Three Welsh weightlifters stayed at AUT Millennium in a pre-Commonwealth Games performance camp in March. We chatted with them and their coaches before they headed across the Tasman.
There are a lot of similarities between Wales and New Zealand. Similar population sizes (Wales 3.1 million, NZ 4.7 million), lots of sheep, a love of sport and a fierce rivalry with a much bigger neighbour.
“Beating England is great!” laughs Gareth Evans, the most experienced and decorated member of the Welsh weightlifting contingent who competed on the Gold Coast. This is something Kiwis can identify with, as we love nothing more than beating Australia, but there’s a slightly different feeling involved for this Welsh team. The Commonwealth Games are the only opportunity for Welsh athletes to perform under their country’s flag, rather than part of the combined Great Britain team.
“It’s difficult to explain,” Gareth says. “I see myself as Welsh, and then British. It’s not like I try to perform any better when I’m in a Welsh lifting suit, but there’s just a total different pride involved. For us to be competing as our own nation is really special, it’s a bit more homely and heartfelt.” Despite this, Gareth still sees his English competitors as his team mates, having performed alongside them in Olympic qualification and competition.
Weightlifting Wales sent a party of five to Auckland for a pre-Commonwealth Games performance camp; Gareth, promising 18 year olds Catrin Jones and Jordan Sakkas, and two coaching staff spent three weeks at the AUT Millennium Accommodation. The location was scouted by Performance Manager and 1986 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Neil Taylor during prior visits to New Zealand with the Lions Rugby team and English age group rugby squads. Coming from a cold Welsh winter, Auckland offered the opportunity to adjust to Southern Hemisphere time zones and temperatures before heading into the Australian heat. “We were only metres from a high performance environment and recovery suites. We were able to self-cater to ensure the athletes were fuelled appropriately and were able to train hard and recover hard,” says Neil.
Ray Williams, Head Coach of Weightlifting Wales, himself a Commonwealth gold medallist (1986), says their Auckland camp was an investment in the final stages of preparation for Gareth, their strongest medal hope, and the future potential of Jordan and Catrin. “These athletes want to make themselves champions,” Ray says, “which makes your job as a coach, so much easier. They had completed their strength blocks in the UK, so in Auckland, we are looking to be lifting around 90-93% of what we want to open with in Australia, and then start cutting.” Engaged and knowledgeable coaches understand their athletes and how they will respond in any environment. For Ray and Neil, this is knowing that Gareth needs to be ‘scared’ in his first lift of a competition, as he will respond to the challenge of a heavy weight. It is knowing that Catrin’s background of competitive gymnastics gives her the key components for weightlifting. It’s being able to spot the talent in Jordan, a star age group rugby player, and help him develop an international weightlifter. “We fully expect both Jordan and Catrin to win major medals going forward, and hopefully go to Tokyo in 2020,” Ray says.
While the focus was very much on preparing to compete on the Gold Coast, there were opportunities to unwind and explore. The group visited Takapuna for a swim and a meal, and ventured into Auckland City to see the SKYCITY Vertical Pursuit pole vault event. They also rubbed shoulders with Dame Valerie Adams and often found themselves training alongside the Kiwi weightlifters, who treated them “like brothers and sisters”. For Gareth and Jordan, this was a chance to measure themselves against their competition, Vester Villalon and Stas Chalaev. “We trained opposite each other,” Jordan says of Stas, “which made me realise he’d be a close competitor in my class. I tried to focus more on myself, though. You’ve just got to make your lifts, and not worry about what your competitors are doing.” Catrin, who competed against another Kiwi, Pip Patterson, also worries only on her own performance. “I don’t like to overthink things,” she says. “I don’t worry about who is on the list. On the platform, I’ll have simple phrases like ‘extend and sit’ or ‘keep it close’, which help me focus on what I’m doing.”
Full immersion in a high performance training environment is novel for the group. Despite weightlifting being in a healthy state in Wales, the athletes still have to support themselves. Gareth, a qualified painter and decorator, but now works full time at Conolfan Brailsford Bangor University Sport Centre, while Catrin is studying psychology at Bangor University. Jordan, who coaches up and coming lifters, enjoyed the opportunity to focus 100% on weightlifting. “You can train two to three hours a day, but you can use the rest of the time bettering yourself as an athlete,” he says. “We’ve been able to access the gym for stretching, rehab work and contrast therapy/ soft tissue massage to enhance recovery. Everything was at our doorstep and it was impeccable. That’s been the biggest difference being in this environment.”
Gareth’s experience on and off the platform was another beneficial element to the youngsters’ preparation. With three Commonwealth campaigns and the 2012 Olympics under his belt, he is happy to pass on tips to the future flagbearers for the sport. Neil emphasises the role Gareth plays in the wider weightlifting team. “The younger members of our squad do look up to Gareth, because he is an Olympian,” he says. “His viewpoints on the sport are taken on board by the weightlifters of all ages.” There is a slight hint of envy, however. During his time in the sport, Gareth has witnessed positive changes which are beginning to pay dividends. “There weren’t the resources to send me to Commonwealth Youth Games, which both Catrin and Jordan have attended, and medalled at.” Gareth recalls. “Now we’re able to send athletes to those events, and hold camps like this one in Auckland, which is through the hard work of people like Ray, Neil, Jonathan Roberts and Simon Roach at Weightlifting Wales – all people doing positive things for a sport they love. I’m a bit gutted it’s happening towards the end of my career!” he laughs.
He’s not the only one excited about the future of the sport in Wales. “Our governing body is in the best state it’s been for the last 10-15 years. That has cascaded down and our lifters are starting to see the benefits, like this performance camp here,” Ray adds. The group was particularly grateful to Weightlifting Wales for the support they receive at home and the ability to come to Auckland, where they feel they’ve had a solid preparation for the Games. “I can honestly say there hasn’t been a better environment for us in any kind of camp.” Ray says. “We have big appreciation of the professionalism of this centre, for its people, and the people of New Zealand in general – the embrace was second-to-none.”