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Julie Isbill

Thrivher Achievements:

Commonwealth Games 2018 Gold Medal for the 75 kilo class in Weightlifting

Thrivher Dive

Current position: International weightlifter/ CrossFit coach / Growth and Development Officer for the Victorian Weightlifting Association in Australia.

I can’t you start the day without? I love a good cup of coffee. I absolutely love it.

Best read of all time: Kelly Holmes’ autobiography.

Because: She’s a double Olympic champion from Athens 2004. She ran the 800 meters and the 1500 meters. I found her book really inspiring because she’d had so many setbacks and these moments in her career when she didn’t think she could achieve and she felt like quitting. It was kind of a bit of an eye-opener in terms of the level of perseverance you need in order to achieve your goals and to be successful.

Favorite quote: “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

Top music: The Pretender by Foo Fighters

Non-negotiable that you block time out for regularly? Chill time. Having zero responsibilities for a couple of hours each day. Very simple, just chilling.

I’m most afraid of: Spiders.

Go-to for fun:I like food a lot so trying out new food places and I like watching a new film.


Right now you’re fulfilling a vision and a mission. Looking back, where did this all stem from?

As a young child my Mum used to take me down to an athletics track to have fun running and jumping, which I loved and throughout school I was always involved in athletics - I just knew I wanted to be a top athlete. I was a pole vaulter to begin with – I didn’t start weightlifting until I was eighteen. I did one weightlifting competition at that time and my coach said to me, “Well, you could go to the Commonwealth Games”. I wasn’t sure what to make of that at the time - I didn’t know whether he really meant it. As the weeks went on, I stopped enjoying pole vault, but I was quite good at weightlifting and I really enjoyed it, so I just decided to change sports and give it a go. Within about two years, I had qualified for my first Commonwealth Games!

Changing sports was a real eye-opener for me and I haven’t looked back since! I always knew I wanted to be a top athlete, it was just a question of finding the right sport for me. I loved it all and I would try every sport and join every team. When I tried weightlifting I realised this was where I really had potential to make it to the top.

I always knew I wanted to be a top athlete, it was just a question of finding the right sport for me.

How did that evolve over time and how was your first experience at the Commonwealth Games?

Not a great experience, to be honest. I only just managed to get in into the team, and when I got there - it was in Delhi in 2010 - I became quite ill in the Athlete’s Village and lost about three kilos of body weight, which wasn’t fun. Combined with it being my first international competition, it was a disaster and I was devastated - I honestly thought I’d never to do it again. It wasn’t just getting ill that affected my performance, I was also very nervous and inexperienced. But you learn by your mistakes and that really was a huge learning experience for me. I now view that whole chapter as the start of my journey.

How did you come back from that disappointment, to find your love for the sport again?

I had a few days of tears and trying to forget about it, but then I went home and reassessed where I was and started a new program. I knew I still wanted to pursue weightlifting and I wanted to aim for these competitions, but I also knew that I was still very naive and only at the start of my weightlifting career. It was still very new to me, I just wanted to improve my skills and my confidence in competitive situations. I entered a few smaller competitions, to increase my experience and get used to being on the platform in front of everyone and that definitely helped. I did my first European Championships in 2012 and that was a great experience.

Over the next few years I managed to do bigger competitions, getting used to the increased pressure and representing the country on a few more occasions, which was also good.

Was there a defining moment on your journey to success?

The 2012 Olympics was a big moment for me, because I just missed out on being selected at the time. It was down to a bit of sports politics and things like that, but it was a major disappointment for me because I didn’t know I’d even be in with a chance. So when I found myself up there with the other girls in the running for the spot and then I didn’t get picked, I was overwhelmingly disappointed. That feeling of disappointment really stuck with me for a few years. That year I actually got a job at the Olympics with the weightlifting team and one of the hardest things for me was working there on the other side of the fence, watching people I knew in the team preparing for their Olympic competition. That was a really significant moment for me and it made me more determined than ever to carry on and try to improve.

One of the hardest things for me was working there on the other side of the fence, watching people I knew in the team preparing for their Olympic competition.

The next big competition was 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. I knew I was in a much better position leading into that and I was in good shape. I did pretty well, I finished fifth, but I then decided that I needed to make some changes. I had done well, but I hadn’t yet reached the level I really wanted to.

I moved into a new house with my now husband, who used to be a weightlifter as well. His old Coach was based fairly close by and I started to work with him. His style of coaching was quite different and it really worked for me and everything really began to improve. I was enjoying it and loving the sport again. I finished in the top eight in the Europeans in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

During this time I did get a couple of major injuries as well, which were hard to deal with. I had a stress fracture in my spine and then I got a labral tear in my hip as well. When you have serious injuries like that it’s hard to see how you are going to get through it and get back into shape, but the key is to keep working at it and stay motivated. I also think sometimes having injuries like that gives you the opportunity to go back to basics and rebuild everything from scratch.

I arrived in Melbourne at the end of July 2017 and my hip injury was diagnosed in August. From there I had to go completely go back to scratch and started some basic strength and conditioning work. I started doing clinical Pilates and I was seeing two physiotherapists and having rehabilitative therapy. Just trying to cover all bases and not leave any stone unturned.

In January I approached my coach back in the UK and he sent me a program and I just tried to do everything I possibly could to get into the Games in the best possible shape – free from injury and as healthy as possible. Luckily, it all paid off as I was selected for the team for the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast!

Your injuries sound serious, were they related to your weightlifting?

Yes. A lot of the movements in weightlifting require your spine to be in extension all the time - if you’re lifting something, you’re not supposed to have a rounded back, you have to keep it tight. So for a weightlifter, almost every single movement is done in that tight back position and if you don’t look after your core and your deep abdominal muscles that support the spine, it means your back can extend too far. That’s more or less what happened with me - I had two vertebrae really close together when I got into that tight position and it caused too much stress on those bones, resulting in a fracture at the bottom of my spine. Once that was diagnosed, it was a case of no lifting and no load at all through my spine for about eight to ten weeks - which was really hard because I am a weightlifter! That’s why since then I’ve really made sure that I do as much conditioning work as possible for my trunk and my abs. I really like clinical Pilates for that and it has made a massive difference to me, I’d definitely recommend that to anyone.

It sounds like a very hardcore sport for your body. How long can your body sustain that level and intensity of training?

Well, it’s one of those sports that you really need the time to get to where you want to be. It’s definitely not an overnight thing and it’s not like gymnastics, where the athletes are generally very young. I would say most weightlifters will hit their peak around the age of thirty, because it takes so long to build and increase that level of strength through the training.

Also, I don’t think many people get into weightlifting very young. Generally, most weightlifters stumble across weightlifting through another sport, which means they miss out on those early years, so I would say that they tend to achieve their best performances when they’re slightly older.

Did you take any practical steps to help you achieve your success?

Well I changed Coaches as I mentioned, but in terms of motivation and determination, that’s something I’ve always had within me. I was also very meticulous in my preparation and build up to a competition. I have remedial massage once a week, every week, without fail - even though it is expensive. Financially it does build up, but it really helps my recovery and I’ve been very injury-prone for the last few years, so I have to make that commitment. I also do clinical Pilates once a week, which again costs money, but I truly believe it has made a difference to my general core, health and stability, which is crucial. Asides from that I also have to pay close attention to my diet and nutrition.

Going into Gold Coast, I was selected at a higher weight class, so I was up against women who were stronger and bigger than me. I almost had to force feed myself and it was difficult because for years I’ve always dieted down to a lower weight class. It was hard to completely change my mindset and try not to worry too much about how I was looking. But it all paid off in the end - I really did notice a difference eating well, in terms of how I felt when I was training. I had more energy and could recover better between training sessions.

I really did notice a difference eating well, in terms of how I felt when I was training. I had more energy and could recover better between training sessions.

On competition day I really felt the difference not having had to diet leading into it - I just had so much more energy and strength. It really has highlighted the importance of nutrition and how sometimes we think we’re eating right but actually we’re probably not getting adequate calories or carbs in. It’s definitely something I’ve taken away from that competition and I know I’ll be even better leading into the next one.

How did you feel in the period leading up to your Gold Medal moment?

I was particularly nervous leading into it. On the day, I woke up and just knew I had to go and do what I knew how to do best. It was so good to have my Coach there with me, having not seen him for ten months. He knows me and knows how I work and he managed to calm my nerves a little in the warm-up. He chose which weights I lifted during the competition and I trusted him completely. I didn’t give any thought to the tactics or strategy; I was totally focused on the lifting.

The competition ran really well and I got all three of my snatches in the first lift. I felt strong and positive and I knew I was on to something good. I started warming up for the clean and jerk and I knew it would be close between me and one or two of the others. I got my first two lifts in, again felt great. The second attempt was already a personal best so I knew I was in good shape. Finally the third lift, it was all a bit of a blur, to be honest. I just remember my coach telling me this was the one I needed to get. I always try to compose myself before I do my lifts - I walk over to the chalk bin and then I stand at the front of the platform, close my eyes and take a deep breath, because I know I get nervous. I just took a deep breath - I almost felt like a robot at the time, I was on autopilot. I knew that if I just did everything like I’d done with the previous lifts, I could get it. As soon as I had it over my head, I knew that I had done it - but I was also shocked at the same time! It was a really weird mixture of emotions, like a whirlwind. I just put the weight down and I could hear the crowd cheering. I knew I had to celebrate but I just didn’t know what to do! I had never been in that situation! It was really bizarre, it was pure excitement and elation and almost a bit of relief.

I had worked so hard for so many years; it really was a massive moment for me. It had all been worth it, just for that one moment, it was absolutely amazing. I just wish I could relive it, because it went so quickly. It’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

It had all been worth it, just for that one moment, it was absolutely amazing.

This achievement has been such a long time coming and I know I’ve put in so much hard work, it really has shown me that there is something about perseverance, being patient and getting on with it - it really does pay off if you’re willing to put the work in.

The moment Emily won her Gold medal.
There is something about perseverance, being patient and getting on with it - it really does pay off if you’re willing to put the work in.

Who has been your number one supporter during your years of training?

It has to be my husband, he’s been there by my side the whole time. We met through weightlifting. He competed in the Commonwealth Games himself in 2010, and to me, that’s obviously a massive help. He understands what I’ve needed to do leading into this. You live and breathe weightlifting and it can overtake your life, especially ahead of a big competition. He was a great source of reassurance and perspective when I would have off-days and as the training sessions got harder he would often jump on the platform and train with me to just keep me going. Just having him to do that with and not training on my own the whole time made such a difference.

With the nutrition side of things, he really helped me keep on top of my calories intake and make sure I was eating enough and increasing my body weight. He has definitely been my rock over the last few months leading into the competition and I owe such a lot to him, because without his pull, I don’t know if I’d have got to this point. I’m very grateful.

I do believe it’s important to have a good network of people around to support you – and not just in sport, I mean in life in general. We all need someone to offload to when we’re feeling low.


Is there one piece of career advice you wish you had been given in your twenties?

Work on your weaknesses and put yourself first. I think for me especially, as I became older, I grew in confidence and I ended up putting myself first a little bit more. Things such as changing Coaches was a big deal for me - I didn’t want to upset anyone and I didn’t want to tread on anyone’s toes. If I had been a bit more confident when I was younger, I wouldn’t have delayed any decisions and I would have just done what I thought was best at the time. I was quite shy when I was younger but having had this journey and this experience, I have really grown in confidence. I think, go with your instincts and be confident - that’s probably what I’d say to myself.

Work on your weaknesses and put yourself first.

Would you encourage more women to have a go at weightlifting?

Yes, definitely! There are a few misconceptions about weightlifting - that it makes you really manly and bulky. My teammates and I do about seven or eight sessions a week, so over time we have of course increased our muscle mass, but we haven’t become manly! It’s just a myth. If anything, I think weightlifting is the best fat-burning exercise you can get. Most weightlifters I know are fairly lean because of the training that they’re doing and any increased muscle mass will help your metabolism too.

We haven’t become manly! It’s just a myth. If anything, I think weightlifting is the best fat-burning exercise you can get.

I’ve actually been running some women’s weightlifting squads in Melbourne, because more and more people are getting into it and enjoying it. It’s just a group of women doing some weightlifting together once a week and it’s really good fun.

I think CrossFit has really helped encourage women to get into weightlifting. I’ve seen quite a few women start CrossFit and have found they enjoy the weightlifting elements of the training and then they have decided to pursue it further. I’d encourage anyone to either give CrossFit or weightlifting a go because they are both great for your body!

What advice would you give to women who have a burning desire to make a change in their lives, but don’t know how or what to do?

My advice would be to just go for it, because you don’t know until you try. If it’s about change, you should go with your gut – if it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to whatever you were doing or something similar - you don’t want to regret not trying, if you don’t even give it a go, you’ll never know.

You don’t want to regret not trying, if you don’t even give it a go, you’ll never know.

Photo credits: Under The Bar


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