19 May 2020

Olympic dream stays alive for weightlifter

5:40 am on 19 May 2020

While approximately 180 quota spots had been earned, just 12 athletes were confirmed in the New Zealand team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics before Covid-19 brought the world to a virtual standstill.

The subsequent year-long postponement of the biggest sports event on the planet was inevitable.

It also meant the anxious wait to find out about Games selection would be dragged out by months for around 200 elite Kiwi sportspeople.

Clay Wilson found out how two of those athletes were dealing with a delay which had left them in limbo and forced a commitment to another year's worth of training and preparation.

Megan Gifford has been through too much to let a global pandemic derail her dreams.

Striving for her first Olympic selection, the New Zealand weightlifter was 17 months into an 18-month qualifying campaign for the Tokyo Games when Covid-19 forced the world into lockdown.

Gifford, like so many, was left pondering if she would be competing in Japan next year.

Given the ongoing restrictions related to the crisis, particularly around international travel, it would be months before she knew her fate.

New Zealand weightlifter Megan Gifford.

Megan Gifford Photo: NZOC

That uncertainty, Gifford said, left her with two choices.

"As an athlete, I do a lot of work on my mental game and being able to adapt to situations where things don't go your way.

"I feel like this is a scenario where things are just thrown at you and it's your chance to either sink or swim.

"I'm putting all of my energy into focussing on what can be controlled and that's been a huge help.

"I've been injured a lot in my career and things have changed last minute all the time. This is a similar scenario, when it comes down to what you personally can do yourself."

Such a strong level of accountability has been developed by Gifford's journey to the very brink of being an Olympic athlete.

The 30-year-old has spoken openly of her issues with binge drinking and heavy smoking as a teenager, leading to mental health struggles.

But, after finding her way into cross-fit, she found a love for weightlifting and began to leave the troubles of the past behind.

New Zealand and Oceania records have followed, although more obstacles have needed to be hurdled.

"I was selected in the Commonwealth Games team for the Gold Coast [in 2018] and got injured just a few weeks before and couldn't go," Gifford said.

"[Hearing the Tokyo Olympics were postponed] almost felt like a little bit like that where it was so close but then it's taken away from you.

"That kind of sucked a little bit but perspective is huge. I'm well aware I'm not the only one going through this.

"Again, it's something out of my control. I just had to have my moment to dwell on it and be upset, and then move forward."

So what does moving forward look like from here?

Gifford has completed her minimum six qualifying events, with the top four counting towards a ranking list.

The top eight in each weight category automatically qualify for Tokyo, with the remaining six spots going to the next best lifter in each continent.

While Gifford was looking good for that automatic qualification, last month's Oceania Champs in Nauru were a chance to solidify her standing.

Thanks to Covid-19, though, the event never went ahead.

"There's a lot of limbo for us [weightlifters] at the moment, as I'm sure there are in other sports.

"That's just because we're waiting to hear if everything done up until this point was enough or the criteria is going to change dramatically and what we had done up to this point perhaps wasn't enough."

At this stage, the criteria won't be changing.

The secretary-general of the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association Kereyn Smith.

The secretary-general of the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association Kereyn Smith. Photo: Photosport

The New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) has received revised qualification information from most of the 30 International Federations they needed them from, with the main qualifying principles being retained by all codes.

What was, in fact, holding up confirmation of the new process was finding new dates for events affected by the coronavirus.

NZOC chief executive Kereyn Smith said rescheduling of competitions was a complex exercise.

"One of the principles the IOC articulated was events need to be available for all athletes to access across the world.

"There needs to be a fair and reasonable spread of qualifying events.

"To that extent, you would think they would either have to be quite late in 2020 or in the first part of 2021, perhaps in a similar window [to the original cycle]."

Dylan Schmidt, who was also yet to lock in a quota spot prior to Covid-19, has a similar prediction.

The 23-year-old trampolinist missed out on automatic qualification at the World Champs but could effectively clip his ticket by finishing eighth or better on the points list across six World Cup events.

Despite the sixth and final event, which was to be held in a Covid-19 hotspots in Italy, being postponed, his top four standing after five events had him feeling optimistic.

New Zealand Olympic trampolinist Dylan Schmidt training at his Karaka home.

New Zealand Olympic trampolinist Dylan Schmidt training at his Karaka home. Photo: Photosport/Brett Phibbs

Schmidt, like Gifford, said the biggest challenge now was re-setting his focus on a 2021 Games.

"When we found out the Olympics was postponed it was just a bit of a bit of a downer. It was hard to process and took me a week or two to really come to terms with it.

"But since then it's been about saying 'alright well, we've got another year. How are we going to use this time and prepare as well as we can and focus on our new campaign."

Once the focus was back, the cobwebs were quickly dusted off what became an advantage over his rivals during lockdown.

More than a decade ago, the Schmidt family bought what was one of the first competitive trampoline frames to hit New Zealand shores.

Hardly used, it was also never sold, meaning when alert level four was enforced, Schmidt could maintain the fitness and technique specific to his sport.

Although the gold medallist from the 2014 Youth Olympics, and seventh-place getter at the 2016 Rio Games, said using the tramp in the backyard did require some caution.

"I've done a triple [flip] on it but if I push too hard I'll hit the ground.

"When it's windy and stuff like that you've got to be pretty careful, so it's pretty low level stuff for me but it's good enough to keep my body in the rhythm and used to the impact a trampoline has on the body.

"Tramp fitness is really really different and a lot of trampoline athletes won't have [one at home], so it's pretty cool to have that available."

The NZOC has placed a temporary hold on athlete selections until they have revised qualification information from all relevant International Federations and revised qualification documents with New Zealand's national sports organisations.