You probably already know Damon Kelly. But, chances are, you know him simply as Damo.
Damo is a legend of Australian Weightlifting. A two-time Olympian and four-time Commonwealth Games athlete — where he has won a full swag of medals including a bronze, a silver and a gold —he is one of the most decorated male weightlifters in Australia’s recent history.
If you ever got to watch Damo lift, you’d know he was an imposing figure, walking out onto the platform 6 foot tall and weighing about 150kg. Every time he stepped onto the platform, people stopped and stared. Damo’s classic kick of the bar before every lift and roar after making an important lift soon became his trademark.
Damo started lifting at the age of 14 at his school before being sent on to Cougars Weightlifting Club where he met his long-term coach Miles Wydall. They built their relationship over the course of 19 years.
“I went down to give it a go and enjoyed it. Probably after about 6 or so months, Mike [the coach at his school] could see the potential I had and suggested I go out to Cougars and do a bit more training a couple times a week. That’s where I met Miles, and the rest is history,” he explains to The Weightlifting Platform.
“He started at Cougars and he was very rough on the technique … [Weightlifting] was just something he did a bit in his rugby off season,” Miles explains.
“When I first did [weightlifting], I guess I didn’t really do it to win the Commonwealth Games and go to an Olympics. I initially did it because I enjoyed it and found the competition fun,” Damo says.
Damo made his first Junior Worlds team at the age of 18 and that one event inspired him to push for more internationals and it snowballed from there.
He had such a supportive family, in particular his mum. “Distinctly I remember his mum used to sit in the car park while he trained for hours,” Miles says.
Growing up, Damo had a lot of competition in the super heavyweight division with the likes of Chris Rae and Corran Hocking. This meant that he flew under the radar for years. Damo’s work ethic and ability to just grind without needing the spotlight was possibly his biggest strength and is what enabled him to become one of the best supers in Australia’s modern history.
Damo’s run for the 2008 Olympic games where he finished 9th in the 105+ category was a battle for the history books.
Corran Hocking vs Ben Turner vs Damon Kelly. Both Ben and Damo were coached by Miles and it couldn’t have gone much better for Damo on the day.
There was only one spot up for grabs in each male and female divisions in Australia, and the lifter selected was selected over the course of four competitions. It was pretty simple: the athlete to lift the most weight over their categories’ A-grade standard got the spot.
It all came down to the final competition, the 2008 Olympic Nomination Trials, that were held at the Victorian Stadium.
“We all snatched what we could and then it came down to the clean & jerk. By the time I started my clean & jerk there were only a couple lifters left. I secured the opener to get a total and settled down and the second lift was for the Olympic slot.”
And he made it. To put it in perspective, 222kg was not only a PB clean & jerk, it would also give Damo a Commonwealth Record total by 5kg, thus locking up his spot at the Olympics.
The scores were based on the lifters percentage of the A-grade standard at the time. When it was all said and done, Damo edged out Ben by only 0.07%.
Damo’s coach Miles explains what it felt like to stand next to the platform that day. “I distinctly remember so well, my first thought was, ‘F*** I don’t want to make a mistake on what Damo needs to win, we must have recalculated it and five times, we didn’t want to send him out on the wrong number. But then also, nobody had beaten Ben and it was either Ben or Damo were going to go [to the Olympics]. I realised in my own mind that I was going to have my first Olympic athlete. There were just tears rolling down my face. I remember just slapping Damo in the back before he went out and I was just so emotional.”
The 2010 Commonwealth Games was one of Damo’s biggest achievements, taking home the gold. He went to the games in a very good position but had to meet his established rival Itte Detenamo from Nauru.
Damo snatched superbly, which likely got into Itte’s head — so much so Itte nearly bombed his clean & jerks. Damo came out on his second attempt and was able to secure the gold with an enormous 221kg clean & jerk.
Being in the sport for 20 years can take a toll on an athlete but Damo puts his longevity down to his team as well as the pure enjoyment he gets from just lifting in comps, whether it was just a local comp or an international.
The training environment was electric at Cougars with Damo, Ben Turner, Troy Hewkins, Erika Yamasaki and other top lifters all training and putting up some incredible weights.
“We were fortunate to have a really good training group to train with,” Damo says. “The gym became a bit of a community and being involved in that definitely kept you going.”
Even though Damo has hung up his lifters, retiring from the professional game,, weightlifting will be in his blood for life.
“I still daydream and think about comps and weights you’re going to select and go for… I go through a few scenarios, winning olympic golds and stuff like that.”
Damo is a coach now and not many people can say they have competed in an Olympic games as well as coached someone at one, too. Damo’s athlete Matthew Lydement is in a great spot to clinch a spot for the now 2021 Olympic Games. If everything goes well, Damo won’t just be an Olympic athlete, he would also coach an Olympic athlete.
He and his coach continually joke about his return to weightlifting training. Given how deep weightlifting runs for Damon Kelly, we wouldn’t be surprised to see him back out on the platform one day (just for a bit of fun of course!). But for now he will forge on in the back room, helping the next generation of champions.