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?

Polite Persistence Presents Opportunity

Once I knew we were moving to Hong Kong training took a back seat. Not only was I very busy making all the preparations, but I also wanted to make the most of my last few months in the UK surrounded by friends and family. As a result I reduced my training schedule to around twice a week with one weights session for around a month and a half before we left, and after arriving, training has been extremely disrupted as we adapt to our new home and environment.

Having a break from training and competing is not a bad thing, in fact, I think it’s important to have these breaks as it forces you to have perspective, assess your priorities, and helps you remember that you are not defined by your athletic career. This perspective helps you to understand what really matters to you, and it has made me unfalteringly sure that I am a judo athlete hungry for success.

Since arriving, it has been a frustrating search for a Judo club with the right volume of training, there are plenty of Judo clubs here, though most seem to train only twice a week or are too far to travel to regularly. When you identify as a Judo athlete working steadily on a path to success, it is disheartening not to be training, rather than progressing towards your destination you feel as if you are being dragged back to the start line. In reality you have just stopped for coffee and to ask for directions along the way.

After 7 weeks in Hong Kong with no significant progress made I received an email from a talent ID program in the UK run by UK Sport. I had the opportunity to attend a talent identification event looking for female athletes in combat sports which, if successful, would ultimately lead to fast track onto the Olympic pathway. I knew I could be successful if I took up this opportunity. With a shortcut to my goal presented to me in the UK, in that moment it was tough to see how Hong Kong was the preferable option. I had no club, no Judo, my brilliant and supportive coaches were 5,000 miles away and I wasn’t moving forward.

With a little perspective (and a trip to Disneyland) Hong Kong presented itself as the golden fountain of opportunity that it is. Hong Kong allows me to live a lifestyle where I train but also support myself financially and even put aside some savings to rely on in the future. It allows me to develop my career so that I am not defined by results alone. It allows me the flexibility to travel to parts of the world I wouldn’t see from home, to train in Japan, to fight in Asia. It offers me challenges and experiences which require me to adapt and see things from new perspectives. It doesn’t offer me a shortcut, it makes me earn success step by step, the long way round, and the hard way up, with nothing but work and persistence to get me through.

I took this persistence to the internet to find solutions to my situation. I asked in every Judo forum I knew, messaged each person who commented or posted on Judo pages in Hong Kong, despite them being written entirely in Cantonese. I searched for key words and sent countless emails. Polite persistence has a strange way of presenting success and by the end of the day a kind stranger had arranged for me to join the Hong Kong National Squad training program.

I might not be the most experienced or talented athlete to step foot on the tatami, but I am one of the most resourceful, the most determined, and the most persistent you will meet. I have been working quietly since I tied my belt for the first time, and when I emerge from the other side having taken the long way round I will be absolutely ready to perform.

I have 100% faith in the process, so see you on the other side.

Jiu Jitsu needs no translation.

As some of you might know, Sam and I like to fight. Sometimes with each other, sometimes with others, but mostly in a structured and sanctioned context. We had great intentions of getting straight back to training the second we touched down in Hong Kong but we did a lot of celebrating instead. (Please refer to picture of bottle of cider in a cocktail).

We’d done a lot of research before we arrived so we had an idea of where we would like to train. On our first week of work we decided to visit “Hong Kong Jiu Jitsu” for our first venture into martial arts in Asia.

It was incredibly difficult to find. Nestled between a garage and a fried fish ball stand there’s a door which leads to a staircase. We found the gym on the 2nd floor by following the sound of hard work.

There is something overwhelmingly familiar about being at Jiu Jitsu. The feel of the tatami against my bare feet as we warmed up transported me straight back home and I knew we were going to have a great time. Everyone was really friendly regardless of whether they could speak any English or not (I certainly don’t speak Cantonese) and I felt right at home drilling and rolling among the class. It turns out Jiu Jitsu needs no translation. We speak the same language, we know the drill. We bump fists and then we are communicating in a common tongue. We laugh when we crash heads and we roll our eyes when we’re exhausted and we’re told to do shuttle runs between rounds by the coach.

It turns out that Jiu Jitsu in 80% humidity and 34° heat is really hard. Especially when you’ve had a month or so off. 10 minutes into rolling and I could feel myself getting fitter by the second. You would think that fighting in the home of Bruce Lee would give you a mystical boost of some sort but in reality it shows you exactly why he was in such good shape.

Luckily, here in Hong Kong they’ve found a solution to the humidity – more training. Just at the point you think you might throw up because you’re experiencing such intense heat you think you’ve got sunburn on the inside of your lungs, they begin the timer again and you get to cool off by doing a quick circuit and a few more rounds. At then end of the class just in case you have any chance of returning to a reasonable temperature ever again they thrown in a Japan test to really seal the deal. (Japan test = a kind of shuttle run involving squats at either end commonly used in Judo circuits)

It’s a foolproof system. Presumably the idea is that if you sweat enough the room will actually achieve 100% humidity at which point it will transform into a cool pool of tranquil water for us to relax and cool off in. Or maybe I need to adjust to the heat a bit and get back in shape…who knows, everyone was speaking Cantonese

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Absolutely overjoyed to be back on the mats!

It took a few days for us to feel normal again, and we welcomed the weekend with open, achy arms. We were pretty excited to wake up on Sunday morning to realise that for the first time in our lives, we live in a timezone where we can watch the UFC, live, at a normal time where we don’t have to miss any sleep for it. What better way to christen our new TV than by registering for FightPass and watching McGregor vs. Diaz #2 with a bacon sandwich?

FYI: This was our second attempt at a bacon sandwich, the first time, we (read I) managed to buy “uncured bacon” which turned out to be just really thin pork chops and were not good at all in a Sunday morning sandwich.

Week #2 of work and we were finally ready to brave the mats again. This time we tried the Tai Wai branch of “Kowloon Jiu Jitsu” which is only 10 minutes from our apartment. Once again it was incredibly hard to find. We found the gym above an industrial loading bay, on the 3rd floor, only accessible by a fireman’s lift. I was glad I wasn’t by myself as the warehouse below was a ready made set for a zombie apocalypse.

It was great to be training again and the familiar feel of the tatami had me back home once again. This time the humidity wasn’t so bad (or maybe harnessing Bruce Lee after all), though I was still incredibly sweaty. Everyone was really friendly here too (that’s jiu jitsu for you!). We had a great time training with the team at Kowloon Jiu Jitsu and the ease of the journey to training means that we have probably found our new club. It’s feels good to be starting to establish our routines here, and I can’t wait to be back at physical peak!

We survived another session!