Tori Peeters is a 2024 Olympian (Image design: Tina Tiller)
Tori Peeters is a 2024 Olympian (Image design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMay 25, 2024

What it takes to be an Olympian and why you don’t have it

Tori Peeters is a 2024 Olympian (Image design: Tina Tiller)
Tori Peeters is a 2024 Olympian (Image design: Tina Tiller)

This year, Tori Peeters will compete at the Paris Olympics in the javelin. Ten years ago, Madeleine Chapman thought she might be in the same position. She talks to Peeters about what it takes to go all the way and mulls her own life decisions in the process.

No New Zealand woman can throw a javelin further than Tori Peeters. In fact, no New Zealand woman in the history of New Zealand has thrown a javelin further than Tori Peeters. As the current record holder by a healthy margin, with a lifetime best of 63.26m, Peeters is likely to remain the country’s best female javelin thrower for a long time. 

For the past 12 athletics seasons, she’s had the longest throw each year by a woman in this country. She’s broken every record and has won the vast majority of national titles. In short, Peeters has dominated women’s javelin since she began competing, with nothing close to a rival on the local scene. 

But there have been brief moments when it looked like Peeters’ Federer had found her Nadal. In 2019, she lost her national title to Stephanie Wathrall, but Wathrall retired shortly after and returned to her full-time gig as an account manager while Peeters returned to winning by 20 metre margins. Earlier in her career, arguably before her career had truly begun, Peeters settled for silver on the national stage only twice: once in 2013 and again in 2017, to the same thrower, who was the same age and stage as her, with the exact same ambitions.

That thrower was me.

In 2024 at the cafe inside the Cambridge velodrome, where high-performance athletes of all stripes spend their days training, I am no longer that thrower. When Peeters sits down across from me and my laptop, she looks like a stronger, leaner, faster version of the person I used to compete against. I sit up a little straighter, suddenly aware of how much I look like a weaker, softer, slower version of the person she used to compete against. 

I want to talk to Peeters specifically because I have watched her throw the javelin semi-regularly since we were both at high school. I witnessed her improve over the years and saw how hard she worked. And in 2017, when I officially decided to give up on my dream of competing at the Olympics, I watched as she kept pushing. And pushing. And pushing. 

Every year that passed, sometimes with no improvement on paper at all, I wondered why she kept going. In 2021 when she was looked over for Olympic selection despite meeting the qualifying standards, I thought surely she’d pack it up. A tiny part of me wanted her to pack it up. Not because I didn’t want her to succeed – in fact, I became quite invested in her progress – but because if Peeters called time on her Olympics dream at age 30, it would mean that in some way I had made the right choice by calling time on mine at 23. 

But of course she didn’t quit. In July she will be in Paris, competing at her first Olympics. So here I am, ready to ask her what her life has been like and attempt to peek inside her mind, fully prepared to discover that I made a huge mistake.

Tori Peeters (left) and the author at the 2013 National Championships

Nobody is born to throw the javelin. Thanks to its inherent danger (it’s a spear), the event is only presented as an option to athletes as teenagers, long after many will have already chosen their specialist sport. Instead of the javelin, Peeters grew up playing netball, soccer and other team sports, while having “natural strength and coordination” from growing up on a dairy farm in Gore. With an older sister and a brother one year younger, the Peeters siblings competed against each other at everything. So when older sister Stacey tried out javelin at the St Peter’s College athletics day and did well, Tori immediately wanted in. “I just thought ‘if she can do it, I’ll be able to do it’. And sure enough, I did it and broke the school record.” 

Peeters is wearing a St Peters College (Cambridge) tracksuit jacket, representing the school across the road where she works 10 hours a week helping teenaged athletes with managing their time, bodies and expectations – a far cry from the St Peter’s she attended. At 8am, she looks energised and like she drinks plenty of water. When she talks, it’s fast, and peppered with more “like”s than you can imagine. But in like a South Island way, not a, like, California way. 

Growing up, Peeters was obsessed with sport and knew she wanted to be a professional athlete “of some sort” when she was older, but wasn’t sure which sport. “Not in an arrogant way, but I knew I had a variety of skills and I knew it would just be whatever sport I ended up enjoying most.” It’s a common tale for high-level athletes, particularly women. At a young age, advanced coordination and fitness will go a long way and allow for any number of sports to be pursued at once. For Peeters, the clearest path was to follow her sister into netball. There were obvious programmes, camps and teams to make in order to advance a career in netball. In javelin? Not so much. So Peeters attempted to progress in multiple sports at once, playing netball in the winter and throwing in the summer while at university in Dunedin.

In 2014, Peeters broke the national javelin record (at the time it was 54m and held by Kirsten Helier since 1999). Suddenly, she had to make a decision. “It was a real turning point for me because I was like, shit, I just broke this record and I barely trained for it.” Peeters had been training with Paralympian thrower Holly Robinson, who had already been to the Olympics in 2012. “I saw how much Holly committed to what she did to be the best and I was like, man, if I even gave half of that, how good could I be?” Only then did she start really investing in javelin; looking up who the big throwers were that season, what the qualifying standards were for the university games and the upcoming Commonwealth Games, and realising she actually wasn’t far off.

I’m nodding intensely as she talks because it all sounds so familiar. The multi-sport childhood, the dream of being a professional athlete, the channelling of energy at university, the realisation that maybe a world athletics event was only a few years away. I had hoped to hear her describe an early path that set us apart, but no. So far, so identical. 

But I also wanted to talk to Peeters because even though we competed against each other at Nationals a number of times, we had never spoken. She trained in Dunedin back then and I trained in Auckland. Nationals was the only time we were in the same place and when you’re competing, you don’t talk to each other. Or at least we certainly didn’t. I want to know if we are even more similar than I thought. What does Peeters do when she’s not throwing the javelin? What random hobbies and interests does she have? What does she spend too much money on? Turns out, we differ in that respect.

When we talk about finances, she says she works part-time in order to relieve some financial stress, but only spends her money on things in service of javelin. New running shoes, new workout gear, a home sauna for recovery. She says she has no interest in “whatever the current fashion trends are” and proves it by name-dropping Yeezys as the current trendy sneaker. I think of all the random, arguably pointless, things I love to spend my time on and wonder if I’d do that less as a professional athlete. Would it even be possible or does reaching Olympic level require a removal of all distractions?

Peeters is engaged and will get married at the end of the year to Cam Moorby. He’s a rugby coach and is a partner who understands Peeters’ mindset and drive more than anyone else. “I think at the start he probably didn’t understand just how big a thing it was that I was working towards,” she says. “He’s 31, I’m turning 30, I know there’s an expectation of kids, and we do want to have a family. But he’s really respectful of the fact that I’m trying to achieve a goal here. And [kids] will fit in the picture somewhere, sure, but right now this is the focus.

“I think both of my previous partners sort of thought, oh she’s done that and now she’ll quit. And I was like, well actually no. Cam really understands how stubborn I am. I think that’s really helpful.”

Tori Peeters stands holding a purple javelin and wearing a red singlet during competition
Tori Peeters competing at an Oregon meet in 2023 (Photo: Ali Gradischer/Getty Images)

Despite how straightforward it might look compared to, say, pole vault or hammer throw, the javelin throw is the most technical event in track and field. The margin for error is miniscule, with a good throw requiring huge amounts of energy and force to be channelled through an area the size of a thumb tack. 

As a javelin thrower, you begin your run up no different to long jumpers. The aim at first is to gather as much speed and momentum as possible through running. Halfway down the track, that momentum needs to be maintained while stretching your body into a human slingshot – the torso tilts back while the legs keep pushing forward, giving the feeling of your legs attempting to run away from your body. Then the front foot is planted with a straight leg, pushing all of that built-up force into one leg and hip – if you’re right handed, it’ll be your left foot. At the same time, your left arm aggressively pulls down, which, along with the force from your twisted hip, whips your chest around and propels your arm (and the javelin) forward through the air. 

And in order for that energy to be useful, it must all travel through a still and straight javelin and follow the point of the javelin from start to finish, at an angle that has been judged optimal for the wind conditions. 

In training and early in a career, it is often too many things to think about at once. You’ll do a perfect run up and forget about your front arm. Or you’ll plant perfectly and in the process let your javelin stray a few centimeters to the right. By the time I stopped throwing the javelin, I hadn’t managed to throw a single one without thinking.

A triptych of Tori Peeters in different stages of throwing the javelin, including the release
Tori Peeters throwing the javelin (Photos: Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

A perfect throw is rare, if not impossible, for most throwers. I certainly never experienced one, and I wonder if Peeters has. She nods enthusiastically, diving straight into the moment she threw a massive personal best of 62.04m in Sydney in 2020. The feeling of a perfect throw after 10 years of competing. I’ll let her describe it.

“I vividly remember when I picked up the javelin for that throw in Sydney. I think it was the first time I’ve ever experienced that flow state. It was so surreal. I picked up the jav and I just felt the sense of, like, this is gonna go really far. Right from when I gripped it, it was like, this feels good. And I just ran down the runway, and I just remember the whole thing feeling effortless. I can’t even remember what I was thinking about, I just let it go. You can’t even feel anything because everything’s happened in perfect timing that you’ve literally just, you can’t feel it.”

That sort of experience is the dream for any javelin thrower. As a university student struggling miserably through weight training and sprints, I would imagine the moment when I would nail the perfect throw. Because how would I possibly know how good I could be if I’d never experienced everything happening as it should? That was always the push: potential. When you know there’s potential, it’s hard to ignore it. Most people, at some point in their lives, find themselves in that bittersweet spot of deciding whether or not to invest in potential. 

Peeters may have experienced a perfect throw, but she knows her potential is far greater, even if it’s taken a lot longer than expected. Her original goal, after breaking the national record in 2014, was the Rio Olympics in 2016. Instead, she developed a stress fracture in her spine and was out for most of the season prior. She wasn’t deterred: “I’m super stubborn. When I want to do something, I’m gonna do it. If I’m injured, well, shit, that’s just delaying it.” Every time she says something like this – which is fairly regularly in our nearly three hour conversation – I believe it a little more. By the end of the day I’m convinced that I’ve just spoken to a future world champion. 

After Rio it was the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but again, no dice. A few stellar seasons had her throw an international qualifying distance for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics well ahead of schedule. But then, inexplicably, she was passed over for selection by NZOC as she was deemed to not have thrown well enough for a top 16 finish. (In the end, had she competed in Tokyo and thrown anywhere near her best, she would have placed comfortably in the single digits.) 

There were news articles about her omission, and she was evidently, and unsurprisingly, angry. But not enough to reconsider whether javelin was worth another three years of her life. 

Instead, she continued to train and to work part-time at St Peters since professionalism in track and field is closer to a subsidised hobby than a paying gig. The following year, she placed sixth in the final at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and in May last year, broke her own national record with a new PB of 63.26m. And now she’s at the big one, preparing for the Paris Olympics where she has every intention of going for gold while also acknowledging that she hasn’t hit her peak yet.

I ask her when she thinks that will be. “This Olympics, I want to be on the podium. And I truly believe I can be on that podium,” she says. Despite her current PB not suggesting a podium finish, I still believe her. But what about next year? Or the year after? “LA [2028 Olympics] would be my last one,” she says. “I would be 34 and right in amongst my peak years, like, let me have my shot.” It’s slow-burn planning at its finest, to have your life and ambitions laid out like that in a single track, stretching years ahead of you. I can feel my mind wandering even imagining trying to stick to a plan like that. But Peeters’ plan goes all the way to the top. “The dream for me is to be the best in the world, throw a world record. If you’re going to do something, do it well. If I’m going to do something, I’m not going to do it just to be mediocre.”

I understand the sentiment and the attitude, because I have verbalised similar things to myself and my colleagues when it comes to writing. Which keeps me confused as to why I didn’t follow her down that track all those years ago. Why I, like so many others, couldn’t find the drive and discipline to stick with the hard thing that might alter the entire course of your life.

My burning question for Peeters, and the reason I gave up javelin all those years ago, is about the repetition of training. The same movements, day in and day out. In 2017, when I was just starting out as a writer and decided to pick up javelin again, my mum asked me if I wanted to do it full-time, rather than once a week after work if the weather was nice. It was a serious offer to support me if javelin-throwing was really my dream. The choice was between something I was enjoying doing that cost me $400 a year in fees, or something I was enjoying doing that paid me nearly a living wage. I chose the writing, and for many months after that phone call with my mum, I wondered if I should’ve chosen javelin. Then I would think about the repetitiveness and loneliness of an individual sport and I would feel better. I wasn’t cut out for that, I decided, only a little bit shamefully.

Tori Peeters’ career trajectory since 2014

For the last few years, Peeters has dedicated 20 hours a week to training her body in service of throwing a spear further. There’s strength and conditioning, Pilates, speed work, technique assessment, physiotherapy and active recovery. How does Peeters get up every day and push her body to its limit in service of maybe achieving a better result months down the line? The same thing, over and over and over again? “Do you ever just wake up and not want to train?” I ask, as someone who has woken up every day of my life not wanting to train. I have asked the question only semi-seriously, knowing that even people who love their jobs sometimes hate them. But Peeters doesn’t even think about it before shaking her head. “No, I love training.”

And there it is. The difference between athletes like Peeters and former athletes like me. All this time, I had thought that Olympic athletes were simply those who were willing to put in the hours and deal with the endless pain and suffering of training in order to achieve their goals. I’d never considered that a crucial element was you had to want to train. Enjoy it, even. I didn’t realise it was genuinely fun for some people. 

Everyone sitting at home watching the Olympics and thinking they could have gotten there is wrong. Maybe physically you could, yes. Maybe if you and I had nothing else we wanted to do, yes. But you really have to want to do every part of it. And nothing else. That mindset is far rarer than a good arm or large lung capacity. 

As Peeters sits in front of me, describing her endless enthusiasm for weight and speed training, my clouds of delusional regret start to lift. My mind flashes back to when I told my therapist that I was going to try running again, even though I’d hated it every time I’d tried it. Maybe if I did it enough I would grow to love it or even be good at it, I told her. And she’d responded, “so you want to try again to become someone you’re not?”

Tori Peeters wears a red, yellow and black singlet and strides through a javelin throw, holding the javelin aloft behind her
Tori Peeters competing at the NZ Track & Field Champs in March, 2024 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty)

The more we talk, the more I notice how different Peeters and I are. She talks about studying physical education at uni and getting a job as a personal trainer at the local gym. She hated it. “I very quickly realised I didn’t want to be a PT, definitely not with the general population,” she says, her voice quickening as she remembers. “You could really invest in someone, and they could turn around and just be like, ‘I didn’t go for the run’. And, ‘I didn’t do that training’. And now I’m gonna complain about everything still, when I’m not helping myself.”

I nod, on one level understanding where she’s coming from, and on another feeling extremely exposed as part of the general population after years of believing I maybe wasn’t. I love to complain and I love to do things that serve no purpose. Peeters’ goals may be shared by many, but her determination and one-track mind is not.

This year is Peeters’ year. She’s committed fully to Olympics preparation. She is competing in a few grand prix events in Asia before setting up in Paris for the final stretch. She says she’s timing her training to hit a season – and ideally, career – peak at the biggest meet of her life. (In the four weeks it takes me to put this piece together, Peeters throws a season best 61.26m at the Tokyo Grand Prix, finishing third.) 

She says she’s stronger and faster than she’s ever been, and now is working on getting her technique to catch up to her body. Every year it’s the same: train the body in the off-season to be faster and stronger, spend the throwing season getting your technique and muscle memory to align with it, then train the body to be faster and stronger again in the off-season, and so on until you can’t get any stronger or faster. 

I want to lie down, but Peeters loves it. “I just would hate myself so much if I didn’t explore what my potential was.” 

So, the Olympics was never the goal, and that seems to be the key. Peeters just wants to be her best, and she happens to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that her best will be the best in the world.

Before we wrap up and I drive back to Auckland, stopping at KFC on the way, I ask her a question I suspect I already know the answer to. Whenever I’ve thought about Peeters throwing and me writing, I imagine them as alternate realities of the same life. I think about decisions and Sliding Doors moments that could have seen me be the person training every day for the Olympics, and Peeters pursuing another career entirely. If I was heading to the Olympics this year instead, what would she be doing? Teaching? A doctor? An accountant? Having spoken to her for almost three hours, I know now that it would never have happened but I ask anyway.

If you weren’t throwing the javelin and were doing something completely different right now, what would it be?

Peeters doesn’t even bother to think about it. “I’d be doing another sport.”

Keep going!