Feature14 Jul 2017

With his dad's help, Northoff strikes gold in Nairobi


Timo Northoff in the shot put at the IAAF World U18 Championships Nairobi 2017 (© Getty Images)

A tricky thing, to be coached by your father. Timo Northoff knows this, but at the same time there’s no one else he’d rather have guide his career, particularly now, after the young German claimed shot put gold at the IAAF World U18 Championships Nairobi 2017.

“I think it’s the best training in the world because we understand each other,” he says. “My father was also a shot putter so I followed his way.”

His dad, Tilman, was the one who first coaxed Timo into the sport at age 13. “Back then I did everything,” recalls Timo, “long jump, sprints, shot put and discus.”

In those early years, however, his lack of size relative to his peers meant he did not show flashes of his vast potential. “I was really small and tiny at the start, but over the years with training I have developed,” he says.

When he had built that strong, stable frame in his mid-teens, he and his father soon realised his future lay in the shot put.

His dad had been a combinedi-eventer for much of his career, but turned his attention to the shot put at the age of 30, eventually throwing his lifetime best of 19.02m at the age of 36. Many years later he is still competing, but has had to face the inevitable in seeing his son out-perform him.

At their home in Bielefeld, Westphalia, Tilman oversees his son’s training, which is currently six days a week and split between the gym and throwing circle, and his dad has been present for every competition – except Timo’s most recent one.

Anxious afternoon

Heading to Nairobi, the pressure was heaped on the youngster’s shoulders, given he was highly ranked, and the 17-year-old’s nerves only grew when he had a shaky qualification round on Thursday morning. He opened with just 17.08m, followed up with 17.58m, but found his rhythm in the final round to throw 19.37m and secure his place in the final. It made for an anxious afternoon.

“I was really nervous because qualification was not the best,” he said. “I didn’t know what would come from me in the final.”

He need not have worried. Northoff opened in the final with 20.12m to seize the lead, then extended his advantage in round two with a throw of 20.50m, a personal best by three centimetres. With none of his rivals able to surpass the 20-metre barrier, that allowed him the luxury of walking into the throwing circle for the final time with the gold medal secured, but Northoff’s work wasn’t done.

He produced a whopping effort of 20.72m to smash his lifetime best, the perfect way to finish the competition, the first of his career where his dad was not present.

Going it alone

“Not having him here was really difficult for me because I didn’t know how to adjust as well, so I’m glad that it functioned,” he said. “I hope he sat before the live stream watching.”

And how did he plan to celebrate becoming a world champion? “I’ll call my dad first,” he said, “then maybe celebrate with the German team.”

Right now the future is a question that can be tackled another day, but as a world U18 champion it seems Northoff has every right to dream big.

He currently has one year left in school, and admits he has “no idea” what path he will choose then, but either way the shot put will be front and centre of his plans.

When he’s not training or studying, Northoff, a devout Christian, likes to read the bible. “It’s important in my life,” he says.

His next competition will be back on home turf in Ulm, after which he’ll take a well-earned end-of-season break, which will inevitably involve watching the IAAF World Championships London 2017. Back at home, he’ll be cheering on his favourite shot putter, David Storl, who won the same title as Northoff back in 2007.

While the young German wasn’t keen to put any further pressure on himself about following in Storl’s footsteps, he admitted he has every intention to make good on his extraordinary talent.

“I’ll do my best,” he says, “and see how far I can go.”

Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF