Olympics

Kanah’s struggle to lift out of lockdown fog

Our first world weightlifting gold medallist, Kanah Andrews-Nahu, has struggled coming out of lockdown. But it’s helped her realise that to be great, she must be committed. Not only in sport, but a medical career too.

This year’s North and South Island Olympic weightlifting championships were, understandably, like no other.

Instead of lifters congregating at one event, the athletes - 125 female and 113 male - went ‘postal’.

That means they turned up to their gyms around the country like any other training day, hoisted their best lifts in front of a video camera and then posted them online.

Kanah Andrews-Nahu, a junior world championship gold medallist and Youth Olympic bronze medallist, turned up at her Functional Strength gym on Auckland’s North Shore, and lifted more than she ever had before – 97kg in the snatch, and 124kg in the clean and jerk; a stunning total of 221kg.

And yet she wasn’t happy.

“Yeah, I did good. Undeservedly,” she says. “Nobody knows that before the competition, I’d had maybe only a week of training.

“I PB’ed after a month off. But I can’t make a habit of that – it’s a clear case of talent only gets you so far. And I don’t want to simply rely on that talent.”

 
 

She has talent by the ton. The girl who started lifting at 12 now has more than 150 records to her name. The flagbearer for New Zealand at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Argentina, she was promoted to bronze medal status a year later, when the winner failed a drugs test.

Andrews-Nahu admits she spent the Covid-19 lockdown in a different way to many other elite athletes. Although she had a full set-up of weights in her parents’ garage, she didn’t do the consistent intense training others did. “The most I did was 50 to 70 percent of my best lifts,” she says.

The 19-year-old, whose weightlifting career has exploded since she began so young, decided to take a much-needed break. Her coach, three-time Olympic lifter Richie Patterson, didn’t put the hard word on her to train during lockdown.

But when the doors to the gym swung open again, Andrews-Nahu struggled to “switch back on” to her training. With the Tokyo Olympics put off for a year, she battled to find the motivation.

“In lockdown, you were almost forced to plateau. Coming back, I felt like I was still floating around,” she says.

“People said: ‘You need to get back on that bandwagon, start putting the effort in’. But I’d fallen into that ‘I don’t know where I’m at, I have no motivation, I don’t want to go to the gym’.”

So, Patterson had to deliver her an ultimatum.

“The good thing with Kanah is that you can sit down and have a frank conversation with her. So I said ‘Now that we’re out, for my own personal state, I need a commitment from you’, because I often reflect the energy of my athletes,” he says. “And she took that really well.

Kanah Andrews-Nahu and coach Richie Patterson after hearing she was promoted to a Youth Olympics bronze. Photo: Getty Images.

He knows what she’s been going through. "Sometimes people don’t recognise that coaches are also going through this whole struggle with lockdown and Tokyo being pushed back a year," he says.

“I’ve got two young kids, I’ve got two businesses I’m trying to run, on top of coaching some Olympic athletes - and the whole timeline is completely thrown out. Then as the coach, you have to put on a brave persona because you don’t want that to get through to your athletes you’re trying to help.”

In his role on the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s Athlete’s Commission, Patterson is seeing it in other athletes and coaches too.

Sitting in the gym after a university class, Andrews-Nahu says she’s now come to the realisation that to be among the best women lifters in the world, she has to do more.

“I know I’m good, I know I’m really strong, but I could be great if I tried. And that’s not just lifting weights, but in my nutrition and everything else that goes hand-in-hand with being an elite strength athlete,” she says.

“I know what I need to do, and I know how to do it. It’s just the ‘doing it’ that’s hard.”

Now she's trying to spot her motivation on the horizon.

***

Just before New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown, Andrews-Nahu made a mad dash to the United States - and stepped one competition closer to the Tokyo Olympics.  

But she had already prepared for the worst. “I wasn’t giving up on the Olympics exactly, but I had to prepare myself for the possibility that I wouldn’t go. It took me a long time to come to terms with that,” she says.

But now she sees the 12-month postponement of the Games may in fact put her in a better position for Tokyo.

She'll be one year older. “One year stronger,” the teenager says.

Kanah Andrews-Nahu takes direction from her coach before walking out to lift. Photo: Katherine Neilson. 

Patterson says the current weights she’s lifting would almost certainly get her to Tokyo. “I’m definitely on the cards to go,” Andrews-Nahu says. “But if I don’t go this time, I’ll have so many other opportunities.”

To qualify for these Olympics, New Zealand weightlifters will have to compete at six international competitions, with the four best results translated into a world ranking.

Andrews-Nahu was ready to fly to Romania in March for her fifth qualifying competition, the IWF world junior championships (she won New Zealand’s first world weightlifting gold – in the 76kg snatch - at last year’s event). But it was cancelled, and she was gutted.

“I was really pushing for some good numbers this time, I was in really good shape,” she says.

Quickly, Patterson found another Olympic qualifying event – the Arnold in Columbus, Ohio (that’s Arnold as in Schwarzenegger). Within three days she was on a plane and competed two days later.

With fellow Olympic hopeful Cameron McTaggart standing in as her coach, Andrews-Nahu lifted well – with a 96kg snatch and a 119kg clean and jerk, breaking another eight New Zealand records in her 87kg weight division.

Her final qualifying event is next year’s Oceania championships – pencilled in for Nauru in either February or March. But there are obvious question marks over that too.

With all the confusion Andrews-Nahu has started to look further ahead, to the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. “That will be my buzz,” she says.

“I have a lot of growth that needs to happen - not just physically but mentally too. You get to a point in your journey where you know you’re talented and naturally strong, but talent only gets you so far. And that’s really creeping up on me now.”

Patterson, the 2014 Commonwealth Games champion, wishes he'd possessed half the talent Andrews-Nahu has. "I told her I would've taken advantage of that and put in the work to really realise that potential,” says. “It’s made her open her eyes.”

***

As well as aiming to be an Olympian and a Commonwealth champion, Andrews-Nahu also wants a degree. She’s in her second year of part-time study towards a bachelor of health science. But she’s approaching a crossroads – does she become a doctor or a nurse?

She’s curious about sports medicine, but is also considering following in the footsteps of her mum, Shahn, a mental health nurse. Her grandmother is also a nurse.

“Next year I want to up my number of papers and do some at summer school, so it’s almost fulltime,” she says. Balancing her study and weightlifting is another challenge, especially when she wants to give both the same intensity.

A “big motivator” is her parents. “Damn, they did a lot for me when I was still in high school and couldn’t drive myself to the gym,” she says. “My mum studied nursing fulltime, worked fulltime, and was fulltime looking after me. When I came here to train, she would sit at that table over there and study. So if she can do it, then I can do it too.”

There’s something else on Andrews-Nahu’s to-do list: she wants to learn to speak Māori.

“I know who I am, I’m a confident person who can stand on her own two feet. But If I learned how to speak fluent te reo, I would feel extremely empowered and have a real sense of connection,” says the descendant of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou.

Now Andrews-Nahu is finally getting back into a rhythm, training at the Functional Strength gym five days a week.

Patterson can see his athletes “starting to pick up their spirits and regain their direction” knowing they have to deliver at the national championships in Tauranga in November. Andrews-Nahu is among them.

“To be honest, I haven’t seen her at such a really good stage for a while. She’s been fantastic,” he says. “All it took was to sit down and say, ‘Look I’m committing to you, you have to give some energy back’.

“I’m lucky she has such a great head on her shoulders for a 19-year-old.”

In return, Andrews-Nahu wants to make a point to her coach.

“I want him to know that I can commit to coming in and doing the things he’s asking,” she says. “Just being here and seeing everyone makes you really appreciate your environment, because not many people around the world can do this right now.

“I’m in such a good place, and I don’t want to take that for granted. I’m trying to make a conscious effort to commit to the things that will better me.

“I’m taking it day-by-day. And cruising as productively as I can.”

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