Emily Campbell made sporting history in Tokyo when she won the first ever British Olympic medal for female weightlifting. The Bulwell native chats to us about her journey to silverware, the messages she uses her platform to promote, and her expectations for Paris 2024…
Could you explain a bit more about the categories of weightlifting?
Weightlifting consists of ten categories for men, and ten categories for women. But when we contest at the Olympics, they shrink that down a bit. I lift in the women's 87kg+, which is called the Super Heavyweight category. There’s no cap on what you can weigh. That's the beauty of weightlifting: it's for everybody.
How did you first get into weightlifting, here in Nottingham?
I got into athletics at Manning Comprehensive School [now Nottingham Girls Academy] and continued at Leeds Beckett University. I wanted to get stronger for shot put and hammer. Somebody recommended weightlifting, then a coach told me to sack off athletics and become a weightlifter. I was 21, so I was thinking, why would I start a new sport? But after six weeks of training, I maxed out what you needed to qualify for the British Seniors.
At the end of that year, I moved back to Nottingham and my coach told me about a gym in Alfreton that had the best weightlifting coaches in the country. That was where my career started taking off. I quit athletics, won my first national title, then qualified for my first international. It's been a bit of a whirlwind ever since, really!
Were there any hardships that you faced during this time, and how did you overcome them?
It wasn't easy. When I started the sport in 2016, the girls had just lost their funding. In the beginning, I was working 36 hours a week, and then training fifteen hours a week, which was rough. I was constantly having to prove myself, but I think that extra ‘I'm going to prove you wrong’ mentality was the reason I was so successful. To stand on an Olympic podium with not one piece of Lottery funding… That was the biggest way to prove them wrong.
When I started the sport in 2016, the girls had just lost their funding. I was working 36 hours a week, and then training fifteen hours a week. I was constantly having to prove myself
How has your life changed since you won your silver medal in Tokyo?
I got to do lots of really cool things, and now I work with some worldwide brands. I'm a full-time athlete now, and I'm funded to do that. I feel like I actually work more than I did before, and a lot of responsibility comes with it. But I'm very grateful, I'm just trying to enjoy every minute of it. It's not going to last forever, and I'm just trying to make the biggest impact I can while I'm in this position.
You were the first British woman to win a medal in the sport. What did that mean to you?
It’s hard to put that achievement into words. It was a fantastic start to people taking our sport seriously and taking notice of it. For a while, the Olympics were out of reach, but now the goalposts have moved. That’s really special for our sport.
I always want to be the first but definitely not the last. I hope that girls will look and think they can do it too. Hopefully, that's set the fire sparking. I always say that you can't be what you can't see. This is why representation is absolutely massive in everything we do in life.
Recently, people are becoming a lot more aware of the injustices and racial barriers that black athletes face. What do you think needs to be done about this?
I think talking is the first step. Everybody thinks it's a taboo subject, but people need to be educated. It’s about people not being afraid to ask the right questions. There are lots of brands and people who are making that conversation heard and making an effort.
Obviously, Black History Month is amazing. I mean, I'm upset that we just have a month. But I feel like we're in a stage where we still need that month, because we need that to develop it into an everyday thing. If we continue to grow, it's going to become a more positive place.
I don't typically look like an athlete, but my body shape is required for me to do my job. I realised how much of a hole there was for females that look like me
You’re also involved in a lot of important conversations about body positivity and inclusivity in the fitness world. Could you tell us more about that?
I don't typically look like an athlete, but my body shape is required for me to do my job. I realised how much of a hole there was for females that look like me, it's like the fitness industry became elitist. Being healthy is for everybody, everyone needs to be active, it doesn't matter what you look like.
I realised that accessibility to gym kit is ridiculous, so I started calling out certain brands, saying that they need to do better. This wasn’t to get sponsorship; it was to make them do the right thing. We need to start smashing these barriers down one by one. The industry has come a long way but there's still a huge amount that needs to be done.
You’re a huge inspiration for so many people, but even inspirations have their own inspiration. Who inspired you?
I've been into sports since the minute I popped out of the womb. I have certain faces that I remember from being young. Serena Williams is one of the best athletes in the world, period - take the ‘female’ out of it. Closer to home, people like Kelly Holmes, Denise Lewis, Jessica Ennis-Hill… Faces that look like me, out there doing amazing things. I didn't realise at the time that they were inspirations, until I was older, and I got to meet them and speak to them.
Looking to the future, what are your upcoming goals, including for the next Olympics?
I'm deep in qualification for Paris. My first event was the World Championships, where I got silver. I've ranked myself well, and now I need to hold on to that. Everybody wants to be an Olympic champion. You'd be lying if you said you didn't. That’s the ultimate accolade that you can have beside your name. I would love to come away with another medal, I don't think that's a secret. I'm going to put myself in the best possible position to do that.
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