Olympics

Gifford lifts herself out of a vicious cycle

Olympic weightlifting hopeful Megan Gifford has had to revise her weight, and her health, in her bid for Tokyo - and she's stronger and happier than ever, she tells Ashley Stanley. 

Megan Gifford had been doing all she could to lift at this year's Tokyo Olympics.

So much so, that her body stopped producing a menstrual cycle a couple of years ago.

Pushing her body’s boundaries to perform at an elite level was part of the 29-year-old weightlifter's plan to achieve her goals. But it came at a cost. One she did not realise the  magnitude of, or the consequences it could have on her personally and professionally in the long term. 

“Because I train a lot for my sport, I was stuck in the mindset that the loss of my period was normal,” Gifford says.  “I used to voice that opinion to people and looking back now I feel bad thinking and saying that.”

With an intensive training schedule six days a week, Gifford’s body was always under extreme pressure.

She was constantly trying to cut her weight to compete in the 64kg weight class, where she was New Zealand’s No.1 lifter.

“Weight cuts are not fun and they’re not easy especially as you get older,” says Gifford, who's lifted New Zealand records of 116kg in the clean and jerk and 93kg in the snatch.

“I was mentally starting to resent the cuts because I was always hungry; my body was telling me to eat but you’re really restricted in what you can eat.

“It’s a cycle - when you’re cutting, you’re energy deficient, which means you can’t train as well. Which is frustrating because your body doesn’t do what you want it to.”

Gifford also had to combat the hormonal imbalances that can come with cutting weight.

“Because your hormones are low, that can create all sorts of issues with moods. All of these things limit your ability to perform at your best, so you’re drained physically and mentally all the time and you’re not developing your potential,” she says.

Watched by her husband, Callum, Megan Gifford lifts in training.  Photo: arthurimages.com

Travelling with the New Zealand weightlifting team to Japan in 2018, Gifford was part of conversation with other female lifters about what health in sport should look like. She heard others discuss the loss of their period and what they were doing to correct it. 

“I didn’t say anything at the time, but I started thinking ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ Because of those conversations I started taking small steps to try and understand my situation better,” Gifford says.

The experiences and symptoms Gifford refer to lean towards RED-S syndrome.

RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, is when an athlete’s food intake is not sufficient to refuel their body after exercise. Symptoms can include low energy, loss of a menstrual cycle and a decrease in bone density, causing injuries or broken bones.

“Even though I don’t personally think I sit in the RED-S category, there were definitely red flags saying I could be heading in that direction if I kept doing what I was doing,” says Gifford.

Taking time to learn more, talking to other athletes and arranging appointments to see specialists in between travel, training and competitions, meant Gifford was able to get a better handle on her overall health and well-being.

Now she’s competing in the 76kg category - a big jump up from her original 64kg weight class, but a welcome one.

“I’m just so much better after the switch – mentally and physically,” she says.

To her relief, Gifford managed to have a period for the first time in a “really long time” two weeks ago. “It was incredibly exciting,” she tells LockerRoom.

Simon Kent, Gifford’s coach, says with a laugh that it was one of the more unique texts he had received from her.

Having been involved in sport through strength and conditioning and, more recently, in leadership and performance coaching, Kent was just as interested in finding out more about what was happening with Gifford. And he had the right connections to help her.

“I went through something similar with another athlete at the Commonwealth Games, so it heightened my awareness. Because in the past, we’ve just trained girls like they’re boys,” admits Kent.

Working with expert endocrinologist Dr Megan Ogilvie has been one of the beneficial steps towards Gifford understanding her health fully.

Blood tests indicated she was energy deficient, but her bone density scans showed it wasn’t for a long period of time. If it had been, the results could’ve been more damaging, including a common outcome of infertility.

Gifford and Kent have been tapping into the work being done by High Performance Sport NZ’s WHISPA group (Healthy Women in Sport: A Performance Advantage) to ensure the best clinical advice reaches coaches and elite female athletes.

“Simon and I have been following the research closely and want to help raise awareness,” Gifford says.

Kent says they have girls as young as 13 coming to their Papatoetoe Weightlifting Club, so if they can help educate them now that will, hopefully, put them on a better pathway.

“The earlier we share experiences and findings with gym-goers, athletes, coaches and their families, the faster they can get a handle on how RED-S may affect their health and well-being in the long term and ultimately their performance. So it’s important work,” says Kent.

As part of reassessing Gifford’s plan for the Tokyo Olympics, she decided to make the leap up to the 76kg class. (She normally would have gone up to 71kg, but the number of weight categories for the 2020 Olympics has been slashed from 10 to seven).

The change in weight class was influenced by health reasons - making sure Gifford was happy and healthy and able to perform at her best – but also based on the points system.

Being able to carry over points from one weight class to another meant Gifford’s achievements in the 64kg class (where she holds a swag of records) would not be wasted.

Although she’s loving her new weight class, the switch initially presented new challenges.

“It was weird at first. I haven’t been this heavy since I started exercise, so it’s a little bit strange when you start putting on weight. There are a few things you have to go through mentally,” Gifford explains.

“One of those things I needed to unpack was my relationship with food. I’m part Filipino and we love our food. We’re used to eating everything on the plate, not necessarily because we’re hungry, but because we don’t want to waste food and refusing it is considered rude, especially if it’s been prepared for us.

“Over time, I’ve had to understand the habits I have with food and consciously create new ones, as my health is the most important thing.”

The combination of not having to cut weight and understanding the need to eat whole foods to supplement her performance and health has made it easier for Gifford to stick with new habits, especially over the trickier times of Christmas and celebrations.

Megan Gifford prepares to lift, encouraged by her coach, Simon Kent. Photo: Warren Davie, Photofitt

Kent says discipline and preparation are just some of the values Gifford brings to her goals.

“With Megan, there is a real understanding of what being a high-performance athlete looks like. Being able to turn up every single day, and repeating the boring little things sets her apart,” he says.  

“That’s the difference between someone who can perform consistently at an elite level to someone who might have what we call talent, but who isn’t prepared to put in the mundane work daily.”

With a new wave of young women coming into the Papatoetoe Weightlifting Club, they can see firsthand what work ethic, drive, dedication and continuous hunger to  improve looks like as they watch Gifford train towards Tokyo.

For someone who didn’t enjoy sport and exercise growing up, Gifford says she could’ve easily passed through life not picking up weightlifting. But she’s grateful she attended a crossfit class seven years ago at the encouragement of her future husband, Callum Gifford.

“I started to take my health seriously in 2012, joined a crossfit gym, competed in my first small competition in 2013, and that’s how I got into weightlifting,” shares Gifford.

Her first international competition came in 2017 and was actually helped her qualify for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, but Gifford snapped her ACL and meniscus shortly after, ruling her out of the Games just two weeks before the event. 

“It’s been a long tough journey with injuries. A lot of people ask if I’m on track for Tokyo or if I’ve even made it?” says Gifford.

“It’s just one of those questions that I genuinely don’t know the answer to. It’s a long process and requires the whole year-and-a-half of qualifiers, so we won’t know if I’ve made it until the last one in April in Nauru.”

There are six Olympic qualifiers that Gifford and other weightlifters need to compete in to reach Tokyo. From there, every competitor’s top four event scores are combined, and a ranking list is created.

To qualify for the Olympics in July, Gifford needs to be No.1 on the list in the 76kg weight class to go through as the Oceania representative. 

Either way, she wants to keep working on fine-tuning her artform, pushing towards her goals, and raising awareness around the issues female athletes can experience in sport.

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