I had a good chance of a medal. In that respect, I conducted myself well, especially as it was my first ever indoor competition.

“In Tokyo, I just feel I maximised my potential whereas in Belgrade I felt I had a bit more in the tank.”

With New Zealand boasting a rich tradition for producing endurance runners and throwers, Kerr is proving that high jumpers can also emerge from the island nation – a fact which makes Kerr immensely proud.

“There is no reason to think that New Zealand should not have great jumpers,” he says. “We have such an outdoors culture and if you look at very close cousins, the Australians, they’ve got tons of long and high and triple jumpers every year producing world-class performances, so why can’t we do the same?

“My favourite part about winning that global medal was putting New Zealand on the map as a jumping nation. By blazing the trail, I hope that other kids in New Zealand can see that there is a pathway.”

After testing positive for Covid on his return from Belgrade, Kerr has perhaps suffered some lingering effects and has not quite been able to deliver his best at the Doha and Birmingham legs of the Wanda Diamond League.

But Kerr, who believes his analytical skills and attention-to-detail are two of his big strengths, is now feeling much better and is turning his focus to the Oceania Championships in Mackay, Queensland, where he hopes to see a return to form.

“I haven’t quite hit my performance goals yet during the outdoor season but if I get up to about 2.30m again that would be really good leading into World Championships,” he says.

Which brings us to Eugene and the World Athletics Championships in July. So what are his expectations for what will be his second World Championship appearance?

“I’ve grown up hearing these stories of Hayward Field, so when I heard there was going to be a World Championships there, I was super excited. It is seen as the home of track and field in the States, and as I’ve never competed there I can’t wait to go there.

“I am realistic, and if I focus on what I need in order to achieve the goals I am capable, I don’t see any reason why I can’t stand on the podium.”

Steve Landells for World Athletics

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