Images courtesy of 'Dan Kent, Weightlifting House'
“I don’t look like a typical athlete, but I know I’m strong,” mused Emily Campbell. “I want to prove to that girl in the classroom who doesn’t quite look the same as her friends that you can go out and achieve amazing things.”
This was the weightlifter speaking to me days before the Tokyo Olympics began.
She had belief in herself and her mission, but at that stage had no idea what awaited her a week later nor the following 12 months.
To be clear, Campbell was not an ‘unfancied’ underdog. She had already attained European and Commonwealth honours during the brief time since switching from hammer and shot put.
She was rarely mentioned among the British pre-Games medal contenders though.
That was in part due to the lack of profile her sport receives in the UK, but also because of discrimination she faced simply for looking “different” to other successful Team GB athletes.
“I possibly don’t get as much sponsorship as the rest of the girls because I don’t look like how companies want you to look,” states the lifter, who admitted that ahead of the Olympics “no one outside of the world of weightlifting” really knew of her.
On 2 August 2021, that changed. Campbell became the first British woman in history to win an Olympic weightlifting medal, with +87kg silver in Tokyo.
I caught up with Campbell a year on from her ground-breaking success, following her latest triumph – a maiden Commonwealth gold at Birmingham 2022.
DRAWING INSPIRATION FROM SERENA WILLIAMS, KELLY HOLMES AND JESS ENNIS-HILL
Campbell grew up in Nottingham and athletics was her “first love” in those formative years.
“I was a massive athletics fan,” she recalls with a smile. “Kelly Holmes and Jessica Ennis Hill, those women were the first I saw absolutely dominating and being respected for their craft.
“Seeing that, well, I was dreaming one day maybe I could grow up and do it too.
“Serena Williams was also one of my top (role models) too, because of her pure dedicate and the adversity she came across, but overcame.
“The way she’s carried herself on and off the court, she’s always had a fantastic personality and wanted to be different and that inspired me as I always saw myself as a bit different and not the ‘norm’.”
Her personal ‘calling’ would not come in tennis, but she would become a domestically strong field specialist, who won national medals in both shot put and hammer events.
By her early twenties she wanted to take the next step and was encouraged to try weightlifting as part of a strength-building programme.
“I’d just got into it to make me stronger for the hammer and the shot and then just fell in love with the sport,” she recalls.
“It took a bit of convincing from other people because I was trying to juggle the two for about a year, but then I realised my heart was with weightlifting.”
FROM ABOVE AVERAGE ATHLETE TO WORLD-LEADING WEIGHTLIFTER
Selection for the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, came as a “shock” just 18 months after first lifting a bar.
Claiming a place on the podium – with +90kg bronze – felt “even more unbelievable” at the time, but it was a key moment in her trajectory.
“I didn’t know how I’d managed it as I was just going out there to have fun, but winning that bronze medal was a pivotal moment for me,” she tells the WSA.
“I came back and said that I really felt I could be one of the best weightlifters in the world, so it was definitely a very important stepping stone in my journey.”
National titles as well as European bronze and gold medals and followed over the next three years before her landmark moment at the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.
‘TOKYO TRANSFORMED MY LIFE’
Ahead of the Games Campbell admits she would struggle to find sponsors.
“A lot of times there were gym companies who reached out to my agent and wanted to work with me, then discovered my size and all of a sudden they’re not interested anymore,” reflects the history-making Olympian.
“To be completely honest, winning the Olympic medal has changed my life.
“We live in a world where people care about Olympic medals and it was a chance for me to show myself as an athlete, but also as a person and my personality, which is something people bought into and liked.
“It was about getting that platform to say what I’m about, who I am and what I want to achieve outside of weightlifting as well.”
One of Campbell’s main missions is to change perceptions and ensure other women and girls do not face some of the challenges she endured before her Olympic success.
“I hope I can get to the stage where people look at me and go ‘wow she’s confident in her own skin’ and why shouldn’t she be?
“I’m especially trying to work with companies to make their clothing sizes more inclusive because if you’re size 16 and above there’s a lot of places you can’t buy gym clothes.
“We’re trying to promote that people need to be healthier and need to go to the gym, but how to do they to start with if they can’t even get a nice gym kit to fit them.
“I can’t believe that we’re having this conversation where (in 2022) women are struggling to find clothes that fit them to go to the gym.
Campbell continues; “it’s bizarre that we’re in this situation, but I’m a person who was always told not to sit there and cry about it.
“You either do something about it or you don’t moan about it - I want to be proactive and help!”
Follow @emilyjade_gb on Instagram.
A MISSION WHICH IS ABOUT MORE THAN MEDALS
Winning gold in front of friends and family at Birmingham 2022 – a relatively short distance from where she grew up – was a “dream moment” and another achievement on her “wish list” ticked off.
A second Olympic honour – preferably the gold – is future target come Paris 2024, but her mission away from the sport will remain a major driving and motivational force.
“I believe we have a responsibility on this earth to set up the future and there are amazing people before us that have allowed us to have what we have,” states Campbell.
“We have to do that for the ones that will come up and for them to see weightlifting is beautiful because we’re all different, shapes, sizes, heights, ethnicity, ages, is everything.
“Having that representation is great for young people and children because they can see that I can be at the forefront of this sport and that they could be one day too.
“I have a voice now and I’m going to continue pushing for them.”