Paris 23 Worlds: Lisa Adams looking to put the pieces together for another gold

New Zealand’s Paralympic and world champion on life in a sporting family, the next steps to success and having an Olympic legend sister for a coach 17 Apr 2023
A female athlete competing in shot put
New Zealand's Lisa Adams took a gold medal in the women's shot put F37 in her Paralympic debut at Tokyo 2020
Ⓒ Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images for New Zealand Paralympic Committee
By Ryan Hills I For World Para Athletics

Lisa Adams has talked about her sister a lot before. So when the subject of their relationship came up, it felt as though it could potentially be addressing a topic that has long been overdone. Maybe even one that takes the shine away from the main subject herself. But when your sister is your best friend, your coach and one of the greatest shot put athletes of all-time, it turns out it is something you can simply never tire of speaking about.

“My sister is the GOAT [greatest of all time]!” proclaims Adams. And when it comes to the world of shot put, she is not wrong, where the titles speak for themselves.

When you are a Paralympic champion, world champion and world record holder in the F37 class, you are pretty worthy of putting yourself in that GOAT conversation too. 

Pressure no doubt comes with being part of a successful sporting family. Whether it is dealing with the expectation of moving into a sport where your parent succeeded or aiming to forge a path beyond what your siblings have achieved, there is a higher level of weight on the shoulders of any hopeful. 

When your family is as successful as Lisa’s, the pressure should just notch up a few clicks more.

Valerie, her sister, found a passion for shot put earlier, one which turned her into a national icon and an Olympic champion. Her brother Steven moved to the United States in 2013, where he plays basketball for the Memphis Grizzlies. More of her brothers have had successful careers in New Zealand’s top basketball league too, representing the national team. Sport, simply put, runs through the family blood.

“I was playing basketball on and off for about 15 years, a bit of netball, rugby. I wasn’t always decent at sport, but I just played it because I loved it” recalls Adams. Growing up with parents that never pushed sport on their children, it ended up being the same end goal for all through choice. “But we are all very competitive!”

Dubai golden debut

And in that sport-driven family, the name Valerie sits high in the list of achievements. Widely regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all-time, and almost without doubt the best to ever come from New Zealand. Gold at the Beijing and London Olympics, silver in Rio and bronze in Tokyo, multiple world and indoor titles, recognised as a Dame for her achievements. It is an impressive portfolio. So when Lisa first got asked whether she would thought of shot put, there was only one person to turn to.

“My first training session with the lead Para coach, I just said ‘tell me if I’m shit and I’ll just go back to my old life.”

She was not. 

“I didn’t even want to do shot put because that was my sister’s thing. She was all I knew about athletics; I would only watch her. But I then teamed up with her, she started training me and we just rolled with it!” 

Having only debuted in the sport in 2018, by late 2019 under the tutelage of her sister, Lisa was crowned the world champion in Dubai.

Two siblings, two world champions, the same sport. It was not engineered by design, but once Lisa had begun her journey, she understood the same buzz you get from the right discipline, the same Dame Valerie had got throughout her active career. 

“I know that a lot of families butt heads and can’t work together in any situation, but we have a pretty great relationship. We haven’t had a fight, I’ve gotten a few growlings, but no barnies! And in Tokyo, we saw each other every day for six weeks, isolated together. So if we were going to, it would have been then!”

“We found our flow quite quickly. She’s the best in the world, so who better to learn off? I was a very obedient student and just very grateful for her time to teach me as well. When we’re at training, we’re coach/athlete. But after that, we’re sisters. Sometimes, I’ll say ‘can I ask you something athlete/coach’ or she just tells me she’s putting her coach hat on. We don’t need to do that but if we’re in a social setting, we’ll quickly go over it.”

A household name in New Zealand and renowned in the international sporting world, Dame Valerie is a woman in high demand. Speaking engagements, asks of coaching, media, they all come her away.  

But the decision to give up her time to coach the next generation of Adams’ gold medallists displayed a selflessness Lisa is still in awe of. 

“I never get sick of talking about my sister, I usually just never have enough time. Having her as my coach, I just wouldn’t be the athlete that I am without her. She has given up so much of her time, effort, the financial side. But she also has her own life and her own kids, so I am so grateful she voluntarily coaches me the way she does. I feel like I have gotten to be the athlete I am because of her. 

I’m just super grateful that she took me on because I don’t know where I would have ended up had she not. She just wants to help people and see them succeed and do their own thing, and she is just a helping guiding hand. I’ve seen her multiple times do speaking engagements, and she just instils this courage and is really inspirational. She’s just a really incredible person.”

Paris 23, the next piece of the puzzle

The coaching culminated where most things do when they have a heavy dose of gold involved: world champion. Paralympic champion. World record holder. Lisa Adams, within three years of first stepping into the circle, had done everything she could possibly do in her career. 

Breaking the Paralympic record in the process, Adams’ lived the Tokyo dream with a New Zealand team who continue to achieve massively on the international stage. Finishing 21st at the Games, their success comes from not only personal accomplishments, but a strong team ethic too.

“The athletes in Tokyo I met when I first started, so we grew alongside each other. We are all quite tight, and we have a great team and we just gel quite well. They all made the Games for me, and they were just really chilled in Tokyo. People don’t tell us no either. We are so well supported to try and thrive and flourish, and it plays a part. Maybe it’s something in the water, but I think we do pretty well for being a small nation.”

And though the team played a part, it was just Lisa on that podium come the end of her competition. Which is probably a good thing, considering an involuntary reaction that brought personal laughter.

“In the moment I was blubbering, and I was trying to sing the anthem but I was just so emotional. I wasn’t hyperventilating but we had the masks on, and I remember snorting which was all muffled, snorting when I was trying to breathe and trying to sing the anthem and I was crying, and I just ended up laughing because I could hear it!”

Next for Lisa, more big aims. Two World Championships (Paris and Kobe) and a Paralympic Games within the next 18 months mean the pressure is up. To cope with that, she has a sure-fire way to calm herself: jigsaw puzzles. 

“In my downtime, I like doing jigsaw puzzles. I just did a jigsaw on Friday, I only do 1,000-piece ones and I finished it in the same day. So now I’m like, hmm…I should probably do something else. So I started another one!”

Having found the missing piece for her sporting career in her sister’s guidance, Adams is on the right path to start a new jigsaw later this year, perhaps after another gold.