By Rachal Fleury
Sally Thomas knew from an early age that she wanted to go to the Paralympic Games one day. She just needed to find the right sport.
After a couple of failed bids to make it in track and field, Thomas turned her attention to powerlifting and is now gearing up for her second Paralympic Games in Beijing, China, from September 6-17.
Powerlifting is a test of upper body strength. Competitors must lower the bar to the chest, hold it motionless on the chest and then press it upwards to arms length with locked elbows. Athletes are given three attempts in total and the winner is the athlete who lifts the highest number of kilograms.
Thomas says one of the aspects of the sport she enjoys the most is that it is based on weight classifications and not on disability. She likes that she is competing against lifters who have more ability than she does. For example, the majority of her competitors have some use of their legs; Thomas has none.
“It’s more of a challenge and I like a challenge,” said Thomas, who lives and trains in Ottawa. “When you win you beat everyone, not just people with your same disability.”
For Beijing, Thomas has set a lofty goal as she is aiming to lift 82.5 kg. Her current best lift is 75 kg.
“I’ve got some work to do,” she said of reaching that weight. “I’m not there yet.”
A life in sport
Thomas got involved in sports as a child after her mom enrolled her to help her overcome her shyness. She took up both wheelchair basketball and track and field, but focused primarily on track. She went on to make the time qualifications for wheelchair racing in the 100m and 200m for the Atlanta and Sydney Paralympic Games and for two world championships, but never made it onto those Canadian Paralympic teams. By 2000, her frustration with her lack of progress was mounting.
“I was close enough that I could smell it,” Thomas said. “But when younger people started making the team and I didn’t, I thought ‘this is silly’.”
In an effort to improve her race times, Thomas started lifting weights. But what was supposed to make her faster actually had an adverse affect.
“I just got worse,” she said. “The stronger I got the slower I got.”
But not all was lost, as through her weight training, Thomas became involved in powerlifting.
“My lifting just got better and better,” she said. “In six months, I had surpassed where I was in track.”
Learning from Athens
In 2004, just four years after taking up powerlifting, Thomas realized her Paralympic dream in Athens. She finished seventh out of eight competitors in her weight class and while she cherishes the experience, she says there are a lot of things she’ll do differently in Beijing.
“I was under the assumption that I would have seen everyone (who would be competing in Athens) so I knew where I stood,” said Thomas. “But then I got there and there were two girls I had never seen before and they were good! That threw me off a bit, but I won’t let that happen again.”
Thomas says she was also distracted by her competitors’ attempts to intimidate her. She says she had people pacing in front of her, glaring at her and pointing.
“I’m just not like that,” she said. “So it was really surprising.”
But it wasn’t Thomas’ competitors that caused her the most problems. She admits that her performance expectations were her toughest challenge.
“A lot of people told me I was going to win a medal and I started to believe it,” she said. “They were saying if I did my best, I would win a medal. Well, I did my best (setting the Canadian record) but I finished seventh out of eight… and the eighth competitor was disqualified!”
After Beijing, Thomas plans to re-evaluate her progress and potential for improvement before deciding her future in powerlifting.
“I don’t know how much I can progress without putting on a lot of weight,” she said.
For Thomas, putting on weight is a risky option. With no muscle mass in her legs, all the weight she gains goes to her upper body. She has already gained 20 pounds since she started lifting and that has caused her to become “top heavy”, which results in a lot of falls.
“It puts a lot of stress on my personal life,” she said.
On a positive note, Thomas has recently lost some weight and is still seeing improvement in her lifting.
When she does retire, Thomas will be leaving a sport whose future is up in the air. As the only member of the Canadian powerlifting team, Thomas’ retirement could very well signal the end of the sport in this country.
“The sport is dying,” Thomas said. “Last year, there were three Canadians competing internationally and now there is only me.”
Thomas has tried unsuccessfully over the years to get more athletes involved in powerlifting and says the lack of funding is the main reason no one is interested.
“I foot about half the bill for the meets I go to,” she said. “With no athletes, the sport gets very little funding. With little funding, it’s almost impossible to get athletes. It’s a vicious circle.”
Making the most of it
For now, Thomas’ thoughts are on Beijing. Not only is she hoping to have a better performance than in Athens, she is planning on taking better advantage of the whole Paralympic experience.
“In Athens, I followed the rules to a tee and I didn’t go anywhere before my competition and then got sick afterwards,” she said. “I was in Athens and didn’t even see the Acropolis. This time I am going places. I’m going to China and I am going to see the sites.”
Thomas will be joined in Beijing by her mother and her sister. Her sister, who is filming a documentary on Sally, will be bringing a film crew.