Despite showing early promise as a teenager, Jen* was pushed out of powerlifting. She shares her story of finding her way back with Georgina Hibberd.
At high school in the 1990s, Jen* lifted heavy weights for the first time. She showed promise but she was also called, ‘butch’, ‘a lezzo’ and told she had ‘brass balls’. Despite the encouragement of her sports teacher, she stopped lifting soon after. In October last year, at the age of 39, she competed in her first powerlifting competition, and won.
Sport can be an awkward space for teenage girls. Bodies are changing and uncomfortable. The opinions of others arguably matter more than at any other time in our lives, from how we should look, what we should wear, and even which sports we are permitted to play.
Those around Jen made it clear that weightlifting was not a sport considered ‘appropriate’ for girls.
“Not just my peers—it was some teachers. My parents weren’t keen on it. It wasn’t appreciated or valued as a sport. In the 90s when you thought of powerlifting, you thought of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Here, I am, this feminine, straight teenager who just wants to play sport. I’m encouraged to play sport, but only in a particular way.”
So Jen forgot about lifting and moved on to other sports, she wasn’t about to give up altogether and picked up touch football, swimming, athletics, netball, basketball and even triathlon. Touch football became Jen’s main love, but she had to give that up in 2012 when her knees couldn’t keep pace with the game.
“Touch was my sanctuary for a long time. I didn’t pick up sport again until 2017 when I decided to try a triathlon. Part of that motivation was to lose weight. I thought, ‘I’ll do a triathlon and it will help me lose weight. People will look at me and think, wow, she’s fit.’ I loved doing the triathlon, but it wasn’t coming from a good place.”
Jen’s relationship with sport was complex, intertwined with her relationship to her body, her capabilities and what she felt she should do as a woman, a mother, and a wife. She pushed herself, in all facets of her life, and admits to a perfectionist approach that could leave her stifled, unable to take the first step in case she didn’t perform brilliantly. She also admits that a lot of the time, her desire to achieve was driven by what others thought.
“I remember when I was 28 and thinking, ‘I need to do my Masters by the time I’m 30 so people will think, wow, look what she’s achieved, she’s completed her Masters by the time she is 30’.”
After retiring from touch football, Jen began lifting weights. After three triathlons and battles with her body, including significant osteoarthritis, she was encouraged to build her hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes to alleviate her symptoms.
“When I started bench pressing, I was doing 80kg. My form was really messy, but strangers would comment on the gym floor, asking, ‘How are you this strong?’. It was only then, after doing bench for a few months, I remembered: I’ve been here before.”
That’s when things started to change for Jen.
“With the powerlifting, it feels very right to be doing it, giving myself permission to simply go through the process. It makes me finally feel aligned, that I know who I am.”
Jen decided she would enter a competition. The date was set.
Jen works full time and has four kids and early morning is the only time she can get to the gym. “Alarm goes off at 4.30am, dressed and in the car by 4.50, starting activation and warm up by 5am. Home by 6.15am. That’s the only routine I control—everything else in my day varies.”
She stuck to her training plan. She picked out a number. 105 kilograms. That was her aim for the bench press lift. “It was all I wanted.” Jen said. “In the last 12 months I’d done a couple of 100kg bench presses—not very nicely—but I wanted 105kg, and I wanted to do it well.”
The lead up to the competition wasn’t smooth. It was postponed due to COVID-19 lockdowns and then three weeks before it was scheduled, Jen and her family found themselves as close contacts for a confirmed COVID case. It meant two weeks in isolation. Her gym sent a barbell and some plate weights to her home. The night before the competition, Jen couldn’t control her mind.
“I went to a place where I was thinking, ‘my husband doesn’t support me, what the hell have I done? I’ve been in quarantine for two weeks. I’m nowhere near where I should be in preparation for a comp and I’m not going to get a 105 kilo bench press!’.”
She messaged her coach. “She said, none of this is helping you. None of this is going to put you in the right mindset for when you are underneath the bar. You need to do whatever it is that is going to help you, to pull yourself out of this” Jen called her sister, an elite athlete.
“She [her sister] asked if there was a risk of injury. I said no. I can either hit the 105, or I can’t. She pointed out that I still get to do what I set out to do, which is a comp. It wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t prepared to do the comp unless I could do a 105 kilo bench.”
Jen was in tears when talking to her sister, who was taken aback by her reaction.
“I don’t think anyone realised how much it meant to me. It was a gift I was giving myself. It was time I invested in myself. I knew it was also bigger than that. This is also finding myself, this is owning myself, as I am. So, if I couldn’t do that, then it meant nothing.”
After not sleeping a wink, in the morning Jen realised she feared disappointment and she had to make a decision after going through all the options over and over in her mind. “I could do the comp and do my best, and if I don’t get my goal I’m going to have to live with that. Or don’t do the comp out of fear of disappointing myself. Or do the comp and potentially get my goal.”
Powerlifting competitions are often held in local gyms and they are attended by a supportive crowd, often friends and family. Volunteers run the competition, marshalling everyone, loading and unloading the bar, setting the pin height, noting down every lift and doing calculations. The competition is more often genial than savage. Everyone there knows what it feels like to hit a goal you want, and one you need.
Every competitor gets three attempts at the squat first, then three at bench press, and lastly, three deadlifts. Jen’s 105 kg attempt was to come in the middle of the competition. Her squats were satisfactory. She had wanted to lift 115kg but settled for 110kg to ensure her knees weren’t compromised for the deadlift. Her lifts looked smooth and relatively straightforward. The bench press was next. Her coach set the first weight at 97 kg much to the surprise of many there, the crowd felt she was going too hard, too early.
While the lifting component of the bench press is performed with the arms, the whole body must contribute for the lift to be a success. Jen took her time to settle herself on the bench, placed her arms onto the bar, tense and ready. Then anchoring her feet to the floor—they can’t leave the floor or the lift will not be counted—then bending her back to anchor her shoulders, covered in chalk, onto the bench. The lower body must be primed, feet ready to be pushed into the floor, glutes and hamstrings alert. She lifted 97kg without fuss.
Jen’s second bench press attempt was 100kg. Again, she took her time getting herself into position, going through her routine with precision and poise. The marshal handed her the bar and she brought it to her chest and back up again with one smooth movement. It was time. Jen went inside herself, blocking out the crowd and the other competitors.
“There was a part of me that felt like a bit of a wanker, everyone else was doing the competition for fun, but I was thinking, no, this is mine.” She put her headphones on and listened to a favourite track over and over again, waiting her turn on the platform.
“I didn’t want to come from an aggressive headspace. I didn’t want to be like ‘fuck the world! Fuck this!’ I didn’t want to channel any anger. What I wanted to channel was my strength and power and put all that into one lift, one moment.”
Again, the routine. Every muscle fibre in a heightened but controlled state. Exactly the same as the previous lifts. They handed her the bar.“When your coach steps away, after you have taken it off the rack you feel yourself underneath the weight. It’s
“When your coach steps away, after you have taken it off the rack you feel yourself underneath the weight. It’s confronting because it’s slightly heavier than the one before. You’ve just got to be comfortable with that. I took a second to acknowledge the feeling of the weight and then knew that I had to execute it down. When I do a bench press, I have to feel in complete control on the way down, otherwise my brain says, we can’t get this up.”
The downward trip was controlled as Jen pushed the bar towards the ceiling however, the movement was slow. She seemed to be having more difficulty with this lift than the previous two. Then something clicked. The bar accelerated toward the rack.
“I realised, this weight isn’t bigger than me. This weight has no power over me. It feels heavy and it feels slow but I’m in control of this. It was a slow moment in time. It was about finding a way to get the bar up, and that was to focus down in my heels, in my chest, through my lats, feel the tension there and know that all I had to do was keep moving my arms up and (the bar) didn’t have any power over me.”
Jen locked out her arms. The lift was counted. She had pushed 105kg. After this, her deadlift of 150kg was almost irrelevant.
“Once I did it and I felt relief” Jen said, her voice shaking, “I felt as though I could let go of a lot of things. There was a voice saying, ‘you can let go now’. That’s why it meant so much to me the night before. It wasn’t about 105 kilos, it was about what it represented. I needed to do that lift, so that I could let go.”
For Jen, thoughts about what she ‘should’ be doing, how she ‘should’ be living, faded away and she’s passionate about sharing her experience with other women who might have once, or still are putting parts of their sporting selves away.
“You can stop fighting, running and hiding from that because it’s a part of who you are and we’ve made space for her. That was my internal battle for years, don’t let it out—especially now you’re a mother. Be contained. Be less. Things I’d told myself to not do. And when I started to be called butch, well, I packed her up. My aggression and competitiveness was a contained version of myself.
“No matter how small or insignificant, in terms of how society values it, [sport] is actually hugely important and valuable in an individual sense. I’ve been mostly symptom free of anxiety. It helped me overcome endometriosis. Women should chase whatever makes them happy regardless of the criticism, whether internal or external, because once it matters to you, then it matters. You make a space for it, and you own it. Be righteous about that. No one can take that away from me now.
And Jen’s message to those who told her she had brass balls when she first began to lift?
“Brass balls? Put them on the ends of a squat bar and I’ll show you what I can do.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities in this story.