Emotional resilience, mental stamina, focus and determination are what got two of New Zealand’s top athletes, Cameron French (Hall 2006-2010) and Owen Robinson (Hamilton 2005-2009), to where they are today.
Their journeys have been full of ups and downs, but their persistence has paid off earning them New Zealand records – Cameron in the 400m hurdles and Owen in the men’s trap shooting – and spots in the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Cameron and Owen spoke to Network about the highs and lows of their careers, their secrets to success and where to next.
Their love of sport began at an early age.
“Being active has always been a natural part of my life. My parents say I would constantly be going a million miles an hour,” says Cameron.
“Although I was always the fast kid, initially I wanted to be an All Black. It wasn’t until high school that I seriously got into athletics.”
“I remember my coach, Paul Wilson, putting four hurdles on a little patch at the back of the school one day. We thought ‘that’ll do’. The next day I won the secondary schools athletics champs and then the regional champs not long after. I was on a roll, went to the North Island champs but clipped my foot and fell hard. I was still learning how to master hurdles and deal with distractions.”
“But from there things kept improving and I’ve got Paul to thank for getting me started.”
It was similar for Owen who says it was sport that got him through school. He played 1st XV rugby and cricket as well as water polo and a few other sports while dabbling in shooting. But it wasn’t until he left school and was injured playing rugby that he decided to make shooting his priority.
“I loved watching the Olympics and Commonwealth Games on TV. I always knew I wanted to get to that level, but I never really knew how. After getting serious about shooting and being selected for a few national teams I thought, ‘OK, I know I can do this’,” says Owen.
Except their road to Commonwealth Games selection wasn’t easy. It took many years of training, trialling and pushing themselves to the brink, mentally and physically. They missed out on the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games by the skin of their teeth – Cameron by .3 of a second and Owen by 1 target.
“I was completely gutted,” says Cameron.
“I knew I was getting close though. I had my sights set on Rio after that. Training went well, but then I pulled my Achilles, which added a lot of stress and I couldn’t quite get back to top form. I missed out on qualifying and that was an emotional time. Especially after four to five years of training.”
But he got himself back up and refocused. Three months out from the final qualifying opportunity for the Gold Coast Games, he dropped everything, including his three jobs, and put all his efforts into qualifying.
“I had literally put everything on the line. I’d drained all my cash, was scraping the barrel just to get by. I thought, ‘this is it’. I don’t have a plan B.”
“It was strange though. There was so much pressure, but as I stood on the start line I felt the clearest I’d ever felt.”
Cameron not only qualified for the Games that day, he also ran 49.33 breaking the New Zealand record and his personal best.
“It felt like a pressure bubble had popped inside me. It was a massive relief, but at the same time I was on an absolute high.”
Meanwhile, after missing out on Glasgow, Owen decided to take things up a notch.
“I went to international championships every year and lots of world matches. When I was finally selected it felt great. My parents were such big supporters and I think they were even happier than I was.”
He says stepping out into the stadium at the opening ceremony was a special moment.
“I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m here’. Everything from the athletes’ village, to the atmosphere of the crowds, to mixing with some of the world’s best athletes was pretty awesome,” he says.
Cameron agrees, pointing out that it was like being part of a big reunion.
“It was awesome catching up with guys I’ve trained with from all around the world. Most of us have gone up the ranks together and have been through similar ups and downs so it was cool to be around that energy. And the village itself was pretty amazing – they had everything you could want including kangaroo and crocodile burgers.”
“Having the support of my family and friends around me during the Games was also special. Usually they’re trying to live stream my races from home so actually seeing them in the crowd was a big motivation.”
Cameron finished 14th, getting an injury right before semis while Owen finished eighth.
“The pressure is huge and it’s difficult because shooting is 80% mental,” says Owen.
“You’ve got to be 100% focused every shot or it destroys you mentally. One random thought can totally switch you off. One trick I have is singing to myself between shots to keep my mind from wandering.”
Alongside the mental pressures, it’s a constant juggle between training, funding and recovery.
“You give up a lot to do what we do,” says Owen.
“And it’s not just me, my wife sacrifices a lot so I can follow my passion. She’s a huge supporter and I can’t thank her enough.”
For Cameron, the trick is constantly reminding himself why he does it.
“If I’m 1% off on the day, I’m not in the mix. So trying to keep myself motivated can be tough. But it’s about enjoying the process and the challenge of pushing your body to places you didn’t know it could go. It’s worth the struggle for me because there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing,” he says.
The next big goal for both Cameron and Owen is the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Cameron will spend more time in the UK, training, racing and fine-tuning while picking up work where he can. His first opportunity to qualify will be the Doha World Champs in 2019.
Owen will continue training in New Zealand while running his electrical business. His next qualifying opportunities are World Cup events in Dubai, Korea and Finland in 2019.
As for advice to aspiring athletes, Cameron says it’s all about commitment.
“Whether it’s sport or life, if you want to be the best, you’ve got to give it 100%. Setbacks will happen, and you’ll get emotional about it, but figure out how to turn that emotion into motivation. That way, whether you achieve it or not, you can hold yourself high knowing you gave it everything.”
Photo caption: Cameron French competing in the 400m hurdles heat at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.