As one of the world’s greatest shot-putters, Dame Valerie Adams has no doubt faced many nerve-racking moments in her career, from her first major win at the 2001 World Youth Championships at the age of 16, to taking home her first Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
However, one of the “scariest” moments she has experienced of late, was sitting down to watch More Than Gold, a new documentary about her life. “I was super anxious and nervous about it. It was very confronting that my whole life up until this point, all of a sudden is on a screen for 90 minutes.” She admits that when she was first approached about the documentary, she had many reservations about it.
“I was very reluctant because of the time it was going to require, the commitment to do it, and the fact that I was going to be quite exposed.”
She found a connection with director Briar March and producer Leanne Pooley, who shared her vision of making something that was much more than a sports documentary, but an intimate portrayal of her life, with all its ups and downs. “If you are going to do something, you need to do it wholeheartedly,” says Adams. “You need to be up front and honest. You can’t do a film like this and only tell half the story. That’s not in my nature. That’s not who I am. You either take nothing or everything.”
In March 2022, Adams announced she would be retiring from the sport. More Than Gold follows her journey as she prepares for her final performance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, held in July 2021. In her mid-30s and having just given birth to her second child, Adams faced an incredibly difficult challenge to train not only her body, but her mental and emotional strength.
The documentary shows her as she struggles spending time away from her family, speaking candidly of experiencing “mum guilt”. “You want to speak about these things because they’re real. I’m happy to be able to put the awkward conversations out there because I’m sure a lot of mums can relate to the fact that they have to go to work. And it’s okay to feel terrible about it because it’s human nature, but you’re not a terrible mother because of it,” she says. “I want [my kids] to see that you can do what you want to do if you work hard, and with a good support system which I was lucky to have.”
She not only wants to be an inspiration for her kids, but for other women in sport. One of her proudest moments of her career, she recalls, was winning silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, just six months after giving birth to her daughter.
“I thought that was quite a breakthrough for women and mothers in sport,” she says. “Hopefully that continues to inspire people coming through, especially female athletes who want to have kids. It is possible. You can have children and still perform at the top. You have to be committed and honest about the fact that your body has changed.”
True to Adams’ vision of putting everything out there, there are traumatic experiences that Adams recounts in the film, many of which haven’t been shared with the public before. When she was only 15, her mother fell ill and Adams was her main carer. She passed away in 2000 – just a year before Adams won gold at the World Youth Championships in Hungary.
“It was hard talking about how my mum died. The moment during that period with her right up until her last breath. I found that very, very difficult,” she says. “[Watching it] is very confronting, with a lot of trauma. I pretty much cried from the start to the end. It was very draining.”
Adams admits that the decision to retire from the sport that she had been a part of for over two decades was not an easy one. “It was a very difficult process for me, but the time was right to make it happen,” she says. Having the Tokyo Games to look forward to was no doubt a motivating force to end this chapter. “Once I set my mind to something, it’s really hard to turn it around. I was determined. It was a driving force for me, something that I needed to work towards. It was hard until the bitter end. I suffered physically, emotionally and mentally until the end of that campaign, but it paid off.”
Since retiring, Adams says her life has become even more “chaotic”, kept busy with her family, community, church, sponsors, and now her new role on the board of High Performance Sport New Zealand. Adams remains honest and outspoken in this next stage of her life, not afraid to speak up about what she is passionate about. One such topic is around athlete welfare when it comes to mental health in sport.
“When I started out in athletics, there was this [attitude] of ‘she’ll be right’ and ‘harden up’. That was what I was brought up with,” she says. “But even the best of us, the people they put on a pedestal, we suffer in silence. People see what they want to see and the media puts out what they want to put out, but they don’t actually see the real struggle of being an athlete and having to perform.”
She recalls the pressures of being a star athlete, having to perform well not only to make the country proud, but so the sport could receive funding.
“This is the system that I have been brought up in. And I worked within that system but it’s not made for everybody. Some acknowledgement is required, but its also for athletes and people to know it’s not a weakness. You’re a strong person to be able to say, ‘Hey, I need some help’.”
More Than Gold is playing now New Zealand cinemas.