Dyslexia and the Drive for Success

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In a SPELD NZ exclusive interview, we find out how working to overcome his dyslexia has helped drive shot putter Tom Walsh’s incredible success.

You don’t reach the top of your game without grit and hard work, and these are traits Tom has exhibited throughout his life, both in the shot put circle and in the classroom. His parents, Peter and Karen, believe managing the challenges of dyslexia have contributed to Tom’s determination, toughness and self-belief.

Dyslexia has definitely made him stronger, says Peter. “His primary school at Waihi was fantastic. They recognised that he was dyslexic early on and taught him that it wasn’t a disease. It didn’t mean he was stupid – he was simply dyslexic and found reading harder than most students.”

Karen remembers Tom’s early years at school. “I watched him one night with his school reading book and realised that he wasn’t actually reading the words; he had memorised them. He has a tremendous memory.”

Having discovered that Tom was dyslexic, Karen was determined to help him succeed at school. She sought advice from the special education teacher at Waihi Primary School, educated herself about dyslexia, and put significant time and effort into supporting his learning. Teachers advised them that what Tom read wasn’t nearly as important as the fact that he could enjoy reading what he liked.

“Every morning we’d get up at 6am, have breakfast together and do some learning,” says Karen. “Tom didn’t have a choice. Sometimes he’d get frustrated and we’d both cry, but we stuck to it. I’m very stubborn. The only thing I could do was give him my time.”

It’s something for which Tom is hugely grateful, once telling a teacher ‘If it wasn’t for my mother, I wouldn’t be where I am.’

Tom’s resilience has also helped him manage challenges of all kinds. “He recovers from disappointments very quickly,” says Karen. “He’s able to move on and put things behind him.”

Karen and Peter say it was important to instill a sense of confidence in Tom so that he recognised that he wasn’t ‘dumb’, he just wasn’t that great at reading.

He might have found reading, spelling and writing challenging, but Tom excelled at sport and that bolstered his self-confidence. Karen jokes that he signed up for every sport on offer so he could spend time out of class at competitions and events. At age 14, he was in both the First XV and First XI at Timaru Boys High. He represented Canterbury in age-group cricket teams and in rugby he represented both South Canterbury and played in the Hanan Shield. To add to the mix, he was also a South Canterbury representative hockey player. And by 18, having rediscovered shot put, Tom was making his own way around the world competing at international events.

At high school, his parents had arranged for Tom to have help in the classroom and after school with his homework.

“At secondary school, I thought ‘you’re not giving up now’,” says Karen. “He couldn’t read the questions in maths so I spoke to the headmaster at Timaru Boys’ High about employing a teacher to help Tom in class. He was only entitled to six sessions a week, so we made a donation to the school each year to cover the cost of him having assistance in every class.”

Tom enjoyed and was good at maths. He did NCEA Level 1 in Year 10, a year earlier than normal. Through hard work, he gained university entrance, including NCEA Level 2 English, although he jokes that the only thing he passed in English was public speaking. It’s something he does a lot of now, particularly for media interviews and at schools, where he loves answering the kids’ questions. Tom has returned to his old schools and talked about dyslexia, a conversation that had a huge impact on the students there.

He encourages anyone with a learning disability not to be ashamed. “Don’t try and hide it,” he says. “It doesn’t close many doors. If I’d had it my way when I was younger, I would have gone to school just to play games and eat lunch, but then I came to realise I needed to do all right in school to get by.”