Story by Karen Abeyasekere on 04/02/2019By day, Sarah Marsden is an environmental engineer with the 100th Civil Engineer Squadron, responsible for maintaining the environmental management system for RAF Mildenhall. However, by night (and weekends), she's a multi-medal-winning powerlifter and can be found either strength training in a local gym or participating in competitions around the United Kingdom and beyond.
Starting at the age of 13 with motor racing, followed by karate for 15 years where she gained her black belt she soon moved on to playing hockey, football (soccer) and sky diving. But these were not enough of an adrenaline rush for Marsden, so she began to compete in powerlifting, and has gone from strength to strength literally.
Her first taste of competition was in June 2014, when she lifted a combined total of 297.5 kg for squat, bench press and deadlift.
"It was a beginners' competition and at the time, participants didn't have to wear all the approved equipment; people could just turn up in sweatpants and get an idea of what competition would be like that's recommended for your first time. So if you hate I,t you don't have to buy all the expensive kit," Marsden said.
Turns out she loved it, especially as her results from that first contest qualified her for the British Nationals in London. It was from there that her interest quickly turned into her passion.
Marsden recalled when starting out, she was in the "super-heavyweight" category, for those 84 kilograms (185.2 pounds) and above. However, being around the middle of that put her at a disadvantage against those much taller than her. At her heaviest weight of 112 kilograms (247 pounds), but it was too much for her frame. She eventually decided to cut down to 84 kg so she could compete in a lower weight category.
Her personal best combined weight to date is 435 kilograms (959 pounds) 175 kilograms (386 pounds) of that being in the squat category and it was a British record at the time.
Marsden's age category (40+) is "Masters" (age 23+ is classed as "Seniors") and each age category is made up of different weight categories. Since starting powerlifting, she won endless British medals and trophies and she's also competed in the International Commonwealth Championships in both Canada and South Africa. By 2016, the environmental engineer qualified for the World Powerlifting Championships in Texas, held in June that year.
"It was the experience of a lifetime to wear the England tracksuit for my country. I don't think there will ever be a feeling like that again. Although I've lifted internationally since then, that first one was so special and I was lucky enough to come away with a silver medal. That was completely unexpected, and a dream come true," Marsden said. "I thought I'd probably never be selected to lift internationally again but the next year I was invited to the World Championships, which was yet another dream come true. That time I lifted for Great Britain rather than England, and I came sixth overall. It was the absolute pinnacle so far."
Health issues forced Marsden to temporarily take a step back from training and competing.
"I'd been feeling brilliant after having done three international (competitions) in three years, which you have to be selected for. I was doing great in them, my lifts were going up and I was feeling fantastic, then all of a sudden it was like a shadow fell on me and I felt terrible. My training started going really badly, my health was terrible, and that year I didn't get selected for an international, which really knocked me. That's when I knew something weird was going on.
"After all the health problems, I realized being that weight wasn't doing me a lot of good so after I saw the doctor, I made the decision in my head to lose weight and try and compete in a different class," she explained.
She believed she could, so she did
Marsden started cutting weight on Jan. 1, 2018, then in August she took part in her first 84 kilograms weight class competition. She lost 30 kilograms (66 pounds) in eight months and her current weight class is 72 to 84 kilograms (158.7 to 185 pounds).
"You don't want to be anywhere other than as close as possible to the top weight in your category, as you'll be at such a disadvantage," she said. "At the end of the day, weight moves weight so if you're giving away 10, 5 or even 1 kilogram, that's going to affect how you're lifting against somebody."
The environmental engineer explained that initially she made the changes for her health, so powerlifting had to come second. Now her strength is coming back to her in leaps and bounds, and she said she feels better than she has done in a long time, and is once again moving forward.
Marsden first got into using weights several years ago, when she signed up for a government-initiative health program which tackles the causes of obesity. The program still runs today and aims to help families make small, sustainable yet significant improvements to their diet and activity levels.
"Me and my mum joined a local gym in Newmarket she went twice and hated it; I loved it and carried on going. From there, I got a personal trainer who now owns the gym where I train today and I fell in love with the weights. He introduced me to lifting weights, because he said it would be better for my health and I would lose weight quicker by lifting weights rather than running and spending hours on the treadmill," she said.
"The weight began to fall off me, I was feeling really fit, and my trainer taught me how to squat, bench and deadlift, which are the main lifts in powerlifting," Marsden continued, adding, "I loved it, and he introduced me to a couple of international powerlifters who lived locally. So I went to watch a competition and immediately thought, I can do that!'
"I've done a lot of adrenaline sports in my time, and the excitement I get from powerlifting is very similar, and that's what I love the competition, the thrill, buzz and the danger it's a wonderful feeling," Marsden said, visibly glowing with pride.
She currently trains four days a week, which she said allows her body time to recover from the heavy weights she lifts. Marsden stressed how vital sleep, massage and recovery are just as important as lifting heavy weights.
"You can't just keep lifting heavy weights every day because you'll end up getting injured and won't achieve your goals," she said. "I have a coach and we work out when my next competition is then work backwards from that. We do a peaking cycle,' which makes you strong for that one particular day, then you work back for about six to eight weeks and build up to your targets and goals of what you want to lift then cross your fingers and hope for the best."
She also described how support from others has been vital in enabling her to get where she is today, adding that her colleagues in 100th CES have been hugely supportive of her lifting, training and nutrition.
"My husband, John, has also been amazing and puts up with a lot of hassle from me due to my powerlifting, from all the time I spend in the gym or in physio, plus we don't often eat the same foods because of me having to eat things that meet my macronutrients requirement" Marsden said. "There's no way I could have been successful in this sport without his help and understanding though he has been able to go on holiday to Canada, Texas and South Africa because of my competitions!"
Marsden's dedication and passion for her powerlifting are also evident in her day-to-day job, and she stands out for all the right reasons to her leadership.
"The habits and dedication that make Sarah a world-class powerlifter spill over into other parts of her life and contribute to the excellence in all she does," said James Lang, 100th CES environmental chief and Marsden's supervisor. "Her energy and commitment are contagious, and positively impact those around her. She's a pleasure to work with."
"I love being a powerlifter and I love the fact that other women in the gym look to me and are surprised to see a woman lifting big weights. I hope to be able to inspire other women to do the same because it's a wonderful sport and makes you feel really good about yourself. It gives you confidence in your body I don't worry too much now about how other people see me I love my body, I love what I've achieved; my lifting has changed my body completely."
Marsden and other female powerlifters have formed a group to meet and inspire other women from around East Anglia who powerlift or are interested in doing so, and want more information.
"We visit the gyms in East Anglia to get together, chat and have coffee," she said. "We teach people how to lift; it's a lovely feeling to be able to spread that love of powerlifting we have to other people."
Now at the top of her game, with medals galore and British, European and world championships under her weight belt, it's easy to wonder what's left what other motivation is there to keep on powerlifting and not tick off some new adrenaline challenge instead?
"I want to win my big motivation is that I love competition and I love winning," the environmental engineer said. "But it's not just about winning, it's about increasing my lifts. I do lose motivation fairly regularly; I'm tired, I have injuries, I'm always sore and in pain but you just have to push through. My coach tells me what I have to lift on that day and that's what I have to do in the gym, whether it hurts or not."
Marsden added that the downside to strict training (apart from the injuries, tiredness and pain) is constantly missing out on social events and food treats such as birthday parties, barbecues or the odd takeaway, but explained how the wrong food and drink can severely impact her strength and training sessions, and it's just not worth the risk of allowing her competitors the chance to get ahead of her.
"There are a lot of amazing women and I look up to the World, European and British champions; there's always some amazing people to look for and look up to, and I've made some amazing friends around the world the confidence that exudes from these women is lovely to see. It's the women with confidence more than the women who can lift a lot who I look up to most," she said.
"Sometimes it's just the feeling of confidence that I want for myself, rather than how much weight they're lifting. Even if they come last, if they've beaten their own lift, got a personal best and gave it everything they've got to me that's the most fantastic feeling," Marsden exclaimed. "I'd rather come last every time but know I'd achieved something that I needed to, such as get a personal best it's the best feeling in the world."