WHEN Carrigaline-based mother-of-three grown-up sons, Karen Barry, started power lifting to get fit, her family rolled their collective eyes to heaven, thinking this was just another phase. She had tried “everything known to man”.
But now that Karen’s incredible power lifting journey has been chronicled in a documentary to be screened at Indie Cork on October 12, her family is very proud of her.
“They can see how happy it has made me,” says the part-time clinical administrator at the Bon Secours Care Village on the Lee Road.
Karen takes her sport seriously and has come second in each of the three world championships in which she has taken part. In March, she came first in the European Masters Championship in Hungary.
The documentary, entitled Lift, films her in Minsk where she participated in the World Championships. There, she achieved two world records; a squat record and a bench record.
What is astonishing about Karen is that she came to power lifting relatively late in life.
“In my early to mid forties, I decided I wanted to get fit,” recalls Karen, who is now 53.
“I started walking and running and doing classes. But I didn’t like the cardio exercising. I was joined a running club for a while. Then I started doing a spinning class in a local gym. One day, on the spin bike, losing the will to live, the door to the weights section was open. I thought it looked interesting and asked one of the guys in the gym to do me a programme. I really hadn’t a clue. But I started lifting dumb bells and I felt pretty strong.”
After a few weeks of that, Karen joined a gym that specialises in strength and conditioning.
“I saw people lifting weights with a bar bell and thought it looked exciting. The first night I picked up the bar bell, I was totally and utterly hooked. The bar weighed about 20kgs. It’s across your shoulders and behind your head. You add weights onto it. You learn how to squat, bench and dead lift. You keep adding weight to the bar until you feel you can’t squat any heavier.
“After three months , I squatted 95kgs. The jaws of the coaches were on the ground. What I had done was impressive given my age and my size.”
Karen is five feet, one inch tall and at that time, weighed 70kg.
“I’m a small enough build and would have been carrying a bit of body fat but I wasn’t a big girl. I used to compete in the 72kg category but now I’m 65kg.”
Karen now does power lifting at Abs Power Lifting in Douglas, which is owned by Jay Farrant, the head coach of the Irish power lifting team. She constantly challenges herself.
“You have to progress all the time, pushing and pushing. I train four nights a week for two to three hours per session. It’s a huge commitment and it’s very hard work.” Despite her dedication to her sport, Karen says that, growing up, she was never competitive and had nothing to do with sports.
What keeps her power lifting is the confidence it gives her.
“It’s very hard to explain. Nobody knows the way I feel inside. I could be walking down the street, looking at people thinking they have no idea how strong I am.”
Power lifting has transformative powers, says Karen. She cites her nephew, Dylan, who at 14 had little self- confidence.
“It took me two weeks to talk him into joining power lifting. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to do it but he has really blossomed as a result of power lifting.”
Karen says she hasn’t become visibly muscular.
“It’s a bit of a myth that power lifting makes you look muscular. Body builders have defined muscles that you can see. But it’s very hard for a woman to put on that kind of muscle.
“I am toned and I still have a little bit of fat around the belly area. Who doesn’t? I have dropped two sizes. I was pushing size 14 and am now size 10.”
Karen, whose husband, Liam, is very supportive, has done a lot of travelling for competitions. She has competed in Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Belarus and Hungary. She uses her holiday leave to travel. Karen says there is no funding available for power lifting.
She is due to compete in South Africa in April next year and hopes she will get some more sponsorship from her workplace. She says her employers and colleagues are very supportive of her.
If power lifting is what drives Karen physically, it is her kindness that fulfils her emotionally. Her 32-year old son, Valey (Valentine) touched her heart when she first met him in an orphanage in Romania when he was 13. She invited him to Cork for holidays.
“We couldn’t officially adopt Valey as Romania had closed all adoptions at the time. But we kept him and he was able to live with us. When Romania got into the EU, Valey applied for and got citizenship. He is married now with two boys.”
What was it about Valey that made Karen open her door to him?
“There was something about his personality that reminded me of one of my sons. He was playful and affectionate. One time, when he was going home to Romania, he gave me a photograph of himself and asked me if I’d show it to everybody in Ireland to see if anybody wanted him. I got very emotional. I just didn’t have a choice. I had to run with it.”
This power-lifter clearly has a heart of gold.
Lift will be screened at the Gate Cinema on October 12 at 4.15pm as part of Indie Cork. For a full programme see https://indiecork.com/