Samoan champion weightlifter Vaipava Nevo Ioane had a heavy heart when he boarded his flight to Birmingham.
The 34-year-old was carrying a sporting secret he wasn’t sure when or where to reveal.
But even then, something much bigger was on his mind.
On top of the secret he would later reveal to his coach and teammates, his wife was pregnant and would give birth any day.
She had no support back home in Apia.
Nevo had spent his last days on Samoan ground finding a babysitter to look after their three young children for when the newborn would arrive.
The thought of his wife needing him while he was on the other side of the world was nearly too much to bear.
“All I could do was pray,” Nevo said.
On top of the pressure of the secret he was keeping, and the concern for his family, Nevo also knew he had to deliver for his country and his coach, Tuaopepe Jerry Wallwork.
He had to bring home a gold medal.
Coach Jerry believes the Samoan government robbed his weightlifting team by blocking travel to the Tokyo Olympics because of COVID.
He still bristles at the mention of the whole saga.
“We were denied the opportunity to go to the Tokyo Olympics. Our government shut down our borders. We had a realistic chance to win a medal,” he said.
“A missed opportunity like that doesn’t come around many times. So we’re going to Birmingham to make a statement.”
The statement nobody saw coming
With competition in full swing, Nevo easily progressed to the top two for his 67kg weight category.
For gold, he would have to beat 19-year-old Indian lifter Jeremy Lalrinnunga.
“We knew it was going to be tough, especially from the Indian,” coach Jerry said.
“He had a stronger snatch, but we had a stronger jerk.”
Nevo’s second attempt at the snatch was a personal best at 127kg.
His second go at the clean and jerk was a Commonwealth Games record, at 166kg.
Things were looking good, but tight. He would have to go to 174kg to win the gold, and to lift an 8kg increase would be considered akin to a miracle.
“We started with 163kg to secure bronze, then got 166kg to secure silver but we had the job of jumping to 174kg to win gold,” Jerry said.
“It was close but it didn’t pull off.
“But I got to hand it to Nevo, he fought it all the way. From the snatch to the last jerk … it was one of the best performances of his career.”
When Nevo’s 174kg failed jerk crashed to the floor, he missed out on the gold but would take home a silver medal for Samoa.
And then it was time to make a different statement.
While still on the stage, he took off his shoes and placed them neatly together on the lifting platform.
At that moment, his humble white lifting shoes were a totem for a youth spent pushing his body to extremes, of countless injuries, discipline, glory, friends, family, pride — and his great respect for the sport.
Nevo’s secret had been revealed.
I have retired.
He turned to the roaring crowd, bowed and walked off in his socks with tears streaming down his face.
“Nobody knew I was going to do it. But in my mind, I knew this is my last competition. They were all shocked,” Nevo said.
“But it’s been tough for me to continue this career. I must put my family first now.”
Coach Jerry has no idea that his star pupil was calling time on his long career.
“The retirement was a surprise, we didn’t know anything about that,” Jerry said.
“But he’s served his country for quite a few years. He’s married now with four kids, I don’t blame him at all.”
And Nevo had another moving piece of symbolism up his sleeve.
When he came back out for the medal ceremony, he embraced the Indian gold medal winner.
Nevo draped the Samoan “ula fala” he was wearing around Lalrinnunga’s neck.
“It (the ula fala) is special in my culture. It’s about high chiefs, respect for your elders,” Nevo said.
“People who give it see a lot of potential in you. That’s why I gave it to the Indian, to show him my respect. It’s your time now. I’m going to retire, it’s your time to shine.”
Birmingham leaves an indelible mark
Two days before Nevo won the silver medal his wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
They named him Birmingham Jerry Ioane.
Mum and baby are doing well and Nevo will be flying home soon.
Weightlifting is deep-rooted in the Samoan champion.
His father, who passed away last year, introduced him to the sport when Nevo was 10 years old.
Nevo finds it hard to imagine a future without weightlifting, and thinks he’ll continue in coaching and development for Samoa.
Jerry’s Samoan squad has more medal hopefuls in it.
The last of the weightlifting will be wrapped up by Friday of week two of the games.
“It’s been a long journey for me. I’m going to miss the sport, my friends, my friends from other countries in every comp I go to,” he said.
“I wish them all the best luck for the future.”