As part of #OxbridgeGirlsCan week, The Blue Bird caught up with Lily Erskine, a 4th year linguist reading Spanish and Portuguese at Hertford and the first female President of Oxford University Powerlifting Club, to find out more about OUPLC and the impact lifting can have for us all.
During Lily’s time at Oxford, the women’s powerlifting team has enjoyed considerable success, winning the British Universities Championships in 2016 and qualifying for the inaugural University Women’s Powerlifting World Cup. Arguably of equal importance is the surge in participation over the past two years to over 90 members, with almost an even gender split. With many of last year’s members still at Oxford and an influx of new recruits, this is looking like it could be one of the club’s best years yet!
Lily started lifting when she was sixteen as part of a rehab programme after dislocating her knee dancing, “it’s a pretty boring story actually”, she claims. However, Lily ran into several challenges right at the start of her lifting career.
“I started going to the gym at an age when you have a heightened sense of self-awareness and how I appeared to other people overtook everything; I was overly concerned with how I looked. I did things that I thought would make me prettier! One day I turned around and noticed that I was getting stronger and I thought what would happen if I stopped caring about how I looked and instead about what my body did and what it could do. Then I came to Oxford and there was a powerlifting club and I got into it through that and I haven’t really looked back.
“I think a lot of young girls go through it or something similar. The one constant seems to be deprivation and powerlifting seems to be the opposite of that in the sense that I had to feed myself, I had to power myself, look after myself, train hard but constantly fuelled.”
Powerlifting, and strength sports more broadly, have deeply rooted stereotypes, but Lily is quick to dismiss these and believes that the sport is incredibly inclusive: “There’s this stigma associated with powerlifting where you have to be huge to do it but it’s all based on weight categories and relative strength to your bodyweight. I think this is something that has put quite a few people off because they see the image of powerlifting as big huge guys lifting huge amounts of weight and that’s not what it is and that’s what I really love about it – that anyone can come from any background and have a go at it regardless of ability or physical capability. There are Paralympic divisions, competitions for war veterans, for people with missing limbs, for complete beginners. They have masters divisions up to the age of over 70. There really is a place for everyone. I think that’s the beautiful thing about sport in general, but especially I see that represented in powerlifting.”
Despite this, convincing people that powerlifting could be for them isn’t always straightforward. “There’s a huge stigma around bulking, around gaining weight, especially with women. Women are constantly taught to make themselves smaller. It’s a big mental challenge to change our mindset to say ‘no, I’m going to take up the space around me’ and not be apologetic about it.”
Lily admits that she was concerned initially about the changes taking up powerlifting would have. After switching to strength training, “physically I didn’t notice that much of a change, certainly not immediately, which was a shock as I was just expecting to blow up into a huge person! Instead, many things in my life became a lot easier: I was able to open jars, I could carry things myself, open doors… which was very empowering in a sense, even just small micro-victories like that.
“Mentally I definitely became a lot more confident in every aspect of my life. I became more confident intellectually, in my ideas, in my own self-worth, in daily social situations. It sounds silly, but knowing that I have the physical strength to back up my mental strength and my intellect is very empowering.”
Because of these stigmas, however, Lily is very focussed on the club not only appearing but being different: “Even though our club is almost an equal gender split, it’s about acknowledging that there is a perception in the wider society that powerlifting and other strength sports are masculine and male-dominated, or dominated by people who appear masculine. Creating spaces where people feel completely comfortable has always been a priority: for example, at the start of the year we ran some women-only taster sessions. We don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t participate because of a certain reason. I think more important is that half of our committee are female as there are so many people you can go to and are very involved in the club creates that environment.”
This seems to be working, with the club growing more than 50% this year to over 90 paying members (“we expect to reach 100 later this year”) and roughly a 60:40 split between men and women, stark contrast with three or four years ago. Somewhat at odds with many other sports, but very much in line with the environment in the club however, is that there is no obligation to compete, something that Lily is supportive of and believes can be worthwhile: “Even if you don’t compete, there’s a lot of value in trying to get stronger and pursuing that. It’s why a lot of people join the club. What keeps people coming back is the community we have in our club. There’s always a group of people at Iffley training who are there to welcome you and that’s what keeps people coming back. Even if they don’t want to compete, there are a lot of people who want to be a big part of the club. It’s not there just for the purpose of getting a Blue or being on the Varsity squad, there are so many other factors that make people want to be involved.”
That said, the club has been very successful in the past few years and recently awarded the first female Full Blue to Claire Sear, a multiple regional record holder in her division. When asked about her biggest achievement competitively, Lily’s response is immediately, “Winning the BUCS women’s championship in 2016 and qualifying for the first World University Championships. As someone who had never seen themselves as sporty in their whole lives, doing that as a team was an incredible feeling. Then being in Belarus for the World University Championships themselves, at an historic event in powerlifting, was amazing.”
While important, what OUPLC stands for and the impact Lily is trying to have in her time as president is further reaching than some of the individual brilliance witnessed recently. “[Winning BUCS] is more a big time thing, but they’re not really the things I get a kick out of. The things I get a kick out of are things like the mock meet that 40 people competed, many who had never picked up a barbell before at the beginning of term. Or even just club sessions where you spend time with someone and something clicks for them and they leave that session so happy as they know that they’ve achieved something. Seeing progress in people who maybe don’t see it for themselves – they’re my favourite thing about the club!”
Want to find out more?
Want to give powerlifting a go? “If you’ve never done any powerlifting before send me a message (firstname.lastname@example.org)! We will be more than happy to bring you down to Iffley and take you through a few things. Otherwise feel free to pop down to the gym at Iffley and say hi during one of the club sessions (details of which can be found here or on the club Facebook page).”
Want more info on #OxbridgeGirlsCan? More information can be found on the Oxford SU website.