Andrews-Nahu clinches NZ’s first world lifting gold

Young weightlifting sensation Kanah Andrews-Nahu has become the first New Zealander to win gold at a weightlifting world championship - and added 16 more records to her incredible haul.

At just 18, the Auckland lifter has taken out gold in the snatch of the 76kg women's class at the IWF world junior championships in Fiji, with a lift of 98kg - a personal best in that weight class. 

With another best lift of 114kg in the clean and jerk, Andrews-Nahu's total of 212kg also won her a bronze medal. That total has qualified her for the senior world championships in Thailand in September, which will help in her next mission - to compete at next year's Olympics Games in Tokyo.

All up, Andrews-Nahu set five New Zealand junior records, five New Zealand senior records, five Oceania junior and one Oceania senior record with her performance in Fiji. That pushes the collection of records broken in her young career to 146. 

She's the first Kiwi to win gold at either junior or senior world championship level. Olivia Baker won two junior world bronze medals in 1997, and Laurel Hubbard won two silvers at the senior worlds in 2017.

Here's the feature story we ran on this remarkable athlete and her coach, former weightlifting star Richie Patterson, just before the junior world championships began. 

Richie Patterson shakes his head in disbelief.

“I thought she would slow down,” he says. “But she’s accelerating.”

Sitting next to him at Patterson’s gym on Auckland’s North Shore, Kanah Andrews-Nahu gives him one of her beaming grins.

The 18-year-old weightlifter just keeps on raising the bar. She constantly astounds her coach, three-time Olympian and Commonwealth gold medallist Patterson, with her strength and steely determination. 

Neither can be exactly sure how many national records she’s now smashed. “I’ve stopped counting,” Andrews-Nahu says. “It’s somewhere in the hundreds."

She continues to heave more iron above her head than Patterson was lifting at the same age.  

“I always compare Kanah to where I was at the same age, and pretty much the same weight, and she’s still out-lifting me. And I thought I was pretty good,” says Patterson, who held his own impressive string of junior men’s records.

“My best snatch at school age was 95kg, and now Kanah is at 100kg. She’s one-upped me again.

“My numbers started to accelerate from the age of 18 onwards. So if you can do my numbers next year,” he says looking directly at Andrews-Nahu, “I’ll be very impressed!”

This young woman who thrives on challenges will take him up on that. Especially as she works her way towards next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“How many did you break last weekend?” Patterson asks. “Three?” He goes over to the gym blackboard and notches them up, bringing her tally of records set this year alone to 20.

“I think you’re at 130 records now,” he says.

Last year, Patterson wrote down how Andrews-Nahu was tracking and where he wanted her to be in 2022, for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. “But she’s lifted those numbers already,” he says, again almost in disbelief.

The first thing you notice about these two athletes – at opposite ends of their international careers – is their rapport. After working together since she was just 12, Patterson says “we don’t even have to talk sometimes... I can just understand how she lifts and how she’s feeling".

Andrews-Nahu calls him her “gym dad” and puts her trust in Patterson to help her to lift at her very best. “I wouldn’t want to be with any other coach. I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she says.

Patterson believes Andrews-Nahu is one of the world’s best for her age, and is already one of the best lifters New Zealand has seen. “And I think there’s something special to come,” he says.

That may all start this weekend, when Andrews-Nahu will be at the IWF junior world championships in Fiji. Patterson expects her to perform well, because that’s what she naturally does – every time she steps up onto the stage.

“There are people who love weightlifting, and then there are people who love competing,” he explains. “The people who you put on the stage and they light up and bring their passion, and they’re not scared in front of a crowd. And they lift exceptionally well.

“That’s the first thing I noticed about Kanah. She's makes it all look easier than it is. I’m always excited leading into a competition, because I know she will lift well.”

Kanah Andrews-Nahu and coach Richie Patterson at last year's Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, where she was the NZ flagbearer. Photo: Lewis Hampton, NZOC

Andrews-Nahu agrees that she revels in being centre-stage.

“My confidence definitely built when I started weightlifting. As a child doing athletics [where she was promising at shotput] I was never unsure of myself either. But it was different doing speeches at school,” she admits. “When you’re doing something you love, you just want to go out and do it.”

There have been tears, like at last year’s Youth Olympics in Argentina, when she missed her first lift in the clean and jerk, and thought she’d blown her chances. But together, coach and athlete quickly worked out a plan and she nailed two big lifts to end up fourth – competing against much heavier lifters. “It was the hardest fourth I’ve ever got,” she laughs.

She loves having people she knows in the crowd, and the junior world championships in Suva will be like a homecoming of sorts. Andrews-Nahu is Maori, of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou descent, and Fijian, through her grandfather: “So I have a lot of family members who want to watch me compete”. Maybe a whole village of supporters.

One of 13 lifters in the under 76kg category for women aged 20 and under, it’s important that she does well at this event.

“I want to get my best numbers, because if I do, then I will hit the elite total and qualify for the senior worlds," she says. "And that's an Olympic qualifying event."

“Lifting weights is now empowering, it’s changed the perception of what it is to be strong, athletic and dynamic. Kanah is going to open a whole heap of pathways, like Valerie [Adams] did.”

- Richie Patterson

The elite total she has to hit is 212kg, and there's a quiet confidence she will do it.

In fact, her personal best total is 220kg – achieved across two competitions this year. She lifted her best snatch of 100kg in the 81kg class at the Auckland championships earlier this year, and achieved her best clean and jerk (120kg) at the North Island championships this month.

Qualifying for the Olympics is a complex beast, one that Andrews-Nahu jokes she hasn’t completely got her head around, but leaves to Patterson to figure out.

In essence, she has to compete in six international events over 18 months, with her four best results giving her a ranking in the world. The top eight go directly to Tokyo, and then there are four continent spots. So Andrews-Nahu is aiming to be the best woman in Oceania at 76kg.

She's started her campaign by winning the women’s 76kg at the Arafura Games in Darwin in April, breaking three New Zealand and three Oceania records on her way.

Patterson believes “100 percent” that Andrews-Nahu will be on the platform at the 2020 Olympics. “It would mean more than the world to me,” she says.

And it would mean almost as much to her coach, too. During Patterson’s 21-year career, which ended last year at his fourth Commonwealth Games, the world of weightlifting was corrupted by doping.

The sport had the hard word put on it by the International Olympic Committee – if it didn’t clean up its act, it would be removed from the Olympics. After a raft of reforms by the International Weightlifting Federation, the sport has finally been given the green light for the 2024 Paris Games.

“I’m gutted that I’ve missed out on this era,” says Patterson, who finished 14th at the London Olympics, but has since been bumped up to 11th after drug retests (“I might still reach my goal of a top 10 placing!”).

“Kanah will encounter a much more level playing field because the axe has been hung over the head of weightlifting. Should she turn up to Tokyo next year, I think she can have the confidence that the field is even, which will be really nice.”

Andrews-Nahu has almost a full year to qualify for the next Olympics. “What you’ll be capable of by then, I just don’t know,” Patterson says to her.

“What’s exciting is she clean and jerked 120kg on the weekend, and on Monday comes in and says ‘I want to do 125’.”

The records board at the Functional Strength gym where Kanah Andrews-Nahu leads the way in 2019. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

From a young age, Andrews-Nahu learned from her father, Chris Andrews – a New Zealand tag international - not to worry about what others think.

“It’s all about how you feel, and what you’re thinking,” she says. “Every time I compete, I’m concerned about what Richie is saying, but my main concern is how I’m feeling about the way I’m performing. 

“Obviously I want to try to win as many competitions as I can. But I want to make sure I’m performing to the best of my capability, because that's when I’m content.”

Andrews-Nahu’s parents are incredibly proud of their only child. It was her mum, Shahn, who introduced her to weightlifting, when they went to cross-fit together.

At 12, Andrews-Nahu entered a weightlifting competition run by Patterson called ‘The Postal’, where qualifying was through online video. “Kanah did a really good lift, but she was too young to enter the competition. I messaged her mum and said ‘your daughter has some fantastic results, so we would love to invite her to the comp anyway’,” Patterson recalls.

“In her first competition, she broke nine New Zealand under-15 records, but they weren’t officially recognised because she was too young.”

But it was clear to him that she was an exceptional athlete.

Now she trains twice a day, six days a week at Functional Strength, the gym run by Patterson and his wife Pip, who also lifted for New Zealand.

“We had a bet: if I could snatch 101kg off the blocks – one kilo above my best – I could have Saturday training off,” Andrews-Nahu says. She came in on the Saturday and not only trained, but had to vacuum the gym. “I’m happy I took the risk.”

Patterson knows that for his young protégé to continue to break records and star on the world stage, there has to be some fun along the way, so that she remains smitten with weightlifting.

“I don’t want Kanah to finish her athletic career saying she felt like her life was just weightlifting for 10 or 15 years. If she can keep finding her passion, enjoy the sport and make friendships, I think she can have a really significant career,” he says.

Andrews-Nahu is well aware she needs balance to succeed. In her first year out of Avondale College, she’s studying health science part-time, with the goal of one day becoming a physiotherapist.

“If I wasn’t studying, I’d be full-time weightlifting. But I love the sport so much, I'd hate to grow tired of it,” she says.

The financial load has been eased by a sponsor, Tower Insurance; Patterson estimates it will cost $40,000 just to try to qualify for the Olympics.

He’s proud to see Andrews-Nahu leading a groundswell of women weightlifters in New Zealand.

“When I started weightlifting there were three women at nationals; last year there were more women than men,” Patterson points out.

“Lifting weights is now empowering, it’s changed the perception of what it is to be strong, athletic and dynamic. Kanah is going to open a whole heap of pathways, like Valerie [Adams] did.”

Andrews-Nahu would happily be a role model for a new generation of female lifters. “When I went to an all-girls school, people told me I shouldn’t be doing weightlifting; that I’m short because I lift weights,” she says.

“It didn’t really faze me. They don’t need to understand why I’m doing this. I’m doing it for myself.”

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