Grassroots to Glory - Zoe Newson
“ It would mean the world to me to inspire someone else, because I love doing powerlifting and travelling the world.”
Zoe Newson hates farewells - even when she's going to the Paralympics.
"Tokyo here I come - just said goodbye to Duncan," the powerlifter tweeted after her two-year-old son and partner Dan waved her off to Tokyo.
"I cried my eyes out. I'm missing them already and love you both from the bottom of my heart. It's the longest time I've ever left you and I hate being apart from you both. I love you and miss you both so much."
It's a tough read for any parent, painfully familiar, raising the bar on the prospect of Zoe winning a medal at a third straight Games. Unfortunately for her competitors, Zoe's renewed motivation is driving her performances in the same direction. The Suffolk-born star, who was born with a growth hormone deficiency, took a year away from her sport to start a family with Dan after making it back-to-back Paralympic bronze medals at Rio 2016.
She is far from the first athlete to come back from motherhood even better, finishing on the podium at the 2017 World Championships and 2018 Commonwealth Games. More recently, Zoe has won World Cup golds in Manchester in 2020 and in Dubai in 2021, her first competition since the pandemic, priming for a tilt at the top step in Tokyo.
“It has been a hard managing training and being a mum, but luckily I have great support behind me and I always find a way” Zoe said, who is one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing her to train full time and access world-class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
"My life has totally changed since having Duncan. I had him six weeks early because of the difference in size and he's already as tall as me! Duncan will be able to watch his mummy on the telly, although he'll probably be asleep because I compete in the middle of the night. Dan, my partner, has supported me so much. When I have a down day - when I don’t want to train - he always helps me up. It’s good to have his support."
Football is never far from Zoe's lips - she's an avid Arsenal fan. She also has football to thank for introducing her to Dan, once her brothers’ teammate. His allegiance to West Ham is one of few things the couple disagree on. She is also a huge WWE fan, who used to “muck about at school” wrestling her friends.
“We shouldn’t have,” she confessed, laughing.
Youngest of four in a tight family, with an older sister and twin brothers, she has always had to contend with people looking down on her in more ways than one.
"My mum and dad were scared of me being bullied at school, because I was an easy target," she said.
"I was grateful that my brothers went to the same school. They would always react if anyone ever said anything nasty to me. At the start, it properly got to Dan because people do stare at us. He used to react and even now he says things back to retaliate. It does still annoy both of us."
They say you need to balance every negative comment with four positive ones and there was no shortage of them for Zoe, who found powerlifting by accident. Her old coach came to her school to give a talk about the army, saw her playing badminton and told her that her weight would make her a perfect powerlifter.
"I said no because I wanted to watch my brothers play football," said Zoe, true to form. "My parents said I should try it and I ended up really enjoying myself."
She started out aged 15 at East Bergholt Sports Centre in Suffolk, first competed in 2008 and went to the Commonwealth Games in 2010, completing her stunning rise. The next year, Zoe discovered she was epileptic.
“I’ve only had one fit, I was getting ready to watch my brother play football," said Zoe.
"I got out of the shower and using the hairdryer and I had a fit. My parents thought I had electrocuted myself (because of the water and hairdryer). From there I had tests which showed I was epileptic. When we go to competitions, I don’t always go to the ceremonies because of the flashing lights.”
Tokyo promises to be a very different experience for Zoe, who lapped up the atmosphere at London 2012 and lists Rio 2016 as the best city she's ever visited.
She has spent two years of the five-year cycle away from competition for different reasons and at the age of 29, admits she has retirement on the mind. It seems she's setting the bar a little lower in 2021 - perhaps the perfect point from which to launch her shot at a pot of Paralympic gold.
"I have to take care of my body much more than a few years ago," she said.
"I do physio at least once every week to prevent any damage. I had a year off because of having my boy, then training was disrupted due to COVID. I'm just thankful to get to go. I'll just try my best, if I get another medal that's great. I'm just pleased to be on that plane."
Zoe is one of a generation of athletes who have seen the fortunes of ParalympicsGB transform over the past two decades thanks to National Lottery funding, If this is her last Games, Zoe hopes she’ll inspire the next generation of powerlifters. Kids who, like her once, didn’t see sport as a place for them.
“I’m getting a bit old for this now,” she jokes.
“But I just want to get people into sport as well. I know how much I love the sport. When I was younger, I never really did much sport because of my size. It would mean the world to me to inspire someone else, because I love doing powerlifting and travelling the world.”
Still, a golden souvenir for Duncan wouldn’t hurt.
No one does more to support our Olympic and Paralympic athletes than National Lottery players, who raise around £36 million each week for good causes including grassroots and elite sport. Discover the positive impact playing the National Lottery has at www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and get involved by using the hashtags: #TNLAthletes #MakeAmazingHappen