With one extraordinary act of strength and defiance, Emily Campbell ripped a 161kg barbell off the floor, rested it on her shoulders, and began to squat. With another she exploded upwards to thrust the weight – more than two beer kegs worth put together – high above her head.
There was a little wobble of the knees. A steadying smile. Then a beep. And, just like that, Britain had its first ever female Olympic weightlifting medallist – and surely its most powerful, heartwarming and potentially life-changing story of these Games.
Team GB will never say so. But some medals are simply more inspirational than others. And watching Campbell, a big, strong and proud black woman from a deprived community win an over-87kg super-heavyweight silver medal was a real This Girl Can moment.
Five years ago Campbell was working full-time with children with special educational needs and had never snatched or clean and jerked a barbell in her life. She hoped the iron game would turn her into a stronger shot putter and hammer thrower, having been a national U23 champion. Instead it hurled her life down a wondrous new path.
And what made the 27-year-old’s journey even more remarkable is that, unlike almost every Team GB medallist in Japan, she is not on lottery funding. Instead a few odd jobs, and the help of her local community helped her scrape and strive towards an impossible glory.
“It hasn’t been easy,” she said. “I’ve worked pretty much my whole weightlifting career to fund it and to make sure I’m in the best shape I can. But my community’s spirit is just amazing. Every time I go to the local market they give me free fruit and veg. The cobblers sort out my boots and raise money for me. And, now this kid, who was raised in Bulwell, Nottingham, is an Olympic medallist.”
A large media contingent had arrived at the Tokyo Forum to write about Laurel Hubbard becoming the first openly transgender woman to compete in an Olympic Games. But when the 43-year-old Hubbard failed in all three of her attempts at the snatch a half-shut door suddenly swung wide open.
A snatch of 122kg put Campbell in fourth place. Then two clean and jerks, of 156kg and 161kg respectively, pushed up into bronze – and then silver – due to her combined tally of 283kg. Then came a scream, before she fell to the floor in tears of disbelief and joy.
“Winning the first British female weightlifting medal is something that will obviously be with me forever and I’m just thankful that I managed to put weightlifting on the map,” said Campbell, who had dyed her hair red and blue five hours before the competition.