by Ellen Tannam


Being picked last in P.E. never hurt, because it was logically the right decision for the captains (they were camogie girls, all business, out to win, mouthguards in). I respected their choice.

Sport and physical exertion were filed under ‘Mortifying Activities’ and half-heartedly hitting a shuttlecock around a community centre hall with my friends (with breaks for machine-vended Cokes) seemed to be enough.

I made my lack of a participatory desire in terms of physical activity a part of my personality.

This was just one aspect of self-deprecation as a form of protection, and something it would take quite a while to undo. Why try when you could just fake your period?

Sport was synonymous with failure.The weak thud of a ball you thought would slice through the air as it rolls slowly across the floor. The flush of frustration when your body won’t recreate the grace and fluidity you wish for, in your mental self-portrait as an agile and limber athlete.

For years the extent of my physical fitness regime was doing a yoga video on YouTube sometimes or walking for too long until one of my knees began to click.

My anxious disposition and the freedom and the apparent ease of sport were two things I never thought could coexist until I happened upon Olympic weightlifting as part of a college project. 

I became fascinated. The focus and precision of the act itself.

It was meditative. We had planned to make a film about the women who trained there, and when a free class was offered to me, I became one of them. Instead of a barbell I was given a broomstick, until I was ready for the real deal.  The owner said I was ‘poised’, and the flattery turned me into a paid-up member for a while.

The gym was a big, barn-like warehouse behind a supermarket that smelled of rubber and chalk. People talked quietly, and there was no fear of Gym Lads hogging the racks. My coach was a very cool, very scary woman who would make me do plank holds until I couldn’t breathe properly. The others were all experienced, chatting about kinesiology tape and cowboy physiotherapists. One blonde woman lifted a 70kg loaded barbell like it was a cotton bud.

It became an obsession. Learning all of the movements and piecing them all together to create one elegant swoop. Loading the barbell, feeling the ridges dig into my hands and shoulders.


After about six months everything was hampered by an injury, and my impatience waiting for it to heal and flimsy joints (thanks dad), forced me to stop doing the impressive overhead snatches and clean and jerks. The physio told me in no uncertain terms that this was not to be continued. After that appointment I had a big embarrassing cry down near Portobello Bridge and got the bus home.

Flinging barbells overhead is impossible to do anymore, but weight training is still in my life. It’s different to any other kind of sport I have tried before. Occasionally I find even the simplest of tasks difficult because of sporadic bouts of crushing anxiety.

Shower? Maybe. I could try to make plans without cancelling last minute, spending the rest of the day under a duvet too heavy for summer, ashamed at my social incompetence. The sole thing that helps me unfog my racing brain to start a new day is picking heavy weights up off the ground, putting them down again and repeating that until beads of sweat are pooling at the small of my back.

It makes that scary email lurking in my inbox much less ominous.