Powerlifter Gemma Marshall: from novice to Commonwealth champion

PUBLISHED: 12:01 23 January 2018 | UPDATED: 12:02 23 January 2018

Gemma Marshall (photo: Stephen Philpot)

Gemma Marshall (photo: Stephen Philpot)

Stephen Philpot Photography

From being a complete novice a year ago to being crowned Commonwealth champion, Gemma Marshall has blasted into the sport of power lifting. Mark Slattery spoke to the Knebworth athlete about her rapid rise and the challenges she faces

For some, a bench press is what they do when they place their hands on their desk to stand up after a long day tapping a keyboard. Not for Knebworth’s Gemma Marshall. For her, it involves lifting an 85kg barbell over her chest and locking it into place.

Together with the squat and the dead lift, the bench press is one of three elements that make up the sport of powerlifting. Not to be confused with its better known cousin weightlifting, powerlifting, you could say, is not over-exposed. In fact, so much under-exposed is it that in September in South Africa Gemma became the Commonwealth champion and nobody outside of the powerlifting fraternity even noticed.

Born in St Albans, Gemma has gone from being a complete novice at the end of 2016 to holding the English record for bench press, which she has since broken twice. It now stands at 87.5kg, just shy of the British record at 92.5kg. She hoped to break that while competing in South Africa but managed only 85kg. It was still good enough to win.

Gemma (photo: Stephen Philpot)Gemma (photo: Stephen Philpot)

‘I had never done powerlifting until December last year,’ says the 32-year-old. ‘Some of the competitors have been doing it for over 10 years, and understandably, I’m not universally popular with all of them.’

At 5’2”, Gemma competes in the 57-63kg weight division – one of seven in the women’s side of the sport.

‘The previous English record (for bench press) at my weight was 80kg,’ she explains. ‘I’ve pressed 95kg in training and will get better. The Commonwealth record is 105kg which was set by a 35-year-old Australian. It’s not completely out of the question.’

Gemma MarshallGemma Marshall

While she can lift a large man over her head, the large men themselves can shift the equivalent of three. The heavyweight men’s world bench press champion presses over 260kg – a weight that could kill an athlete should it fall on them if they did not practice with the right equipment and procedures.

Lifting one and a half times her own bodyweight, Gemma is not to be taken lightly. She’s an ex-swimming instructor and spent weeks in Thailand training and competing in the near-no-holds barred sport of Thai boxing. YouTube videos testify to her proficiency in taking out the opposition. She has been close to competing for England in judo.

The challenges come in all shapes and sizes. A former boyfriend once made the mistake of challenging her to throw him.

Gemma Marshall (photo: Stephen Philpot)Gemma Marshall (photo: Stephen Philpot)

‘He was six-foot four and did some nightclub bouncing, so he thought he was too big and heavy to be thrown. A few seconds later he was on the floor and we discovered he had a broken collar bone.’

Now she’s a gym addict, specialising in mixed martial arts, and living in Knebworth with her partner who teaches Brazilian jujitsu. Her primed muscles are definitely not all physical – she has a master’s degree in genetics.

She travels a lot with her work as a sales manager but also works from home. Having a good job comes in handy with a minority sport

like powerlifting – Gemma had to pay for her own flights and accommodation to the competition in South Africa.

‘It’s fair to say the sport needs more recognition and funding and the competitors would all like a sponsor,’ she says.

She credits doing crossfit – a multi-disciplinary exercise regime that includes elements of weightlifting – with giving her the right muscle sets to do the bench press and she says her 30-something age is not an obstacle.

‘Older people in particular develop the raw power and strength to do this. I have years left to improve.’

It’s pretty certain that her improvements will bring more records. The bigger question is, outside of the sport’s niche, will anybody notice? We certainly hope so.

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