As one of the world’s shortest elite shot putters, World University Games champion Sarah Mitton certainly does not cut an intimidating physical presence.
Yet what the 1.69m (5ft 6in) tall Canadian thrower lacks in pure height she more than makes it for in speed, technical ability and heart – a fact exemplified in Auckland earlier this year when she defeated two-time Olympic champion Valerie Adams – a women who stands at a towering 1.93m.
On that occasion, Mitton produced the performance of her career so far to secure victory with a PB of 18.84m – but given her lack of height compared to many of her rivals, how does she explain an ability to consistently compete with much taller opponents?
“I would definitely say my speed (is a big asset),” she explains. “Back in high school I did heptathlon for six months, so I’m familiar with sprinting and the power events. Being shorter than many of my rivals may look like it is harder for me, but I don’t see it as a disadvantage. I definitely think there are other areas I can maximise in the future.”
Rapid local success
Raised in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia - a place Mitton describes as “more of a village than a town” - she played a range of sports in her youth including soccer, basketball, badminton and volleyball. At school she has also tried her hand at long jump and the sprints before a perceptive teacher persuaded her to try the shot. Within two days of first picking up a shot she set a district record in a local competition – and so began her throwing journey at the age of 14.
Guided by coach Tammy Gaudet – whom she describes as ”like a second mum to me” - during the early years of her career in 2011 she won her first national medal with a bronze at the Canadian Youth Championships.
Frustratingly, Mitton just missed out on qualifying for the 2013 World U18 and 2014 World U20 Championships by a matter of centimetres but in 2015 she finally made her international debut at the Pan American Junior Championships in Edmonton.
There she hurled the metal orb to a lifetime best of 14.57m for fourth – in what proved a confidence boosting assignment.
“It felt good to not only participate but to genuinely compete,” she adds of her Pan American junior experience.
More gains were made in 2016 but it was the switch to a new coach in 2017 which was to accelerate her improvement.
Richard Parkinson was already guiding Canadian shot record-holder Brittany Crew when Mitton joined his Toronto-based group in April 2017.
Describing Parkinson as one of most “determined goal-orientated people” she has met the pair instantly gelled and in their first season together he improved by the best part of a metre, recording a PB of 16.32m to secure tenth at the World University Games in Taiwan.
“Competing in Taiwan was the furthest I’d ever travelled from Canada. The temperature was 40c and I was dripping in sweat but I didn’t care because I was so happy to make the team. That first season together with Richard he improved my consistency.”
Moving into rotation
From October of that year, Mitton, under encouragement from Parkinson, switched from the glide to the rotational technique. Aware for some time the technique might suit her natural speed in the circle, the move has helped revolutionise her career and saw clear progress in 2018.
Competing on the European circuit for the first time, she achieved no less than six PBs (indoor and outdoor) across the calendar year highlighted by a 18.52m effort in Collegeville, Pennsylvania.
It had been another breakthrough campaign but Mitton was fully aware she needed to implement more changes.
“After the end of 2018 we identified my competition consistency wasn’t the best,” she explains. “Some competitions I would be at or near PB shape but in others I’d significantly underperform. I think that was mainly due to the fact I was still adapting to the technique.”
In a further effort to expand her skill base, the red-haired Mitton started working with a sports psychologist to help her cope with the pressures of being an international athlete.
10-month 2019 season builds consistency
It appeared to work. In an effort to build experience, Mitton embarked on gruelling ten-month long season in 2019, which began in January and climaxed with the World Athletics Championships in Doha in October.
Comprising 29 competitions she gradually improved and was hugely encouraged to set a mark of 18.06m in Toronto – in a preparation meet for the 2019 World University Games in Naples.
Aware that the qualification and final at the World Uni Games were scheduled for the same day – she used the Toronto meet to partly replicate the circumstances she would face in Naples. Training hard on the morning of the Toronto meet before competing later that day she gained a huge lift from achieving the 18m throw.
“I thought this gave me a real edge at the World Unis,” she explains. “After I threw 18.31m to win gold (in Naples), I experienced a feeling I’d never had before and was overcome with emotion. Winning gold gave me a lot of confidence leading into the Pan American Games and World Championships.”
Unfortunately, Mitton could not quite deliver her best at both events. Suffering an untimely head cold in the countdown to the Pan American Games in Lima she put in an “average performance” to place sixth with a best of 17.62m.
Fatigued at the end of a long and gruelling campaign she failed to advance from her qualification pool at the World Athletics Championships in Doha with a modest best of 17.24m.
Determined to take the positives out of a gold medal winning season she underwent a short off-season and opted in February to embark on a month-long trip down under alongside her training partners – Canadian shot record holder Crew and Trinity Tutti.
Star struck at first meeting, defeats Adams at second
After opening up with a 17.93m effort in Canberra she hopped across the Tasman Sea for the first of three competitions in New Zealand and was blown away by the locals’ passion for throwing.
“Because of the success of Tom Walsh and Valerie Adams the New Zealanders love shot put,” she explains. “Sometimes the throws get brushed under the rug but to go somewhere where throwing is so appreciated was awesome.”
In Hamilton she had to play second fiddle to Adams as the eight-time World champion powered the shot out to 18.81m to claim a 51cm victory from the Canadian. “Star-struck” by her first meeting with the athletics icon, post-event Mitton tentatively asked for a photo.
Adams was more than happy to agree to the request, but the following weekend in Auckland, Mitton clinched the biggest win of her career by reversing the finishing position with a mighty new PB of 18.84m.
“I was pleased to get the Olympic qualification mark but to beat Valerie with a PB was the kicker,” she explains. “It was really cool. She is such a down-to-earth competitor and after the competition she held me up on the podium.”
Mentally fatigued from the experience – and with the satisfaction at that time of an automatic Olympic qualification mark in her pocket – she has to settle for third (with 17.82m) at the New Zealand Championships in Christchurch as on this occasion Crew defeated Adams.
Returning from New Zealand to the family home in Nova Scotia she intended to spend a week with her parents before returning to Toronto. However, the Covid-19 pandemic quickly put an end to her plans and for the past five months she has remained based at the family home.
Fortunate to have had her father build a shot circle and throwing net in the garage and later an outdoor circle, the biology graduate from the University of Windsor has survived much of the lockdown period in good shape.
Initially “disappointed” at the Olympic postponement she is nonetheless looking forward to competing in a few local competitions later this year in preparation for the 2021 campaign.
Short in stature she may be but possessing a quiet determination a quality coaching set up and top-class training partners, the 24-year-old insists her best is yet to come.
“Shot putters typically do not reach their peak until they are older, so hopefully I have a few years to grow into that,” she says. “Career-wise I definitely hope to continue on until at least the 2024 Paris Olympics and then we’ll take a look at 2028 (LA Olympics). I definitely hope to one day win a World Championship or Olympic medal.”
Yet whatever happens, Mitton is adamant her passion for shot will remain.
“I have fallen in love with the rotational technique, it is such a combination of finesse and power and love the fact to produce your best you have to find that balance.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics