Zoe Smith: Weightlifting 'wonderkid' fighting back from depression & targeting Tokyo

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Zoe Smith: Weightlifter on fighting back from depression & targeting Tokyo

"Every morning I was thinking, 'what's the point in being alive?'"

Zoe Smith was a poster-girl for the 2012 Olympics. A bubbly, talented teen from the host city - and competing in the non-traditional female sport of weightlifting - she embodied the message of the Games and it was hoped could truly 'inspire a generation'.

The public response after she set a new British record at those Games seemed to bear out those hopes, with #ComeOnZoe trending on Twitter and her followers soaring by over 30,000.

Commonwealth gold followed at Glasgow 2014, but the years following were less happy for Smith, whose spirit and enthusiasm slowly eroded.

Gradually her sponsors, who had been desperate to associate themselves with all-things London 2012, moved on to other projects and then, during the 2016 Olympic trials, disaster struck.

Smith dislocated her right shoulder twice in a matter of minutes, causing serious muscle and ligament damage and ruling her out of the Rio Games.

To compound her misery, UK Sport ended all funding for GB Weightlifting later that year.

"Anyone who's struggled with mental health will know that you'll wake up and not want to get out of bed, but I felt trapped, claustrophobic and wondering why I was put on this earth," she says.

"It's taken a real conscious effort and a lot of graft to get back from there."

But the former 'weightlifting wonderkid', now 25, won Commonwealth silver last year and European bronze this year and hopes to prove she can still fulfil her potential by delivering a major performance at the World Championships in Thailand this week.

'I was in a really dark place'

Smith says what she experienced in 2016 was a "reality check" after "skating through" her transition from junior gymnastics to elite - and record-breaking - weightlifting performances in her early teens.

"I was almost born into being an elite athlete because from the moment I started there was support and all that interest before the Olympics, which I just thought that was the norm," she says.

"I had sponsors, UK Sport funding and could be really single-minded, so when that was all taken from me it was really tough and I was in a very dark place."

Zoe Smith
Making 'bubble tea' at Loughborough University student union - Smith says she realised she needed a change from life in London

Smith had abandoned her A-levels in the build-up to London 2012 in order to fully focus on her Olympic bid, which left her without a back-up plan when things went wrong.

"I know it's a first-world problem, but I'd never had to work before and getting up at 5am every day to make my way over to a coffee shop where I'd be serving for most of the day before trying to train was incredibly tough," she says.

"People would recognise me when I was making them a coffee and they'd say 'aren't you Zoe Smith, the weightlifter?' and it reminded me where I'd been and where I now was."

Fighting back to fitness and form

By mid-2017 Smith realised she needed a change from life in London and decided to make the full-time move to Loughborough, where she had received treatment on her injured shoulder.

She returned to education at Loughborough College and worked in a pizza restaurant before taking on a job making 'bubble tea' at the university's student union - while also training at any opportunity.

"I just woke up one morning and decided 'actually I don't have to do this, I can make changes' and I had to do what was best for Zoe the athlete and choose happiness," the lifter tells BBC Sport.

"It was a real conscious effort to make a change, break the cycle, find a way out and it's really paid off because I'm much happier now."

To underline her newfound resolve she overcame a serious back injury, which almost saw her withdraw from the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the morning of her event.

And, last year, UK Sport handed GB Weightlifting a boost with its new 'aspiration fund'.

In a slight tweak to its highly successful 'no compromise' approach - funding only those athletes seen as potential Olympic or Paralympic medallists - UK Sport decided to help athletes from 14 unfunded sports qualify for Tokyo 2020.

Weightlifting received £192,000 of the £3m allocation, which Smith says has made a "real difference" after she was forced to raise over £10,000 through crowdfunding to support last year's World Championship bid.

To confirm a dramatic shift in fortunes, earlier this year she received the "shock" news that an audio company wanted to feature her alongside superstars LeBron James, Serena Williams and Anthony Joshua in the global launch of a new headphones product.

"It was unreal and like life before London 2012," she says, smiling as she recalls recording the advert.

'A level playing field at last'

Smith says she is optimistic about her own future and that of weightlifting in general after the sport's international governing body (IWF) adopted a much tougher anti-doping stance.

Following decades of failed tests and the reallocation of major medals, the International Olympic Committee warned weightlifting could be removed from the line-up for the Paris 2024 Games unless dramatic improvements were made.

In September 2017 the IWF handed out 12 month bans to nine nations, including Russia, China and Turkey, for serious anti-doping violations relating to retested samples from the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games.

Seventy athletes were then barred from last year's World Championships and a further 40 from the 2019 Europeans after failing to accurately record their whereabouts data, which is used to ensure regular out-of-competition testing.

"In the past we've had our suspicions [about rival competitors] and thought 'they've got to be cheating' but there's nothing we could do about it," Smith reflects.

"We feel it's finally a level playing field and we can actually challenge for major medals which is fuelling the fire inside a lot of us right now."

Olympic dream - 'I'm grafting for maybe the first time in my life'

Smith has moved from the -64kg division to the -59kg class to boost GB Weightlifting's prospects of qualifying two women for Tokyo 2020 - with fellow Commonwealth medallist Sarah Davies competing in the heavier division.

Results at the World Championships will count towards Olympic qualification, and Smith is seeking a top-eight finish in Thailand, but she has much bigger targets for next year's Games.

"After the lows of missing out on Rio, Tokyo is a proper comeback mission," she says. "I know I'm not quite there yet, but I've learnt so much from the last four years; I'm loving the challenge and I'm grafting for maybe the first time in my life."

If you, or someone you know, have been affected by mental health issues, follow this link for organisations that may be able to help.

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