Montel Tivoli's journey from weightlifting champion to inspiring Māori rangatahi

For many who have not grown up in te ao Māori, the journey to reconnect with their identity can be a challenging one. 

World-class weightlifter Montel Tivoli forced himself to embrace this challenge head-on. Despite international success in the gym, it took years of struggle and a profound personal journey to fully embrace his Māori heritage.

Growing up, Tivoli didn't even realise he was Māori.

"I thought I was straight Samoan," he explains. "All my friends were Samoan Islanders and my father was Samoan. I had a strong connection to my Samoan side."

He was born in New Zealand, moving to Australia with his family at the age of 1.

Tivoli. Photo credit: The Hui

"I spent most of my primary school years there," he recalls. "We moved back to Aotearoa when I was 11 and I felt disconnected from who I was."

As a child, Montel's perception of being Māori was negative.

"I never saw being Māori as something cool or something I aspired to be," he admits. "A lot of decisions I made were based on my emotions of not knowing who I was."

At just 11 years old, Tivoli picked up a barbell for the first time.

"Weightlifting has been a lifesaver," he said. "As a young’un, I used weightlifting as an escape from life's traumas, releasing built-up feelings and emotions."

Tivoli's dedication quickly paid off. Within two years, he was representing New Zealand at the Oceania Championships.

"That first competition in New Caledonia was amazing. My brother got gold and I got bronze," he said.

Over the next few years, Tivoli travelled the world - competing and medaling at various international events, including the Commonwealth Games.

"The heaviest lift I've done is a 200-kilo jerk," Tivoli proudly states. "I take pride in that because I know I'm the first Māori in New Zealand weightlifting history to ever do it."

Despite his success, Tivoli still felt disconnected from his Māori identity.

"In high school, I was struggling to find out who I was," he said.

A turning point came when he decided to immerse himself in Māori culture.

"I took myself down to the marae and joined the kapa haka. That was the first time I experienced Māoritanga."

Tivoli made a bold decision to put competitive weightlifting on hold and enrolled in a full immersion te reo Māori course.

"After finishing high school, I enrolled in Takiura to learn te reo and Māori customs," he said. "It was a tough year but one of the best in terms of personal growth and self-discovery."

Tivoli's sacrifice has paid off.

"All these things I dreamed about are coming to fruition. My world is fully immersed in te ao Māori now," he said.

With a renewed sense of identity, Tivoli returned to weightlifting with a new goal: to give back to the community.

Every morning, you'll find Tivoli at CrossFit Rotorua, training rangatahi Māori.

"These kids believe in themselves now," said Kereti Rautangata, one of the parents. "CrossFit isn't easy; it's mentally and physically tough. They're building resilience and confidence."

Tivoli's training program has been transformative for the children.

"One thing we know for sure is Māori kids know who they are, where they come from," Tivoli explains. "I provide another avenue for them to explore deeper into themselves through weightlifting."

Rautangata praised Tivoli's impact.

"He's an expert at what he does and gives his all to our people and kids. He's also pretty funny, making the sessions engaging despite the tough training."

With his own life transformed, Tivoli is now focused on the next generation.

"My main focus is to be a role model for my kids and the next generation," he said. "To believe in yourself and your identity - you are enough."