16 September 2023
Squadron Leader Sarah Wheal isn’t just flexing her muscle when she describes her powerlifting coach gig at Invictus Games Dusseldorf 2023 as joyous and inspiring.
Indeed, as Australia’s sole female coach at these Games, she has helped guide her team of nine competitors – five women and four men - to achieve individual goals, smash personal bests and even triumph with medal placings.
As far as the certified competition coach and competitive powerlifter in her own right is concerned, these incredible achievements are testament to the hard yards put in by the amazing competitors, who have each overcome significant challenges to reach Dusseldorf.
“The powerlifting event was just joy! I was so proud and happy for them when they got what they wanted. The fact I get to play a role in that - and be the person standing next to them when that happens - that’s just everything,” said Squadron Leader Wheal, who was actually the assistant powerlifting coach at the Games held in The Hague last year.
“I’m sure many people don’t realise the hurdles our competitors have had to overcome. In a lot of cases, getting to the gym in the first place is a pressure that many in the population don’t have to face. Whether it be anxiety, the fear of being different, having injuries and being told they can’t do things, all those things are there before they even start.
“Then they have to get to the gym and start training and be willing to put themselves in a lycra singlet in front of a crowd of people and bench press.
“That’s again another step, so all these steps they take, every single one, is a bigger step for this community of people than it is for anyone else who goes to the gym and participates in powerlifting,” she said.
According to Squadron Leader Wheal, the sport is quite empowering as it allows people to be judged for their strength instead of their looks. It is also individually focused, meaning people can concentrate on their own progress and development, rather than compare themselves with others.
As the powerlifting coach, Brisbane-based Squadron Leader Wheal’s role kicked into gear once the team was selected in October 2022.
From helping competitors find external coaches or providing training advice to those without an external coach, to running training sessions at the team camps, checking in on each individual’s progress and offering technique advice, her responsibilities also include making sure everyone understands the expectations surrounding competition.
“My goal is to make sure there are no surprises on competition day, so they understand what the ref calls sound like, what the standards are, things like that,” she said.
“On the day, I’m with them from weigh-in to kit check, making sure they have all the things they need, getting them scheduled correctly, getting them to the platform at the right time for the right attempt.
“Competition day coaching is a different type of coaching but I love it,” she said.
It is clear that Squadron Leader Wheal’s love for the sport is a powerful driver on a personal level too because she dedicates a good two hours a day to training four days a week and is an accomplished masters level powerlifter in her own right, holding the Australian records for squat, bench and total powerlifting.
She will be travelling to Mongolia next month to contest the International Powerlifting Federation World Masters Championships, where she is hoping to improve on last year’s accomplishments at St John’s in Newfoundland, Canada.
“I came eighth in the Masters last year, with a fifth placing in bench,” she said.
“My goal is to improve on what I achieved last year because in the grand scheme of world powerlifting athletes, I am definitely not going to win and that’s okay but, if I can, I want to improve my squat, bench and total records.”
The powerlifting coach, enjoys the break from her day job as an Exercise Planner, organising Defence events such as Talisman Sabre, Pitch Black and Cope North.
“Looking back on this week, though, I’m just so impressed and inspired by my team,” she said.
“Every single person had a good day; they were all happy to be there and they did well. Really, their own achievements is what I’m here for.
“If we hadn’t got any medals it still would have been an awesome day. The fact many hit their PBs and that was enough to get them a medal was just icing on the cake.”
The Invictus Games are being held from 9-16 September in Dusseldorf, Germany. The Games use the power of sport to support rehabilitation and recovery of wounded, injured and ill serving and former serving military personnel from 21 nations.