Tia Toomey is off to her first Olympic Games as Australia’s only female weightlifter, having taken up the sport just three years ago.
But how does a 22-year-old go from running as a 400m hurdler to starting up her own fitness business and taking on not one, but two completely new sports in which she now competes at an international level – in just three years?
Tia Toomey has been on a journey since finishing school: deferring her university degree in Brisbane, she moved to Gladstone with her partner and got a job. After working for a couple of years with mining giant Rio Tinto while exploring a new avenue in fitness training, she decided to take a leap of faith, quit her job and invest in this new found passion – Crossfit. Toomey set up a fitness business of her own while following that passion to its highest level, which then lead her to another passion - weightlifting - that will now see her compete at the highest level representing her country in Rio.
An athlete all her life, Toomey had a typically active childhood, playing netball and tennis, surf lifesaving, swimming, running and more. But as as a young adult, she began looking for something different to support her training on the athletics track as a change-up in her training. She was introduced to Crossfit.
"I found there were more and more things to challenge me through Crossfit. Then I noticed a bit of a body change; I started getting a little heavier because I started developing more muscle which slowed down my running."
“I wanted to change my training for 400m hurdles so my partner recommended that I try this new exercise program called 'Crossfit'," Toomey told Zela. "I was doing it for my fitness levels and possibly just to build a little bit more strength in my legs, so that I would be a little bit more powerful when I ran, and then everything just went from there. I found there were more and more things to challenge me through Crossfit. Then I noticed a bit of a body change; I started getting a little heavier because I started developing more muscle which slowed down my running.
“I loved the passion I always had for running but I also found that in Crossfit – that plays a big part and has a big impact. If you’re not really loving it then you’re wasting your time and Crossfit was definitely something that I got adrenalin from – it was amazing,” she said.
"If you’re not really loving it then you’re wasting your time and Crossfit was definitely something that I got adrenalin from – it was amazing.”
While devoting all her time and energy to her fitness training, Toomey understands that she needs to work and through establishing her fitness business has managed to combine the passions in her life with the necessities of living.
“I bought the Crossfit gym, so I run my own business but the beauty is that I get to do my own hours and pay myself what I need to in order to get to events and then I to train as much and when I want,” she said.
“I don’t really look at it as a job because it’s my passion. It was a nerve-wracking decision to make at the start but I have no regrets.”
Toomey’s weightlifting career began after Commonwealth and Olympic Games. Weightlifting coach Miles Wydall spotted her in late 2013 which lead to her first competition - the 2014 Commonwealth Games trials where she missed out on qualifying by just one spot.
Having a successful 2015 on the international Crossfit scene, finishing second in the 2015 Crossfit Games, Toomey has since dedicated more training time to weightlifting with a view to Rio. However, her Crossfit career has not suffered in the least, as she heads to the US for the 2016 Crossfit Games in the weeks leading up to the Olympics.
Part of Toomey’s passion for fitness comes from a strong belief in living a healthy and active lifestyle and doesn’t believe in the old practice of you just have to just 'bulk up' and be heavy to do weightlifting.
“Basically the heavier you are, the more you can lift. With weightlifting, that is exactly what everyone wants to do – to lift as much as they can,” said Toomey.
"There’s a joke that goes around saying they have to have Maccas before they go out and lift. But my belief is you are what you eat: so the better the food you’re putting into your body, the better your body will perform."
“Each individual athlete is different, but I do understand that some weightlifters aren’t healthy either. There’s a joke that goes around saying they have to have Maccas before they go out and lift. But my belief is you are what you eat: so the better the food you’re putting into your body, the better your body will perform. I am a big believer that whole foods are the best - you can’t go wrong with whole foods,” she said.
“I think generally the healthier and cleaner your food, the better you feel. And that doesn’t mean it should be different for an ordinary person compared to an elite athlete; I think an elite athlete can live on an ordinary person’s diet as long as they’re feeling good and having the best recovery.
“Whereas back in the day, they’re probably didn’t have that information and probably didn’t realise just how bad fatty foods are and how much they are going to slow your metabolism down and how much they’re going to slow your movement patterns down.
“In weightlifting, the two key components of fitness are speed and power and so you want to be as fast and ready as possible,” said Toomey.
“I just think that if I eat healthier then I’m going to perform much better because I’m going to be feeling much better.”
Toomey’s whirlwind rise to the Olympic ranks of weightlifting has not lessoned her focus on the task at hand, but to her the biggest prize is being in Rio, representing Australia at an Olympic Games.
She plans to enjoy the full experience of both the Opening and Closing ceremonies and everything in between.
“I’m there for the whole time. I can’t come home until everyone’s finished and the Closing Ceremony is complete because we’re there as a team and to support each other,” said Toomey.
She is scheduled to lift in the first week of the event.
“I cannot wait! I’m lifting on 8 August. I lift in the first week, so I get two weeks of just watching whatever sports I want, eating what I want and I’m going to be enjoying that time as best as I can,” she laughed.
“I’m fortunate enough to be able to attend both of the ceremonies. I would be gutted if I was lifting early and I couldn’t go – because that’s one of the highlights – so I’m definitely lucky enough to be going.”
Toomey is realistic about her prospects in her first Olympic outing with the top female lifter in the world outstripping her by a good 50 or more kilograms, but she is looking to give her time at the bar everything she’s got and rack up some personal bests.
"... if I can make it into the top 20 in the world, I would be so rapt – I would be over the moon – a top 20 finish would be amazing!”
“My best is 194kg so there’s a massive gap there, but if I can make it into the top 20 in the world, I would be so rapt – I would be over the moon – a top 20 finish would be amazing!” she said.
“Hopefully I can get some PBs because usually we go out trying to hit a total to try to get into another competition, but at the Olympics you go hell-for-leather, so I just can’t wait to see what I can produce.”
While Toomey will give this Olympic debut her all, she knows it is just the first of some big opportunities which await her in the coming years.
One such opportunity will be the 2018 Commonwealth Games to be held in Australia on the Gold Coast – practically on her front doorstep – and she can’t wait.
“My very first competition was the 2104 Commonwealth Games trials and I missed out by one spot.
“It would also be great to have my family there as well because some of them couldn’t really afford to get over to Rio. So I really hope I can last to the Commonwealth Games and perform the best that I can. I would love to medal at the Comm Games,” she said.
But her first big challenge is the one that awaits Toomey in Brazil.
On Saturday she flies out to the USA for the Crossfit Games and then plans to have some lead-in time in Miami for a week’s training, before making her way to Rio and the beginning of what will be a memorable fortnight of sport for this young athlete – an experience she’s sure never to forget.
Australian Olympic Weightlifter, Tia Toomey is guest editor for a special edition of Zela articles. Tia has written, commissioned and created content for readers around her passion of sport and her broader interests.