Weightlifting: Britain's strongest woman represents greatest chance of first Olympic gold in the discipline
Rebekah Tiler can lift three times her own body weight and is still only 15
Sunday 18 May 2014
At just 15, Yorkshire schoolgirl Rebekah Tiler can claim to be Britain's strongest woman, a weightlifter who regularly heaves three times her own 69kg body weight over her head and is currently outlifting competitors 10 years her senior.
Following the retirement of Michaela Breeze, the Welsh former Commonwealth Games silver medalist acknowledged as Britain's strongest female, Tyler could be worth her weight in gold as she dreams of becoming the first Briton to win an Olympic lifting title.
That dream is being honed in a small gym in the West Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd – birthplace of former poet laureate Ted Hughes, author of The Iron Woman. It is an appropriate workshop.
"Astonishing," is how her coach Eddie Halstead describes Tiler's power. "What she is doing would be phenomenal for a young man, but for a girl, it is incredible.
"She's the best talent I've seen in a very long time. Zoe Smith [who competed for Team GB at London 2012] is a quality lifter but Rebekah will go marching on past. If she carries on progressing at the rate she is now, she'll end up lifting 235 to 240kg combined, which is world-class."
She has already won gold in a record-breaking performance at the European Youth Championships in Lithuania this year. A former UK Schools sprint champion with the physique of a stocky welterweight boxer and the power of a pantechnicon, Tiler is causing eyebrows to be lifted as high as her coach's expectations in this macho, muscled world.
Last weekend she compounded her Euro success by becoming the youngest weightlifter to win a senior women's British title, taking gold in the 69kg class in Coventry. Her total of 205kg would also have been enough to win gold in both the higher 75kg and 75+kg categories.
No dumb belle, Tiler attends Bingley Grammar School, where she is studying for her GCSEs and hopes to go to university. "My schoolwork fits in around my evening training quite easily and they have been very supportive in giving me time off for competitions," she says. "The teachers think what I do is cool."
So does a local butcher, Ian Hewitt, a sponsor whose liberal supplies of steak and chicken play a vital role in sustaining girl power in the Tiler household in Denholme, where Rebekah's three younger sisters, Sophie (11), Lisa (nine) and Emily (five) are budding lifters.
"The five-year-old copies me, grabs a stick and tries to clean-and- jerk," says Tiler.
Weightlifters usually mature with age. They need the years of repetitive training to steadily improve strength and technique as their bodies develop to reach their peak.
When she first took up weightlifting some friends asked: "What do you want to do that for? It's not a girls' sport". "But it doesn't matter what people think about you," she says. "If you enjoy something in life, just do it. You never know, you could be good at it. My dream is to be a world and Olympic champion and a legend in sport. It's good to have ambitions, and everyone needs a dream."
Mum Emma says that as a toddler, Rebekah would lift mini dumb-bells at the knee of dad, Chris, a keen bodybuilder. But her first love was athletics. "It was when I got tested at a performance centre in Rochdale that a coach told me: 'You're so strong you should take up weightlifting.' I thought it was a joke but I was in the gym a week later lifting weights.
"It was a hard decision but a good one because I was stronger than I was fast, although the speed I had coming out of the blocks as a sprinter really helped with lifting weights because I could get off my haunches quicker," she explains.
It is because of weightlifting's new strategy in targeting resources on their best female athletes that the funding body UK Sport have now restored the sport to their World Class Performance Programme.
"The first time I saw her was at a kids' competition in the north-east," says Halstead, who has been working with Tiler since 2011. "She walked up to the bar and hoofed it above her head at 90mph. I thought: 'Wow, what an opportunity it would be if I could work with that girl'.
"Once I was able to mould her technique, the weights just rocketed. Blokes were ringing me up and saying: 'This girl you're coaching, is it right she's snatched 65kg and clean-and-jerked 90kg?'"
The weights have risen considerably since then, to the extent that Tiler finds it difficult to keep track of the number of records she has broken – it's more than 200.
Her first senior international appearance will be representing England in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July, when Halstead believes a medal is a strong possibility. Then it's Rio 2016. "She'll definitely finish in the top 10 there but what we are looking for is a medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo."
Ambitous as she is, Tiler seems happy to play the weighting game. "Now my mates don't really see what I do as unusual," she says. "Their attitude is 'just keep doing it'.
"Some of the lads at school are like: 'Why are you so strong? You're a girl, you shouldn't be like this!' I'm constantly being challenged to arm wrestles – but I always win."
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