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The Women's Sports Alliance

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Zoe Smith – The Olympic Weightlifter who ‘Forgot’ How to Lift

Even Zoe Smith admits her experiences over the last few years are likely leave you wondering what the punch line might be, but her condition – lost move syndrome – is no joking matter.


Image Credit: Zoe Smith


Nor is it an isolated experience, despite those suffering with it often doing so in silence.


Olympic champions Simone Biles (gymnastics) and Jack Laugher (diving) broke with that tradition though in 2021, revealing their struggles after medal-successes at the Tokyo Olympics.

World champion trampolinist Bryony Page also discussed her own challenges with the condition enroute to the summit of her sport to the WSA last year.


For Zoe there was confusion, when the condition first appeared in 2018, which developed into a genuine embarrassment as the it became a “real problem” during lockdown in 2020 before following her into training and competition.


“Obviously it's not great that they've suffered with it, but I'm glad that other people have kind of dealt with something like this,” Zoe tells the Women’s Sports Alliance.


“It reassures me that I’m not completely losing my mind!”


Zoe is still managing her condition, but is making “encouraging” progress and defied the odds to claim an impressive overall bronze medal at the European Weightlifting Championships in Armenia this month.



From 'Wonderkid' to Wiser Weightlifter


Zoe, a Londoner by birth, shot to fame in the build-up to her home Games as she was identified as talented teenage female athlete in a sport traditionally overlooked by mainstream media.


As such, she truly embodied the London 2012 message of ‘inspire a generation’ and media interest, social media coverage, major sponsors and brand endorsements transformed her young life.


While she would not challenge for the podium at the Olympics, new British records proved her potential and the former gymnast created one of the ‘moments of the Games’ at the Commonwealths two years later by celebrating her gold with an impressive backflip.


Her rise came at a time of rapid social media growth, something which was “fun” and “often wild” at that time, but was not without its challenges with Zoe speaking out about online trolls during her early career.


“When I was very young, at my first Olympics in London there was a lot of interest in lifestyle and entertainment and it was all so different to what I'd ever expected doing weightlifting,” she recalls.

“It's not exactly a popular sport, so it (the attention) was a little bit unexpected, but there were a lot of perks like sponsorship opportunities and social media, like Instagram, gave athletes a platform to showcase their personalities and what they were passionate about.


“It gave people the opportunity to become influencers, but social media can be a bit of a double-edged sword though as there’s sometimes a backlash and negative attention.


“There can be a pressure to stay relevant and not only excel in your sport, which I tried with that social media influencer thing but I found it doesn’t suit me.


“I still post, but I’ve let a lot of it fizzle out to be honest because I speak a lot about mental health and I find being constantly online isn’t a particularly good thing for me.”


“I don't have as many sponsors anymore, but I think that's a small price to pay for me to be happy plugged in as a normal person.”


Image courtesy of Zoe Smith


Lessons Learned on and off the Platform


From 2009-2015 Zoe’s career was heading in only one direction, but in early 2016 disaster struck as she dislocated her shoulder twice during the British Championships which served as the Olympic trials.

She would not go to the Rio 2016 Olympics and with her sport’s funding cut and endorsement deals drying up Zoe was forced to balance her rehabilitation with work in coffee shops, pizza restaurants and a venue serving ‘bubble tea’ in order to pay the bills.


Against the odds, she battled back to claim at emotional silver for England at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, completing her set of honours after gold in 2014 and bronze four years prior to that in Delhi.


Zoe admits she traditionally rarely looks back on her past achievements with much fondness, but now attributes that to a greater understanding of her ADHD diagnosis.

“It was maybe late 2020, or early 2021 I got the diagnosis and I began to learn that sometimes people with ADHD often don't feel a sense of achievement, just a sense of relief at things being done,” she tells the WSA.


“That's sort of been me throughout more or less my entire career and it kind of makes sense now when you frame it like that.


“Don’t get me wrong there are things I’m proud of, like when I hurt my back, had just three weeks of training and I won on a Commonwealth Games medal, so it’s comforting to know I can deliver when it matters, but that’s probably the extent of my sense of achievements.”



Forgetting and Remembering How to Snatch Again


Weightlifting competitions consist of two stages; the snatch – where a lifter picks up the barbell and lifts it above their head in a singular motion.


Then there’s the ‘clean and jerk’ where a weightlifter is required to pick up the barbell, bring to their chest and then lift above their head. Maximum lifted totals are then combined to decide the overall placements.


It is the former of these which Zoe has developed a problem performing.

A recent Instagram post of an attempted lift in training visualised the problem for her followers and while she appears bemused in the video, that is a coping strategy, the reality has been incredible challenging for the lifter to comprehend.


“It just didn’t seem like something that should be possible 15 years into a career, but it started initially in the gym probably around 2018 for seemingly no reason and then became a chronic problem in in lockdown,” she says.


“It probably did develop as a bit of a symptom of having to sort of just cope with everything that was going on at the time.


“I was training on my own in a garage, it was cold and it was a bit dangerous because I was pretty much touching the ceiling with a bar at times that I imagine is where probably a lot of the hesitation came from.

“It seems like it's taken me a while to even be able to pinpoint when it happened and why and I still can't find a logical reasons but perhaps whatever mental health struggles I was dealing with expressed themselves in that way.


“It’s also gone through phases, where sometimes it’s good and I’ll forget it’s a problem them other times it’ll come back with vengeance.


“But by telling myself to calm down and build things back up slowly I’ve been able to manage things and make gains which is really encouraging.”


Image courtesy of Zoe Smith


BACK ON THE PODIUM, BACK CHASING A PLACE AT PARIS 2024


A gold in the ‘clean and jerk’ leading to an overall bronze at the European Championships this month has put Zoe in a good position as she seeks a place at Paris 2024.


It would be her third Olympics after previous appearances at London 2012 and Tokyo 2020 but after her experiences over recent years Zoe is adopting a more philosophical approach to her preparations and aiming to be ‘kinder’ to herself.


“These are my twilight years realistically, so yeah, it'd be a great to make one more Games because I never feel I’d delivered a best result at an Olympics, so Paris is definitely one that is a goal,” Zoe tells the WSA.


“It's so close by to have like people that I know would love to support me and that would be amazing, but at the same time if I don't make it, I've kind of made my peace with that as well.


“Don't get me wrong, I'm going to fight tooth and nail to get there but I think to two Olympic Games is more than most people get to do and like four Commonwealth Games is pretty decent career.”

Zoe pauses before admitting, “I guess I’m getting better at appreciating what I have already achieved.

“Hopefully there’s plenty more ahead, but I do feel I've got a lot to be proud of!”


Image courtesy of Zoe Smith

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