Clockwise from top left: Zoe Smith, Emily Godley, Sarah Davies and Emily Campbell have all qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©British Weight Lifting

British weightlifting has had plenty of "firsts" in the Olympic qualifying period - first World Championships medal in 25 years, first clean sweep of golds at the European Championships, first time the maximum number of athletes qualified for the Olympic Games.

All those "firsts", to which you could add Sarah Davies becoming the first chair of the new International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) Athletes' Commission, were achieved by women.

While the maximum four British females qualified for the delayed Tokyo 2020 Games, it has been a talking point on social media that no British male lifter came anywhere near doing so.

None finished inside the top 40 in the weight-by-weight qualifying lists.

But that is a subject for another day, after Tokyo, when British Weight Lifting (BWL) can start planning for a future that will hopefully feature meaningful backing from UK Sport, the nation’s purse-holder for elite sport.

Now is the time to celebrate the achievements of Davies, Zoe Smith and the two Emilys, Godley and Campbell, in coming through the qualifying programme with the flag flying high despite extremely difficult circumstances not just for the team and the national governing body, but personally too.

At one point Godley, competing against fully-funded full-time professional rivals, had to fit three part-time jobs around her training so she could continue to compete.

Like everybody else she had to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic, and unlike everybody else Godley also had to overcome hip and knee injuries, move from one side of the world to the other and cope with the devastating loss of her mother.

Davies thought about quitting in 2019 when her struggle became much harder after the breakdown of a relationship, but she carried on.

Campbell was working full-time, in pastoral care for children with Special Educational Needs, when she started competing for England four years ago.

Emily Campbell is a Commonwealth Games champion ©Getty Images
Emily Campbell is a Commonwealth Games champion ©Getty Images

Working full-time and being an international weightlifter is not a good mix.

Campbell, 27, went to a part-time job at a sports injury clinic after winning a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 - and lost that job last year because of the pandemic.

But the super-heavyweight has made it to Tokyo through sheer hard work, coached at the Atlas Gym in Alfreton, Derbyshire, by Dave Sawyer and Cyril Martin.

Campbell has been supported all the way by her parents, with whom she lives, and her local community in Bulwell in Nottingham.

"They’re unbelievable," she says.

"The local market stall gives me free fruit and veg, the cobbler will mend my boots, the hardware store gives me money when I win a medal - they all pull together and support me.

"I’m so lucky to live in a community like this.

"My parents are my biggest cheerleaders, always there to pick me up when I need them - and they provide the food!"

One of Campbell’s main aims - apart from "bringing back some bling" from Tokyo in the form of a medal - is to give something back to the community, and to the sport.

She wants troubled youngsters to be given a chance to try weightlifting, wants to visit schools to promote it, wants to encourage bigger girls into giving it a try.

"I met a girl recently, a 15-year-old daughter of a friend of a friend, who is big, who doesn’t look like everybody else in her class.

"She saw me lifting and she was gobsmacked.

"When we invited her to the gym [where Campbell and Davies both train] she couldn’t believe it, she burst into tears.

"It means the world to me to inspire kids like this.

"My dream is to set up a company that takes weightlifting into schools."

Emily Godley is also a Commonwealth Games champion ©Getty Images
Emily Godley is also a Commonwealth Games champion ©Getty Images

None of this can happen if Campbell and the other elite weightlifters have to scrabble around for a living just to stay in the sport.

BWL suffered a crushing blow after Rio 2016 when it was told that weightlifting was among the sports cut adrift from state support.

While £13 million ($18 million/€15 million) was directed towards hockey, with a grand total of two medal events on offer, weightlifting got nothing.

The view was that Britain had no chance against the powerhouse weightlifting nations, of which many, as subsequent evidence has shown, were helped by doping.

UK Sport dealt only in numbers, not in potential, in what might be.

But weightlifting has changed since that UK Sport decision in December, 2016.

The "doping nations" have been caught out, paying for past indiscretions by losing some or all of their quota places for Tokyo, and opening the way for "clean nations" to take advantage.

There is no element of luck in this - Britain’s women, just like all the other athletes, have qualified by hard work on what became a more level playing field.

If weightlifting retains its place on the Olympic Games programme for Paris 2024, any transgressors during the next qualifying system will be severely penalised, and the "clean nations" can expect more success - not least because, if all goes to plan, there will be more of them.

As the qualifying programme was about to start with the IWF World Championships back in 2018, Ashley Metcalfe, chief executive of BWL, said: "We are one of many sports left wondering what it has to do to receive investment that can support our athletes, their aspirations and their future potential.

Emily Godley and husband Joe Muskett ©Emily Godley
Emily Godley and husband Joe Muskett ©Emily Godley

"Sadly, our talent system and performance structure have been affected adversely."

UK Sport’s decision led to Rebekah Tiler, a silver medallist at the IWF Youth World Championships and Britain’s best young weightlifter in decades, leaving the sport when she was still a teenager.

Tiler and her then team mates could not train and compete without financial support.

After they had to pay their own way for one event, some "aspirational funding" for Britain’s exceptional women weightlifters did materialise during qualifying for Tokyo, at least enough to help them travel to compete for points.

It helped, as the medal-winning, record-breaking efforts of Davies, Smith and the two Emilys show.

Godley had tried twice before, and failed, to qualify for the Olympic Games and has spent many years competing at an unfair disadvantage against some rivals.

"You’re always aware that certain nations could be doping," she said.

"Now there are signs of the IWF trying to clean up.

"Handing over to the ITA [International Testing Agency, which took over all IWF anti-doping procedures last year] was absolutely massive, and very encouraging.

"The IOC [International Olympic Committee] has given the IWF a bit of a kick.

"It’s moving in the right direction but there is so much more progress to be made.

"Sarah Davies has done a great job on the Athletes' Commission - we just have to keep up the good work."

The possibility of a better future for weightlifting was clear for Godley to see when she stood on the podium at the 2019 IWF World Championships alongside two Americans.

"That scenario would never have been possible before," she said.

Sarah Davies lead the new IWF Athletes' Commission ©Getty Images
Sarah Davies lead the new IWF Athletes' Commission ©Getty Images

While she had the COVID-19 pandemic to cope with like everybody else, that was far from Godley’s biggest challenge during the extended two-and-a-half-year qualifying period.

She had to change her priorities completely when she learned that her mother had been diagnosed with a terminal condition, motor neurone disease.

That meant relocating with her systems engineer husband, Joe Muskett - a former England weightlifter - from their new life in Australia to Godley’s family home in Torquay, south-west England, to spend as much time as she could in helping her father and sisters to care for her mother.

She set up a makeshift gym at her temporary home where "I caved in the floor pretty quickly" and weightlifting became an ordeal.

"It was a massive struggle mentally.

"I tried to use training as an escape but other things going on in my life made it impossible.

"Mum died four days before Christmas.

"It was the worst period of my life."

Another lockdown was imposed.

"I needed my husband then, he understood, he told me I could do it.

"I kept going, and kept thinking back to something mum had told me, when she was ill.

"She said, 'It’s OK to fail you know'.

"I took that on board and I put my heart and soul into this.

"It makes a big difference when you can tell yourself there will be no regrets.

"I can be proud of what I’ve done."

Matthew Curtain, centre back row, and the weightlifting team at London 2012 ©Matthew Curtain
Matthew Curtain, centre back row, and the weightlifting team at London 2012 ©Matthew Curtain

Godley, 31, worked through the English winter and "saved it all for the next competition rather than training".

At the European Championships in Moscow in April, "I really went for it and made 6 kilograms more in the snatch than I had done in the gym, and 9kg more in the clean and jerk".

She won the 71kg category, becoming Britain’s first European champion in 26 years.

Even so, gaining a place in Tokyo was still a longshot - but with others dropping out above her in the 76kg category, she got the good news shortly before entries deadline from her coach, Stuart Martin.

"The Olympics had been a dream for me since childhood, it’s the one thing I really wanted as an athlete," said Godley, who experienced the Games in London not as an athlete but as a member of staff.

She was a support officer for the IWF, as part of the sport team led by Matthew Curtain, now a BWL director.

"It wasn’t my first choice, I just missed out on earning a place as an athlete.

"But it did give me a real appreciation of the work and effort that is put in for the athletes, which we can take for granted.

"It gave me a sense of perspective."

Godley also has a perspective on what the four British women’s achievements mean.

Emily Godley, centre in white, and family at her wedding, with her late mother to her left in pink ©Emily Godley
Emily Godley, centre in white, and family at her wedding, with her late mother to her left in pink ©Emily Godley

"UK Sport started to take weightlifting seriously after we did well at the World Championships.

"Our achievements in qualifying for Tokyo have been a massive boost because the next generation, the next Olympic cycle, will surely get some funding now.

"That means they would not have to look so hard for jobs, would be able to pay for physio, for massage, all the things that make one per cent difference here and there.

"Funding really does make a massive difference.

"We know as a team now that we are capable of competing with the best, not just hanging on in a B Group."

Godley says she thinks Davies, Smith and "the other Emily" all have chances of winning medals in Tokyo.

What about her own chances in the 76kg?

"Me, a medal?

"One thing at a time.

"I just want to make the most of the experience."

Campbell is not shy of talking up her medal chances, and is well aware she is still improving.

She said, "To have four strong females doing well in the sport does wonders for weightlifting.

"We have a strong sense of togetherness and we have sent a message to the rest of the world.

"We are contenders now."