From Fat To World Champion Powerlifter
My name is Danielle Hayes. Most of my life I was overweight. Now I am a World Powerlifting Champion. This is my story.
At the age of 16, 5’7, I was a large size UK 16, borderline 18, weighing in at 13 stone 7 pounds, as you can see in the picture below.
It was the summer of 2004, after my final year in Secondary School and I was standing on a scale when I saw that number. I felt lost and I felt extremely scared not knowing the first step to take in order to change. It was there and then, looking down at the weighing scales, that I decided I needed to lose weight and ultimately change my life. Though doing this, I knew it would mean a massive life overhaul. It was har even thinking about it.
I had reached a point in my life where I knew that if I did not make a change, I would one day be twice the size I was. For years family and friends had said to me “yeah, you’re a big girl, but you carry it well. You’re big boned!” “Big boned” I think they were just too afraid to hurt my feelings and tell the harsh reality that was very overweight. Looking down at the scales, I had lost the ability to repeat to myself “You’re just big boned”, to reassure myself that things would get better if I just stayed positive. Looking at my weight history would prove me wrong, as I was well on my way to self-destruction. From as far back as I can remember I was overweight, chubby and broad. I was FAT! My weight gradually increased from a young child to the adolescent age of 17. I was not the girl who gained weight after having suffered an injury or even the undergraduate college student who packed on fifteen pounds. Being fat was all I ever knew and it was destroying me, emotionally and mentally.
Stepping off the scales, I asked myself “How in god’s name did I get here!?” Why has it taken until now to realise what I’ve been doing to myself? Food was my number one enemy. The chocolate, the double Big Macs, the curry chips, or my favourite meal, the curry noodles with creamy mashed potato and breaded chicken burgers. Oh and not to forget the two slices of white bread that I’d sandwich all of this together with. It makes me nauseous now even thinking about what I was shoveling into my body, my temple. Then my mind went to my family background, my genetics – “my father and his side of the family, and my Mum’s mother, they were all ‘big people’. Maybe that’s where I get it from?” I played this mind game like a ‘who caused it?’ murder mystery before I could admit to myself the actual truth.
I had become overweight not merely because I loved food, but mainly because I was using it as a crutch to compensate for my home life which was quite unstable. I know there is a fine line between telling just enough and telling too much, but I think telling too much is the better option here. As far back as I can remember my father was an alcoholic. His alcohol consumption made for a volatile household, an environment that reeked of fear and sadness. As erratic as he could be and as much as he was hurting my mother, brother and I by drinking himself (and our family) into oblivion, I loved him with every inch of my heart. I was (as he used to call me) his “little Princess”.
At the age of 10, he left our family home. Our relationship gradually diminished after that, and by the time I was 15, we had absolutely no contact. I tell you all of this because it is why food became such an imperative part of my life. Being reared in a single-parent family household for most of my life, my mother struggled to pay household and mortgage bills – it was a daily hurdle to keep the family home afloat. I still to this day don’t know how she did it. With three jobs on the go, she cared for us as best as she could. We never went hungry, or wanted for anything. But my weight and food dilemma came hand in hand with her struggle.
On a strict budget, and with very little maintenance from my father, my mother purchased food that she could afford to buy. Albeit was not always the healthiest of choices, it usually consisted of many processed foods. She did what she had to and it was what she could afford. She also, in a way, used food as ‘love’ to compensate for the absence of my father. I began to really love food and believed that food loved me. When I was nervous, food was reassuring. When I felt anxious food was comforting. When I was sad, food brightened up my mood. When my mother was at work, and I was at home, food was my babysitter. When I was being bullied and called a ‘fat pig’ or yelled “oink oink” at school or by other children while out playing with my friends, food was my best friend – my shoulder to cry on. For every, single, entire, emotion I could turn to food and it would have my back.
But at 17 years old, food didn’t love me anymore. My dependency on it needed to come to an end. With a desire to change before my Debs that September, I began to follow Weight Watchers around May. Yes, initially I lost weight (but not fat). Of course I would, I was following a low calorie, low fat diet, high in sugar. It was less than enough calories to keep me functioning day to day. By the age of 20 I had dropped to a size 10 UK, however, I became what is referred to as ‘skinny fat’. For those of you that don’t know what this means, I’ll explain. Literally, skinny fat means the person looks super slim but because they have very little muscle mass on their body, are still highly unhealthy and carry excess unwanted body fat. They look good in clothes but when the clothes are off, it’s a different story. Hello flabby belly, thighs and arms! I had lost a lot of weight, I lost a lot of muscle but I did not look or feel healthy. I was not satisfied with my physique either.
I still felt and looked fat and flabby. I lived by the scales, pound by pound, weighing myself nearly every morning, very destructive behaviour. I was torturing myself. While I ran for an hour straight every day and went to Curves 4 times a week, I still had absolutely no shape to my body. I also began to develop a negative relationship with food. It was my best friend as a child, but it had now become my worst enemy. With a fear of becoming ‘fat’ again, I started to greatly under eat. My eating regime would consist of three small meals (if you would even call them that) per day. An apple and coffee for breakfast, a bag of popcorn and Special-K breakfast bar for lunch, and for dinner, a grilled turkey breast with boiled vegetables and some extra-extra light mayonnaise.
Healthy, right? On many occasion too I just wouldn’t eat. On other occasions (and I’m extremely nervous and sad to let the cat out of the bag) I would make myself vomit if I thought I had eaten too much. Indeed, an eating disorder prevailed. I had developed bulimia. I had hit an extremely unhealthy and worrying plateau, mentally, physically and emotionally. I needed drastic changes. I needed someone to come along and be my knight in shining armor, someone to help me overcome not only my unhealthy eating habits, but more importantly, the psychological problems that I had developed at such a frightfully young age. It was at this point in my life that I turned to my older brother Darragh for help. As a Professional Footballer at the time, and beginning his career as a Fitness Model, I knew he would steer me in the right direction.
Like the protective big brother that he is, Darragh took me under his wing. He became my fitness coach, my life coach, my counselor, my role model. He began initially by educating me on how to eat properly and that coincided with helping me to develop a much more positive attitude towards food, to rid the demon from my head, once and for all! I think what was most helpful was having him there by my side every minute of the day, helping me live one day at a time. At times it was very easy to become discouraged and side tracked, especially when I looked too far into the future.
Darragh stuck by my side, listened to all my moaning and by god was there a lot of that. He coaxed me through my mental breakdowns, and helped me to see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. He helped me to stay positive and motivated to keep pushing forward, and to use my emotions as fuel for attaining my goal, a healthy, lean, strong, athletic physique with a healthy and sound mind. With him as my support mechanism, I just tried to get through each day feeling that I’d tried my best and knowing that I just kicked yesterday in the butt. Sometimes I thought, “Oh my God, I actually can’t eat another omlette for breakfast, chicken, sweet potato and greens for dinner, nuts as snacks, but “there are so many calories in nuts.” and there are but they contain the essential fatty acids required to burn fat and keep you fuller for longer. Then I asked myself, “Can you do it today, Danielle? Just for today?”. And I could. That question made each day much more manageable.
Having begun to tackle nutrition, it was time to deal with the fitness end of things. As I’ve mentioned already, I ran religiously everyday for at least one whole hour, the same route every day, from my home up to the Airport and back. If I did not get my hourly run in, I would beat myself up and punish myself by, of course, eating less. This way, I would remain skinny and not put my weight back on, but in hindsight I was so so wrong.
I thought “if I don’t go for a run, I’m not going to lose weight, and what I eat will turn to fat”. Does it sound familiar? I’m sure it does. This is how most women think. Darragh helped me to change my mind set. He initiated this by organising a training session in the gym one winter’s day and it was not to get on a treadmill and run for an hour, rather it was quite the opposite actually. I remember it as clear as a bright, sunny day.
Here I am, my first session in the gym, not knowing what to expect. Darragh of course walks straight over to the weights section where all of the men were lifting ‘dumbbells’ and Olympic bars (which, at the time, I didn’t even know the name of) and cursing and shouting “Aaaaaah…. Pfffff… PUSH IT.. g’wan!” There was not a single woman in sight. Funnily enough they (the women) were using the cardio machines! Feeling overly anxious, intimidated, nervous, and completely out of my comfort zone, I followed Darragh, thinking that everyone was looking at me knowing I hadn’t a breeze what I was doing. I was literally like a lost puppy. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what circuit we did that day, but I can tell you this, I remember thinking to myself “this is unbelievably tough, can I really do this? But it feels amazing, this just has to work!”
It was from this point on that I developed a passion for weightlifting. And the more I listened to, and trained with, my brother the more I learned from him. I became so eager to learn. I wanted to know more! He was only too happy to help, guide and coach me. It wasn’t long before I started to see results too – I began to see a shape in my body, and started to feel and look physically stronger, while also feeling much more positive in terms of my food and eating habits. I was on the right track! FINALLY!
Eventually I arrived at my goal physique. My journey to that point was all at once the most agonising and gratifying experience of my life. But having this new ‘athletic’ looking body was terrifying. How do you maintain a physique you’ve never known? How do you live moderately? What is normal? The answers to these questions were a mystery to me. I had no frame of reference for my new body, because all I ever knew was fat or yo-yo dieting. Learning to maintain my physique was, and still is, as hard as gaining it. While it took some time, Darragh helped me to train myself into thinking that I do not follow a diet, it’s a lifestyle change that I have undergone. I now eat and lift weights for a number of reasons, to be healthy, to keep fit, to remain mentally focused, to maintain my physique, to boost my confidence and self-esteem, and to fuel my strength in the gym , not to be a ‘skinny minnie’.
Danielle becomes a Powerlifter… a Powerlifter you say?!
With my determination sky high, Darragh persuaded me to get involved with Powerlifting, to take my training to another level, a competitive level. After much deliberation, and self doubting, he gave me the kick that I needed. I thought sure why not, I don’t really have anything to lose, and it will give me even more reason to continue on my journey. So, in January 2013 I began training for my first ever Powerlifting competition. With three months of hard training, coaching and strict adhering to eating in correlation to ,my training, I walked away with a gold medal, National title and qualified to compete at the WDFPF World Powerlifting Championships 2013. In awe of this achievement, it triggered the determination and inspiration to continue on my path as a Powerlifter, to where I now stand today as a World Senior Powerlifting Champion.
On 2nd November 2013, I became the 70-80kg World Senior Powerlifting Champion at the WDFPF World Powerlifting Championships in Glasgow. In my most recent competition, the IDFPA National Push Pull Competition in Gorey Co. Wexford, I broke two National Single Lift Records, pulling a deadlift of 160kg and bench pressing 62.5kg. So now I am not only a National Champion, World Champion, but I hold two National records. It seems surreal even saying that! I sure have come a long way from when I started out on this long, overhaul journey 9 years ago. It goes without saying that I could not have achieved what I have without the constant help, guidance, support, coaching and counseling from my brother and my best friend, Darragh. He has been my rock since I set out on my journey back in 2004. I wouldn’t be where I am today, only for him.
I once felt trapped and unhappy in an unhealthy body and mind. Now I know that I will never stop pushing forward to reach new levels of fitness both physically and mentally, and you better believe that I will bring others down the same road. There have been many obstacles, trials, and tribulations, but through those I have achieved my greatest victories. I have poured my heart out in this article, and have delved into personal issues that no one has ever known about. I truly hope that my story inspires those who are struggling daily with their weight, and the psychological problems that can develop as a result.
If I could achieve my dream, you certainly can too. I am now a Personal Trainer in my brothers Gym, The CMB Gym in Dublin City Centre.
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Danielle Hayes CPT | CMB Personal Trainer Dublin