Weightlifting pioneer Yazmin Zammit Stevens on mental health: “It’s OK to feel sad, it’s OK to cry” as an athlete at any level
Four years after she first started weightlifting, Yazmin Zammit Stevens was broken.
Her struggle to cope with an ankle injury left her physically drained, and the effects on her performance caused her mental anguish.
Malta’s strongest woman posted an emotional video online describing her struggles with pain and panic attacks as she scaled up the sport.
“I’m tired of fighting with my head to try to be positive,” a teary Yazmin told her followers of the difficult period before the 2019 Worlds in Thailand, adding that she was “convinced that the only way out of that pain was just to stop lifting.”
The public disclosure shocked many fans, who look up to her as one of the leading lights in women’s sports in Malta.
But the triple Mediterranean Games bronze medallist saw the breakdown not as a sign of weakness in a sport loaded by weighty expectations on performance, but the beginning of an important conversation, especially among young and upcoming athletes.
“It's OK to cry. And it's OK to feel like you're almost going to give up.” - Yazmin Zammit Stevens to Olympic Channel
“As a budding athlete, I still have to deal with so many mental aspects of the sport, sometimes you feel like you're giving up or that you don't feel like you're good enough,” she told the Olympic Channel.
“A lot of people think they're not allowed to feel that way just because they're not breaking world records or just because they're not Olympic champions.”
The 27-year old turned that low moment into a breakthrough and is now focussed on making history; becoming the first Maltese woman to lift at the Olympics in Tokyo.
Malta's weightlifting Iron lady
When Stevens discovered weightlifting during her CrossFit sessions, she knew right away that it would be the beginning of an exciting chapter in her life.
It was the perfect outlet from her long University days, where she was studying for a Degree in Mathematics and Statistics.
Gradually, as she increased her lifts, she got comfortable and confident enough to enter national competitions. Never mind that her initial attempts all fell short.
“It's quite funny to think about it because I failed all my snatches at 45 kilos. And I thought I did quite well in the clean and jerk, but I had no idea I didn't do well at all” she recalled chuckling.
“I loved every moment of it and that is the moment I got hooked to the sport without even knowing failing all your snatches is not a good thing.”
The 2017 Malta sportswoman of the year had caught the lifting bug. A few months later she made the national team and was among the first women from the small island with a population of half a million to venture full time into the strength sport.
“When I started five years ago, I was one of the very few women practising the sport actively. Nowadays, we have such an overload of women doing the sport. And not just that, we have a lot of young girls in the national team and are doing incredibly well. I like to think I had something to do with it, they saw me a senior female athlete trying to work hard and do her best.”
She has quickly bulked up and now boasts of a personal best of 86 kg and clean and jerk total of 170 kg.
The Olympic dream
Zammit Stevens was the first woman from Malta to compete at the World Championships when she debuted at 2018 in Ashgabat, the same year she took part in the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast in Australia.
She also joined the long list of Maltese record-holders and has broken “over 150 national records so far in the last five years”. Breaking records is something of a national pastime in the Southern European island nation.
Her steady rise raised expectations for her to dream of the Olympics.
“The Olympics is the most important thing for me. It would mean the absolute world to me, and it would mean that the last four years of sacrifice have finally paid off,” said Yazmin who preferred sprinting and gymnastics in school.
“I would be the first Maltese female weightlifter to ever participate in the Olympics.”- Yazmin to Olympic Channel.
Malta has only previously managed to send one weightlifter to a Games. Kyle Micallef competed in the men's event at Rio 2016, the nation's sixteenth appearance at the Summer Olympics.
The 'queen of Malta weightlifting' is hoping to earn her quota from the Tripartite Commission that considers four female athletes who have participated at a minimum of two eligible events during the qualification period.
But that Olympic dream and the added pressure of competitions has taken a mental toll on Yazmin.
“I’m not alone”
Yazmin bared her soul and the dark thoughts that have weighed her down, as she battled a string of injuries that left her questioning her passion for lifting.
“That period was definitely one of the hardest things I've had to go through in my career so far,” she said of the time leading up to the World championships last September when she battled a niggling ankle injury.
“I was in my garage gym all alone, and it just felt like I was trying to get through something so difficult to complete alone. I went from competing in Malta in an Olympic qualification event, and getting a bronze medal there. Then suddenly, everything just stopped. I didn't know when the next competition is going to be or if I'll ever have my [lifting] time again.”
The Maltese weightlifting star continued: “One of the main reasons I wanted to talk about it [was] because whenever I heard other athletes talk about mental health, it's always really helped me know that I am not alone. And I feel like they must feel like they're alone as well”
She's certainly in good company, with many top elite athletes including sprinter Noah Lyles, figure skater Gracie Gold, and the most decorated Olympian of all time, swimmer Michael Phelps, have also been speaking about mental health.
But Yazmin feels there hasn’t been enough conversation on the issue at the amateur level that affects even high-school athletes.
“I wouldn't maybe be considered as a professional or as a world-class athlete just yet, but I still go through the same things that all the professional athletes go through. We're all going through the same thing. This happens to absolutely everyone even if you are just doing it as a hobby,” she said.
"It's OK to feel sad and it's OK to feel super disappointed. It's OK to cry. And it's OK to feel like you're almost going to give up. As long as you talk about it, deal with it and find yourself once again after." - Yazmin Zammit Stevens
It’s 'beautiful’ when sport and a passion come together
Having recovered from her physical injuries, training has intensified for Zammit Stevens as lockdown restrictions eased. She's also learnt how to deal with the pressure.
"Even though what you see is us lifting massive amounts of weight, the hardest part about it is the mental aspect.
“I had to learn a lot about that in the sport alone. I was among the first athletes to go to top weightlifting competitions in Malta,” said Yazmin adding that training with World champion Loredana Toma of Romania has also helped her improve as an athlete.
“I realized that I was dealing with a lot of pressure and expectations that I put on myself. I wanted to prove to my small country that even though we come from such a small island, we can make it on the biggest platforms in the world. And for a while, I was putting too much pressure on me and expecting too much of myself when all I had to do was take a step back, relax mentally and focus on what I was working for.”
If she makes it to Tokyo, she will have to scale down to the 64kg weight category, down from her training weight of 68kg.
It’s a life that sees her training six days a week and consulting her nutritionist on most of her meals.
"I never thought I would grow up to be a woman that loves muscles and loves strength. I grew up always wanting to look very small or look very feminine because that's what I thought femininity was." She added.
"I have never felt as beautiful and as confident as I do now, and it’s because I have found love and passion for what I do. And that is what makes a person beautiful " - Yazmin Zammit Stevens to Olympic Channel.