WORLD’S GREATEST Orla Harrison is pictured after winning three World Championship titles recently.
IT BEGAN as an attempt to lose some ‘puppy fat’ accumulated during a stressful college year. It ended with her being crowned the world’s best ‘pound-for-pound’ female weightlifter after she hex-squatted 3.4 times her own body weight — in her very first competition.
This was nothing if not a remarkable achievement for Orla Harrison from Westport, who’s only been at this for 14 months.
Even more remarkable for a woman whose first sport is cycling.
Lifting a record-breaking 205kg on the hex-bar to become 62.5 kg Under-23 World Weightlifting, 62.5 kg women’s world champion, and the Number one pound-for-pound weightlifter, was akin to Brian O’Driscoll’s three-try Ireland debut against France – each achievement was more spectacular than the last.
Even the woman herself admitted to feeling ‘pretty surprised’ by what she achieved.
“The heaviest I lifted before the competition was 180 [kilogrammes]. That was in June so didn’t expect to go up that much. We had a plan that I was going there to break the record. I’m glad that I did,” Orla told The Mayo News over Zoom.
A latecomer to the sport of weightlifting, the 22-year-old was also something of a Jenny-come-lately to sport in general.
“In primary school I didn’t play that much, but in secondary school I really liked the social aspect of sports so I kind of threw my hand at all sports but none of them tended to stick,” she explained
Now a sculpted, 62 kilogramme specimen, Orla admits that she was ‘very overweight’ in her younger years.
At the age of around 13 she took up cycling when her father Anthony gave her a racing bike as a Christmas present.
Her first foray into weight training, coupled with the cycling, saw the weight fall off prior to her Leaving Cert year, during which all sporting activity took a back seat.
Fast forward to 2020 and a nation in the cruel grips of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was a particularly stressful and lonely time for many students like Orla, who regained the weight she had originally lost.
In September 2021, she enlisted personal trainer, Ashley St Mart, to help her get back into shape.
“I never would have imagined that I would have started competing this time last year. It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind,” Orla admitted.
“He was just training me as if I was another client that just wanted to lose weight and that was all, I’d be done then.”
It turned out she was far from done.
By the time she was gobbling the Christmas turkey she had trebled her one-rep max from 55kg to 163kg.
By June 2022, she could shift 180kg – roughly about one and a half Cian Healys.
“That’s when I thought I was kind of good at this. So that’s when I realised that I wanted to keep going,” she said.
Fourteen months on from that first fateful personal training session, she captured the world Under-23 title by hex-squatting the equivalent of James Ryan and Johnny Sexton combined.
So how exactly did a girl, who was better known as a cyclist, who just wanted to lose a bit of weight, become so besotted with weight training?
“I get kind of addicted to things that I’m good at, so I started lifting as heavy as the lads in the gym,” she explained.
“You kind of get a bit of a thrill from it. I didn’t want to just stop going to the gym so I just kept going and every time I was getting better and better. So then I got to a level where I was able to compete so then to go to a competition and be the top of all the females there. So now I’m definitely not stopping!”
Given how far she’s come in such a short space of time, it’s safe to say that this lady’s not for turning.