Challenge #1: Weightlifting, featuring Team GB’s Sonny Webster!


My first challenge is approaching quickly, I have been in touch with the Washington Olympic weightlifting club and agreed to go down for a session, hopefully on Sunday this week. I will post next week with a review and hopefully some video footage of my attempts at Olympic Weightlifting!

However, before I took the plunge I thought that it would be a wise move to get some expert advice on what the sport is all about, how I could be successful and why, oh why, should people go to a gym and get excited about lifting a heavy bar above their head.

Apparently though, Olympic weightlifting is much more than that, according to Sonny Webster, star of Rio 2016 in the +94kg category;

Weightlifting’s great for many reasons, as a 31 year old yourself, not looking to compete necessarily in weightlifting it’s still a good sport to maintain strength and stability of your muscles and the social side of weightlifting is great, meeting new people and training with them is really good.  It’s a very small community, which can be a real positive, when you think about taking up more popular sports such as football there may not be that social side as such, and I think it’s nice to be involved in a sport that is a little bit more unique and niche.”

I think that with weightlifting there are still quite a few barriers to participation. The image of the sport is one of bulked-up men, possibly on steroids, in intense gyms, basically the sporting equivalent of pure testosterone.

All this is despite the achievements and relatively high media profile of the likes of Michaela Breeze, Zoe Smith and Rebekah Tiler, all young, female athletes who aren’t piled with obvious musculature. Put this apparent paradox to Webster though and you get the impression that people are aware of the public perception of the sport and are working hard to change it;

British Weightlifting is working hard to professionalise the sport and the sport has a lot to learn. You see the way that other sports have grown such as CrossFit, which has a lot of weightlifting involved, has grown into almost a business now and is very popular globally in comparison to traditional weightlifting which by comparison has been left in the Stone Age.  However, I think the sport has developed massively, participation has probably more than quadrupled since I started, so it is definitely heading in the right direction but it’s still in its very early stages of development.”

I remember my first shift as a GamesMaker at London 2012 was at weightlifting, and I have to say it was amazing to see the smallest weight category competitors lifting over 3 times their own body weight over their heads. It’s quite a sight to be seen when the professionals get up on the stage, and as we have seen with the likes of Breeze, Smith and Tiler, it is a sport that caters for all types. Webster says,

This is the good thing about it being a weight category sport as well. It doesn’t matter how big, tall, small, short, you are. You are competing with people who are a similar physical condition to you.”

Age is nothing but a number as well in weightlifting (does anyone else remember that Kylie Minogue song??), as Webster continues,

“And at 31 as well, a lot of people don’t realise that you’re not even what we could class as a “master” in weightlifting. So there is still a world of competition for people over the age of 35 to compete in weightlifting, I mean I’ve seen people at the age of 82/83 competing in the sport as well so it’s a sport you can participate in for a long time and yeah it’s a sport that does keep your body strong, nimble and flexible as you get older.

So this is good news, maybe I can become a world class athlete after all, my time has not yet passed me by!

The question then becomes, how does one get into weightlifting? In a way it is as simple as sport can get, after all it’s basically picking up a heavy thing and lifting it over your head, we’ve been doing it since the caveman days. But when you actually begin to look into getting involved it’s actually more complicated. The club I hope to attend on Sunday, Washington Olympic, is one of a very small number in the north east of England.  How did it all begin for Sonny?

“I wasn’t into weightlifting at all really, I just fell into it completely by chance. My school was one of only two in the entire country that offered weightlifting as part of the curriculum.

I had moved from Reading to Ivybridge and started at the community college there and I didn’t know anyone so I used to just fill my lunchtimes by going down to the weightlifting gym and watching people participating.  

I’d been sat there for two weeks when the coach came over to me and said “You know you’ve been here two weeks now watching people give it a go, why don’t you come up and give it a go yourself now?” I wasn’t really interested, I was just killing my lunchtimes, but sure enough after a little bit of persuasion I went along the following lunchtime, gave it a go and I ended up beating everyone on my first day. Purely because that I had just learned from sitting there and watching weightlifting done right and wrong for that time and that was it really.

I spent the rest of my time at school at lunchtimes in the weightlifting gym and, yeah, 11 years later I made the Olympic Games!”

Of course what Sonny doesn’t quite manage to mention there is that the “coach” behind Ivybridge’s rather unusual addition of weightlifting to the school curriculum was none other than double Commonwealth Games gold medallist Michaela Breeze. Was this an important factor in his success?

“I think when I started, yes, when I was younger being taught by someone who had been there, done it and achieved the things that I wanted to achieve was certainly great but I think probably the most important thing about getting into the sport of weightlifting is having a good coach. If you don’t have a good coach then you are probably setting yourself up to fail in this sport because it’s extremely technical, but unfortunately at the moment there isn’t the quantity of high quality coaches out there.”

So, you need a top coach and it helps if your school runs a weightlifting club with a champion. Sounds unlikely for most of us, my school did football…and not much else. I bet it’s the same for a lot of people my age and older, but that’s what we are all about changing with blogs like this and to be fair I think schools these days do offer a broader spectrum of sports to our young people. Hopefully by the time mini-Watson makes it to secondary school, he/she will have the choice of as many sports as they want, including weightlifting.

I guess the thing that still would bother me about my child going into weightlifting is the perception, misguided though it may be, of drugs within the sport.  The topic is brought up by Sonny in our chat,

I was very naive when I began in the sport, I wasn’t aware of all that side of things. I’m very proud to say that I compete as a clean athlete but I’ve missed out on many opportunities for medals, to stand on the podium, because of it, which obviously everything we train for as an athlete.”

And this of course is the crux of the problem that not only concerns sports like weightlifting, but across the whole spectrum of top level sport. Only this week we have seen the re-emergence of the doping debate with the TUE’s disclosed by the Russian hacking leak of WADA documents. It is imperative that the spectators can believe what they are seeing and of course for athletes to believe they can get what they deserve, or else what is the point in starting out along the elite path?

There is light at the end of the tunnel for weightlifting though. A lot more high profile bans are being dealt out and cheats are being caught, albeit often retrospectively. Webster seems upbeat about the future too,

“I think that people getting into the sport can think positively about the steps that are being taken within weightlifting, it’s becoming more and more of a level playing field and if anything there’s greater opportunities now for clean athletes to go all the way and be very successful in the sport.

You have to set the bar higher and higher and refine myself as an athlete further and further and I don’t see any reason why, with the sport cleaning up, why I couldn’t be up near the medals come Tokyo 2020.”

Whilst I had Sonny Webster’s attention I couldn’t let him go without a couple of tips for my own maiden voyage to the weightlifting club this weekend. Were there any useful tips he could pass on to a slightly overweight, unfit 31 year old who thinks he is 21? Or perhaps more pertinently, any novice lifter;

“Well one of the most important things is not putting too much weight on the bar.

You have to make sure that you’re lifting with the big muscles as well so making sure that your legs are doing most of the hard work, keeping your arms nice and relaxed.

Also, remember to keep the bar nice and close to you as you are doing the lift.

It’s a very, very technical sport and it’s very, very complex, I mean the snatch [a type of lift] must be one of the hardest movements you can do in the gym but having said that, we, as human beings, are very good t repeating simple things. So you have to try and break the lift down into simple things that are easy to remember in order to repeat them, because consistency is key. If you make it too complex, it becomes extremely hard to repeat consistently. Keeping it nice and simple, using simple cues whilst lifting and I always try to never think about more than two things whilst lifting, it’s very easy to think about 101 things whilst you’re trying to snatch but you will end up confusing yourself that way.

Just by working on one or two things whilst in the gym you will find that your technique becomes more refined and you will become a more consistent lifter.”

Ok Sonny, no problem. Make room for me on the Tokyo 2020 podium, you don’t know what you’re dealing with here. I have the power.


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