When she stepped on to the platform amid enthusiastic cheers from her supporters, Lebanese powerlifter Joya Khairallah, 22, was faced with a steel bar loaded with several red plates weighing an impressive total of 183.5kg.
This was an immense challenge for the young woman, weighing only 52kg, but she had to overcome it if she wanted to claim first-place at the 2023 International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) World Junior Championships.
No one in her category had ever accomplished this feat, until August 29 in Cluj-Napoca in Romania, when Miss Khairallah firmly grasped the heavy bar and pulled it from the ground level to her hips, a movement called a “deadlift” - one of three lifts performed in powerlifting.
When she reached the lockout position, marking the end of the movement, she screamed in triumph and knelt to the floor, having just broken the world record.
“After stepping on to the platform, I initially had doubts because I was exhausted, and my back was hurting, but I persevered, I got it and I won,” she told The National in Beirut during her first training session, a few days after the international competition.
“There's no actual word that really describes how I felt. It feels wonderful, but I'm still a bit in denial,” she added.
The Lebanese champion achieved a total of 428.5kg for the three lifts (bench, squat, and deadlift), setting yet another IPF Junior World Record in her weight class.
This exceptional performance earned Khairallah a gold medal in the competition for Lebanon.
But this time, the country has been celebrating athletic achievements.
“It's a big honour for me to represent Lebanon, I raised the flag high. I hope I could give hope to people, even though we're going through a lot in Lebanon,” Khairallah said, sporting a small Lebanese flag painted on one of her nails.
Another Lebanese powerlifter, Etienne El Chaer, 22, set two world records in the Junior's under 120kg category and claiming gold at the same competition.
'Women can be powerful, just like men'
Khairallah's journey has not been easy.
Born in Beirut, the young woman started training in high school five years ago.
As she dedicated more time to her passion, she met significant resistance.
Powerlifting is generally labelled as a man's sport and Khairallah had to challenge deeply ingrained gender stereotypes within Lebanese society.
“I met a lot of people who said that I shouldn't lift weights because it's a sport for men and that having a lot of muscles doesn't look beautiful on a girl and that it takes away some of our femininity”, she said, with her carefully curled dark hair flowing down her shoulders.
She recalls with a laugh that her mother once told her not to wear a dress at her sister's wedding because she had become too muscular.
But she persevered.
“I enjoy proving people wrong, and I love doing what I'm passionate about. Women can be powerful, just like men, and it's an incredible feeling,” she said.
After high school, she trained hard to become a certified coach. Her parents, although unfamiliar with the sport, eventually supported her.
She now works as a personal trainer and runs a home-made peanut butter business called “Joya the Ant Peanut Butter”.
She said that her accomplishments have required many “sacrifices,” such as strict dietary discipline, rigorous training, and missing out on nights out and weekends with her family.
But her dedication is paying off. She has participated in five international competitions over the past five years, including two world championships, and secured a silver medal in the 2022 event.
But being an athlete in Lebanon comes with many financial challenges.
The Lebanese champion says special athletes' food, membership fees, dedicated equipment, and travel expenses to competitions are all costly.
“So, they really do add up, and in our current financial situation, it's not easy,” she said.
Furthermore, athletes from certain countries also have to navigate the endless struggle of securing a visa.
Khairallah said that she did not receive her visa until the day before her scheduled flight to Romania.
“During my last training sessions, I was training hopelessly. These were the crucial final sessions where I should have been entirely focused on the weights, but I couldn't concentrate because I was scared I wouldn't get the visa, and that I wasn't going to make my dream come true,” she told The National.
She eventually obtained the precious document and realised not only her dream but also that of her many Lebanese supporters.