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Crunching her way through a bag of chips, Olivia McFarland looks like any teenager who's just finished school for the day.

Her Sancta Maria uniform a little too big, her grin even bigger.

She walks into the gym at the Kolmar Sports Complex in Papatoetoe with a shyness that suggests she feels out of place, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

At just nine-years old McFarland had her first taste of strength-based fitness, looking on as her mum completed a cross-fit training session.

"I went in to watch and I got interested because they started lifting weights and that looked pretty cool seeing everyone lift pretty heavy, especially the girls," she recalls.

Fast forward four years and the now 13-year-old is a gold medal winning weightlifter, having claimed two at the Pacific Games in Samoa earlier this year.

"Not long ago I snatched 66kg and for my clean and jerk I can lift 80kg," she proudly tells me, laughing when I suggest she can lift me. 

This weekend she's looking for more scalps at the 2019 Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand Championships where she'll be lining up against women almost twice her age, in the under 55kg category.

"It's scary, because I don't know what to expect," she mumbles.

Yet, Olivia seems to approach the weights like they're made of styrofoam.

Making very little noise as she heaves the iron above her head, holding it steady with arms and legs that I can only help but think haven't yet fully developed.

There's long been concerns resistance training stunts growth and that children should avoid doing it, until they're physically mature.

When I put that to Olivia's coach, Weightlifting New Zealand High Performance Director Simon Kent, he tells me there's more and more research which suggests that's not the case.

"A lot depends on the individual because obviously levels of maturation start at different ages. Some a little bit younger, some a little bit older,” he says.

At around 1.60m McFarland is by no means a giant and she doesn’t carry the traditional body shape of a weightlifter.

“I haven't grown that much. I am still short, but I can feel myself getting stronger and stronger,” she says.

And if the growth does come, Kent says he’s prepared.

“I have certainly some young athletes come in and they are a little bit shorter and then they might grow two to five centimetres over a number of months.

"That changes a number of things, not just their body shape and composition, but coordination can change. They have got to adjust to their new body so absolutely you have to be very mindful of where they are at and how they are developing."

McFarland’s early introduction to the sport via cross-fit is a popular one. 

The gym-based fitness craze is being credited for a huge rise in the number of people taking up weightlifting and is the same trail blazed by Megan Signal, the number one female in New Zealand.

“The whole sport itself is under a totally different light. It's under a light of beauty not a light of, for the lack of a better word, a manly sport.

"Females look at it and see strong beautiful women who are doing incredible things and there is definitely that aspect that draws a lot of people to it,” says the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games hopeful.

In Signal, McFarland has found a mentor.

The two train together once a week, turning a solitary sport, into a team one, as they alternate between the role of lifting weights and lifting spirits.

“Watching women is pretty amazing because it is expected to be a man's sport, but when you see girls like Megan… or other girls at my gym, they just inspire me because they always lift heavy and then their techniques are on point,” gushes the teenager.

Signal’s role as a trusted advisor is one she takes seriously and hopes to pursue full-time once she’s done competing.

 “I guess we go into it wanting the same sorts of things we want records, we want medals, PB's all those sorts of things.

"But as a woman I definitely approach it with also wanting to inspire the upcoming females coming into a sport like this. That's a big driver for me, knowing that other females are looking up to you and are potentially going to set off into this journey as well.”
Signal ought to be careful though, as there could be a rush for her services.

The sport has exploded so much it’s doubled in numbers over the last five years and of the 138 people taking part in nationals this weekend, more than half are women.

“The advent of cross-fit started to come around in 2009, 2010 and reflects maybe the changing face of the fitness industry as a whole.

"We have gone away from gyms that are filled with machines to wide open spaces and understanding that functional movement is a lot healthier in our long run.

"A combination of those two have made a snatch and a clean and jerk a lot more accessible to the general public,” says Kent.

A shifting of the sands that’s being felt by New Zealand’s more traditional sports, as Kiwi kids diversify and look to try their hand at something new.

"I used to play rugby, but I stopped because I just love weightlifting…I want to get PB’s (personal bests), that’s the exciting bit,” says McFarland.

But Coach Kent is all too aware such enthusiasm could be fleeting. 

With decades of experience in training sports stars he’s not surprised by recent research from Sport New Zealand which shows participation levels dropping off significantly in teenagers.

“I guess the main thing is that they are having fun. At 13 years of age you don't want them to be specialising, it's the Tiger versus Roger effect. Early specialisation gets talked about a lot but the few that go down that route actually become very successful,” he says.

McFarland admits that Olympic dreams do linger, but she’s happy taking each day as it comes, brushing off praise from her peers who find her choice of sport a little left field.

“For me this is normal, but others think it is kind of unusual for somebody my age to do it.”

It’s that mentality that Kent is hoping change. 

“A lot of it is about getting the girls and young women confident around understanding their bodies and understanding that by choosing a sport like weightlifting you are going to look different, but different in a good way.

"Especially for teenagers, we have had examples of girls getting their ball dresses and all of a sudden, they have shoulders, they have arms that maybe some of their friends don't have quite the musculature but learning to embrace that and understand that’s ok.”

That’s unlikely to bother McFarland for a while, her biggest stress she says is remembering to relax and take a breath.

“Sometimes I overthink it because it scares me. Simon always tells me to not think about it and just lift the bar, just to set up and lift.”

A 13-year old that seemingly has little weight on her shoulders, except the ones she puts there by choice.