Australian Weightlifting Pioneer: Vern Barberis

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On August 3, 1954, Vern Barberis won a gold medal in weightlifting at the Vancouver Commonwealth Games, Australia’s first weightlifting gold in Commonwealth history. We remember this achievement and Vern’s life and sporting career.

Vern Barberis was a pioneer of Australian weightlifting. He was self-coached, was his own sports scientist and nutritionist. He was a fit, flexible and dynamic athlete, and trained with elite athletes from other sports. All this ensured he was an athlete ahead of his time and his results confirm that. He was Australia’s first Commonwealth Games gold medallist and our first Olympic medallist in weightlifting.

Born in Melbourne in 1928, most of his teenage years were clouded by World War II. His father had fought in World War I and returned with PTS Syndrome. His mother helped support the family running a milk bar on the corner of Grattan and Rathdown Streets in Carlton, in Melbourne.

Vern, who went to University High School in Parkville Melbourne, was a bright student winning a prestigious scholarship to Melbourne University where he studied Mathematics and Science. But sport was never far from Vern’s life. When he was nine, his uncle Tom Trevaskis, won a gold medal in wrestling at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney. Vern idolised Tom and while most kids were playing cricket or football, Vern was at the gym watching Tom train. Aged 11, Vern joined wrestling classes at the Victorian Railways Institute Gymnasium.

Due to the outbreak of World War II, competition had ceased but he won a few unofficial state championships.
An early patron and supporter of Vern bought him a steak a week if he continued to train. He was trained in acrobatics with gymnasts, ensuring he was dynamic and powerful. One of his favourite activities was doing a hundred handstand push ups on the balustrade of Flinders Street Station’s roof area while he looked into Flinders Street. He also trained at Findlay’s Gym in Little Collins Street, with Frank Findlay. Harold MacBain had been an early trainer and mentor, along with Stan Nicholls.

In 1945 aged 17 he gave away wrestling for weightlifting. In 1946 he was runner up in the state championships and two months later won his first Australian Championship. However, two other lifters were selected ahead of him for the 1948 Olympic Games. Disappointed, he temporarily gave up weightlifting while teaching in the country. He had received a teaching appointment to Orbost Secondary College, located in the East Gippsland region of country Victoria. There he met, a teacher, Betty Barton whom he would marry.

During his teenage years his uncle Tom Trevaskis was absent, serving in World War II. He was a commando and involved in the famous battle of Wau in New Guinea in 1943. But upon his return he would resume his elite wrestling career and proudly join his nephew Vern Barberis on the Australian team for the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland. Trevaskis won his second medal in wrestling, a bronze in the 90kg division, 12 years after his gold in Sydney at the 1938 Games. It was an extraordinary achievement by Trevaskis to remain at the top of his sport, 12 years apart and serving his country in between Games representation. Barberis was aged 21 when he made his first British Empire Games appearance in Auckland in 1950. Weightlifting was making its debut in the Games and he won a bronze medal in the lightweight (67.5 kg) category, with a combined lift of 333kg.

In 1951, he and Betty moved to London where he taught mathematics and science at Ashford Grammar in Kent, while working at night in a pub in Chiswick to raise money for his sporting career.

Vern’s university degree, which had led him into high school teaching and later becoming a Principal, taught physics, mathematics and science and assisted him to make practical use of his knowledge in his own sporting career. He developed his own highly technical and innovative training and dietary program. For example, most weightlifters later in life had bad knees from training, but not Vern, he set about developing all the particular thigh muscles to counter the weight and force on the knees. He applied his knowledge of physics and balance to his personal innovative lifting methods and training. He even planned a strict dietary regime based on consumption of energy. He certainly was an athlete ahead of his time.

In 1952, he was selected for the Helsinki Olympics, just the second occasion Australia would be represented at the Olympics in weightlifting.

Competing in the Lightweight (67.5kg) division he came on stage to prepare for the first lift, and the Russian officials announced that he was disqualified because he hadn’t paid the $1,000 fee (Australia was not a member of the International Weightlifting Federation at that time and they had not paid the fees); the American team manager, who was the owner of the New York Barbell company, immediately wrote out a cheque and Vern proceeded to the first lift. As he was about to lift for the second time, the Russians announced again he was ineligible as he ‘had sleeves’ on his shirt, the American team manager, actually came out the front and cut the sleeves off with scissors! Vern then proceeded to lift, bench pressing 105kg, placing equal first after the first phase. Great composure and focus enabled him to ‘get on with the job of lifting for Australia’. In the last two phases, he lifted 105kg in the snatch and 140kg in the clean and jerk. He had finished equal second (American Tommy Cono had won gold) with the Russian Yevgeny Lopatin. Both had lifted a total of 350kg but the Russian was awarded the bronze based on body weight – there was a gram difference. Vern later learned the Russian team management had shaved the head of their competitor after viewing Vern’s body weight at the weigh-in. The bronze medal was Australia’s first medal in Olympic weightlifting. It would be another 32 years before another Australian would win an Olympic weightlifting medal.

The year after he placed fourth at the World Championships in 1953, Vern travelled to the Vancouver British Empire and Commonwealth Games. In the bench he pressed 104kg, but was a distant second to George Nicholls of Barbardos who had pressed 116kg. In the snatch phase, he made up a little ground with a lift of 107kg, but going into the final phase, the clean and jerk, he remained 9kg behind Nicholls. In the final round, Nicholls lifted 127kg, but could go no further. Vern would need to lift 136kg to win – and he did with a total of 347kg.

His historic gold medal was the first in Commonwealth weightlifting history for Australia.
Now living in Melbourne, he maintained his training resume ahead of a rare home Olympic Games in 1956. His training included two-week hikes in Cradle Mountain in Tasmania and training sessions at Percy Cerruty’s camp at Portsea, where he would run up and down sand dunes as part of his fitness program.

Selected for the Melbourne Games, his family were still living at the corner of Grattan and Rathdown streets in Carlton, so it was a short walk to the Exhibition Building where the weightlifting competition was held.
In the competition Vern started well with a 105kg bench press, he equalled that weight in the snatch. In the final lift the clean and jerk, he cleared 137.5kg, for a total of 347.5kg and 11th place in his final international competition.

Barberis was a pioneer and set records throughout his career. He won seven national titles, was the first Australian lightweight to clean and jerk over 300lb (140kg) and set records which remained in place for decades.
Post his competitive career, he contributed to the administration of the sport as President of the Australian Weightlifting Federation (AWF). He was inducted into the AWF Hall of Fame and awarded the Australian Sports Medal in 2000.

David Tarbotton for Commonwealth Games Australia
* personal history by the Barberis family

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