25 Jun 2020

Oceania Weighlifting Institute on the move

2:19 pm on 25 June 2020

The Oceania Weightlifting Institute has closed its doors after more than 18 years operating in the Pacific but plans are already underway to re-open the facility in Australia.

Paul Coffa established the regional centre in Fiji in 2002 before moving it to Samoa and eventually to New Caledonia, where he has trained Pacific, Oceania and Commonwealth champions for the past 12 years.

The Oceania Weightlifting Institute in Noumea has closed its doors after 18 years.

The Oceania Weightlifting Institute in Noumea has closed its doors after 18 years. Photo: Oceania Weightlifting

The veteran coach was working with 14 lifters in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics before the coronavirus brought everything to a sudden halt.

"In January and February of this year it all started and by April every country wanted their athletes and their citizens back home and that was the end of the institute, we had to close it," he said.

"There was no point staying there, my wife and I and [Fiji-born Commonwealth Games gold medallist] Eileen Cikamatana who is now an Australian citizen."

Oceania and Commonwealth Weightlifting Federation General Secretary Paul Coffa.

Paul Coffa. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Vinnie Wylie

Coffa and his wife Lilly - a respected international weightlifting judge in her own right - waited until all of their athletes had departed Noumea and remained in solitude for seven weeks until they were able to get on a flight back to Australia, where they've spent the past two weeks in managed isolation.

"After 26 years [in the Pacific] we packed up our bags and back home again and we start all over again."

The 78 year old Coffa first took up coaching in 1965 and spent 15 years in charge of the Australian national team before being recruited to establish the Nauru Olympic Committee and develop the country's sporting programme.

"In a short four months, with the help of the Nauru Government, I established the Nauru Weightlifting Institute. It was an incredible success, lasting seven years and producing 172 lifters - equating to 1.72 percent of the population of Nauru."

Steven Kari and coach Paul Coffa after his win at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

Steven Kari and coach Paul Coffa after his win at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Vinnie Wylie

In 2002 Coffa moved to Fiji with thoughts of retiring but within two months he had built a new weightlifting centre in Sigatoka. 18 years later he's on the move again.

"I had no intention of getting away from the Pacific until 2024," he said.

"I had to go back home sooner or later - I've got my children there too - but I gave myself another four years until the Olympic Games in Paris and then I said I would go back but, of course, nobody knew what was going to happen [with the coronavirus]."

The Coffas are due to leave managed isolation from their Sydney hotel on Friday and first on their agenda will be reconnecting with family, including their three children, in Melbourne.

But he said plans to re-establish the Oceania Weightlifting Institute in Australia are well underway.

"The government of Australia will help and of course they want the best. They will do anything to make sure Eileen Cikamatana trains in Australia and wins gold for Australia," he said.

"The Australian Weightlifting Federation will assist also and they've got sponsors in Australia, something that doesn't exist in the Pacific unfortunately."

Eileen Cikamatana competing for New South Wales at an interstate event in Sydney.

Former Fiji representative Eileen Cikamatana is now an Australian citizen. Photo: Supplied/Sam Coffa

Under Coffa's guidance lifters based at the Oceania Institute have won 314 Pacific Games gold medals over the past 26 years, 42 Commonwealth Games medals - including 15 gold, and 10 medals at World Senior, Junior and Youth Championships.

His passion undimmed after more than five decades mentoring elite athletes, he continues to send training programmes to his lifters scattered across the Pacific Rim and hopes the institute can restart in its new home by the end of the year.

"I haven't decided whether we'll go to Canberra or Sydney or Melbourne - at this stage it looks like Melbourne but I don't know for sure," he said.

"Eileen will start training again from Saturday onwards. She will be flying to Canberra for a month, once I've settled down in Melbourne she will fly back to Melbourne and she will continue there until the Olympic Games."

The remaining lifters, including Papua New Guinea's Dika Toua and Morea Baru and Jenlyn Wini from Solomon Islands, are pencilled in to arrive in Australia in the new year, once the Institute is back up and running.

"And I will continue assisting the lifters who were in Noumea training there with us. If they're coming down [to Australia] they will be training with me and I will push them to the top also, there's no question."

Dika Toua won Papua New Guinea's second medal at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, a silver in weightlifting.

PNG's Dika Toua is a long-time student of the Oceania Institute. Photo: RNZ / Vincent Terrence Wylie

Golden Opportunity

Eileen Cikamatana was originally set to miss the Tokyo Olympics after a public falling out with Weightlifting Fiji led her to commit her international future to Australia.

She was awarded Australian citizenship in September last year but remains ineligible to compete in Tokyo through ranking points after missing the first phase of Olympic qualifying.

Paul Coffa isn't giving up hope, however. The General Secretary of the Oceania Weightlifting Federation expects the coronavirus will force the International Olympic Committee to make further changes to the qualification criteria.

"The coronavirus has destroyed sports, including the Olympic Games, so we have to start all over again," he said.

"She will compete - there's no question if the Games are on next year she will be in Tokyo - but the question is whether the Games will be there. That is questionable because the virus hasn't stopped, it's increasing worldwide so the future is still with a big question mark."

Eileen Cikamatana celebrates on her way to winning gold in the women's 90kg weightlifting final at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

Eileen Cikamatana won Commonwealth Games gold for Fiji but is now competing for Australia. Photo: AFP

Eileen Cikamatana is already a Commonwealth Games champion and is ranked number one in the world in the women's 81kg division.

She's won three World Cup events in Peru, China and Italy over the past nine months and Coffa said if she does make it to Japan next year she will return to Australia with another gold medal around her neck.

"A lifter that has set four world junior records and ranking number one in the world in the 81 kilos [division]," he said.

"No one in the history of the sport in Australia or the Pacific has ever had a lifter ranking number one in the world and we do have one right now and she's only 20 years old. She's going to really push Australian weightlifting to the top again."