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Dame Valerie Adams on her next big challenge

Our Olympic golden girl's honest and open approach to single parenting is winning her a new legion of fans

After 20 years competing at the top, Dame Valerie Adams thought her retirement in 2022 might mean she’d finally have a chance to relax. But since calling time on her incredible shot-put career, the Olympic champion has been surprised to find she’s busier than ever. Motherhood, work and community involvement means the juggle is real for this Kiwi sporting great.

“In some ways, I had more time when I was training because nobody else could bother that space,” says mum-of-two Valerie, catching up with the Weekly. “Now it’s like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to make hay while the sun shines. I’ve got to work, I’ve got to look after my kids, do all the pick-ups and drop-offs, and the extracurricular activities and appointments.’ There’s a lot going on, sleep is scarce at the moment and life is definitely crazy at times. But life is great.”

The discipline that comes with being a shot-put superstar has helped Valerie cope. “My capacity for pressure is a lot bigger than most.”

Valerie, 38, is talking to us as part of her recent tour of schools and football clubs alongside AIA Tottenham Hotspur Global Football Development Coaches Shannon Moloney and Tegan Burling. The trio spent a week inspiring young people around New Zealand as part of an AIA campaign to encourage children to lead active lives. With the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup, Valerie is loving the buzz and excitement surrounding women’s sport.

“We have to capitalise on this because I think it’s phenomenal. We’ve come such a long way, now it’s our job to continue that journey.”

Encouraging people to lead active lives is a cause close to her heart, not only because of where sport took Valerie personally, but because she understands the enormous mental and physical benefits. When it comes to keeping her two children – Kimoana, six, and Tava, four – active and involved, Valerie says the key is finding enjoyment in what they do. At home, movement is incorporated into virtually every part of life. While the kids are too young yet for formal sports teams, Kimoana loves her gymnastic classes and little whirlwind Tava is constantly on the move.

“He’s a four-year-old boy, so he’s full-on,” laughs Valerie, an AIA Vitality Ambassador. “Luckily, I can keep up with him! We’re always out on our bikes or scootering to the park, walking to school, and in the summertime we’re swimming every day. Yesterday, Kimoana got a principal’s certificate at school, so we were out jumping around an indoor playground for a bit of a treat to celebrate.”

She’s doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but Tava (left) and Kimoana reckon Mum’s nailing it.

She says parents must lead by example. “I have a major responsibility to make sure this is a part of their life and not something that is a ‘have to do’ but something they want to do. Because if they want to do it, that’s half the battle, right?”

Old habits die hard for the athlete, who claimed back-to-back gold medals at Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, as well as silver at the 2016 Rio Games and bronze in Tokyo in 2021. While she’s no longer competing, she still works out every day. It takes discipline, but Valerie knows that without exercise, she won’t be at her best.

“It’s not my job to perform physically any more, but it is my job to perform emotionally and mentally. “Exercise is how I fill my cup and it’s how I get what I need to release my stress,” she says. “But other people have their own ways of thriving. It could be as simple as going outside for a 30-minute walk or putting on your favourite playlist and having a boogie in your lounge. It really gives you a boost.”

It’s been a big year of change for the athlete, who took to Instagram in March to announce the end of her marriage to Gabriel Price. She’s also been honest about the ups and downs that come with children who have extra challenges. Kimoana was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the end of 2021, and Tava (whose full name is Kepaleli Tava) was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 15 months old.

Diabetes has been a big learning curve, but Valerie is determined her energetic boy isn’t defined by his illness. She does everything she can to ensure he doesn’t feel different or left out, making sugar-free treats and switching in sugar-free lollies to party bags.

“People come along and say, ‘Oh, he’s diabetic.’ And I say, ‘No, his name is Tava and he has diabetes.’ That’s how I introduce my son to people. I want him to feel like he’s part of the crew.”

Valerie has won a legion of fans for her honest and open approach on Instagram, where she documents her mum-life in often hilarious and candid detail. She knows parents who might be struggling with diabetes or ASD find comfort in her authenticity.

“I think social media is a good platform to really showcase what’s going on. Often things can be painted to be amazing, but actually life is not like that and I like to be honest with that. So, yes, it’s three o’clock in the morning and yes, I’m up as well. But again, seeing people in your likeness makes this whole diabetes situation more realistic. We’re all living it and I’m struggling just as much as they are.”

“Sleep is scarce and life is definitely crazy at times”, says Dame Valerie.

It’s clear that Valerie, who is of Tongan and English heritage, takes her position as a role model seriously, particularly when it comes to her Pasifika community. She hopes kids in neighbourhoods like the ones she grew up in can see her and know they can achieve whatever they set their minds to.

“If you get kids that look at you and they see themselves in you, in their own likeness, it’s easier to relate,” she reflects. “Seeing is believing, absolutely. I’ve gone from Māngere to Monaco, but I never forget my roots or where I come from. I have a huge sense of responsibility to show people you can step outside the comfort zone. Go out there and search for what is there, what could be better and what you can do to break the cycle. I want kids to think, ‘What does your future look like?’ You dictate where you want to go.”

Athletics not only provided Valerie with a way out of poverty, but with a world in which she finally felt good about herself.

“Sport gave me the ability to feel normal. Being bullied for being so big, I didn’t fit into society as well as everybody else, but sports was an outlet for me. I felt confident and I felt incredible doing it. And that was the only place I felt that way. So it gave me a sense of purpose.”

Evidence suggests that while most children are engaged in sport at primary school, by high school participation rates drop off sharply. “That is a concern,” says Valerie. “I have nieces at that same age and I can see their challenges in life. The things they’re facing are different to what we faced back in the day. There are social challenges, body image, pressures from home. In my community, a lot of them have to work as well as go to school to help support their families. There is no magic wand, but it’s doing what we can, having these opportunities where people are turning up and helping kids find what they’re passionate about.”

With so much on her plate, Valerie, who sits on the boards of World Athletics and High Performance Sport NZ, would be forgiven for having moments of feeling overwhelmed. But she says she’s learnt she has resilience for tough times. Routine and discipline are how she keeps on top of her hectic schedule.

“I have discovered my capacity for pressure is a lot bigger than most. That probably comes from my upbringing. You know, having to deal with a lot more than most. It’s worked in my favour.”

And despite the life-changing experience of her sporting career, Valerie says she has no regrets about retiring.

“When the time is right, the time is right,” she says. “I was ready to move on to other challenges. Life is very full. But life is good.”

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