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Career

Teen discus thrower Connor Bell reveals how bullies fuelled his Olympic dream

The schoolboy’s taking the discus world by storm and has even been mentored by Dame Valerie Adams.

By Steve Landells
Aged just 17 and already with a Youth Olympic Games gold medal in his pocket, Connor Bell exudes all the confidence you might expect from one of New Zealand's most exciting teenage sporting talents.
From his parents' lifestyle block in Kaukapakapa, just north of Auckland, the 1.93m-tall discus thrower talks articulately of his future, which he hopes will lead to an international career.
Yet the mood becomes less jovial when he talks of a difficult period he experienced as a "chubby" student at intermediate school, where he was bullied.
"I found dealing with bullying difficult and not being able to handle it made me more of a target," explains Connor. "I was a bit different, I stood out and I was an easy target to push around. I didn't have the maturity or experience to deal with it."
Connor's entry into the world had been far from straightforward. Mum Jenette describes the "bumpy start" after he was born nearly four weeks premature and immediately transferred into an incubator.
Conor, aged five.
Despite his unscheduled early arrival, Connor weighed a healthy 3.4kg, with Jenette commenting, "He was bigger than Texas and in length was on the 90th percentile."
A tall, energetic kid, he had an idyllic upbringing, attending the local country primary school, and enjoyed playing a range of sports from soccer, rugby and cricket to swimming and motocross.
But after dad Stephen and Jenette opted to send Connor to an intermediate school in Auckland because it offered a greater subject range and to help ease the transition into high school, his world quickly changed.
"I went from a school of about 60 kids to 1100 kids," recalls Connor. "I didn't have any friends and I was around a bunch of kids who were different to me."
Bullied both verbally and physically, Connor became more introverted. Playing video games was his release. He put on weight and tried to avoid school-related activities by feigning sickness.
It was tough on Connor's parents to watch their previously effervescent and fun-loving son struggle.
"He was coming home at night visibly upset and as a parent, you feel quite powerless," tells Stephen.
"Bullies by their very nature don't do things in front of teachers, but we tried really hard not to step in, and instead equipped Connor with the skills and tools to develop that confidence of how to deal with it himself."
As Connor found other mechanisms to cope, the bullies backed off and then late in his final year at intermediate, the direction of his life took a sharp turn for the better.
During the annual athletics day, the tall, strong Connor decided to enter the discus throw, fuelled by competing against a bully who had made his life hell.
"There was definitely a rivalry," Connor explains, "and that day I threw the discus 32m to win the competition."
A fire was lit inside the youngster, with Jenette describing the moment as Connor "finding his herd".
Spurred on by this victory, the youngster joined North Harbour Bays Athletics Club and just over a year after making his discus debut, he was proud to be crowned New Zealand secondary schools champion.
Connor had discovered his passion and launched himself 100% into the sport. He studied videos of discus greats at length, spent hours hurling the discus around a paddock, and practised his spinning technique so many times on the lounge and dining-room floor that the carpets needed replacing.
"If I was trying to watch something on TV, he'd drive me nuts because he'd be spinning on the carpet," says Jenette. "But like any parent, you just want to see your kids do something that fires them and with Connor, that was discus."
Connor quickly rose to being New Zealand's number- one schoolboy thrower.
Coached for a period by two-times Olympic champion Dame Valerie Adams, he landed gold at the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas before enjoying his finest hour, taking out the Youth Olympic Games title in Buenos Aires in October last year by a staggering 18m margin.
It was a huge moment for the Westlake Boys' High School student.
With proud parents Jenette and Stephen.
"It was fantastic to see his success," says Stephen, adding, "but we would have been super-proud of him wherever he finished."
Connor's next major target is to win gold at next year's World U20 Championships in Kenya and he has also not ruled out qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
So what would Connor say now to the bullies who made his life so tough during his time at intermediate school? "I'm happy the way things played out because every experience is an opportunity to learn," he says.
"I wouldn't quite be the same person had I not undergone those learnings. Part of the reason to compete in discus that day at intermediate school was driven by rivalry with the bullies and if that hadn't happened, I probably wouldn't have gone on to enjoy the success I have."

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