New Zealand won 46 medals in 12 sports at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. In addition, others like 15-year-old gymnast Stella Ashcroft and para swimmer Jesse Reynolds did all that could have been expected of them and more.
All 251 athletes who travelled to the Gold Coast had trained hard, prepared as best they could and arrived with hope in their hearts. It didn’t turn out well for all of them, but’s the nature of top sport. For one person to win, everyone else in that event must lose.
Here are my reflections on the New Zealanders who made the biggest impression on me during the Games:
Women’s hockey team. Having lived through the heartbreak the team has endured since 2010, including several shootout defeats in critical matches and medals being taken away at the last moment, the gold medal this time was incredibly warming to watch. Coach Mark Hager and captain Stacey Michelsen were survivors from the Delhi nightmare eight years ago, when Australia deprived New Zealand of the gold medal on a penalty stroke shootout.
They, and other senior members like Anita McLaren (nee Punt), deserved their moment of glory. And didn’t they earn it, with a shootout victory over England in the semi-finals and a clinical 4-1 defeat of Australia in the final.
Jake Robertson, athletics. Because the Robertson brothers, Jake and Zane, have been based in Kenya for the best part of a decade, they are not well-known to most New Zealanders. They don’t often compete at home. But what distance runners they are – between them they hold nearly every men’s national distance running record. Jake claimed one on the Gold Coast when he finished fifth in the 10,000m in 27min 30min 90s, a national record. The mark he broke was brother Zane’s, and it put in the shade the best marks of Robbie Johnson, Dick Tayler, Dick Quax and the rest of them. Robertson was superb. He was with the leaders until the final two laps, when the lead Africans just had too much pace for him. But he never wilted and even finished with a surge.
Sam Gaze, mountain bike. Gaze’s final lap of the mountain bike race will live long in the memory. He and team-mate Anton Cooper, the defending champion, looked set to battle for the gold. Then Gaze punctured, lost the best part of half a minute and dropped to third with Cooper far in the distance. Riding with barely disguised fury, Gaze set off after Alan Hatherly of South Africa and whizzed past him. Then he went after Cooper, tearing up hills, smashing his way down the rocks and stones, his face grimly determined. Just before the end he got on Cooper’s wheel, gathered himself and, forced to the extreme right of the course, amongst the foliage, he pounded past and into the lead. It was a gold medal won the hard way, but they’re the best.
Jo Edwards, bowls. It wasn’t the happiest of Games for our bowlers, with just two medals and a lot of near misses. Edwards, the defending singles champion, endured the undulations of good games and bad to squeeze into the semi-finals. At one point it seemed she would miss out but she won two clutch final pool matches against Katherine Rednall and Liticia Tikoisuva and got into the semis. Even then it wasn’t smooth sailing, but Edwards bowled her best at times of crisis and at the end of it all, she was the last woman standing.
Stella Ashcroft, artistic gymnastics. Only 15 and in her first competition as a senior, Ashcroft did all that could be asked and more. In the individual all-round she finished 13th. Competing in front of a big crowd in the night finals session, McCartney showed a temperament far beyond her years.
Lewis Clareburt, swimming. The 18-year-old Wellington was a virtual unknown outside close followers of his sport before the Games, but he rose to the occasion like a champion. Clareburt peeled off a succession of personal bests, which is all that a swimmer can really aim for at a Games. At the end of it all, he had a bronze medal in the 400m individual medley, and was seventh in the 200m individual medley and the 200m butterfly and had made a whole host of admirers.
Joelle King, squash. A case could be made that the squash star was New Zealand’s hardest worker on the Gold Coast. She competed on every day of the games, and played 16 matches. She had to work hard in the singles, beating the legendary Nicol David in the semi-finals and feisty Englishwoman Sarah-Jane Perry in a five-game final. Then it was straight in the doubles. She and Amanda Landers-Murphy got better and better and were deserved gold medallists. King and Paul Coll took the mixed doubles bronze, picking themselves up after a semi-final defeat. King has now won six Games medals, stretching back to Delhi in 2010.
David Liti, weightlifting. The 165kg man mountain made a whole host of friends on the Gold Coast. They appreciated his sportsmanship and obvious friendliness – not for nothing was he awarded the David Dixon aware for Sportsmanship and performance by the Commonwealth Games Federation. Oh, and by the way, he won the gold medal too!
David Nyika, boxing. Nyika was just 18 when he won the light-heavyweight gold medal at Glasgow four years ago. A lot has happened to him since and as he said, he had had some obstacles to overcome. He moved up to the 91kg heavyweight division, dyed his hair gold and prepared to face the Commonwealth’s best. Nyika won a torrid semi-final against Englishman Cheavon Clark, being pushed right to the limit. In the final he turned on a wonderful display of movement, timing and precision punching to outclass Australian Jason Whateley. He looked the complete boxer. Not surprisingly he mentioned he was now contemplating a move to the pro ranks.
Charlisse Leger-Walker, basketball. It seems unfair to single out one player of the bronze medal-winning women’s basketball team. After all, Micaela Cocks, for example, was a towering presence in the lineup. However, Leger-Walker, the daughter of a basketball great and only 16, played with maturity way beyond her age. She shot well, never flagged and stepped up to international stands as if born to it, which of course she was. She even handled the media with the aplomb of a veteran. Remember her name.
Portia Woodman, sevens rugby. The New Zealand sevens teams played above themselves, beating the two Olympic gold medallists to claim both Commonwealth Games crowns. The men won a tough semi-final against England, then played with clinical discipline to keep Fiji scoreless in the final. The women had the job ahead of them against the dynamic Australians, but began brilliantly, jetting to 12-0 at halftime. They eventually won 17-12 in extra time after a memorable sole try-scoring effort by Kelly Brazier. Pushed to pick one player, I go with Portia Woodman, who scored tries in every match and led the entire tournament for try-scoring, with eight. Woodman has transcended rugby. She is a famous New Zealand sportswoman and is on the brink of going beyond that level and becoming a national identity, with the “sport” caveat.
Sam Webster, cycling. There are so many track cyclists who deserve a mention – Eddie Dawkins, Ethan Mitchell, Natasha Hansen and the rest of them. But for me, it’s hard to go past Sam Webster. Against genuinely world-class opposition, he achieved the “double-double” - the gold medals in the individual and team sprint events for the second successive Games. In the frantic finish to the sprint, things happen incredibly fast, yet Webster always seemed composed and always had the answer. He won the individual sprint without even losing a race. Truly a track champion.
Alana Barber, racewalk. The diminutive Auckland walker handled heat and humidity well and won the silver medal in the women’s 20km walk. She balanced perfectly her desire to go faster with her knowledge that she had to last the distance. I loved her comment in the after-race media conference: “There was a spectator I didn’t know and every time I walked past him, he’d shout, ‘You’ve got to keep going’. She was right and I did.”
So that’s it from me. There were so many other memorable New Zealand performances – all these words and not a mention of shot put Tom Walsh, Sophie Pascoe, flag-bearer and double gold medallist, athletes Dame Valerie Adams and Eliza McCartney, Georgia Williams in the women’s cycling road race, the human Energizer battery Paul Coll in the squash. I apologise, but it’s just a personal reflection and the people I’ve singled out made the biggest impression me on the Gold Coast.
Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games David Liti Jo Edwards David Nyika