Home Articles Winds of change: an interview with weightlifting trailblazer Sam Coffa

Winds of change: an interview with weightlifting trailblazer Sam Coffa

by theweightliftingplatform

This is the first in a two-part series on Sam Coffa. Stay tuned to The Weightlifting Platform for part two next Monday.

Sam Coffa has been in and around weightlifting his entire life. In 1951, as a teenager, Sam migrated to Australia from Italy. Shortly after, he joined the Hawthorn youth club. The problem, though, was Sam didn’t know which sport to get involved in. He was shorter than a lot of other boys his age, so he felt his options were limited.

“All I knew was soccer because that was what was played in our village [but] when I arrived in Hawthorn I took one look in the mirror and thought to myself, you’ll never make it as a soccer player.”

So young Sam looked for sports that would be complemented by his smaller stature. After dabbling in several sports, Sam came across some weights in the corner of the youth club. On impulse, he started doing some curls with an iron bar with big 40lb weights on either side, which, he recalls while speaking to The Weightlifting Platform, “were bloody hard to just get on [the bar]”. 

But he was hooked. Sam started reading books on weightlifting, trying to wrap his head around the theory. Then it was time to get his hands dirty (or should we say “chalky”?) with some practice. Sam asked if he could lay down a couple of mats on the youth club’s basketball court where he could conduct his own weightlifting sessions and teach himself to snatch. The youth club agreed. This is where it all started. And, 68 years later, this is where it remains, as the Hawthorn Weightlifting Club we know today.

After also experimenting with other strength sports like powerlifting, wrestling and bodybuilding, it was, ultimately, weightlifting that won Sam’s heart and mind. He pursued weightlifting with such passion he eventually made it the Olympics, competing at Tokyo in 1964. (And don’t forget that this was back when there were still three lifts within the competition — the clean & press, the snatch, and the clean & jerk). 

Although Sam was a great strength athlete, he always had a passion for the administrative side of the sport and politics. So he decided to pursue a role on the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) board. “I entered the international sphere in 1993 and I went to my first World Championship. I was put on the jury,” Sam tells TWP. “I’ve always been a technically minded person. I always believed that the technical side of the sport is what I aspired to.”

At the 1993 World Championships, Sam sat next to the IWF president, Gottfried Schodl, while on the jury. Sam got to know Gottfried very well over the years, not only as a teacher but also a good friend. “He was a huge mentor to me. Really, I learned so much, he was the doyen for me.”

After becoming President of the Australian Weightlifting Federation (AWF) (for the first time) in 1983 Sam was nominated for a role on the IWF technical committee and got elected. 

“Once I reached [the technical committee] there were so many changes I wanted to see happen but the committee was formed by people from eastern Europe,” Sam says. “Every time I said something, the chairperson would say that ‘we don’t want to change the rules’.” 

“So I said ‘that is no bloody good!’”

Sam was determined to see change. He started to climb rapidly up the ladder. Over the course of a few terms, he moved into a vice-president role (5th VP), then he became 3rd VP, and finally he was elected to be the 1st vice-president and chair of the Technical Officials Committee.

This is where Sam started to make some big changes to the sport, such as heading the push to allow women to compete in the Olympics. He also fought for the 1kg increment rule, and to introduce a weightlifting leotard that would allow Muslim people to compete. Of course, one of his most memorable changes was “Sam’s Lunch Box”.

Sam’s Lunch Box was an invention designed to make the jury stay awake and focused during competition. It essentially gave the jury a red-light/white-light system like the judges had, so the jury had to press a button and record each attempt. Sam took “Sam’s Lunch Box” to each world championships from then on. By this point, Sam had well and truly left his mark on the sport. “Sam’s Lunch Box” lead to an important rule change which allowed the jury to overturn referee decisions during the competition.

Sam has an entire host of achievements in and out of the sporting world that is too long to list them all.

President of AWF
1st Vice President of the IWF
Chair of the IWF technical committee
President of the Commonwealth Games Federation
Sports Australia Hall of Fame
And many more.

Sam has recently been appointed the President of the AWF once again and plan to make some important changes and steps forward in the right direction. 

Next week read about those changes and the direction Sam sees the AWF heading in our part 2.

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