WHEN it comes to myths and misconceptions about a sport, weightlifting certainly has its fair share.
And Vika De Giorgi, the pioneer who opened Newcastle’s first ever Olympic weightlifting club two years ago, has heard them all before.
“The number of times I’ve heard people say that weightlifting stunts your growth,” she sighs. “It’s a false claim dating back to the 1930s, which isn’t backed up by evidence. It’s like saying kids that do basketball will grow tall!”
Another more pervasive belief is that women should not be involved in competitive weightlifting at all, and in fact it wasn’t until Sydney 2000 that women’s weightlifting was added to the Olympics.
“It’s a male-dominated environment,” agrees Vika, 38. “But we live in 2012. We’re not stuck in prehistoric times when women were in the kitchen cooking.”
As to the claim that female weightlifters look butch and manly - just take a look at Vika. A svelte and toned size 8, she is both elegant and feminine. Perhaps the naysayers are getting confused with bodybuilders?
“I’m girly,” she says. “I wear high heels and skirts. I don’t go out dressed like I’m going to punch someone!”
Olympic weightlifting is the only barbell sport of the Olympics. It develops speed, power, strength, flexibility, and muscular coordination – skills which are needed for all other sports that require strength and conditioning so it’s the perfect sport to do alongside your existing fitness routine.
Unlike rowing, gymnastics, rugby or basketball where a certain body type is favoured, Vika says there’s no discrimination in weightlifting. She has girls as light as 48kg (seven-and-a-half stones) training with her, while weight categories can go up to 12kg (almost 19 stones).
“You can be small, short, tall, wide, big – anything,” she says. “As long as you are working hard, there’s a place for you in weightlifting. You develop mental toughness, persistence, self-discipline, how to analyse, strength of character and the ability to coach others. The skill transfer is massive. I’ve got a child who’s 11 and she’s happy to tell a 45-year-old deputy head teacher that his hips are too high. She could easily be the next Prime Minister!”
Having grown up in Soviet-era Azerbaijan, when getting into sports meant being well connected or taking the gangster’s route, Vika says her future vocation became clear at the age of nine but her dream wasn’t realised till much later.
“I used to watch athletes and their coaches train in the stadium next to my school,” she recalls. “They were so strong and so fit. The respect and concentration people had in their eyes when they were talking to them – I just thought that’s what I want to do.”
At school it soon became clear that team sports weren’t for her. “You get cliques of girls – they’ll play with you one day but not the next,” she explains. “I wanted to win by myself.”
However growing up in poverty meant Vika’s ambitions were on hold. “It was a hard life,” she says. “The priority was to survive not to drag me around to sports. However I always wanted something that was for me, that was mine.”
In 1995 Vika left behind her job managing a cotton factory to make a new life for herself in Newcastle and re-train with a degree in applied sports science with coaching at Northumbria University.
A year later she met her husband, Aldo whose family are behind many of Newcastle’s top Italian restaurants including Don Vito’s, Secco, Paradiso, Popolo and Pasqulinos. They live in Jesmond and have three children Coco, nine, Lola, 10 and Zico, 11.
After teaching secondary PE during her PGCE teacher training, Vika developed weightlifting in local schools. She’s also worked as strength and conditioning coach to organisations including Northumbria University, British Rowing, English Institute of Sport, and Newcastle United Foundation alongside running a personal training business Vika Fitness.
But her proudest achievement so far is launching Newcastle’s first Olympic weightlifting club, Raise The Bar, based at Elswick pool, in May 2010 after persuading Newcastle City Council it would help raise aspirations amongst young people.
Helped by assistant volunteer coaches Tony Grant and Catherine Watson, she chose a deprived area deliberately and has kept costs low at £2.10 per session or £1.40 if the family is on benefits. “I had nothing and my children have everything so I wanted to give something back,” she explains.
Initially set up for children, demand from adults led Vika to open her doors to everyone from age nine upwards with “no upper age limit.”
The club is affiliated to the national governing body, British Weight Lifting and prepares young lifters and adults for regional and national BWL competitions.
Vika is passionate about getting children fitter both mentally and physically – and as the second worst region for obesity in Europe, she’s come to the right place.
“Babies can suck their toes but then we sit children in school for eight hours all hunched up and they lose everything,” she says. “You ask them to squat and they do this dinosaur crooked thing, which looks quite scary.
“Some of the children are so large that, when they run, the amount of pressure that goes through their joints is not right. At least if we take those kids and give them a sport like wrestling or weightlifting, where they have body weight categories, they can potentially do better rather than thinking they’re rubbish at running. We can instill something positive in them. We train very hard but we have no injuries.”
For Vika it’s worth it when she uncovers the gems – the children who stay on for two sessions in a row and don’t want to leave, the core seven or eight children who attend religiously three times a week or the 13-year-old who’s lifting 100kg and is on course for 120kg by the end of the year – but she admits it’s sometimes a battle against the tide.
“Growing up in Azerbaijan you want to be as good as a figure skater or a weightlifter,” she says. “Now kids want to be as famous as Jordan or someone from Big Brother or they want to be footballers. But out of a million, only one of them will score and become Beckham. The drive is very strange. There’s no focus or direction.”
She also believes young people aren’t active enough. “Two hours a week of PE is not enough,” she says. “We live inside our bodies 365 days a year, so what is two hours? And it’s not really full-on go-hard activity either.”
Although she has won the British Masters, came fourth in the British Championships and is in training for the World Championships in Italy next year, Vika’s main focus is on nurturing future champions.
“I’m constantly trying to spot gifted and talented children, I’m looking for that little me,” she says. “I’ll probably at some point sell our house if I have to, with my husband’s consent. If I see someone completely committed, I will commit myself all the way.”
The main criteria for Vika is “someone who’s got very, very good ethics” and she says hard work beats talent every time. “Sometimes you have a very talented child who’s not interested,” she says. “There was one child who was fast, a bullet. He could’ve been in the Olympic Games 2016 if he applied himself but he’s not interested, he’s more into smoking. It’s a sad situation. You can bring the horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”
Although she’s not competing in the London 2012 Olympics, Vika is currently soaking up the incredible atmosphere in the weightlifting training hall, which she describes as “the best workshop you could ever be on”.
“I’m going to work and I’m pinching myself,” she says. “I’m learning such a lot from studying training techniques of different countries. The talent and the years of dedication to sport is tremendous.”
None of it would be possible without her “wonderfully supportive” husband Aldo though. “He’s so flexible, he’s unreal,” she laughs. “He’s working around my schedule when I’m not even making any money. I’m doing this out of passion and love and obsession with my sport.”
Ultimately Vika’s dream isn’t confined to weightlifting, it’s to create well-rounded individuals by setting up her own facility for talented athletes from deprived backgrounds where they can also do homework and learn healthy cooking skills. She just needs a wealthy benefactor to make it come true.
“Dreams do come true,” she says. “I’ll get there. I’m used to banging my head against brick walls and occasionally you see a chink of light come through. So I’m not giving up.”