It’s not everyday you find an elite athlete living with their coach. But Tina Ball and Commonwealth Games weightlifting champion David Liti share a unique bond built on years of trust, Ashley Stanley discovers in the Olympic Bonds series.
Tina Ball is meticulous when it comes to planning. She has the next three years sorted.
And rightly so, considering the world record-holding weightlifting coach is guiding Commonwealth Games gold medalist David Liti to the Tokyo Olympics and beyond.
The 2018 Commonwealth Games chap is hoping to inspire the next generation of Auckland youth. (2018 video).
One thing Ball didn’t anticipate when moving to Te Kauwhata, an hour south of Auckland, six years ago was the height of the garage ceiling in the home she and Liti would eventually share. It turned out to be too low for Liti to lift weights in.
“I mean, if I’d thought about that, we would’ve got a bigger roof in there,” laughs Ball.
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Most days, if you’re around their cosy suburban cul-de-sac, you will see Liti, who stands 187cm tall, pop out slightly from their home-made garage gym to lift huge plates of iron. The adjustment doesn’t phase the relaxed 24-year-old, though.
It’s not in his nature. Plus he wholeheartedly trusts Ball and her training regime. As we sit in their lounge, it’s clear to see the trust the pair have built over nearly 10 years as coach and athlete.
In the early stages, when Liti walked into Ball’s gym in Ellerslie at the age of 14, it wasn’t him who she wasn’t initially focused on. For Ball, it was more about creating a fun and safe environment for all the One Tree Hill College students who attended her free training programme.
“That’s what I thought was really important for the new ones coming through,” says Ball.
Liti jumps in and eggs Ball on, adding: “She didn’t really care about us.”
But they both know Liti’s mocking humour is testing the waters to see how far he can push his responses. Ball gently taps his hand, and he refocuses.
It’s not every day you find an elite athlete living in the same house as their coach. But it’s their understanding and trust of one another that’s the key to their successful partnership.
“I trust the programme Tina gives. And I’m willing to do anything she gives me. If it breaks me, it breaks me,” says Liti, who was born in New Zealand, but raised in Tonga until he was 10. “I have to thank my heritage and my genes for making me the way I am.”
“Over the 10 years, we’ve shared lots of moments,” Ball adds. “Our relationship is built on all of those moments that we’ve shared. The highs, the lows, the travels, the different things – and out of that grows a bond.
“For me, the reward is getting David there. It’s not me that wants to go to the Olympics, it’s me that wants to help David achieve his goal. That’s a really powerful and motivating thing for me, it’s part of my purpose.” Ball is also the only female weightlifting coach at an elite level in New Zealand and, she believes, the world.
Ball says there are boundaries to their partnership at certain times.
“Trust isn’t a ‘sometimes’ thing. There are no secrets,” she says. “We are family and I guess David is like an adopted son and I know my family welcomes him as such.” Ball has three sons and five grandchildren: “who get more excited when they see David than when they see me.”
Yet there is a time for clarity within their relationship: “The times when we clearly have coach-athlete hats on.”
Liti’s family is grateful to Ball. “I just kidnapped him,” the coach laughs. “I rang his sister and said ‘I’m taking David home tonight’,” she laughs.
It was the best decision leading into the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. The block of houses the Liti family were staying in at the time were being sold, so the timing worked well.
“You know what I want?” says Ball. “I really want to meet his mum face-to-face. We’ve only chatted on the phone but I really want to meet her in person. I think she would be the most beautiful person.”
Liti’s parents now live in Tonga with two of his sisters. He is the second youngest of 11 children. Liti and Ball plan to visit them in Tonga, but will have to wait until their competition schedule allows.
The 2019 Pacific Games were going to be the opportunity, but the event was moved to Samoa (Liti was the New Zealand flagbearer at that competition).
Liti was open with Ball from the beginning because he could tell she was genuine. “I knew straight away she was the best coach that I could go to,” recalls Liti. “Because it wasn’t me who made the first move, it was Tina. She gave us her time, and she started bringing us food at the gym and stuff.
“She knew that we wouldn’t have eaten and we could go to the gym for free, so from then, I knew.”
Some days Liti would come into the gym and just sleep. There were some who thought the secondary students shouldn’t be allowed back, if they didn’t show up or train.
“But I knew that’s when you had to love them the most,” says Ball. “And some of the other young kids would come in and apologise and say ‘I couldn’t come because I had to look after my siblings’. It was understanding all of that.”
The students would then stay for hours after training and Ball would drop them home afterwards. She lived on the North Shore at the time but would drive to their houses in south Auckland. (Unfortunately Ball’s Ellerslie gym had to close last year due to Covid-19).
It wasn’t until the 2013 weightlifting nationals in Christchurch that Ball started to see something more in Liti.
“David had qualified and so had some of my other young ones,” she says. “Seeing them experience that and seeing David’s focus and determination to give it a go, I knew that what we were working with could be really special, provided he wanted to do it.
“Because I learnt early on in my coaching days that you can’t be someone’s motivation. But what I can do is create a space and environment that makes them want to come.”
Liti says it would be a couple more years before he started to see the possibilities of weightlifting for himself.
By 2017, one year out from the Gold Coast Games, Liti was sure it was the path he wanted to pursue properly.
To keep him going during the years he didn’t enjoy the sport, Liti remembered what people would say when he was younger.
“There was a lot of like, ‘You’re just going to be a little fat kid that ends up being a couch potato’,” Liti says. “All because I was always a bit too chilled, I never really gave much to anything or cared about much and just rolled with everything.
“And I think that’s why a lot of people saw it as I’m lazy. So I was determined to prove people wrong and I knew I was good at it, it didn’t mean I needed to love it.”
But they started to travel more, weightlifting was practical which Liti liked, and he could see he could help more people.
“More people like me,” says Liti. “More Pacific Islanders, just to prove that we can do something. Give us self-worth. Over time, I just learnt that this is me and I had to work at it.”
Winning Commonwealth Games gold was confirmation he had made the right decision. Liti was also recognised with the David Dixon Award for sportsmanship at the Games, after helping injured weightlifting competitor, Lauititi Lui.
Going into the event, Liti was confident he would medal but didn’t know where. Ball on the other hand knew Liti had an “outstanding chance.”
“We were going for gold, we weren’t just going to be on the podium,” Ball says. “I remember saying to him a lot, ‘It’s all in your head, it’s your mind that’s going to get you through this and where we want to be’. So I knew.”
Is it the same feeling heading into Tokyo?
“It’s going to be a big one,” Liti says. “I’m just hoping for the best, really. I can’t really put anything on it because anything can happen on the day. I guess we’ll let you know when we get there.”
Ball, of course, has researched and planned their strategy to a tee. But she keeps the finer details to herself. Liti just needs to focus on his own preparation and performance.
It will be their first Olympics, and neither dreamed they would be in this position when they met.
“It feels like we’ve now officially had a box ticked. For something that we’ve been working hard for, for quite a long time,” says Ball, a member of High Performance Sport New Zealand’s coaching initiative, Te Hāpaitanga. “Because it’s not just been the 18-month qualification period and the Covid period, it’s been a lot longer than that.
“And I think it’s recognition for David, and the work and the determination he’s had to do the day-in and day-out stuff that a lot of people don’t see. I saw this saying once ‘It’s not every four years, it’s everyday’.”
In the moments leading into a lift, Ball is standing in the coaches’ box marked out on the floor. They’re not allowed past that point. “Before he goes on the platform, we’ve got a bit of a rhythm going, communication is clear and key. We have a synergy,” says Ball.
“Because we’ve been there a number of times before. And even though it’s the Olympics, it’s still the bar, it’s still the platform, and it’s still the same weights.”
Liti is calm and focused on trying to get the lift: “There’s no secret to it. It’s just ‘do it’.”
Ball says she’s also thinking about the next call in those big moments. “I’m on game, I feel like I’m lifting the bar with him. I’m sure I share half that weight,” she laughs.
Ball’s pilates and fitness education background also shapes her character and approach. She picked up weightlifting later in life and has seven world gold medals, including an existing world record in the masters 48kg weight division. Her ability to completely understand both roles is powerful.
She’s already looking past Tokyo. The qualification period for the Commonwealth Games next year has started and they’re planning to go to an event in October. If they win the body weight class, it’s a guaranteed spot at the Commonwealth Games. So it’s a massive year, says Ball.
Covid-19 hasn’t affected Liti too much. “I felt like I was still waking up in the morning to train, and still waking up in the afternoons to train,” he laughs.
When Auckland went into lockdown earlier this year, they were safe in Te Kauwhata and went exploring different places locally to train. In Hamilton, they found a crossfit gym, and visited the High Performance Centres in Cambridge and Papamoa. Ball also kept her other weightlifters on the go through classes on Zoom.
The medals in weightlifting are nice, but Liti says he’s wanting to achieve more outside the sport.
He would eventually like to help children back in Tonga and smaller island nations in some way. But his first step would be to get involved with youth in south Auckland.
“What I really want to achieve is breaking the cycle for us Poly kids,” he says. “To have something that can help them become better ‘them’. The main goal is we want to make a change.”
When Ball reflects on what she wants to achieve in her career, it’s also about making a difference. “And to show what’s possible,” she says. “As the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. But you know, you still need to be supported.”
* The Olympic Bonds series highlights Tokyo-bound athletes and a special person who’s helped them to get there. We started the series with shotput legend Dame Valerie Adams and her physio, Lou Johnson; part two featured double gold paddler Lisa Carrington and her coach, Gordon Walker.