Rebecca Copeland competed for Ireland on day one of the IWF World Championships in Riyadh ©IWF

After a memorable year at continental level, Irish weightlifting enjoyed a significant presence on the global stage when the 2023 International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships began here in Riyadh.

Having two athletes in the opening session, Rebecca Copeland and Thammy Nguyen, was the latest sign of the sport’s remarkable growth in Ireland, which has registered a number of landmark achievements in 2023.

The team of six in Riyadh is the largest Ireland has ever sent to an IWF World Championships, in a year when it also sent its biggest team to date to the European Youth and Under-15 Championships.

It had its most successful missions to two other continental events, the seniors in April and the junior and under-23s in July.

"It has really taken off - you can feel a buzz around Irish weightlifting now," said national coach Harry Leech.

"Until 2014 we had never even entered a woman in European or World Championships."

Back then, there were no weightlifting-only clubs in Ireland: now Weightlifting Ireland has 29 affiliated clubs.

Nguyen won Ireland’s first ever medal at the senior European Championships in Yerevan in Armenia in April, and was later chosen by the IWF as one of 10 athletes to receive $5,000 (£4,000/€4,630) to help fund their Olympic qualifying effort.

A Women in Sport weightlifting expo in Ireland last year has been credited with increasing female involvement in the sport ©Weightlifting Ireland
A Women in Sport weightlifting expo in Ireland last year has been credited with increasing female involvement in the sport ©Weightlifting Ireland

In July Ireland then had its first European under-15 medallist when Callum Quinn won a snatch bronze at 89 kilograms in Chisinau in Moldova, only a year after he first walked into a weightlifting gym.

A few weeks later Keilin Coleman’s 115kg clean and jerk at 76kg in Bucharest in Romania made her the first female Irish medallist in the European Under-23s.

There is more of everything for Ireland now - medals, money and most important of all, athletes.

There has been a big rise in participation to about 600 registered members, and for the first time there is state funding for the Olympic hopefuls, €30,000 (£25,650/$32,370) specifically to help the four athletes in the Paris 2024 qualifying system - Nguyen, Hannah Crymble, Gillian Barry and Seán Brown.

"When I started in weightlifting in 1999 there were 79 athletes on the ranking list in Ireland and only two of them were women," said Leech, who runs the Capital Strength club in Dublin which has members aged 10 to 72.

Leech said Irish weightlifting had benefited from the general trend of "women feeling strong, women training with weights, young women seeing the sport on social media and saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know weightlifters looked like that.’

"At our competitions the women outnumber the men 60-40."

The men have some catching up to do but Brown, who lifts at 89kg on Sunday (September 10), said it could happen in the next few years.

Thammy Nguyen warms up under the guidance of husband Mark Gough while Copeland, left, looks on ©IWF
Thammy Nguyen warms up under the guidance of husband Mark Gough while Copeland, left, looks on ©IWF

The men outnumbered the women in the under-15s and youths in Moldova, and if the younger ones decide to drop other sports to focus solely on weightlifting, results will soon improve, Brown believes.

He estimated that he had spent at least €50,000 (£42,760/$53,970) to compete abroad in his 10-year weightlifting career.

Brown, 32, and his partner Beata Jung, Ireland’s national women’s coach, jointly coach about 70 athletes online.

They and Leech have been funded for this and other international trips this year after a change of leadership, and funding policy, at Weightlifting Ireland, but still give up many hours of volunteer time for a sport that has no national training centre or administrative office.

One of Brown’s voluntary roles is running the social media, which is another factor in Irish weightlifting’s growth.

One video promoting weightlifting at a Women in Sport expo last year attracted 27,000 viewers, and the Facebook and Instagram accounts have tripled in followers since 2018 to more than 6,500 each.

"We had some money sitting in the marketing budget from the previous Federation leadership and have spent some of it on social media content," said Brown.

"You have to spend a bit to make a bit, and it’s great to see things turning round.

"We changed our policy to try to send teams to as many international competitions as possible at all levels, and more people have worn an Ireland singlet this year than ever before.

"It’s hard to keep up with demand, and one thing we definitely need is more coaches."

Ireland's delegation at the IWF World Championships in Riyadh ©ITG
Ireland's delegation at the IWF World Championships in Riyadh ©ITG

Nguyen’s medal-winning performance in Armenia played a role in Ireland’s weightlifting boom.

"I’m not sure all this would have happened without it, because Thammy’s bronze medal made Sport Ireland sit up and take notice," said Leech.

"Years of hard work by volunteer coaches and administrators lit the fuse, and this year it has all taken off."

Brown said: "Anybody who is thinking of going into weightlifting can see that we now have a pathway in international competition, that we support the athletes on that pathway, and that it can lead to medals.

"None of that happened before."

Things started well for Nguyen when she made a personal-best snatch of 76kg in the women’s 49kg D Group, but two failures in clean and jerk left her just short of her best total in qualifying to date and she remains 20th in the standings.

Nguyen, a mother of two who co-runs a CrossFit gym with her husband Mark Gough in Baldoyle, puts her own money into being coached by the Malaysian Faizal Baharom, who competed at the 2004 Olympic Games.

She found Baharom with help from her brother Nhat, an Irish Olympian in badminton who is also coached by a Malaysian.

Copeland, who ditched CrossFit after a few months to take up weightlifting five years ago, made five from six for a career-best 68-81-149.

Ireland’s other team members in Riyadh besides Nguyen, Copeland, Crymble and Brown are Barry at 71kg and Ailbhe Mulvihill at 59kg.