Hannah Powell: 'Mighty Atom' shows size isn't everything

Hannah Powell is the diminutive weightlifter who is desperate to make a big impression at the Olympics. She talks to Simon Turnbull

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Walking past the food court on the Headingley campus of Leeds Metropolitan University, there is no signage outside the one-storey building to the right. Step inside, and a banner proclaims: "Welcome to the home of British Weight Lifting."

An-old fashioned ghetto blaster is pumping out There She Goes by The La's. In the middle of the room, Hannah Powell is going about the business of limbering up for a workout, stretching her arms behind her neck and powdering the palms of her hands to improve her grip. High up on the wall, a small, oblong, electronic display flashes up: "Countdown to the London 2012 Olympics. 183 days. 05 hours. 54 minutes. 51 seconds."

"It's strange," Powell ponders, sitting on a bench at the side of the gym, her lunchtime session over, "when the clock first went up last July, there were over 300 days to go. Now I look up and it says less than 200, and I know those days are going to absolutely fly.

"It's just a good reminder to have. When you come into the gym and you're having a really hard training session and you look up and see there are only so many days left until the first competition you kind of think, 'I don't have time to sit here moaning about how much pain I'm in today or how tired I am. I just have to get on with it'. It's a good motivation."

The chances are that when the days tick down and 27 July comes around, all the pain will have paid off and Powell will be a proud member of the British team for the home Olympics. Not that you are sure to notice her at the opening ceremony. The diminutive 19-year-old has become accustomed to people sizing her up. "I'm 4 foot 8 and a half," she says, when clarification is sought. "And at the moment I weigh about 44 kilos. That's just over 6 and a half stone."

Petite, in other words. And not your conventional image of a weightlifter, certainly. Nonetheless, if you delve into the record books, back to the 1948 Olympics in London, you will discover that the men's 56kg bantamweight title was won by a weightlifter who was reported to have been between 4ft 8in and 4ft 10in tall.

"Was that Precious McKenzie?" Powell enquires. It wasn't, although the 4ft 9in McKenzie did his bit to break down the typical image of a weightlifter after escaping apartheid in his native South Africa. He won Commonwealth Games gold for England in 1966, 1970 and 1974, and for New Zealand in 1978.

It was Joe De Pietro, an American, who won the Olympic bantamweight gold in 1948. He was a team-mate of Harold Sakata, who took silver in the 85kg light heavyweight division at those London Games. A Hawaiian American of Japanese descent, Sakata was better known for playing the role of Oddjob in Goldfinger.

"Yeah, the stereotypical idea of a weightlifter is of a big, butch man," Powell says. "In some cases that's true. You get really big men doing weightlifting, and you get little girls like me. There's a whole spectrum of different body types, all shapes and sizes.

"You have to be strong all over, because in weightlifting you're using your whole body to lift the weights, but you're mainly using your legs and your back. That's where you need the most muscle. So weightlifters don't really have to look like body-builders, with big arms and big chests.

"People don't realise, because they don't know much about the sport. They think everyone has to be massive but it's not quite like that."

Powell has become familiar with the consternation her sporting occupation causes away from the gym. Like the time she and some team-mates got chatting to a group of businessmen in a hotel while on a squad weekend.

"They asked what we did and we said, 'Oh, we're the GB weightlifting squad'," the West Midlander recounts. "They looked at me and said, 'There's no way you're a weightlifter'. I said, 'OK, I'll prove it'. And I just lifted this guy up."

Powell can lift almost twice her bodyweight. "I've snatched 60 kilos and clean and jerked 80 kilos," she says. "Double bodyweight for me would be 88 kilos. I'd quite like to do that soon but then I'm working with a nutritionist on trying to get my weight up. Ideally, I need to be weighing about 48 kilos, because that's my weight category. That's about 7 stone."

The petite, affable Miss Powell hails from the Worcestershire village of Rubery. She tried tap-dancing, ballet and swimming in her early days but started weightlifting when she moved to secondary school.

"I think I was inspired to get into the sport by my dad and my uncle doing powerlifting," she says. "My uncle, Steven Powell, was British champion at one point. As I got older I thought, 'That's an unusual sport. It would be really cool if I tried it'.

"I think I also wanted to make a point because of my size. I wanted to show that I could do it regardless of my size and what people thought about weightlifting. So I started when I was 11, at my secondary school, and I haven't looked back since."

Since July last year, Powell has been training full-time at the British Weight Lifting High Performance Centre in Headingley. She lives with a group of fellow weightlifters just down the hill, towards the scene of Ian Botham's phoenix from the Ashes Test in 1981.

One of her housemates happens to be lying flat on his back in the far corner of the gym, getting ready to raise the bar. "Come on Ali!" Powell exhorts. "You can do it."

Ali puffs out his cheeks and indeed does it, straining muscle and sinew but succeeding in hoisting the bar and the collection of weights attached at either end. "That's the medal," he says, smiling. "That's 170 kilos."

Ali Jawad is training for the Paralympics. He was born without legs and suffers from Crohn's disease. He is constantly battling to counter the effects of weight loss.

"Ali is a real inspiration," Powell says. "With Crohn's disease, he gets sick, and training becomes harder, but he still fights for it. He's as motivated as ever to do it. To watch him train is really inspirational. He's already been to one Paralympics and to live and train with someone with that experience can be eye-opening – to see how much hard work and dedication you have to put in to get where you want to go."

Where Powell wants to be is the ExCel in London's Docklands, where the Olympic women's 48kg competition will be contested on 28 July, the day after the opening ceremony.

"The team will be announced in early June," she says, "and between now and then there are certain competitions in which we can make qualifying performances. I'm quite confident but it's going to be a nerve-wracking, exciting time. For me, just getting to the Olympics would be a huge achievement."

A huge achievement for a diminutive young woman with a patently big talent.

"I've always been known for being the small one," Powell says. "At school everyone knew me as 'Little Hannah'. Now I get called 'Atom'. Someone called me 'the Mighty Atom' in a newspaper article and it seems to have stuck. I get called that all the time by my house-mates now.

"My coach has always said to me, 'Your size is something you're always going to get recognised for, because people will see it as different and unusual in a sport like this'. I'm used to it. It's not something that bothers me.

"And it's not something I can change. It's just part of who I am."

Small packages: tale of the tape

The smallest Olympic champion

Chinese gymnast Lu Li won gold in the asymmetrical bars at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, earning perfect 10s from all six judges in the final. The 15-year-old stood only 1.36m, 4ft 5 and a half, and weighed 36kg, 5st 9lb.

She is not, however, the lightest Olympic champion. American Aileen Riggin, the 1920 springboard diving champion, weighed 31.5kg, precisely 5st. She was a 14-year-old schoolgirl from Newport, Rhode Island. In later life she played the part of a slave in the 1933 film Roman Scandals and became one of America's first female sportswriters.

The smallest Olympic competitor

North Korean gymnast Choe Myong-hui, who competed at the 1980 Games in Moscow, was only 1.35m, 4ft 5in tall. She weighed a mere 25kg, just 3st 13lb.