Twenty years in the making, Wonnarua man, Brandon Wakeling, is set to become just the second Indigenous Australian weightlifter to compete at an Olympic Games.
The first, Anthony Martin, competed at Sydney 2000 when Wakeling was just six years old.
Coincidentally, young Wakeling also held the Olympic torch during those Games but has now come full circle, making his Olympic debut in just over one month.
Originally a rugby league player, Wakeling’s weightlifting journey started out as a way of keeping him fit for the upcoming footy season, but before long, he found himself enjoying his gym training more than playing football.
“I played rugby league for 16 years, until I was 21,” the 27-year-old said.
Standing at 1.67 cm tall, Wakeling’s initial foray into weightlifting was more about ensuring he was competitive against bigger men, as he navigated the transition from junior to senior competition.
“I became a regular gym-goer in the last five or six years of my football career and it was essentially just about building some muscle to compete against the bigger boys as I got older,” he continued.
“But as the years went on, I found myself going straight to the gym after I'd finished a game because I enjoyed it that much.”
After a couple of years, a friend decided to enter an Olympic Weightlifting competition and Wakeling figured he’d enter too, as moral support and for something different.
“I had a friend who went to the same gym as me and she said she was going to try this Olympic Weightlifting thing out,” Wakeling explained.
“Just to mix things up and break the monotony of training, I thought I’d tag along. I ended up having a bit of a knack for it and realised I had potential.”
After his first competition, Wakeling made the decision to trade the football for the barbell.
Originally from Campbelltown in NSW, Wakeling’s family moved to the Gold Coast when he was five years old and with the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the horizon, a home Comm Games berth became his focus.
Wakeling went all in, finishing his studies in 2016 and graduating with a business degree majoring in marketing from the University of Griffith. He then took a gap year in 2017 to focus on his training full-time.
That year, he won silver in the men’s 69kg event at the 2017 Oceania Weightlifting Championships and also finished eighth at the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
In 2018, Wakeling achieved his goal and after less than two years since deciding to pursue weightlifting competitively, competed at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in the 69kg category, placing seventh.
Wakeling then started competing in the 73kg category and in 2019, won bronze at the Arafura Games before claiming gold at the Pacific Games, he also set a new Oceania Clean & Jerk record with a lift of 167kg.
“Ever since I was five or six years old and held the Sydney 2000 Olympic torch, I wanted to go to the Olympics,” Wakeling said of when his Olympic dream was born.
“You can actually hear the smile on my face [via the phone], that’s how much carrying the torch inspired me. It was a massive deal at the time.
“I didn't know what weightlifting was. Football and Little Athletics was all I did,” he continued.
“It was actually long jump I’d decided I wanted to go to the Olympics for.
“I remember getting a long jump kit for Christmas one year that I set up in my backyard, but as I got a bit older and started playing more football, I stopped the track and field and gave up the Olympic dream.
“Starting weightlifting reignited that drive and put me on track again, so to be able to represent my country at Tokyo 2020 would be a childhood dream come true.”
As just the second Indigenous Olympian to representing the country in weightlifting, Wakeling says it is important for the Indigenous community to see a different range of career and sporting options.
“Being able to represent pathways and opportunities in sport that are outside of the norm, is important for the Indigenous community,” he said.
“I know as a young kid, most Indigenous sportsmen that I saw, were in rugby league, that was seemingly the only available path.
“To represent and be a symbol of the different pathways you can take, is really important.”
Away from the gym, Wakeling is also a Deadly Choices ambassador, a cause that is close to his heart.
A health promotion initiative of the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH), Deadly Choices aims to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to make healthy choices for themselves and their families – to stop smoking, to eat good food and exercise daily.
Deadly Choices also encourages people to access their local Community Controlled Health Service and complete an annual ‘Health Check,’ and are committed to closing the gap in Indigenous health.
“For me, being an Indigenous Australian, who also happens to compete at an elite level in my sport, gives me the privilege of having a voice and a platform,” Wakeling explained.
“Being able to contribute to help provide health-based outcomes like Deadly Choices does for the community, is one of the most important and valuable things I could get out of being an elite athlete.”
Wakeling explained that if it weren’t for the deadly choices he had made in chasing his sporting aspirations, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
“A deadly choice is a positive choice that you make for your health and wellbeing, and they are the choices that I made, to get me to where I am today.
“I stayed away from drinking, smoking and all of those types of things, to put myself on the best path for success and it's something that I like to share with the community when I'm when I'm speaking with kids or even just yarning with our older Indigenous community as well.”
As someone who was able to reach great heights in a short span of time, Wakeling is also passionate about encouraging the community to just ‘have a go,’ when it comes to sport, regardless of your experience.
“When I first decided that I was going to put everything into making the Commonwealth Games, I kind of had it in my head that, I'm not supposed to reach this kind of level, because there are people who have been weightlifting since they were kids.
“I thought, I’d just started, how am I going to compete?” he said.
“But I had to put those thoughts aside and know that I was earning my place, I was training full-time, I was looking after my body and my diet. With hard work, those barriers became non-existent.
“If you really apply yourself, anything can happen in a few years, you just need to jump in, have a go and see for yourself.
“For me, it was weightlifting, for you, it could be finishing school or pursuing something your passionate about that goes against the grain, something you think you’re too old or too inexperienced to start. I’m living proof it’s achievable.”