Women weightlifters will make history at this year’s national Olympic weightlifting championships when, for the first time, they’ll outnumber the men hoisting iron.
“Today the stigma around strength being a male thing is changing,” says Commonwealth Games weightlifter Alethea Boon, one of 65 women competing in Auckland later this month – compared to 64 men.
Lifting weights has traditionally been looked on as a masculine endeavour.
Weightlifting’s Olympic history began at the first modern Games in Athens in 1896, but for men only. It took over 100 years for women to have the opportunity to compete in Olympic weightlifting, at the 2000 Sydney Games.
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there will be gender equality in weightlifting for the first time, with seven events for both women and men.
Right now in New Zealand, there’s a growing number of female weightlifters re-defining what it means to be strong and inspiring other women to become strong in the process. All of a sudden, it’s okay for a girl or woman to want to be physically strong.
Last year, there were 53 females lifting at the national championships.
Paule Poulin – an Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand (OWNZ) administrator and a masters women’s weightlifter herself – puts the rise in female competitors down to a few factors. One, she says, is the influence of crossfit, and another “that they have to do Olympic lifts”.
Boon, 34, is one woman who’s come into the sport as a crossfit athlete.
The 1998 and 2002 Commonwealth Games gymnast has also competed at the international CrossFit Games three times, finishing 20th in 2015.
Boon first picked up a barbell in 2013, but admits she found it really difficult. “Because it was so challenging I really wanted to be better at it,” she says.
She’s come a long way to finish a creditable fifth in the under 58kg division at this year’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, where she set New Zealand records in the clean and jerk (100kg) and snatch (81kg).
“Lifting weights is great for your physical and mental health, particularly in young females where body image issues are so common. Having muscles has become acceptable and strength is now seen as beauty,” Boon says.
She loves the fact that weightlifting doesn’t discriminate against age or size.
The other factor Poulin sees in the boom in women’s lifting is the high school programme which OWNZ has started, to introduce students to the sport.
The national secondary school championships held this month on Auckland’s North Shore saw a 32 percent increase in total competitor numbers on the previous year.
“The exciting thing is we have some really talented youth and junior lifters coming through,” Poulin says. “We have a strong and bright future.”
Year 13 Avondale College student Kanah Andrews-Nahu is definitely a name to look out for.
After a period of “just sitting round doing nothing and going to school”, the 17-year-old’s parents needed to get her moving and made her go to her mum’s local crossfit gym.
Andrews-Nahu thrived in the environment, and while she admits she didn’t like running, she really enjoyed heaving weights.
“Weightlifting is just so rewarding and it’s such a huge part of my life now. There’s a really good vibe within the sport where everyone just supports each other to go after their goals,” she says.
Andrews-Nahu now focuses solely on weightlifting, and has now broken a staggering 123 national records. In New Caledonia in June, she became the first youth lifter at the Oceania championships to win all three divisions for her weight class – youth, junior and senior.
She now trains five days a week at the Functional Strength Olympic club and is coached by three-time Olympian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Richie Patterson.
At the school nationals, Andrews-Nahu loved seeing the huge numbers of female lifters competing. “Now I’m the old girl in the youth category, I really enjoy meeting the up-and-coming athletes and being able to exchange stories about getting through those hard training sessions,” she says.
She will compete at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires next month, in the 63kg+ open class, and her ultimate goal is to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in two years’ time.
Female lifters are beginning young. Twelve-year-old Jaime Watson from Baradene College won the under 44kg category at the school nationals, with a 42kg clean and jerk and a 34kg snatch.
Watson came to weightlifting from gymnastics where she developed a passion for feeling strong.
“I used to be one of the strongest girls in gymnastics and I wanted to keep that feeling. Knowing my body can do powerful things is pretty cool,” she says.
But it’s not just young girls getting strong. At the world masters championships in Barcelona last month a team of 10 Kiwi women returned home with five medals, finishing eighth in the medal tally.
To support women in the sport, OWNZ are planning a “Women in Weightlifting” symposium early next year, bringing together the country’s top athletes, coaches and officials.
They recognise that in order to further inspire women in the sport, it’s not just about providing support for the athletes. OWNZ want to empower more coaches and officials to get involved.
As with most sports, there are opportunities outside being a competitive athlete. Keisha-Dean Soffe, who won bronze at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, has just been selected to officiate at the IWF senior world championship in Turkmenistan in November.
She’s one of three Kiwi women (along with Barbara Grieve and Jenni Hebert) who have IWF technical official qualifications, allowing them to officiate at international competitions.
* The national championships, in Papatoetoe on September 21-23, mark the return of Laurel Hubbard to competition, after she suffered a potentially career-ending injury to her left elbow at the Commonwealth Games. The 40-year-old, who has undergone surgery and intense rehab, will compete in the 90kg and over class.