ABIGAIL CRONIN HAS spent much of her life fighting negative perceptions about what she does.
Being a woman who is passionate about sport can be difficult enough in its own right, but especially so when it’s a sport such as powerlifting, which is often inaccurately assumed to solely involve excessively butch athletes.
Cronin, who is from Bantry in County Cork, started off as a rower, but gradually developed an interest in powerlifting, partially inspired by her boyfriend, who is also a powerlifter.
The biggest challenge in persuading people to take up the sport, according to Cronin, is ridding peoples’ minds of the negative connotations surrounding it.
At first, she was even a little reluctant about the prospect of becoming involved in powerlifting. Not being particularly big, it wasn’t always a sport that Cronin believed she could excel at, yet it quickly became apparent that the idea “wasn’t as far fetched as I thought”.
Since then, she has made incredible progress, triumphing at the national full championships, the Europeans, and the worlds, while currently holding the national records for her age (18-20) and weight group (63kg).
Moreover, at the All Ireland National Single Lifts, which took place at the beginning of February, she broke the national record, lifting 60kg for bench, and 100kg for squat. This achievement was made all the more remarkable by the fact that it came just after five weeks out with injury in the form of a stress fracture to the foot.
Yet despite enjoying considerable success already, Cronin remains as ambitious as ever.
“I love the fact that I’ve been invited onto the Irish crew,” she tells TheScore.ie. “It’s such an honour. I’d love to beat the European record, it would be a huge achievement. I’m not far off it, but at the same time, it will take time.
“In Ireland, it’s a very up-and-coming sport, so there aren’t that many women doing it, but the women that are in it are so dedicated that you have competition from the get-go and it really drives you. With that motivation behind me, I should start to improve a bit more.”
Such swift development is commendable from someone who was initially too shy to mention that she had taken up the sport, even to many of those close to her.
“I’m quite modest, so for a few months, I actually didn’t tell anyone [that I was powerflifting] apart from my mum,” she recalls. “Since I started telling my family, there was a bit of a mixed response — my dad thought I was going to break my back, as he always does, and a few of the aunts and grandmothers were saying ‘you shouldn’t be doing that’. They thought I’d be very bulky, but I’m not. It’s just toned me completely. So they don’t mind so long as I don’t look all masculine.
“The reaction from girls my age is very different. It’s such a cool thing to get into. I’m actually doing my final-year dissertation on ‘Women in Sport’ and [the concept of] masculinity plays a huge part in it.
“Strong is the new sexy, even if it might be perceived as masculine. You’re toned and skinny is pretty, but strong is too in a different way.”
(Cronin, pictured, lifting weights)
While many people have been supportive, Cronin says that there are always a few who carry ill-informed opinions about the sport and women’s involvement in it. Nevertheless, she insists such perceptions do not phase her.
“It is a lot about appearance that people are worried about. But I’m kind of easy-going. I wouldn’t take any notice of it. I’m hard to get at.”
She continues: “Even the older generation are questioning you and looking at you differently because of it, but right now, I get really positive feedback, especially from the town in Bantry — everyone’s always asking how we’re getting on and whatnot. So there’s been brilliant support, but they had to get used to it first, I think.”
And does she hope to be considered a role model for athletically talented women such as herself, who might be reluctant to get too involved in the traditionally male world of sport?
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m a role model — I think I’d be very big-headed to say that, but I really hope that by seeing that someone like me can do it and with hard work, do well, girls wouldn’t be as scared to take the leap of faith and just try it.”
Cronin cites Lisa Cannon, the glamarous Xposé presenter who recently announced that she was taking up powerlifting, as an example of the rapidly changing perceptions of the sport, and particularly women’s role in it.
“It’s about showing people that it’s okay and you’re not going to be looked down on,” she says.
“I hope that I have a similarly positive effect on it and people do get inspired, but I wouldn’t go as far as to expect it.”
A similar and related challenge is increasing the relatively low numbers of women in Ireland who currently participate in powerlifting — and Cronin has already helped make inroads in this area, after she founded the Powerlifting Club in UCC, the college she attends, in April of last year.
It was an idea that university authorities didn’t exactly embrace initially, however.
“They tried to set one up a good few years ago when I wasn’t there, but when I went to the president of the sports office, she said that they didn’t want to set it up before because of the ego-driven people who are all about what they look like and who aren’t going to follow instructions.
“It was really difficult for me to set it up because they had a negative outlook on it from the start, but with a bit of persuasion and a lot of long conversations, they said they’d let me give it a go — but if anything went wrong, it was on my head.”
Interest was a little slow at first, as it its establishment coincided with study month, but since then, the amount of people wanting to join has been “phenomenal” — to the point where they have had to start interviewing candidates to assess their suitability, as their limited resources cannot currently cope with the huge numbers applying. The club consequently have over 30 members competing now, with signs of significant progress being made already.
(Cronin pictured along with other members of the UCC Powerlifting club)
“We’re getting really active on campus and they’re doing amazingly — people who only started six or seven months ago are coming well up in the ranks
“Even one lad who was in GAA for a while — it was his first time weightlifting and he was two-and-a-half kg off breaking a world record in his weight group. It just shows you the benefit of hard work once the facilities are there.”
And the sport’s popularity is likely to increase further, as Cronin says she is encouraged by the increasing amount of attention being paid to female athletes in Ireland, pointing to Cannon’s appearance on The Late Late Show, alongside fellow powerlifters Danielle Hayes and Emma Scott, as a prime example.
“That Late Late Show was actually the night before the national single lift, so all of our crew were huddled up in a hotel room watching it,” she says.
And while her dissertation is focusing on the lack of prominence afforded to Irish female athletes by the media, she was also delighted with RTE’s recent decision to televise the Irish women’s rugby team’s clash with England, after their popularity spiralled on account of last year’s Six Nations win.
“The fact that the rugby team got on was brilliant and I know the majority of UCC seemed to be watching it.
“It is inspiring to see an Irish women’s team on TV taking priority, rather than having to watch it online or something like that.”
Although RTE did make a recent radio documentary on the subject, the prospect of powerlifting being shown on Irish TV remains a distance one however, particularly as it’s not currently an Olympic sport, unlike weightlifting.
“They’re very different things, but I’d love if powerlifting was an Olympic sport. It is very different to Olympic weightlifting. Weightlifting is all about skill and quick movement, whereas powerlifting is more focused on strength and power. The fact that Olympic weightlifting is represented is already brilliant.”
And would she ever consider making the transition in a bid to compete for Olympic glory?
“I’m so busy at the moment with college and final year that I’m just focusing on what I have and getting that down. But I’d definitely like to try it in the next year or so, and we’ll see where that goes.
“It’s an easier decision to make to go from powerlifting to Olympic lifting, because you already have the strength behind you. With Olympic lifting, it’s just getting the technique down. Going from Olympic to powerlifting, you have the skill but the weight has to come up, which takes a lot longer.
“Powerlifting would be a lot more recognised [if it was an Olympic sport]. People think it must be such a small event if someone like me can make it to the worlds, but I think it’s just the fact that, with a lot of hard work, you can do well — you just need to find the right sport and obviously for me, it’s powerlifting.”