At 14, Zoë Smith is already worth her weight in gold. That's the colour of the medal this Greenwich schoolgirl won at the Commonwealth Youth Games in India three months ago, heaving three times her own body weight over her head to become a thrilling prospect in a sport which has not seen a British lifter anywhere near the Olympic podium for a quarter of a century.
It wouldn't be quite accurate to say she's a mere slip of a girl, but at 5ft 2in and scaling less than lightweight boxer Amir Khan, Zoë's no Amazon, either. "The public have this misconception about weightlifting," says her coach, Andy Callard. "They think it is just for big, fat blokes and that not many girls do it because they can't be feminine but big, hairy butch types. Zoe disproves this – just look at her, a pretty young thing who's become one of the best in the country, male or female. A real athlete."
And so she is. A former gymnast with the physique of a Comaneci but the power of a pantechnicon in her arms. It was her gymnastics coach, Yvonne Arnold, who suggested the then 12-year-old should try weight-lifting. Says Zoe: "She told me, 'You're a good gymnast but you're never going to make it to the Olympics, but you just might at weightlifting'." It so happened that the weightlifting club run by Callard, himself a former Commonwealth gold medallist, which shares the Europa gymnasium in Dartford, Kent, was looking for a young girl to complete a team for the London Youth Games. "So I said I'd give it a go," says Zoe. "I was beginning to doubt whether I would make it in gymnastics anyway but I soon found I really had the feel for lifting. I think the fact that I was flexible through my gymnastics training helped and I was also quite strong."
She won the first major competition she entered, the South East County Championships, and has, quite literally, gone from strength to strength, culminating in that Commonwealth Youth gold in Pune when, competing in the 53kg division as the youngest member of Team England, she lifted a total of 159kg – one of the 98 junior and senior records she has broken this year – for the snatch, clean and jerk. Earlier, she was in Beijing as part of the British Olympic Association's Olympic Ambitions programme.
No dumb belle, either. She attends Townley Grammar School in Bexleyheath and hopes to go to university to study languages. "My schoolwork fits in around my evening training quite easily and they have been very supportive in giving me time off for competitions," says Zoe.
Her mother Nikki, a secretary at the Department of Health, recalls that she wasn't at all happy when Zoe told her she wanted to take it up. "At first I didn't really know what this weightlifting thing was all about and I said, 'I'm sorry, I've paid all this money for you to do gymnastics so this is something you'll have to give up'.
"But then I went to see her in a competition in Woking, she was 12 and up against girls of 17, and beating them. I saw in her then something I'd never seen before. The confidence she had for a modest girl was amazing. I remember the expression on her face, the fire in her eyes when she lifted the weights and looked around. It was obviously a fantastic thing for her, and since then it has all gone so well. She's a bright girl, she doesn't struggle with anything at school and she copes really well with all the pressure."
Zoe says that when she first took up weightlifting her friends asked, "What do you want to do that for? It's not a girls' sport". Yet the best weightlifter in the country at the moment is a woman, Michaela Breeze, who competed in Athens and Beijing. "She's very nice. I've been in some competitions with her and she's given me a few tips about technique and told me to contact her at any time.
"I've got a bit of a problem with my jerk – leaning back too far. You'd be surprised how technical this sport is. It's not just heaving the weights above your shoulders, there's a lot of mental application that goes into it.
"You get a few injuries too, I've got a bit of a back problem at the moment but nothing that can't be fixed." Has she ever dropped the weights on her toes? "Oh no, thank goodness, that would be really painful." Coyly she admits she is already out-lifting most boys of similar age, "although I don't actually compete against them, of course."
One worry is that her sport is among those in limbo over future funding because of lack of success in the past – Dave Mercer was the last Olympic medallist in 1984 – so she receives no Lottery funding, although she is helped through a scheme run by Greenwich Council, a Sports Aid grant and, of course, the usual support from her parents. Father Terry is a retired window cleaner and she has an 11-year old sister, Yana, who like her has been a gymnast but is interested in following Zoe into weightlifting.
Zoe's aim is to compete in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi and the Youth Olympics in Singapore the same year. "But my main objective, of course, is London 2012. I'll be 18 and a senior by then. I know the opposition will be formidable, particularly from the Chinese girls, but if I make the same progress as I have over these past two years, I think I'll stand a chance."
Until then, she's happy to play the weighting game.
Andy Callard: 'The thing I like about her is that she actually enjoys it'
"The first time Zoe came into our gym I was so impressed that I told her mother she would end up travelling all around the world as a weightlifter. Her strength was evident almost instantly and from her first lift I could see she had natural ability.
Weightlifting is on a bit of a downward spiral in this country at the moment, mainly through lack of funding, which seems to be directed only at elite athletes.
But we are trying to develop it here in our gym in Dartford, which the members refurbished themselves, and Zoe is an excellent figurehead. I am very excited not only about her potential – she is the only girl here – but about some of our other young lifters, who include several champions and record holders.
Zoe stands out because she is smashing the British records. She's already shown that she has the ability to compete at the highest level, although there is a lot more to it than having ability. She has got to dedicate the next five years of her life to training and dieting.
The thing I like about Zoe is that she actually enjoys competition, she is what I'd call a proper competitor. Those who actually win and do well are not always the ones with the most ability, but the ones who compete the best when it is required. The lifts she does in competition are far better than what she does in training. Weightlifters like to show off, it's part of the sport, and Zoe actually wants to show people how good she is. She is a lovely girl, bright with it, and has got everything going for her.
My ambition was always to go to an Olympic Games, which I achieved, but I was realistic enough to know that I could never win a gold medal.
So my ambition for Zoe is that she does as well as she can, taking one goal at a time – first to go to the Commonwealth Games, then to the Olympics and to actually compete. And by that I mean being in the final, the A group.
It's a massive target. But we'd all love to see her do it."
Andy Callard is Zoe's coach. Now 40, he competed in the Barcelona Olympics and won gold, silver and bronze Commonwealth medals
The British Olympic Association
The British Olympic Association (BOA), formed in 1905, are the national Olympic committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare and lead the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games, and deliver elite-level support services to Britain's Olympic athletes and their national governing bodies. For further information, go to: olympics.org.uk