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IWF honours Paul Coffa, coach of 540 weightlifters, with place in Hall of Fame

By Brian Oliver

On the day when his athlete Eileen CIKAMATANA (AUS) won a sweep of bronze medals at the IWF World Championships in Bogotá, Paul COFFA (AUS) was officially inducted into the IWF Hall of Fame – after more than 60 years of service to the sport.

The man who is known as “the father figure of weightlifting in the Pacific region”, is the first coach to join the Hall of Fame.

Before Cikamatana competed in the women’s 87kg he was given his award on the platform by Mohamed Jalood, President of the IWF.

Jalood praised Coffa’s huge contribution to the sport as a coach and as general secretary of the Oceania Weightlifting Federation (since 1992) and the Commonwealth Weightlifting Federation (since 2006).

“This is a man who deserves so much respect, for his coaching, for helping to make weightlifting popular throughout Oceania – and for making sure it is a very clean sport,” said Jalood. No weightlifter from Oceania has tested positive in 16 years, Coffa said.

Coffa became a coach in unusual circumstances. “My last tournament as a competitor was in 1965, when I was in my early twenties,” he said. “All three referees judged my first and last attempts in the press a no-lift, and I didn’t make the second one. I was disqualified and I abused the referees for not knowing the rules, so I quit lifting.

“Sadly the three referees passed away, so you can’t question them why they disqualified my press.”

The highlight of his coaching career came at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, where the Australian tuna fisherman Dean Lukin made a huge personal best clean and jerk of 240kg to win gold.

Coffa relived that event in Bogotá yesterday when he met another of the sport’s longest-serving coaches, the American Jim Schmitz, who coached the LA silver medallist Mario Martinez – the last American male weightlifter to win an Olympic medal.

After a successful time as Australia’s national coach, Coffa moved to Nauru – and weightlifting was about to take off around the Pacific islands.

He helped to promote the sport to such an extent that at one point in the late 1990s Nauru – population at the time 9,500 – had more weightlifters registered with the IWF than China.

The big boost came when Marcus Stephen, coached by Coffa, won Nauru’s first gold medal in any sport at the Commonwealth Games in 1994.

“Paul helped to make weightlifting so popular on Nauru that the Cabinet would stop its business to discuss why the split jerk is more effective than the famous Pyrros Dimas push jerk,” said Stephen, who became President of Nauru after he retired from competition.

Stephen, President of the Oceania Weightlifting Federation, described Coffa  as “the father figure of weightlifting in the Pacific region”. He added: “Don’t forget, Lilly (Coffa’s wife) is everything to us as well.”

Paul and Lilly founded the Oceania Weightlifting Institute, which moved around the region and hosted athletes from many Pacific islands, in 2001.

Dika TOUA (PNG), another one of Coffa’s athletes, is attempting to qualify for a record-breaking sixth Olympic Games. She will be 40 when Paris 2024 begins.

Coffa, 80, and his elder brother Sam, chair of the IWF Technical Committee, fell in love with weightlifting while watching athletes train in a hall just down the road from their home in Hawthorn, for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

They emigrated to Australia from Sicily in the early 1950s. The brothers, who have maintained their links with Italy over the years and have trained there and held training camps, were both awarded the highest honour by Italy’s National Olympic Committee, the gold star, in 2018.

Paul Coffa was also awarded an MBE, one of the top honours bestowed in Britain and its Commonwealth nations, and the Australian Sport Medal in 2000.

“Paul has quite literally devoted his life to athletes,” said another of his former athletes, Matthew Curtain, general secretary of British Weight Lifting, who sits on the IWF Executive Board.

Coffa has coached 540 lifters from 15 nations since 1965 and has been responsible for 104 medals,  including 39 golds, at the Commonwealth Games, plus two Olympic medals – it could be three if Cikamatana keeps up her progress – and hundreds more around Oceania. Cikamatana took Coffa’s IWF World Championships medal tally to 27 today.

Asked who was his favourite lifter among those 540, he said, “Robert Kabbas, not just for his medals but for his attitude and his love of the sport.”

Kabbas, who was born in Egypt and emigrated to Australia, won an Olympic silver medal in 1984 and two Commonwealth Games golds.

Coffa has also been the chief organiser of 70 events including the 1993 IWF World Championships in Melbourne and the 2011 IWF Junior World Championships in Malaysia.

When will he finally quit? “When Eileen wins a medal in Paris,” he said.