Raising the bar

Many of you will know that I have found my new love: Olympic Weightlifting.

Here's to strong women, may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them. #GoodNightStoriesForRebelGirls

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3 years ago I was invited to a talent ID event at the British Weight Lifting training centre in Loughborough. The event tested 100s of female athletes between 16 and 25 from a wide range of sports on their ability to generate power, strength, explosiveness, flexibility and their coach-ability, with the top athletes being selected for a fast track training experience to become Olympic hopefuls. I absolutely adored this experience, having never performed any Olympic lifts before I wasn’t the best performer, but I held my own in the explosiveness tests coming 3rd.

I wasn’t selected, but it planted a seed.

While in the UK I spent a year training at Barbell Girls and learned the Clean and Jerk, and when we moved to Hong Kong I was over joyed to see that US Olympic Medalist Cheryl Haworth was running a regular barbell club on HK island. As we settled into Hong Kong I managed to drop in a few times, and in January, I made a commitment to give Olympic Weightlifting my full attention. When I began training with Cheryl, I realised I was a complete beginner, but in the last 8 months I have completely exceeded my expectations and it has been truly fulfilling and empowering. I have certainly learnt a lot by raising the bar.

I competed for the first time in April at a competition hosted by our gym, making all six lifts and leaving with a smile. I didn’t lift very much, but the experience lifted me. The feeling of elation you earn when you lift a weight you didn’t think you were capable of was something I had never felt before. In Judo when you beat an opponent, your celebration is their commiseration, and somehow it isn’t so fitting to feel completely overjoyed at their loss.

By the time I returned to the UK for the summer I had an ambitious plan; to qualify for the Senior Irish National Championships in 2018. For my weight class, qualification is achieved by lifting a combined total of 122kg at a competition, and in my first competition I had lifted 83kg. There was certainly a long way to go, but I went ahead and entered two competitions in the summer, I was still too far from the qualification total to qualify at these competitions, but I had my eyes on a stepping stone in October, the u23 British Championships with a 110kg total.

Lifting in an Olympic Weightlifting competition without a coach with you is challenging, especially being new to the sport. Things move forward rapidly, with athletes changing their declared weight last minute meaning your turn can be next with only a minutes notice. In training my best total had been 100kg (40kg snatch, 60kg Clean and Jerk) on a really, really, good day, so I needed the day to be perfect day to have any chance of hitting 110kg. I realised quickly that I would prefer to miss all my lifts trying in earnest to hit 110kg than making all the lifts and falling short of the total, so I set the bar high.

It is customary to set your opening lifts at 85% of your intended maximum as both a mental and physical warm up on the platform. This ensures you feel comfortable in front of the audience and allows for any technique errors caused by nerves. Needing to better both of my lifts at 5kg more than my personal best, I chose to open at 100%. Up until the day before the competition I had felt that I would give it a go, but that it would not work out, however, on the day of the competition I woke up feeling determined.

My snatches flew up and I easily hit 40kg and 45kg. I took a risk and went to 50kg as I was nervous about closing the gap with my clean and jerks later. 50kg snatch wasn’t to be, but the courage it took to set the bar that high made be feel unstoppable.

In the clean and jerk 60kg felt easy, so I went to the 65kg I needed to reach the 110kg. I am always more worried about the clean than the jerk, and I had previously jerked 65kg before, so when I stood up at the top of the clean I was already celebrating. This proved to be a mistake, as a small elbow bend in the jerk meant that my lift was red lighted and counted as a fail. I had 2 minutes to prepare for my final attempt at 65kg but I already felt defeated. When you build yourself up and feel certain you can achieve something, the carpet is pulled from under you when you don’t. Needless to say I missed the second attempt giving me a total of 105kg.

The skill of mental toughness is to build yourself up to that place where you feel like you can achieve anything even when you have just failed to achieve it. I was due to compete in Dublin at a regional competition the next week, though this competition would not be eligible for qualification to the British Nationals. I had one more opportunity to qualify before I returned to Hong Kong, and it was 2 days after the Dublin competition, I would use Dublin as a warm up, only working up to my opening lifts and give things another go at the Atlas Open 2 days later.

Dublin felt perfect, the other lifters were welcoming, as were the officials and coaches. I felt more confident in my warm up and walking out to the platform was less daunting. I worked up to 40kg snatch and 60kg clean and jerk – weights that had been my max not a week ago, but a change in mindset meant they felt light.

When I got to the Atlas Open I felt nervous not because I felt I needed to achieve the impossible, but because I had come so close previously yet still fallen short. Snatches felt heavier here, but I made 40kg and 45kg, missing 47kg. I still needed to make the 65kg clean and jerk for the total. It is hard to remain focused on each individual lift when you are trying to achieve a total, and your brain can’t help but re-visit the maths constantly as you prepare. I wanted so much to hit the heaviest snatch in order to make my clean and jerks easier.

As I was lifting the heaviest clean and jerks of the session, I was the last competitor to lift.  I completed my warm up perhaps a little to early, but I knew it would be wrong to lift again before my turn. I felt focused but timid, and when I raised the bar above my head to see three white lights of approval, I felt like a Lion. I had qualified for the u23 British Nationals after only 7 months of training. I had 1 more lift left and the bar was set for 66kg. Knowing I didn’t need to lift it I heard myself thinking “Well you don’t even need this” but the Lion shouted back that I should do it anyway. 66kg flew up. The release of pressure had allowed me to hit my rhythm and I had set not 1, but 2 personal bests within a 3 minute period.


So here I am training 5 times a week under an Olympic medallist in preparation for my first National competition in a months time. I cannot believe how far I’ve come, but I’m so excited to see how far I can go. Can I hit 122kg? I’m still a long way off, but I’m moving steadily forwards. Perhaps qualifying for the Irish Nationals is too ambitious this time around, but perhaps I’d be further away if I hadn’t set the bar so high.

Anyway, who ever achieved greatness by being realistic about what they could achieve?

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