IF omens were anything to go by, the Victorian weightlifting team could have been in for a rough weekend at the recent national age championships in Sydney.
Driving up to the event on the Friday, their bus conked out 70km north of Gundagai and the young lifters were stranded for hours while arrangements were made to help them reach their destination in time for the titles that weekend.
“We ended up getting there at midnight,” says California Gully teenager Raelene Eckardt, who was representing her state at nationals for the third year in a row.
She finally made it after being driven to nearby Yass in a police highway patrol car, then catching a taxi with the other girls in her team the 250-plus kilometres to Sydney.
The rest of the Victorian en- tourage arrived around 4 o’clock in the morning.
Such an eventful trip, combined with worry about her recent form in the clean-and-jerk, left Raelene feeling unusually nervous and slightly superstitious ahead of her competition.
“I woke up feeling like I was going to throw up and I almost started crying because I was so nervous, and I’m usually not like that,” the 17-year-old says.
“I had nothing lucky with me – no lucky underwear and no lucky socks because I don’t own anything like that – so I went to a service station next door to our hotel beforehand and bought a lucky red toy car and a lucky Angry Birds bag clip because I needed some good luck.
“Then, when I walked out of the servo after buying my lucky things, there was a four-car pile-up right in front of me. I was like, ‘Come on’.”
Fortunately for Raelene, weight- lifting is much more about good technique, physical and mental strength and a solid preparation than it is about luck.
When she regained her composure and focused on the job at hand, she lifted her way to the silver medal in the Australian youth 69kg-plus division.
Her performance at Sydney’s Olympic park on October 7 included a new personal best of 55kg in the snatch, breaking the Victorian youth record in the process.
Raelene also cleared 65kg in the clean-and-jerk for a total of 120kg, helping her four-member Victorian youth women’s team take out the Australian teams shield.
The result was even more satisfying given she had spent six months out of the sport suffering from excruciating pain in her left hand that required surgery.
“I had a benign tumour in the blood vessels of my wrist that had apparently been there since birth, which they ended up removing,” Raelene says.
“It started hurting around this time last year and I couldn’t train because of the pain.
“I had the operation in mid-March and after that it took a couple of months to get back to lifting again, being able to start with just the bar and no weights at all.”
Raelene says it was a frustrating period, but one that reinforced her love of the sport.
“It was annoying because I just wanted to get out and lift but obviously I couldn’t because I had to let it heal and then get the strength back up.
“When I went to competitions to watch dad lift, I just wanted to run up there and do it too.
“But I took it all as a positive thing that helped me realise just how much I loved the sport and how much I missed it when I wasn’t doing it.
“Also lifting with my dad, it made me realise how much I love spending time with him.”
Even though she couldn’t lift during her recovery, Raelene didn’t drop her focus completely.
“I made sure I watched what I ate so I didn’t put on too much weight, I walked every day and did stretching to keep up my flexibility.
“You do get a bit lazy though, and it has taken a bit more work to get back to where I was before the operation.”
Raelene says she has learnt a lot about weightlifting – and about herself – since she took up the sport at the suggestion of father Rohan three years ago.
“I have learnt a lot about the composure you need, as well as how to win and lose and not to get too disappointed if you don’t win and instead be proud of getting PBs.
“Most of all, I have realised you have got to balance all the things in your life.
“Doing year 12 this year, I’ve had to balance my studying, lifting and everything else.
“But having the discipline you need in the sport helps you in life as well – the respect you need for your coaches helps you portray that towards your teachers and other people also.”
She says her sport is growing in popularity among girls, especially now female weightlifting is included in the Olympic program, making its debut in London this year.
“At my first national championship, I was the only female in the Victorian team lifting and this year there were six.
“Now that there is female weightlifting in the Olympics, girls can be inspired to aim high: to think that if those people can do it, maybe they can too.”
Raelene is coached by Martin Leach, who helped guide Australia’s Olympic lifters in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000.
She’d love to one day join the ranks of those elite international competitors.
“I’d hopefully like to get to the Commonwealth Games or Olympics, though probably not any time soon.
“The Commonwealth Games are on the Gold Coast in about six years, so maybe there. Or if not, I’ll just keep working up and try to get there at some point. We’ll see what happens.
“You don’t know what can achieve until you try. If you put your mind to something, then you can often achieve it.
“I have put a fair bit into this sport and I realise where I want to go. I want to put absolutely everything I can into it now, to see just where it takes me.”
The Bendigo Senior Secondary College student trains three nights a week, mostly in the garage of her home that has been transformed into a well-fitted-out gym, complete with weights, bars, squat racks and rubber-backed lifting platform.
“It’s a pretty good set-up,” she says, “I only have to walk one minute out to the garage and I can lift away for a couple of hours!”
With her next competition on December 1, Raelene is working extra hard to improve her clean technique, which has been troubling her since her comeback from injury.
“I’ve just got to get under the bar because when you, clean you have to pull yourself under it and I’ve been struggling to do that, to get in that bottom squat position and stand up.”
And at the end of the day, she just wants to know that she has given her all.
“It’s not all about winning or getting medals, though I have to admit they are nice.
“But if I can get PBs, or my technique is good on the day, then I’m happy with that. If I can walk away feeling happy with my performance, that is satisfaction enough for me.”
As for future weightlifting omens, Raelene reckons she’s got that covered and from now on, luck should be well and truly on her side.
“That red toy car I bought now sits in my weightlifting bag and the Angry Birds clip is attached to the bag so I’ll have some sort of luck,” she laughs.
“Now I just need to try to find some lucky underwear and we’ll be right!”