Meet two of Sussex’s strongest women

Burgess Hill businesswoman and powerlifter Aneela Rose

Burgess Hill businesswoman and powerlifter Aneela Rose - Credit: Archant

Ladies that lunch? Ladies that lift more like as we meet two of Sussex’s strongwomen taking on all manner of weights

Burgess Hill businesswoman and powerlifter Aneela Rose

Burgess Hill businesswoman and powerlifter Aneela Rose - Credit: Archant

Aneela Rose has a lot going on in her life. Mother to two young children, she also runs a digital marketing agency in Burgess Hill. Like most working mothers Aneela struggles to find time for herself. But when she does, it's not a long soak in the bath or a night on the tiles that restores her equilibrium, but pulling on a pair of gloves and heading to what she calls "that part of the gym that most women are afraid of - the part with the big heavy weights where the men are."

Aneela's chosen discipline is called powerlifting, and it's a sport growing rapidly in popularity - particularly among women. The organisation British Powerlifting reports that 35 per cent of its members in 2019 are female - up from 23 per cent in 2015. Enthusiasts say that powerlifting is supremely suitable for female bodies - it's very successful in improving bone density which is a specific concern for women as we age. And for women like Aneela, there are numerous other benefits, as she explains: "It's empowering and it's addictive. It's my release. I run a business, I'm a mum, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an auntie and everybody wants a piece of me. Powerlifting is that place where I go to escape. I needed somewhere that I could go where I'm not the boss, I'm not leading. I can have other people guiding me, supporting me and telling me what to do for a change."

It has certainly proved fruitful, with Aneela's winning titles for her bodyweight and age group including AWPC World Powerlifting Champion 2018. She also placed first in the GPC British Powerlifting Championships 2017, and set a British record at the ABPU British Championships this year.

They are achievements made all the more remarkable considering the relatively short time she's been doing the sport and the circuitous route she took to it. "I used to throw the javelin when I was a teenager in Surrey and I was rather good at it, but I stopped doing it when I left school," she says. "It never really left me so after London 2012 my father told me that I needed to start throwing the javelin again. I remember saying to him, 'Dad, I'm in my 40s, I can't just pick up a javelin and start throwing it! It's 25 years on, I'm a lot older, I can't just go to a park and start throwing it. I'd be spearing dogs, it's just not something you can do.'" Taking the more conventional step of joining Crawley Athletics Club, Aneela started throwing the javelin again, but kept injuring her shoulder. Her personal trainer suggested weight-training to strengthen the muscles. "The very first squat I did, I lifted 50kg and considering I weigh 52-53kg that's pretty awesome." Her javelin teacher told her that she needed to switch sports.

She soon fell in love with the discipline involved: "I love the fact you've got to be so granular: where you position your feet on the floor and your fingers on the bar, down to the last millimetre, can make all the difference. Everything about it is so technical that there's always something you can improve. As a person I love learning new things, I'm not scared of challenges and embracing change, so this is a sport that really suits my personality."

It has also, she believes, had a positive influence on other parts of her life. Aneela's digital marketing agency Rose Media Group recently celebrated its 15th anniversary and she thinks becoming a better athlete has made her a better person to work for. But of course, sporting achievement doesn't come without sacrifice and for Aneela the worst part is being away from her family. "I work quite long hours and when I'm gearing up for competitions I'm training five times a week in the gym, then at home I'm up at six in the morning doing my exercise before everyone's up. I have found that quite hard and I've tried to change it a little bit as I go forward, I've actually had a rule in place since I started competing back in 2016 that I don't do any powerlifting competitions if my family can't come with me."

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Her goal is to spend another year powerlifting, competing in the next British Championships in May before qualifying for the Europeans and then the Worlds. And after that? "I want to revert to javelin. It's my first love and I can't go through life without giving it another go! I'm going to prove my javelin teacher wrong…" she laughs.

Powe lifter Helen Hughes at her workplace as a carpenter in Tangmere.

Powe lifter Helen Hughes at her workplace as a carpenter in Tangmere. - Credit: Jim Holden

Pagham carpenter-joiner Helen Hughes, 43, also came to the sport relatively recently, two and a half years ago. Helen had long been interested in strength-training after running and playing football and rugby at school. Through her gym in Bognor she got into Strongwoman contests before her coach said she seemed to excel at static strength - standing and lifting rather than running and throwing - so at his suggestion she decided to try powerlifting. She says that the discipline of the sport has enhanced all areas of her life. She has a long drive to training sessions in Gosport, but enjoys the camaraderie of being in a group. Helen is offhand about the time commitment, which sounds considerable: "My training schedule is usually four or five days a week, an hour and a half to two hours at a time. After work I'll try to go to the gym straight from work and then on weekends, some people enjoy going out drinking whereas I enjoy going to the gym for two or three hours when I've got a bit more time."

It is a very supportive community, she says: "We're a friendly bunch: you're competing on your own but you get a lot of encouragement from other people." Helen has competed in destinations as far-flung as Hungary and Japan over the course of an impressively swift ascent in the sport. Her proudest moment so far has been winning the EPF European Masters Championships in Hungary in March while simultaneously achieving a personal best. She has also been British Champion for her age and weight for the past two years. What is her advice for women wanting to get into the sport? "I would say go for it because it helps in all aspects of your life. It gives you confidence. In our group we range in age from an 18-year-old lad up to a 50-year-old lady."

Both women believe that the sport has changed since they started competing. What has traditionally been perceived as a male-dominated area has a lot to offer women. "A lot of the girls I've spoken to are lacking in confidence or have issues with anxiety," says Helen. "Yet on stage they're able to perform to the best of their ability."

And as the saying goes, if she can see it she can be it. Aneela says: "My six-year-old daughter will do little bicep curls in the mirror and ask me, 'Mummy, am I doing it right?'"

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