Paralympian Louise Sugden’s switch from wheelchair basketball to para powerlifting was a drastic change: from team sport to individual, from carb-loading to snacking on protein-rich biltong, and swapping cardio for three-second spurts of weight lifting. One thing that did not alter though, was the unwavering support of her mother Janet.
Sugden took up wheelchair basketball aged 13, when her mother would drive her an hour each way from their Newbury home to the Hounslow club she trained at. Now, two Paralympics and 22 years later, Janet is offering as much of a helping hand in Sugden’s new passion, by spotting for her while she bench presses.
“My mum trains with me every Monday. If she has to take the bar off me at any point, every time she’ll tell me that she’s got a PB, because she’s managed to take more off me than she thought she could,” Sugden, 35, laughs. “Her [spotting] PB is like 120-something kilograms. She’s in her 60s but she’s getting stronger – it’s incredible. She’s a bit of a legend.
“She says she thinks it’s mum’s instinct, she wouldn’t let me get squashed under the bar.”
Twelve years ago Sugden made her Paralympic debut in Beijing and then competed at London 2012, both in wheelchair basketball. Though she had hoped for a third appearance, she says the prospect of doing that in powerlifting at Tokyo, so soon after her 2017 basketball retirement, is mind-blowing: “If you told me four years ago that I’d be here, I’d have called you crazy.”
She admits she was “one of the more physical players” on her basketball team, but her rise in powerlifting has been staggeringly quick. After emailing the British weightlifting team saying she was looking to try a new sport, she had her first session in June 2017 and lifted 77.5kg. By April 2018, she was a Commonwealth silver medallist with a lift of 103kg, and in May the European champion with a 108kg lift. All while still self-funded.
Those accolades earned her UK Sport funding, but while the strength came somewhat naturally to her, adjusting to being alone on the podium was hard. “Normally I’ve got my [basketball] girls there and I can just bounce off of them, but at the World Championships, five months after I started, it was just me. I don’t think I appreciated how difficult it was going to be until then. It was only my second competition and I was so nervous. I got my first lift and I can’t tell you how I did it because I was shaking so badly.”
Now she has grown used to individual sport, and the weights have continued to rise. Her personal best in international competition is 122kg and she is in contention for a spot at Tokyo. Ranked fifth in the world in her weight class, Sugden needs to still be within the top eight by late April to secure her Paralympic place.
That means defending her ranking points, including at the Manchester World Cup this weekend – the first international para powerlifting competition ever held in the UK. In front of a home crowd, she says she hopes the atmosphere will help push her to her next PB, as she tries to edge closer to the Paralympic medal zone – around 130kg.
That her participation counters the traditional weightlifter male stereotype, as a woman and also as someone who has been wheelchair-bound since a car accident at nine-months-old, is something she gets a lot of amusement out of. Especially when at commercial gyms rather than her usual elite Loughborough training base. “I used to have my bench at a leisure centre gym and would take videos of my training to send to my coach. I would regularly catch people in the background of my video watching, jaw dropped, in disbelief of what I’m lifting.
“People would come up to me a lot and ask me why I was so strong. I [go] against all the stereotypes and I love that it’s changing perceptions.”
Sugden is encouraged by the trend in more women taking up strength training, especially her own sister. “Women are getting less intimidated by the free weights and I think that can only be encouraged. My sister has taken up weight lifting and powerlifting. She’s just got a 120kg deadlift so it’s obviously a family trait,” Sugden laughs.
As she continues to keep her work in the family, her only hope now is that she will be on the plane to Tokyo with them: “My mum’s already booked to go out to Tokyo, even though I’ve not officially qualified yet.”