Despite being a nation full of gym buffs, when it comes to competitive weightlifting Great Britain’s record is remarkably average.
Since the rebirth of the Olympic movement back in 1896 we have won a total of seven medals – the last being a bronze from David Mercer in 1984 – and only a solitary gold, claimed Launceston Elliot in the ‘One Hand Lift’ back at those inaugural Games in Athens.
But this could be about to change thanks to two very powerful women.
GB created history at the European Weightlifting Championships by securing its highest ever medal count thanks to a silver for Emily Muskett and a bronze for Zoe Smith.
That in itself may not seem particularly overwhelming but when you look into the journeys both athletes have had to undertake in order to secure these medals, you soon see why this is a monumental achievement..
Pushing to reach the top again
Zoe Smith is arguably the most well known British weightlifter of this generation, having been tipped for international glory from an early age.
She broke the British record on her way to finishing 10th at London 2012 after becoming England’s first female weightlifting medallist at a Commonwealth Games aged just 16 two years before.
Smith then followed that up with a brilliant gold – and backflip celebration – four years later in Glasgow, setting new British and Commonwealth records in the 58kg category, and also claimed a maiden European bronze in the same year.
As a result it was hoped that she would be challenging for medals in Rio. But a serious shoulder injury suffered at the 2015 British Championships not only ruined her chances of that; it nearly ruined her career.
Forced to sit out of the sport for nigh on two years because of the injury, and with British Weightlifting’s funding being cut entirely after Rio, things seemed desolate for Smith.
Before she knew it Smith was working full-time in a coffee shop, returning to school to complete her A-Levels and only able to train in the evenings at a local gym.
Yet despite all this she knew she had it within herself to return to the top and she did just that with a superb silver at last year’s Commonwealth Games, made even more impressive by the fact that she was suffering from a painful back injury at the time.
So often in sport we see young prodigies fade into nothing for a whole variety of reasons. Given her circumstances the same could have easily happened to Smith.
Instead however she has proven that not only is she a world class talent, she is also incredibly resolute and possesses levels of determination most of us can only dream of.
Furthermore she is still only 24 and has potentially two, if not three, more Olympic cycles in her if she so desires.
If her body lets her, Smith could be set to fulfil the promise she showed as a teenager against the very best the world has to offer.
Making the most of un-Godley circumstances
While Smith was already competing at Olympic Games in her late teens, Muskett – formerly known as Godley before getting married last year – had only just started taking the sport seriously.
A naturally gifted athlete, she had specialised in the pole vault after participating in a number of other sports including hockey, netball and tennis as a child.
Lifting weights as part of her S&C training201 for athletics, it was soon discovered that so adept was she at doing this that she could actually qualify as a weightlifter for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, an opportunity which – after initially scoffing at – she took up.
However, unlike Smith, success wasn’t instantaneous and it’s been a long grind for Muskett to reach the top of her sport.
Illness prevented her from taking to the stage in Delhi, while she was not selected for London 2012.
A fifth-placed finish at Glasgow 2014 was encouraging but it was 2016 that was to prove her breakthrough year, claiming a first national championship as well as placing a highly respectable sixth at the Europeans.
This improvement in results came alongside a shift up the weight divisions, with a British Championship gold – and national record – coming her way in the 75kg class in 2017; she competed in the 63kg category just three years earlier.
What makes these results even more impressive though is that Godley was competing in a division where she wasn’t even close to being near the maximum weight, measuring around 69/70kg the scales, yet she was still able to beat much heavier competitors with ease.
Perhaps her most impressive achievement at that point was to follow in 2018 as she beat the previous Commonwealth champion Marie-Eve Beauchemin-Nadeau to the -75kg title despite weighing nearly 4kg less.
And what this European silver, won against some tough opposition, further proves is that it may have taken time, and there may have been a lot of hurdles in the way, but Muskett is developing into a genuine contender on the world’s biggest stages.
This will never sink in. Thank you everyone for your kind words and messages of support. To be Commonwealth Champion is a dream come true! 🏋🏼♀️♥️ pic.twitter.com/xSbY38Wd1Q
— Emily Muskett (Godley) (@EmilyGodley) April 10, 2018
Future still uncertain
While these impressive performances have certainly boosted their hopes of making Tokyo 2020, there still remains a lot of uncertainty about whether Smith and Muskett will compete at the Games next year.
First of all there is the issue of funding. As mentioned previously, weightlifting’s funding was completely cut after Rio, forcing the athletes to have to rely on crowdfunding to make last November’s World Championships.
However they have recently been handed a lifeline in the form of the new Aspiration Fund from UK Sport and the National Lottery which is being awarded to help support athletes in their quest to reach Tokyo, a scheme which has certainly aided in the case of Smith and Muskett as European medals carry significant qualification points.
Even then though it may be third time unlucky for Muskett thanks to a major restructuring of the weight divisions.
The 69kg category at which she would have competed has been removed, meaning she has one of two choices – return to the weight she started her career at but was less successful or bulk up even further to compete in the 76kg category.
The fact that she has been able to not only compete but win at this level though – albeit not quite against the same calibre of opposition she could face next summer – shows that Muskett definitely has the capabilities of performing at the very highest level in this weight band.
It’s certainly early days and there is a long way to go but with hard work and perhaps a little bit of luck, these two women have the power to push Britain into becoming a top weightlifting nation.