Darren Liddel shone only briefly of the New Zealand sports landscape, but he was brilliant when he was at his peak. The giant Aucklander won three weightlifting gold medals in the superheavyweight division at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games, smashing three Commonwealth Games records along the way. Liddell, who weighed in at 137.35kg, won the snatch with his third lift of 165kg, and followed it up with a 202.5kg record lift in the clean and jerk for his second gold medal. The 27-year-old achieved a total of 367.5kg for his third gold medal and third record. His nearest rivals were Australian Christopher Rae who managed 352.5kg and Englishman Giles Greenwood with 352.5kg. Liddel became only the third New Zealander, behind Yvette Williams in 1954 and Gary Anderson in 1990, to win three golds in one Commonwealth Games. Liddel was born in Colchester, England, in 1971, and moved to New Zealand at the age of four with parents Ian and Wendy. As a youngster, he played soccer and a little bit of touch rugby. When he started Rutherford High School in west Auckland, he weighed 75kg and thought he’d join a weightlifting group guided by 1974 Commonwealth Games heavyweight bronze medal winner Rory Barrett. “I tried to get into the team at Rutherford College, but was declined because I was told by a teacher I was too fat and inflexible. I just kept begging him to have a go and finally got in.” He was soon hooked on his new sport. He only ever took one year off weightlifting, in 1989. The following year’s Commonwealth Games in Auckland rekindled his interest and he joined the Youth Town club, where his coach, Doug McConnell, was the managing director and volunteer coach. Liddel progressed very well, winning his first national titles in the 110+kg class in 1990 and 1991. The divisions changed after that and he won more national titles in the 108+kg class in 1993, 94, 95 and 97. The Aucklander attended the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games, where he finished fourth, though still a fair way from the medals, in the 108+kg division. A right wrist injury, sustained in training in 1995, caused him all sorts of problems – two operations and several cortisone injections – and though he handled it well enough to enjoy his spectacular day in Kuala Lumpur, it eventually hastened his retirement. Liddel said he wasn't surprised by his Commonwealth Games success, but credited a lot of it to a new training routine he began six months earlier. He’d been ranked 26th after the 1997 world championships, despite suffering a severe illness the day before he left for the event.
Then he upped his training. “I started training twice a day, which made a lot of difference,” he said. “And then a few weeks before the Games, my employer gave me time off and I was able to work out fulltime.” Even with increased training, Liddel's build-up to Kuala Lumpur wasn't ideal. He struggled for consistency, pulling off a good snatch one week, a solid clean and jerk the next, but seldom combining the two. As a result, his ranking scores were well below his potential, which caught his opponents unaware at Kuala Lumpur. “I was talking to one of the English competitors afterwards,” said Liddel. “He was saying ‘Where were the 155kg and 190kg scores?’ He couldn't believe what I was lifting.” Liddel returned from Kuala Lumpur a sports celebrity. He’d been given the honour of carrying the flag and leading the New Zealand team into the closing ceremony and on his return home, was accorded a tickertape ride through Te Atatu. He was a popular winner, signing countless autographs and posing for photos endlessly. “When I went to the Games I didn't expect to become New Zealand star, as some people have called me. It's a good feeling.” Liddel was working as an engineer for an Auckland plastic company and still living at home in 1998, thriving on his mother’s cooking. He produced a New Zealand clean and jerk record to finish ninth in the 105+kg section at the world championships in Lahti, Finland, in 1998. He was tied for 14th after a disappointing 155kg snatch lift. Then a big clean and jerk effort of 207.5kg enabled him to win the B final, for positions nine to 16, with a total of 362.5kg. After that, his world fell apart. His father, to whom he was very close, died in 1999. Five months later his coach, Doug McConnell, died of cancer. Then his wrist injury flared up and he was forced to retire, when he’d been hoping for a good showing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “I’m very sad,” he said. “I don't think I reached my full potential. Not being able to reach those goals was disheartening.” Then in 2006, more bad luck. He was struck down with the potentially lethal skin infection cellulitis, and was admitted to North Shore Hospital. “It's a form of blood poisoning. If it's left unattended it can be fatal. Doctors reckon it started as an infected hematoma. “I had a jet ski accident in July 2004. I hit a freak wave and I was thrown up into the air and came crashing down on the ski. And my left hand shin swelled up with cellulitis and then I got it again a few months later.”