Olympics

Bad breaks help lifter go from strength to strength

There’s a ‘before and after’ post on Megan Gifford’s Instagram page that helps tell the story of a remarkable journey.

In the before photo, she’s at a party, clutching two bottles of beer, and grinning cheekily. The after is a selfie taken in the mirror at her crossfit gym, with that same unmistakable smile, but with taut abs and muscular arms that can now hoist 111kg of iron above her head.

A smoker for 10 years, Gifford had let alcohol and an unhealthy diet get her to the point where, she says: “I hated looking at myself in the mirror”.

She had no athletic background to speak of. Growing up on a Matamata farm, she hadn’t played sport at school, and never stepped inside a gym until she was 19.

But a decade later, she’s happier, healthier and on a path towards next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games as a weightlifter.

If she gets there, she’ll have to thank the guy who spotted her when she first walked into that gym  – her strength and conditioning coach, and now husband, Callum Gifford.

Megan Gifford’s journey hasn’t been a straightforward one. The 29-year-old has been plagued by injuries and setbacks.

But, with a cache of New Zealand records under her belt as proof, Gifford has come back stronger every time.

She’s convinced she’s found much of her strength through adversity. And a ton of hard work.

Midway through last year, Gifford cried for two days on end.

The torrent of tears wasn’t brought on by the pain, but frustration.

“I thought that I was going to be that athlete,” the 64kg category lifter says.

You know the one. The talented, hardworking star with a bright future ahead, whose dreams are crushed by an ill-timed injury.

Her run of bad breaks began in July 2017 when she tore the ACL and meniscus in her right knee. She raced against time to be fully fit for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, but was forced out of the New Zealand team just two weeks before.

Then a few months later, on the eve of her return to international competition, in Japan, Gifford damaged the cartilage in her left wrist.  

“I felt like I was having the same conversation again. And it absolutely devastated me,” Gifford says. “But this time it wasn’t about the disappointment of not going to an international competition.

“It was because I thought my journey was going to be over before I’d even seen what I could be capable of achieving.

“We hear those stories all the time - the athlete who never won a championship because they got injured. I just want to one day walk away, and know I got to really push the limits of what I was capable of.”

So, determined not to be that athlete, Gifford followed surgeon’s orders and kept training with her wrist in a splint for eight weeks.

“I could still press and pull. But I couldn’t clean [the movement of lifting the barbell off the floor and hoisting it to your shoulders],” she says.

“I was really diligent and didn’t push it at all. And it paid dividends.”

The day she removed her splint, while training with her New Zealand team-mates in the Japanese city of Kurashiki, she clean and jerked a healthy 95kg. “And it felt good. No pain,” she says. She was able to compete.

And, as her confidence built, so did her strength. Just a couple of weeks ago, Gifford set three New Zealand records at the Auckland Olympic weightlifting championships. It was the most iron she has ever hoisted, in training or competition.

To get to the 2020 Olympics, she has 12 months to become the top woman lifter in Oceania.

That would be a triumph in itself, for the girl who lived a “pretty unhealthy lifestyle” through her teens. “I went through what most teenagers go through; a lot of insecurities built up over the years,” she says.

At Matamata College, in the same era as Silver Fern legend Casey Kopua, Gifford was drawn to garage parties rather than sport.

After studying fashion at university, she worked for Pumpkin Patch, who had a gym in their office. Callum Gifford and his business partner Zak Nothling ran the gym and they convinced Megan to have a go.

“When you introduce something so simple as exercise in your life, it changes everything,” she says. “The way you feel, your energy levels, the people you mix with.”

Gifford found herself hooked on crossfit, which introduced her to Olympic weightlifting.

She’s not alone – women’s weightlifting in New Zealand is going through an incredible growth spurt, largely because of the crossfit movement. The sport was once only for men – women weightlifters weren’t included in the Olympics until Sydney 2000; yet at last month’s Auckland champs, 68 of the 110 competitors were female.

Gifford entered her first weightlifting competition in 2013, when Commonwealth Games gold medallist Richie Patterson created a lifting event especially for crossfitters.

And she didn’t like it.

“It was my first experience on the platform, and it was terrifying. There were lots of people watching, lots of noise,” she says. “But that only fueled the fire.”

Soon after, Gifford snapped the humerus bone in her left arm (“there’s still a fair bit of metal in there”). It didn’t deter her. “I’m a little bit stubborn like that. I just wanted to get back to lifting,” she says.

Her biggest supporter was her “best mate”, Callum. He understood the demands and pressures that come with elite competition.

When he was still at primary school, Callum Gifford was travelling the world, representing New Zealand in BMX cycling. Later, he played rugby for the NZ Barbarians.

For a while Megan Gifford was a “lone ranger” in weightlifting, training at the Crossfit East Tamaki gym she now owns with her husband and Nothling.

Then she met Simon Kent – Olympic Weightlifting NZ’s high performance director and a weightlifting coach at the Papatoetoe club.

It was the end of 2017, in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games – after Gifford had suffered that terrible knee injury.

“I did it in a clean and jerk lift during training. I thought someone had kicked me in the back of the leg,” she remembers.

Within three weeks she was in surgery, in the hope she would recover in time for the Gold Coast Games in April. Former All Black Jeremy Stanley was her surgeon.

“Jeremy will tell you it’s not just the physical recovery, it’s the psychological,” says Kent, who was also helping Gifford in her rehabilitation. “We went through a pretty robust process, and we nearly got there.”

While she almost met the targets set by New Zealand Olympic Committee, Gifford admits she had been “lifting every single lift with a little fear”.

So when the call came that she wasn’t going to the Games, Gifford took a couple of days to get over the news, then switched straight into rehab work – and rebuilding her confidence.

“Now because of that, I’m much stronger than I’ve ever been,” she says.

After overcoming her wrist injury, Gifford qualified for last year’s world championships in Turkmenistan. She didn’t have the best lead-up – going straight from her honeymoon in the Philippines – and finished 43rd in the 64kg division. 

But it gave her a thirst to compete on the international stage. And set Tokyo 2020 as a goal.

Gifford is now attempting to become the Oceania qualifier for the Olympics, building up points over five different competitions. The first is the Arafura Games in Darwin next month.

Her main rival in the 64kg class is a 21-year-old Australian, Kiana Elliott.

But Gifford keeps getting better, as her performance at the Auckland champs proved. Competing in the 71kg division, she lifted 89kg in the snatch, and 111kg in the clean and jerk, for a record total of 200kg.

“It was a good day,” Gifford says.

It was also the first time her mum, Erlinda, had seen her compete. “She’s a really courageous woman, who came from Manila to live in New Zealand 35 years ago. I’ve learned a lot from Mum.”

Gifford left the fashion industry to work as a coach at the crossfit gym. She trains there every day under the watchful eye of her husband, and once a week, trains with Kent at Papatoetoe.

“I'm very lucky," she says. "Callum is a very good strength and conditioning coach, but he doesn’t try to be a weightlifting coach. He’s just there with me daily trying to keep me strong. He really appreciates having Simon’s input.”

Kent is proud of the way Gifford has come back from injury time and again.

“Weightlifting is inherently a physical sport, but everything happens in the top two inches. We work a lot on creating an understanding that there are no defining moments - it’s all about the journey,” he says.

“Even if we don’t quite hit the Olympics, Megan will still have had all of this international experience, and at 29 years of age, she still has years left in the tank for the next Commonwealth Games.”

There is a strong contingent of young women lifters now coming through to represent New Zealand. There's Kanah Andrews-Nahu, New Zealand’s flagbearer at last year’s Youth Olympics in Rio, who finished fourth, and who's now smashed 149 national records. And Bailey Rogers, who was fourth in the 75kg division at the Commonwealth Games.

Among the female lifters who train at the Papatoetoe club alongside Gifford is a promising 13-year-old, Olivia McFarland. “The young girls look at Megan and say ‘wow, I want to be like her’,” Kent says.

“It’s a nice feeling,” Gifford admits. “I feel like I’m mature enough to realise that I’m making an impact on someone else. I feel like I’m in a position now where I can help a younger generation.”

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