Nigel Avery, born in 1967, arrived on the national sports scene as a track and field athlete, a shot putter and, more impressively, as a triple jumper. His family was heavily involved in athletes – his father, Graeme, was a key official in the East Coast Bays club - and Nigel was soon winning titles and setting records. He was the New Zealand under-18 record-holder, three-time under-20 title-holder and, in 1989 and 1990, the New Zealand senior champion. He weighed 86kg at that point.
After injury cut short his athletics career, Avery turned to the bobsleigh. He narrowly missed representing New Zealand at the 1994 Winter Olympics, and was in the national squad from 1991-96. He was 91kg then.
Then Avery set his sights on a career as a weightlifter and beefed up to more than 120kg.
In 1996, when he was training for the bobsleigh, he got talking to a group of weightlifters in the gym. Avery decided that the sport appealed to him and just a year later was lifting for New Zealand. “At the time I thought it would be nice to do something competitive over the winter and then go back to bobsleigh during our summer,” he said. “I did pretty well at weightlifting, and then they said I could make the Commonwealth Games.
“Previously, the thought of weightlifting had done nothing for me. I watched the weightlifting at the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games and thought, ‘Who’d ever want to do that?’”
At the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games – which Auckland super-heavyweight lifter Darren Liddel dominated with three gold medals – Avery was still a novice. However, he picked up bronze medals in the 105kg class for the snatch and the total, and was fourth in the clean and jerk. He was some distance behind the champion, Akos Sandor of Canada, but his potential was obvious.
After that he got really serious about his lifting. “I wasn’t going to muck around being 107kg, so I started eating a lot to put on weight,” he said. Among the big boys class he was still pint-sized - some of them tipped the scales at more than 150kg.
But, he said, one of the appeals of weightlifting was competing against yourself. “It’s really mind over matter because at some point in the competition you know you are going to attempt something you have never lifted before,” he said.
The super-heavyweight weightlifter is often the big man on a Games team – for New Zealand, think Harold Cleghorn, Don Oliver, Graham May and Liddel - and Nigel Avery certainly fitted that description by the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games.
Not only was Avery physically big, but he was big in performance and had the sort of personality that inspired others.
At Sydney, Avery squared off with the giants of his sport in the 105+ category and lifted outstandingly.
He finished 17th with three personal bests and three Commonwealth records. He was way behind superhuman Iranian Hossein Rezazadeh, who totalled a scarcely believable 472.5kg for the gold, but still exceeded his own expectations.
Avery was down to start the snatch with a 157.5kg lift, but he said he felt so good that he went up to 162.5kg. He then lifted 167.5kg and finished with 172.5kg to smash his own New Zealand and Commonwealth record by 2.5kg.
In the clean and jerk, Avery again went higher than anticipated, starting with 200kg, followed by 205kg and finally 210kg to beat Liddel’s record of 207.5kg.
Avery’s total of 382.5kg added 15kg to the Commonwealth record held by Britain’s Giles Greenwood.
“I was relatively confident; my training was going really well. I was really strong and fast,” said the Auckland accountant. “It was one of those magical things. You just feel like you can lift anything.”
He continued to improve. At the Oceania championships in Fiji in 2002, he set New Zealand records for the snatch (175kg), clean and jerk (225kg) and total (400kg).
By the time of the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games he was ranked first in the Commonwealth in the clean and jerk and second in the snatch, and there was a bit of pressure on him to repeat Liddel’s 1998 heroics.
“I try to keep it low-key,” he said. “The way I look at it, I’m really competing against myself, and try not to worry about the opposition. There’s no way you can slacken off. I quite enjoy that and thrive on it. My goal is to achieve a personal best in every major competition.”
In a sport in which lifters tend to weight themselves about three times a day, he said he tried not to dwell too much on his weight. “I don’t follow a particular diet, and don’t concentrate on either shedding weight or building up. If you do, it gets into your head.”
At Manchester Avery dominated the 105+kg division, winning two golds and a silver. He hoisted a total of 390kg, including a Games record 215kg in the clean and jerk, to win double gold. Earlier he claimed finished second in the snatch – beaten by Giles Greenwood of England.
“These events only come around every two or four years and not many of us get to stand on top of a dais. I’m so proud to do it for New Zealand,” Avery said. He was given the honour of carrying the New Zealand flag in the closing ceremony.
The big Aucklander retired afterwards.
“It’s a good time to make a change and look forward to different things in life,” he said. “But it was also a very hard decision to make. Every second person would say to me ‘you have to carry on’ and then the next person would say ‘it’s a great time to retire’.”
Avery said his body was sending him messages.
“I will quite enjoy getting out of bed without my knees and back screaming at me,” he said.
The grind of having seven or eight meals a day was another thing he would not miss about competing. “It started getting to a point where you became sick of eating and were perpetually full. I would look at my watch and go, ‘Oh no, it’s time for another meal’, but I wouldn’t be really hungry and I would still be full from lunch.”
Afterwards Avery stayed in touch with sport in several ways, including as a sports commentator for Television New Zealand.
He was general manager of sport at the Millennium Institute for several years until in 2008 he moved to Hawke’s Bay to manage the Sileni Estates winery. He eventually became Sileni’s general manager for New Zealand and Asia.