Raising the bar

Joel Coussins interviews Aoife O’Sullivan – a champion powerlifter – in the final installment of a series of ‘Women in Sport’ interviews

It is hard not to be impressed by Aoife O’Sullivan, an Irish powerlifting record holder for her weight – having deadlifted 160kg, almost two-and-a-half times her body mass – who claims she only took up powerlifting by chance, and still insists that her academic life comes first. The care-free JS Irish and French Student bounds into the room full of enthusiasm and engaging comments, and spends the next half an hour talking on a range of topics from female empowerment to junk food.

Q. How did you get involved in powerlifting?

A. I was always into fitness and sports: Soccer, GAA – I used to do every sport I could as a child. Then I got injured during the Leaving Cert and stopped playing to concentrate on my study, and when I moved to Dublin for college the social aspect of life takes over and you forget about sports. In second year I started feeling bad about not doing anything so I went back to the gym, started doing a few light free-weights; after a while a guy approached me and told me that since I seemed pretty strong I should consider doing power-lifting, which sounded exciting so I gave it a go.

Q. How did you know what to do?

A. He gave me a few rough guidelines, but the first while I was on my own and hadn’t a clue what I was doing really. I made decent progress though — I went to intervarsities in 2016 and placed second. After I few months someone mentioned that I should probably join a club, if I wanted to take it seriously, so I joined ABSGym in Glasnevin, where the coach is the Irish national team coach, so now I’m getting really excellent training.

Q. Just to clarify – powerlifting is different to the weightlifting you see at the Olympics?

A. Yes…

Q. How do they differ?

A. Powerlifting is your basic squat, bench and deadlift, whereas olympic weightlifting involves the snatch and the clean-and-jerk and so on – it’s really exciting to watch. The other difference of course is that powerlifting isn’t yet an olympic sport, but hopefully that’ll change soon. One major similarity between the two is that they’ve both been blighted in the past by drug scandals – weightlifting in particular saw competitors stripped of Olympic medals due to doping violations.

“On a night out you’ll get chatting to someone and when you tell them you’re a powerlifter they always say, “You don’t look like a powerlifter”, as if we’re all huge and weight categories don’t exist. I don’t give a damn about the stigma though.”

Q. Would you ever be tempted by that?

A. No way – that’s of no interest to me whatsoever; if I’m in the gym and I hear someone can squat something crazy like 250kg, but he’s on the juice then I’ve no admiration or respect for him at all, it means nothing to me.

Q. How does one train for powerlifting?

A. Every person has a unique programme tailored to them. Personally, I train 4 days a week, usually for an hour and a half but when you’re in the gym it’s such a social environment that you can be there for ages taking breaks all the time! Your back is very important – I train my back every session, because if you have a weak back then your lifts will suffer as a result. I wouldn’t squat, deadlift and bench every day, because you need to let your body rest, so I squat and bench three times a week and deadlift once or twice. Listen to your body – your body needs to recover. When I started I hadn’t a clue what to do, I was training 6 and 7 days a week, and was getting weaker as a result, so now I give myself 3 days rest a week. I’ll even take a whole week off before a tournament – that way your body is eager and the weights fly up!

Q. Do you feel there’s a stigma attached to being a female powerlifter?

A. 100%! People always associate lifting weights with men. My mum and nanny hate it – after intervarsities last Saturday I rang my nan and she told me I was turning into a man! Or on a night out you’ll get chatting to someone and when you tell them you’re a powerlifter they always say, “You don’t look like a powerlifter”, as if we’re all huge and weight categories don’t exist. I don’t give a damn about the stigma though, or what anyone thinks – each time I hit the gym I feel like I am shattering the perception of the limitations of women, and contributing to eliminating barriers. I find it empowering representing females in a sport that is so male driven.

Q. You recently competed at the European Championships in Denmark – what was that experience like?

A. I’d never been to an international competition before – I was supposed to go to Belarus last year for World University Championships but I got injured shortly beforehand which was devastating. So, the hype for this was immense, because it had been building for so long. The day before I competed I went and checked out the venue and the buzz was just insane: there were cameramen and commentators setting up for the event. I’ve never enjoyed a competition before, but this was some spectacle, there were screens everywhere.

“It empowers me – I feel like a girl outside the gym and a woman inside it. I love feeling strong.”

Q. Do you find there’s much more pressure on athletes in individual sports, compared with rugby players for instance?

A. Definitely – but I kind of like the pressure, it’s more exciting. When you lose in a team sport, you lose with your team, and when you lose in an individual sport it’s crushing – but when you win it’s so much better. I love the individual aspect of my sport, I like to train on my own and do my own thing.

Q. Is stage fright something you’ve ever had to deal with, given that, in powerlifting, it’s all eyes on you when you compete?

A. Not really – I’m actually extremely relaxed when I’m on the platform! When I was in Denmark there was a livestream of the event, and whilst you’re waiting to be called the camera’s on you and everyone has a dead serious face on, but I was just looking around, waving at the audience. The commentators said I should get a gold medal for being the most fun competitor of the event!

Q. You set the Irish record for your weight category in Denmark, and then broke it again last Saturday at Intervarsities. Is that going to have any benefits in terms of sponsorship going forward?

A. Hopefully – powerlifting isn’t a funded sport, so we have to rely on donations to fund our trips, as a club will only have so much money to cover a percentage of it. You have to go into sports shops and explain your situation and ask if they can sponsor you some money. It’d be great for the college to help out, especially as I broke the record representing Trinity. I’ve been asked to compete in the World Championships in Belarus in June, which is very expensive, so my attendance is entirely dependent on being able to raise the funds.

“It has made me be a stronger person that I ever thought I could be, not just physically but also mentally.”

Q. What does the future hold for you as a competitor – is this a potential career path now?

A. No, no. Powerlifting is something I do on the side, just for my own benefit. It empowers me – I feel like a girl outside the gym and a woman inside it. I love feeling strong, but I like to balance everything – it’s very easy to get sucked into something and for it to become your whole life and I still have exams, my social life and so on; although powerlifting does make me more disciplined, eating less junk food and getting better sleep – if I didn’t have competitions to look forward to I’d be going crazy! Academics are my number one priority though – I couldn’t let anything else take over.

Q.If someone wanted to get started in powerlifting, what would be your essential to-do list before they begin?

A. One of the main things I’d tell someone is that they are going to have to be patient –  results don’t show overnight. Progress takes time and you have to be super patient. The results will show though if the hard work is put in –  so it is totally worth the wait! And don’t give a damn about what anyone else thinks. Too many people these days are so obsessed with other people’s opinions of them!

The last thing is just to go for it, I did and have never regretted it! Powerlifting is more than just a sport for me, it’s a complete game changer. It has made me be a stronger person that I ever thought I could be, not just physically but also mentally. I cannot recommend powerlifting highly enough, as there is something transformative about being able to do something that seemed impossible a few weeks beforehand. Once you realise that these milestones are possible, then everything else in life seems possible. The rewards are amazing, it’s as simple as that!

Joel Coussins

Joel is a fourth year Philosophy student and Sport Editor for Trinity News.