Uplifting story of Disney-loving weightlifter Zach Courtney

Some conversations are unexpected. Sitting down with one of the men picked to represent Scotland in the weightlifting at the Commonwealth Games, and the list of likely topics does not include Walt Disney. But Zach Courtney is a man of many interesting diversions.

Weightlifters Jodey Hughes, Zac Courtney and Lisa Tobias have been chosen to represent Scotland at next year's Commonwealth Games on Australia's Gold Coast. Picture: Jeff Holmes
Weightlifters Jodey Hughes, Zac Courtney and Lisa Tobias have been chosen to represent Scotland at next year's Commonwealth Games on Australia's Gold Coast. Picture: Jeff Holmes

Happy to discuss his ambitions and his route to the Gold Coast, he is equally comfortable chatting about things as diverse as his favourite curry house, his early promise as a swimmer, drunken escapades, podiatry, sewage farms in New Zealand, childhood holidays and his love of characters in Finding Nemo.

The 23-year-old is new to the limelight but, a sociable guy, he flits easily from one query to the next, meeting each with colourful anecdotes and an openness that has everyone in his company engaged and willing him to success come April.

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Asked what his plans are between now and then, most athletes with tunnel vision would respond with details of training camps and interim goals but Courtney is different. Getting to the Commonwealth Games means the world to him but it is not his whole world.

“I think I’m going to take my mum to Disneyland Paris for Christmas,” he says. “My mum is the biggest Disney nut you’ve ever met. We go to Disney World every year so I am actually going to Florida next October. But our house is literally full of Disney stuff. There’s Disney paintings, all the Disney globes, all the wee mugs – it’s horrendous.”

He may cringe at all the ornaments – and laugh at the notion that his mum might be tempted to forsake any of them to display a Commonwealth medal should her son return successful – but he does share the love for good old Walt, his animated heroes and his theme parks.

“My mum and gran decided to take me and my brother when we were about seven just as something to do because we hadn’t known anyone who had been there and we went and we couldn’t believe how amazing it was,” he says. “But we’re quite big into food and the food there is unbelievable in the parks.”

Definitely not mousey, Courtney is built like Hercules or Gaston but ask him his favourite and he betrays a soft centre. “I like Finding Nemo so I would probably say Gill because he’s a Moorish idol, that’s the type of fish he is.” He is also a character who dreams of escaping a fish tank and having the freedom to roam.

Courtney can relate. Although he loves home and the family’s weekly visits to the local curry house – “I like to eat, that’s my thing. Eating healthy is all right but it’s kind of boring. I am actually from Dalkeith and the Indian up the road is the best Indian ever so we’ve got a family tradition that we go up there every Sunday” – he dreams of relocating to Australia one day.

“I study podiatry so feet. At Queen Margaret University, in Musselburgh, and I kind of just fell into it,” he says. “I didn’t actually really know what podiatry was when I got into it and I spent all of first year absolutely hating it but I have always wanted to move to Australia and I found out I can get on the skilled list with it so that’s kind of why I’ve been sticking at it. But now I’m in third year and it’s great, it’s not what you think it would be like because there is a lot about gait mechanics so at the moment I’m studying how people with cerebral palsy walk. It’s interesting.”

Although another year of studying, with the possibility of a Masters in Surgery thereafter, means that he will have to return from Australia after the Games, the training camp in Sunshine Coast, followed by the stint in Gold Coast for competition, will serve as a taster. But if the venue is an added bonus, representing Scotland at the Commonwealth Games is a major buzz in its own right.

“I’m definitely looking forward to competing,” he adds. “I’ve never really competed in such a big crowd before because I competed at the British, there were maybe two or three hundred people but there are obviously going to be a lot more. If I lift what I think I can lift I think I could be top five. But it’s really just how my training goes from now till then. But I am feeling good about it.”

That’s more than could be said a year ago. Back then the man who had once dreamed of heading to the Commonwealth Games on the swim team, after his youthful potential translated into a silver medal at British age group level, aged 13, was still trying to recover from a drunken tumble down some pub steps. “I used to be a lot stronger and a lot heavier. I used to be about two stone heavier but I decided to go down a weight class and then I hurt my back on a night out being drunk – ridiculous. I fell down the stairs,” he explains. “That was August last year and in December I couldn’t even do a bodyweight squat it was that bad. Then I got my Commonwealth total in July so I feel like I’ve had good progress but there is a lot more to come.”

Which then gets us on to his family and their support and the New Zealand sewage farms. His mum and his gran have backed him throughout and while gran will watch on TV, her family will be well represented. “I’ve got family in New Zealand so they are all going to come over and watch it,” says Courtney. “It is my mum’s sister and her family. They own a sewage farm or something. And I know my brother and my mum are definitely coming over.”

They may not recognise it as a story from Disney but it is a fairytale that the whole family will enjoy revelling in.