The golden tale of Yoda and Big Bear

The woman behind Commonwealth weightlifting hero David Liti has her own surprising story, Suzanne McFadden discovers.

In the presence of her protégé, Tina Ball looks tiny. She stands a smidge over five foot tall – about 1.5m, give or take a centimetre. Her three adult sons call her Yoda.

She is fit - a former Pilates instructor - and also strong. A weightlifter who started later in life, she’s held a world record in the women’s masters 48kg division for 17 years.

And no one would dare talk down to her, or take her lightly.

Not the teenagers who she teaches to hoist weights at her free after-school weightlifting club in Ellerslie three days a week.

And especially not a 165kg bearded man-mountain, who can raise 229kg of iron above his head, and who cried like a baby in her arms at the Carrara Sport and Leisure Centre on the Gold Coast on Monday night.  

David Liti’s gold medal – which will probably be New Zealand’s most unexpected and unforgettable of these Commonwealth Games - was a belatedly birthday gift for Ball, the only coach he’s ever known.

Since Liti was 15 – and the worst truant in her school weightlifting club – Ball has been at his side. They work together in her StrengthHQ gym most days of the week. They navigate their way around the world together to weightlifting competitions. He has his own bedroom at her home to use whenever he needs, and he stays there often.

Some refer to Ball as his second mum, but she doesn’t see it that way. “The connection we have is unique. It’s very hard to put a name on it,” the gently-spoken Ball says. “Our connection has many different faces, you could say. There are times when I’m definitely in the coach role, and times when it’s different.

“Over the years, in the different competitions we’ve been to, and the different situations we’ve found ourselves in, we’ve developed that bond. It’s not a team sport, so you tend to make that relationship with the one who’s there by your side, really.”

Liti sees Ball as his mentor and champion, someone who truly believed that he could be somebody in weightlifting - well before he believed it himself.

The house that Rod built

“It’s a bit of a funny story,” Ball says when asked how she became the coach of a Commonwealth super-heavyweight champion.

She owned a business specialising in education in the fitness industry, and she’d invited an international strength and conditioning coach to come to New Zealand for a presentation in Auckland. He would only come if he had “a proper weightlifting gym” to train in.

Ball asked around and was told of the Olympic Weightlifting club in Gillies Ave. “I rang the president of the club, Rod Kennedy, and asked if I could come and have a look,” Ball says. “Looking back, I realise that Rod was as deaf as a doornail. He thought I was asking to come and have a lift.

“When I arrived I had this bar put in my hands and told ‘This is how you do it’. I didn’t get a chance to set them straight.

“But I loved it. And my journey just continued from there.”

Ball became a well-known masters weightlifter, winning seven world gold medals and setting a world record in the 48kg weight division for women over 45 that still stands. “It’s certainly given me an understanding of what the athletes go through,” she says.  

A competitive swimmer at school, and then an equestrian rider, Ball had always done some kind of sport or fitness, and her family owned gyms. In 2006, she received a lifetime achievement award for services to the fitness industry. 

When Kennedy, one of the gurus of New Zealand weightlifting, died in 2008, Ball made a promise to look after two talented young lifters - brothers Lou and Ianne Guinares - who’d been under his wing. “At that point I was ready to coach and give back,” she says. 

In 2010, she took Lou to the Delhi Commonwealth Games, where he finished seventh in his weight division. Four years later, she coached both brothers at the Glasgow Games; Lou was again seventh, and Ianne 12th.

Setting up a gym in Ellerslie, Ball decided to offer weightlifting classes to nearby One Tree Hill College, where the Guinares boys had gone to school. Now in its ninth year, the community programme is free to any student who wants to take up lifting.

“A lot of the kids in the school don’t get the opportunity to experience a lot of different sports,” she says. “The school does a muster 3-4 times a year, and I have the kids come in three days a week. Some like it, some don’t.

“We have some young girls there now who do it because they enjoy it. They might not want to hit the international stage, but they just like lifting. It teaches these kids self-discipline, organisation, and, for me, they get self-esteem from it… all of a sudden they’re good at something.”

This is how she first met David Liti. He was a Year 10 student at the school, who played rugby, but was besieged by injuries. He was also one of those kids who didn’t like weightlifting. He thought it was boring.

“He was one of my most absentee students,” explains Ball. “He would rock up one day, and he might train. Then I wouldn’t see him for three weeks, and then he’d back to train for a week. Or he’d come in and say ‘I’m tired today, Miss’, and just sit and watch. 

“It took him a while to fall in love with the sport, and learn how to train.”

Ball knew Liti - the second youngest in a family of 11 children, who’d spent his early years in Tonga – possessed special talent. She was determined to get him on an international platform, and qualify for a youth championship.

“My belief with these promising kids is if I can get them there, they get a taste of what it’s like, and it hooks them in. All of a sudden, they’re thinking ‘Oh my gosh, I did this’.”

Ball took Liti and another talented One Tree Hill College lifter, Anthony Taylor, to Christchurch in 2013, where Liti broke a national youth record. “I could see then that he was thinking ‘Maybe I’m good at this…’”. The following year he competed in the Oceania championships in New Caledonia, and since then, he’s literally gone from strength to strength.

“He made that choice to be committed. I no longer have to say, ‘Okay, where are you?’” Ball laughs.

Keep calm, and raise the bar

Snakes terrify Ball, so these past few weeks on the Gold Coast have been laced with anxiety. But only because 21-year-old Liti constantly teases her with imaginary sightings of the slithering reptiles. “I’m prime bait, I tell you,” Ball says.

The trickster in Liti always keeps Ball on her toes: “I’ve got to the point at home of shutting the hallway door, so I can hear it open before he jumps out and gives me a fright. He’s still just a kid, really.”

Despite the scares, Ball is regarded as a calm and measured coach, complementing the relaxed nature of Liti, nicknamed “Big Bear”. That was obvious during the 105kg-plus competition on the Gold Coast on Monday night, when Liti was timed-out on his second attempt in the snatch.

As the time-clock ticked down, Ball calmly approached the officials bench, then quietly explained the situation to Liti, who put his earphones back in and listened to Kendrick Lamar, before heading out for his final attempt, and coolly lifting 174kg.

“We had the situation under control,” says Ball, who explains that it’s her job to decide what weight Liti will lift. And his job to lift it.

“Other lifters have told me they like it that no matter what the situation is, I’m calm. You plan to go in these things, you do your research on the competition, you know what you’re trying to achieve. If you panic it won’t make your lifter any better, will it? I just take control of the situation and move it to where it has to go.”

Her experience as an international master Pilates instructor may have something to do with her composed outlook. She no longer instructs, choosing to split her time between weightlifting coaching and her family. But she has introduced Liti to the art of Pilates - he can now do the splits.

Family is vital to Ball.  “When I’m working with the young male weightlifters, I tell them I have three sons, so there’s nothing you can do that will surprise me,” she says.

“My sons have really embraced my passion, and they’ve done that by embracing those lifters who I hold dear to my heart. They love David too; my four grandkids adore him. He’s an extended part of our family.”

Moments after lifting a Commonwealth record 229kg in his final clean and jerk and learning he had won gold, Liti dropped to his knees. He then enveloped Ball in his big bear arms and buried his face into her small shoulder.

“I love you young man,” she said.

“I love you too,” he sobbed.

“Now you can go and enjoy this moment.”

Ball says she knew they had a fighting chance of winning on the Gold Coast, but the outcome for her was “just amazing… these rate as my best Games”.

Yesterday Ball, Liti and fellow weightlifter Tracey Lambrechs were supporting the Silver Ferns, smacking thunder-sticks together and cheering their fellow New Zealanders on. The cameras zoomed in on them. Liti was taking his new found fame in his big stride, she said.  

“There’s a real hidden depth to him. I know he wants to give back and inspire other youngsters to achieve,” she says.

When they return to Auckland next week, Ball will start planning for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It has always been part of their plan.

“They’ve just released the requirements and qualification pathways. As soon as I get home, I’ll me mapping out our next steps. Because that’s definitely our next biggie.”

And perhaps she'll also find another champion within the next wave of One Tree Hill College lifters inspired by Big Bear.

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