Real Voices interview: Hannah Powell

Olympic weightlifter who has competed internationally for Great Britain and for England

Who are you?

I’m Hannah Powell, I’m 20, and I’m an Olympic weightlifter.

How did you start weightlifting?

I started when I was 11, at secondary school. My uncle and my dad were powerlifters when I was little, so I was always aware of the sport. The secondary school I went to happened to do weightlifting – my uncle and some others set up the club before I was born. There was just something that made me want to do it. I eventually plucked up the courage to go along and have a go.

I’ve since become British champion. I hold a few British records for my age category and for my weight category, and I’ve competed internationally for Great Britain and for England. I’m currently training for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

How do people react?

Most of the time, the reaction is shock, mainly because I’m only 4’8”. I also often get asked if weightlifting is the reason I’m so small! But it’s not. My height’s an advantage. The first phase of the movement in weightlifting is getting the bar from the floor to above your head, so being short tends to be favourable because you don’t have to lift the bar as high. Unfortunately for me, I have quite long limbs for my height, so that can be a little bit of a disadvantage. Usually, the best shape for weightlifters is short everything: short arms, short legs and short body.

How do you feel about your body?

When I was younger I was maybe a bit more aware of having a different body shape, but now I actually like it. There seems to be a new trend around fitness on Twitter, Facebook, and so on, and it seems that many women are aspiring to an athletic figure rather than a very thin one. My body is a tool for my sport, so it’s no good me complaining that my legs are getting big. The bigger they are, the more weight I’m going to lift. As long as I’m a weightlifter, that’s more important than what size jeans I get.

Which category are you in?

I’m in the lightest body weight category (48 kg), but I’m light for my class at 45 kg. Usually girls in this class train around 50 kg and then lose the last 2 kg over a couple of weeks to compete. The heavier you are, the more you lift, so if you’re training heavy then you’re training better. Because I’m a little bit underweight, I’m at a disadvantage. I’m constantly trying to put weight on.

So is it doughnuts for breakfast?

Definitely not! To be fair, I can eat a lot more than someone who doesn’t do sport, but I want it to be good weight and not just fat. So I try to eat things that I know will be beneficial to my weight gain, such as wholemeal pasta and wholemeal bread rather than white versions, sweet potatoes rather than white potatoes, and protein like chicken. I’m not fussy with food, though – it’s the portion size that shocks people!

Do you eat lots of protein?

A mistake a lot of people make when weight training is to overload on protein thinking that it’s going to help them build massive muscles, but your body is only going to use so much. The thing I eat most of is complex carbohydrates, as that’s what’s going to help me put on weight, but protein straight after training is what helps you build the muscle once you’ve broken it down in training. Chocolate is my weakness. I’m not really bothered about junk food, but every single day I find myself thinking ‘I really want some chocolate’!  

How often do you train?

I train about five times a week. I’m not funded [by British Weight Lifting] at the moment, so I work full time as a classroom assistant at a primary school. The hours aren’t too bad. I’m usually out before four [o’clock], which gives me time to go to the gym. Going from being funded and able to train twice a day to working full time and trying to squeeze training in around work is quite hard – but I choose to do it.

You got injured just before London 2012. How did you cope?

It was horrible. As the Games got closer, I started to realise that I could actually have a chance at qualifying, which both terrified and excited me because I’d never done anything to that level before. To have got injured there was a big comedown because I couldn't even say that I’d tried my best. It was crushing. I had some time off over that summer. As I tried to get back into it in September, I got another injury that kept me off until April 2013. I started training again, and then got injured again before the British Senior Weightlifting Championship in July.

Sometimes it’s like a constant battle and there’s a lot more disappointment than there is success, but because you want success so badly you just brush it off and keep ploughing on. It does get disheartening sometimes.

Who is the team to beat?

China is the country that is just out of this world. They rarely get beaten. There’s also Russia, a lot of Asian countries and some South American, African and Eastern European countries too. There’s a Chinese girl in the 48 kg class who snatched 98 kg and clean-and-jerked 121 kg, and she’s only 20. My best lifts are: snatch, 65 kg, clean and jerk, 83 kg. That’s some way off the world record, which is not something I can even think about competing against.

Is it a male-dominated sport?

Yes. Women didn’t compete in the Olympics until 2000. In the 14 years since, though, the standard of female lifting has rocketed. There are women out there who are outlifting men. 2012 has opened people’s eyes to new sports.

Do you get sexist comments?

I’ve not really had comments in person, but I’ve had some over the internet. I’ve just ignored it. I don’t do my sport for them; I do it for myself.

What’s next for you?

I want to see how the next year goes. The 2014 Commonwealth Games will be the biggest chance I’ve ever had to perform on the international stage, so I’m working really hard and trying to keep things quiet.

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Proteins’ in January 2014.

Careers, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development