Zoe Smith: 'Exams are important but the Olympics take priority'

Britain's teenage weightlifting sensation has put her school work on hold to concentrate on winning a medal at her home Games. Simon Turnbull reports
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The Independent Online

As Britain's strongest teenager, Zoe Smith has become accustomed to odd requests from friends and acquaintances. "Yeah," she says, "I get, 'Could you lift that car up?' Or 'Could you lift me up?' I'm like, 'Well, maybe if I could cut you in half and put you at each end of a bar then I could manage to lift you'."

Strangely enough, there have been no takers. Not that the 17-year-old Miss Smith has any need to prove her might. In Delhi last October, the girl from Greenwich became the first Englishwoman to win a Commonwealth Games weightlifting medal, taking bronze in the 58kg class. She was 16 at the time and still a schoolgirl.

At the World Youth Championships in the Peruvian capital, Lima, in May, Smith won the silver medal in the 63kg category. A petite 5ft 2in and 9st, she lifted 91kg (14st) in the snatch, the discipline in which the bar is lifted straight from the floor to above the head in one movement. In the clean and jerk, in which the bar is hoisted first to the shoulders and then jerked above the head in a second movement, she lifted 110kg (17st). That gave her a combined total of 201kg (31st) – more than three times her bodyweight, and a British under-23 record to boot.

Twelve months from now, the teenaged Hercules will be going for gold at ExCeL, the Olympic weightlifting arena in the London Docklands area, directly across the Thames from her family home. "Wonderful," Smith says. "I can't believe I've got a home Games for my first Olympics, touch wood. I think that's going to be absolutely cracking. Can't wait."

If the Greenwich girl does prove to be worth her weight in gold, silver or bronze, she will be an accidental hero of the 2012 Olympics. "I never intended to be a weightlifter, let alone an Olympic weightlifter," Smith confesses. "It was a complete and utter accident. I was a gymnast at the Europa Gym in Erith and I was asked if I'd try out for weightlifting for the Greenwich team for the London Youth Games. They needed a girl to make up the numbers in a team of two boys and one girl.

"I didn't actually get to compete then because I was 12 and you had to be 14 to take part in the weightlifting. Nobody knew that at the time, so I gave weightlifting a go and started training. I was just the little girl who came down to make up the numbers. That's the story."

As an even littler girl, in her infancy, Smith was – according to her mother, Niki – always climbing up door frames. "Where do you find this stuff?" Zoe says. "That is very true, actually. I was a bit of a strong kid when I was really little. Either that, or just a freak."

Three months past her 17th birthday, Miss Smith is a very strong, very affable young woman. She has shown her growing maturity in the manner in which she has responded to the public fuss that was made about her weight back in December, when British Weightlifting withdrew her funding for January and issued a press release describing her as being overweight and not fully committed to her training programme. Since then, Smith has left school, placed her A-level studies on hold, and moved to Leeds to train full-time at the British Weightlifting High Performance Centre.

"Yeah, that's all resolved now," she says. "I've got everything back on track. My training's back on track. When I'm in Leeds, they can keep a close eye on me, I suppose. There's no kind of communication breakdown. Everyone knows what's going on. I'm working closely with Maximuscle and with the nutritionist we have in the British squad.

"I was struggling with my A-levels and my training. Obviously, they're both very important, but I thought, 'I've only got one shot at the Olympics in my home country; why not give it my all?' So I decided to put my studies on hold for a while, just until after the Games, and concentrate completely on weightlifting for a year. Hopefully, I can give a great performance at the Games and then I'll probably continue with my studies."

Smith had been studying A-level English literature, French and art at Townley Grammar School in Bexleyheath in Kent. Instead of poring over Jane Eyre and The Importance of Being Earnest, she has been pumping iron next door to Bronte Country on the campus of Leeds Metropolitan University.

Charles Dickens once described Leeds as "one of the beastliest places in England". That, however, was before the days of Harvey Nichols and Eric Cantona. "It's nice," Smith says. "I think it's an amazing place. There's a group of us weightlifters and we've got a house just off Leeds Met Uni."

With a Commonwealth bronze and a World Youth silver under her belt in the past 10 months, the next target for Smith is the European Youth Championships at Ciechanow in Poland from 21 to 28 August. "I came second last year, so an improvement on that would be great," she says.

Then there is the World Championships in November. "It's actually in Disneyland, Paris," Smith says. "It should be cool."

Since her early days at the Europa Weightlifting Club in Erith, Smith has been coached by Andrew Callard, who was a member of the British Olympic team in Barcelona in 1992 and who lifted gold, silver and bronze at the Commonwealth Games. He calls her "Pablo", after the Cuban Olympic gold-medal winner Pablo Lara, who was renowned for being lethargic in training but dynamic when it came to competition, winning gold in the men's 76kg middleweight division at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Even before she has been furnished with the opportunity to go for Olympic gold in her home town, "Pablo" Smith has found herself to be a figure of some public recognition.

"I have been stopped a couple of times," she says. "It's quite sweet really – especially when you've got people who are encouraging you and wishing you the best of luck. It's probably quite daunting to go up to someone you've seen on the telly or in the newspaper, just to say 'hello' and 'well done'. I think it's really nice of people. I really appreciate it."

Zoe Smith is pictured wearing the latest London 2012 collection designed by adidas. adidas are the Official Sportswear Provider for the London 2012 Games. To buy this product visit www.shop.london2012.com .



Born 26 April in Greenwich, London


Begins training as a gymnast before switching to weightlifting


Wins gold in Commonwealth Youth Games 63kg category and claims British Olympic Association Athlete of the Year – Weightlifting


Achieves eighth place at the World Youth Championships, and first place at the British Junior Championships and British Under-17 Championships



Wins silver medal at the European Youth Championships


Wins gold in English Senior Championships


Takes bronze at Commonwealth Games


After temporary suspension of funds, wins silver medal in the World Youth Championships in Lima, Peru