Great weight on young shoulders

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Sixth-year pupil Jenna O'Neill keeps raising the bar as she sets herself new targets in weightlifting. Roddy Mackenzie talks to the Commonwealth youth medallist

Jenna O'Neill sets herself high standards, academically and in sport. The sixth-year pupil at Greenock Academy already has a conditional acceptance to study medicine at Keele University and she is aiming to compete for Scotland in the next Commonwealth Games.

There are not many 17-year-old female weightlifters in Scotland and Jenna knows the feeling of long, lonely hours in the weights room, but the rewards are starting to come.

She was the only female weightlifter in Scotland's team for the Commonwealth Youth Games in Bendigo, Australia, last month, where she won a bronze medal in the under 58kg class, and there have been trips to competitions in Belgium and Austria in recent months too.

Jenna was not satisfied with her weightlifting in Australia in spite of the medal and says it has only whetted her appetite to return for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne next year.

"I was a bit disappointed with my performance in Bendigo. I expected better. But we arrived at 5am on the Monday and I was competing on the Wednesday morning, so I don't think I really had time to acclimatise properly," she explains.

"I was hoping for a personal best; it didn't happen. But it was a good learning curve for me. There was a great camaraderie about the team and it gave me a taste of what it was like to be in a Scotland team at an international event. It has only made me more determined to get to Melbourne."

Weightlifting is a sport Jenna chanced upon and she has only been competing seriously for the past 18 months. Having tried hockey, volleyball and badminton in her earlier school days, she took up the javelin when she was 14. After coming eighth at her first Scottish Schools Track and Field Championships in Grangemouth in 2001, she went on to win a bronze medal the following year. It was only through using the weights to supplement her athletics training that she was bitten by the weightlifting bug.

She won her first competition - the 2003 Scottish Open at Meadowmill - and qualified for the British under-18 championships, although she concedes there were not many girls taking part.

Titles have followed: the British under-17 champion and Scottish under-23 champion at under 58kg. She missed out on this season's Scottish senior championships as they took place the week before she left for Bendigo.

Jenna has had to make sacrifices to further her sporting ambitions. She spends eight to 10 hours a week lifting weights. She also does two cardiovascular training sessions.

"Of course you miss out on nights out with friends, but it's not too bad," she says. "The week before a competition it can be a bit of a drag when all your friends are going out and you have to stay in, but I accept that.

"Because I'm in sixth year, I only have 15 or 16 periods a week, so I am fortunate that I can fix training around my school work.

"I don't find lifting weights boring. A lot of people from different walks of life come into the gym and there's a good atmosphere. I enjoy meeting such a diverse range of people and I enjoy the training. It's satisfying when you do something exceptional in the gym and you start to see progress.

"I suppose I do set myself high standards but they have to be realistic. There is no point in setting yourself unrealistic targets and then failing all the time."

Jenna benefited from having Stuart Yule, the strength and conditioning coach from the Scottish Institute of Sport, on hand to help her prepare for the Commonwealth Youth Games. She trains independently since leaving the Inverclyde Ironmasters club.

Inverclyde Council gives Jenna, who was its Young Sports Personality of the Year for 2003, free use of local leisure facilities but she relies on her parents to help out with equipment and travel costs. She recently saved up for a ladies' weightlifting bar, which cost pound;500. However, if Jenna realises her ambition of competing in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, she will be able to gain access to a sophisticated support programme.

Jenna is trying to get her weight down to be able to compete in the under 53kg class. Diet is an important part of her sport. "I'm a vegetarian," she reveals, "which doesn't help you when you are in a strength sport. I have to make sure I get enough protein."

The year ahead promises to be an important one for Jenna, in sport and academically. Her first major competition is the Scottish Weightlifting Open in Kilmarnock in March. The British junior championships are the following month and the British senior championships take place in the summer.

Jenna's academic studies are her priority - she already has four Higher passes (three As and a C) as well as an Advanced Higher (B) in maths - but she is hopeful that if she goes to study medicine at Keele University, she will still be able to pursue weightlifting.

At this stage, she is keeping all of her options open in the knowledge that her weight training will give her a good grounding for any sport if she chooses to change track in the years ahead. She plans to train with a sprint cycle team in the summer and see if that gives her another option.

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