Masters Games: Weightlifter Tony Ebert's closest rival under own roof

By Grant Chapman

As an architect of New Zealand's golden age of weightlifting, Tony Ebert became a household name, snatching (and cleaning and jerking) a gold medal at the 1974 Commonwealth Games.

But there has been precious little of that precious metal in the Ebert trophy cabinet of late ... at least, not on Tony's shelf.

He knows he needs to rectify that at this month's World Masters Games in Auckland or endure even more ribbing from world champion wife Jennifer.

"I've competed in about four or five now, and I've never won a masters world championship," reflects Tony, 70, forlornly. "But my wife was won three, so I'm really sick of playing second fiddle.

"This time, I need to be evening the score. I think we both have the capacity to win, if we lift well, but it would be nice to stop the harassment from my mates too."

The couple has been married more than 40 years and although Jennifer, 69, is a natural athlete in her own right, she only took up weightlifting in the past decade.

"Probably, if we hadn't had a family so quickly, she would have competed earlier, but it was a little bit difficult to juggle family life and two seriously competing international athletes, so it didn't happen," Tony admits.

"She's taken revenge lately though - it's not very nice carrying the bags."

1974 Commonwealth Games weightlifting gold medalist Tony Ebert training for World Masters Games in Auckland. Photo/Brett Phibbs
1974 Commonwealth Games weightlifting gold medalist Tony Ebert training for World Masters Games in Auckland. Photo/Brett Phibbs

It's a far cry from those archive television images of Ebert's vein-popping middleweight triumph in Christchurch all those years ago.

He and super heavyweight training buddy Graham May captured the hearts of a nation with their victories, part of a ground-breaking seven-medal haul by the Kiwi lifters. If you're of that generation, you'll certainly remember the drama of May, now deceased, face-planting into the stage of the James Hay Theatre - one of the original "Minties Moments".

"It was just incredibly exciting," recalls Ebert. "It was the birth of our sport, really, and we have done very, very well since then, as a minor sport in New Zealand."

Having won a silver medal at Edinburgh four years earlier, Ebert entered the competition a warm favourite on home turf, but had over-trained and also had to sweat off 7kg in the sauna to make the 75kg weight limit.

He was fried and found himself trailing Australian rival John Waterworth halfway through.

"I wasn't in a good position after the snatch, but because I had beaten him five times before, he probably thought I would out-clear-and-jerk him, as I had previously.

"Believe me, on that night, I wouldn't have been able to, so I started reasonably light. He was so afraid I was going to beat him with a big lift that he missed his three attempts at a weight much higher than he needed ... I completed mine and won.

"In weightlifting, it's all mind games. It's easy for anyone to get strong, just as it's easy for any rugby player to get physically fit by running, but then it comes down to what happens under pressure."

The following year, Ebert and May starred with Soviet world champions David Rigert and Vasily Alekseyev at the NZ Games, televised in full colour for the first time.

But after losing his Commonwealth title in Edmonton 1978, Ebert retired and continued his involvement through coaching and administration. He is still a national selector for the current crop of athletes.

And he continued to lift.

"I think that's the very exciting thing about Masters. It is an opportunity for people in their older years to really enjoy the competitiveness of serious competition, and then the camaraderie afterwards, without feeling like all the world is on your shoulders, if you don't win a gold medal.

"When you're a young athlete, man, that pressure is incredible. At least, at the Masters, you can share a beer afterwards, talk about what a great competition it was and catch up with old mates."

For many Masters Games entrants, the biggest challenge will be a mental one - somehow setting aside the feats of their prime to enjoy another side of sport.

"If I'm lifting at my best, I can lift about 60% of what I could when I was 24-25," assesses Ebert. "Athletes in all sports find that hard to come to terms with.

"They think 'why would I do something that's half of what I could do as a young athlete?', but I think that sports have a lot more to offer.

"Firstly, it relieves mental stress, if you're in business, and it also maintains your health. Thirdly, it's a great friendship connection with no age barriers - I often train with 15-16-year-old athletes."

In the gym, under the eye of 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games champion Richie Patterson, the chemistry between Tony and Jennifer is equal parts encouraging and demanding.

Even a wily master like Ebert admits there's always more to learn - something about old dog, new tricks - and there's no telling who will provide that key piece of intelligence that will lead to improvement.

His intense focus is like an updated, more venerable version of those scratchy images from a bygone era. The competitive fire is still there, but now in living colour.

"I think It will be harder for him to win," says Jennifer, weighing up their respective chances of success. "Some of the athletes he's up against are still in magnificent shape and are still lifting some big weights."

Hubby echoes that assessment.

"There are quite a few [opponents] and it will be hard," says Tony. "But I've always been reasonably confident of performing well, so if the question is 'can I win?', the answer is 'yes, I can'."

Win or lose, there is one sure bet - Ebert will be found enjoying a nice glass of wine afterwards, perhaps another departure from those halcyon days.

"You're allowed one pinot noir a week, because that is the only alcohol that doesn't reduce testosterone," he informs. "That's important, if you want to have a bit of get up and go."

Brilliant ... sports science at its most convenient.

The 2017 World Masters Games weightlifting competition runs from April 22-29 at the AUT Millennium, Mairangi Bay.

TONY EBERT
Weightlifting
Age 70

1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games - silver medal
1972 Munich Olympics - 17th
1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games - gold medal
1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games - ninth

- NZ Herald

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