Female weightlifters are reaching milestones around the world and Pakistan’s weightlifter, Rabia Shahzad is no different. She has broken stereotypes by winning numerous weightlifting championships. At the age of only 21, she has been lifting for five years and is also the youngest weightlifter in Pakistan. She has won various accolades for Pakistan such as the Gold medal in Hampshire Weightlifting Championship, Welsh Open Championship in Cardiff, Ralph Cashman Open Weightlifting Championship in New South Wales, Australia, Asian Bench-press Championship in Dubai, Silver medal in Singapore National Open Championship and several others.
She comes from a sporting family. Ms. Rabia is the younger sister of our celebrated Pakistani badminton sensation, Mahnoor Shahzad, and the daughter of Mohammad Shahzad, who has won Bronze medals for Pakistan in rowing at Pan Pacific Masters Games and in Australian Masters Games.
Walk us through your journey of opting for weightlifting?
My father has been a rowing champion and is very passionate about sports and has made it a compulsion for our family to participate in some sort of sports activities. I have two elder sisters and Papa coached them to play badminton. Since my eyesight is weak, I could not play badminton when I was young, so I just used to sit around, keep score, or just play by myself. When my sisters won the Junior Badminton Championship and received media coverage, I realised that I also wanted to participate in sports.
The first sport I ventured into was swimming, because we used to have all the sports facilities at Sunset Creek Club, Karachi. I unfortunately did not develop an interest in swimming. Then I ventured into athletics for a year and a half, bade farewell to that as well and got into indoor rowing and javelin throw for another couple of years. For a span of 5-6 years, I tried to excel in different sports but could not outperform in any of them because I found the trainings inadequate.
Then I started to wrestle; first with my father, which I enjoyed tremendously. I enjoyed being strong because it is usually said that men are stronger than women. This stereotypical thinking provoked me and I wanted to prove that women are equally strong. So I jumped into power sports with my heart set on weightlifting. I started weightlifting 5 years ago. We lived in Karachi and there was not a single weightlifting club for women so I started a setup inside my home.
Powerlifting is a basic strength sport, which consists of squat, benchpress and deadlifts. I started powerlifting in Women Creek Sports Club for a year-and-a-half; there was no powerlifting equipment there and I used to drag my weight plates to the club.
People generally have a preconceived notion about weightlifters but in reality it is a very diverse sport. Do you agree?
Absolutely! People do have a misconception in Pakistan that weightlifters are huge just like the wrestlers you see on television. They believe that weightlifters and wrestlers are the same. Weightlifters are muscular! The body is more toned when you are muscular and it is not out of shape. On the other hand, women think that if they start weightlifting, they’ll get as big as men and develop gigantic muscles, which is once again a misconception. Women have different hormones than men. Women gain toned muscles nothing more than that. They’ll have more cuts in their bodies.
Do you believe there are double-standards when it comes to how men and women are treated within this particular field?
There are a lot of double standards because people in Pakistan are of the opinion that women should not pursue weightlifting. But whoever comes and meets me is like, “Oh! You do weightlifting? You’re the first girl whom we have come across who is a weightlifter.” Female weightlifters hear comments like: “You should lift lightweights and not the heavier ones as it is harmful for the body. You will suffer from hernia or back problems later in life.”
What is your most memorable lift or personal best till now?
It all depends on your body weight so the best one that I’ve done till now is 52 kg snatch max when I had 53 kg body weight. However, my clean and jerk max is 70 kg.
Are there any other sports that you like to play?
Initially, I had little interest in sports but eventually I developed a liking for wrestling and arm wrestling other than weightlifting.
What does strength mean to you, and why is being strong a vital part of life for girls?
If I look at strength in terms of weightlifting, then I would see how much I am lifting and how much I am improving in my lifts. I am currently studying in IBA and there are boys over there who go to the gym and do squats with 40-50 kg, whereas, I do it with 80-85 kg this is strength for me, which is vital because it determines your image and brings out the confidence in you that you are powerful and can fight for yourself, you don’t have to sit back in fear. I believe if girls feel stronger then they can raise a voice for their rights.
What do you see as the most challenging aspect of weightlifting? How do you overcome it?
The most challenging aspect of weightlifting, for me, is that I do not have a coach. I train at home where there is a lack of healthy competition. I make my own training programs, which risks spending too much time on planning and not enough on training.
I am likely to have many flaws in my technique because I do not have a coach instructing me where I go wrong. I try to overcome all these hurdles by continuing to do what I find to be best through trial and error. I judge my training programs by determining which plans brought an improvement in my lifting, and then I focus more on those.
What do you wish to accomplish within the next 5 years?
I am currently pursuing BBA from IBA and plan on graduating in May 2020. My plan is to go to the USA and pursue my Masters in Digital Marketing while simultaneously pursuing weightlifting as a career because it is an established sport there. There are lots of competitions and clubs, which would give me an opportunity to become a part of a weightlifting team, get trained and participate in competitions. This way I will get professional coaching.
I also want to participate in Olympics 2024. I am not thinking of securing any medal right now as my aim is to qualify first. Before that, I wish to become a part of our Pakistani team for the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in 2022.
Some people feel that weightlifting has a high barrier to entry, what advice would you like to give them, especially girls?
I do agree that weightlifting has high barriers to enter especially for girls due to lack of professional trainers. I advise girls that they should start some other sport, which has facilities in their city, such as athletics or swimming before entering weightlifting. Sindh Sports Ministry should take notice of this issue and provide facilities for girls who aspire to pursue weightlifting as a career. HH
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