Sam Tanner burst into the consciousness of New Zealand sports fans at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Photo / Photo port
Sam Tanner is not afraid to think big.
Just weeks after the best season of his fledgling career, the Kiwi track and field star is already focused on what’s next.
After a dose of surf
and perhaps other extreme sports, Tanner will resume intensive training, with two long-standing national records in mind.
He hopes to have a chance to better John Walker’s iconic mark for the 3.49.08 mile, which has stood for 40 years – “that would be a pretty cool record to break” – as well as Nick Willis’ national 1500m benchmark . 3.29.66, established in 2015.
“You have to go to the right type of race to attack these kinds of times,” Tanner told the Weekend Herald. “But for the next year, or the next two years, those are the two big goals I’m trying to achieve in terms of time. And apart from that, [the goal] is to be more aggressive – especially at the world championships – and to put myself [in the mix] for a medal.”
From any other 22-year-old it might seem like misplaced bravado, but Tanner has proven this year he’s the real deal, New Zealand’s most exciting middle-distance prospect since. Willis in the early 2000s.
Tanner produced a remarkable 3.31.34 at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, shaving more than three seconds off his personal best in the 1500m final, as he finished sixth in a strong field.
A few weeks later, he recorded the second-fastest time of his career at 3.33.67 to finish eighth on his Diamond League debut in Switzerland.
Prior to the Tokyo Olympics last year, Tanner ranked 55th in the 1500m; now he is 14th.
“It’s quite exciting. It’s a bit difficult to understand what I’ve achieved.”
JAnne has come a long way. Not so long ago, he used to drive a logging truck in Pukepine, the Te Puke sawmill owned by his father, during summer holidays or university holidays.
“I worked there when I could, so I could afford fuel and drive around the country for races,” says Tanner. “Obviously, it has sometimes been difficult to follow the training while continuing to do the job. But sometimes I had the chance to drive the log loader and just load the sawmill.
He still helps out there when he can, but those days are mostly over. After two years at the University of Washington, Tanner is now a full-time athlete, signing a deal with German giant Puma.
His gratitude resonates throughout the interview – “I know how lucky I am to be paid to travel around the world in competition” – and he enjoyed his first year as a professional.
The biggest difference was the ability to chart your own course, with a less intense schedule, compared to the myriad competitions of American college teams.
“I’ve had the freedom to choose which races fit my schedule and how I want to get to the top, how we want to get [ranking] points, in the simplest and most efficient way.”
It was also his first life experience on the international athletics circuit, often rubbing shoulders with athletes he had previously admired from afar.
“I see people around me and I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve seen you race for years and I’ve seen you win those Diamond League races and those World Championships, and I can’t believe that I am here to race you and give you a good margin.
“It’s pretty cool to run with them, but then chat with them during the warm-up and cool-down; there’s great camaraderie between the guys in the 1500m in particular.”
Tanner also enjoyed the opportunity to see the world. There was the history and grandeur of London, the stunning alpine scenery of Lausanne and the opulence of Monaco, where he went swimming and diving with Kiwi high jump champion Hamish Kerr.
“I’ve always loved high performance cars and things and it was pretty cool to see some of the money spent in this city and how beautiful the Mediterranean Sea is.”
JAnn has time on her side.
He is a late bloomer, only taking the sport “seriously” from 2017.
As a child, he did track and field “just for fun” and a few cross races in high school, but he was more interested in surfing, snowboarding and mountain biking.
“It was fun stuff but probably benefited my aerobic fitness without me even knowing it, developing me as an athlete.”
His progress has been remarkable.
Five years ago his personal best in the 1500m was 3.50.05 and he only did better than 3.38 until January last year.
He has raw talent; now it’s all about building more volume and resilience in his legs, as his training workload doesn’t compare to the elite yet.
“I was talking to [Olympic champion] Jakob Ingebrigtsen after the Diamond League and he was asking me about my training. I told him what kind of numbers I was running and he was like, “Oh my God, you might be one of the most talented 1500m runners of the year.”
“And I was like, ‘wow, thank you, bro’. Like it didn’t really matter because he’s the champion, the Olympic gold medalist, and there’s probably a bit of a bullying there.
“But it was quite encouraging coming from him. There’s definitely room to grow in terms of volume and training, which is huge in terms of strength and endurance.”
Tanner arrived home last week, just before an email arrived from coach Craig Kirkwood with his latest training plan.
“It said ‘surf Monday, surf Tuesday, surf Wednesday, surf Thursday, surf Friday’. I was pretty happy with that. There was also a good swell.”
Tanner is a surfing fanatic but he had to set limits, given his sporting pursuits.
“It changes a bit if [the surf] starts, but usually a week before [heavy training or racing], I stop surfing. It’s just to keep my shoulders cool, because when you’re doing speed work, you need those arms to work, otherwise you’ll get lactic pretty quick.”
Last week was his only full week without racing, as he returned to an ‘junk mile’, to keep his legs going, ahead of a huge season ahead, with the 2023 world championships in Budapest as his main focus, as well as Diamond League and flagship North American swing events.
“I think I’m in the top 10 in the world this year, time-wise. So it’s going to be pretty cool to go up against the big boys and see what we have, because the 1500 is the race from anyone half the time.”