By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Sarah Davies put weightlifting down as a special talent when she entered her first beauty contest, the then-student egged on by regular drinkers in the Leeds pub where she worked behind the bar.
She won, and ever since the former Miss Leeds and Miss Intercontinental England has combined her twin passions while challenging stereotypes in both.
This year, pandemic permitting, the British lifter plans to compete for a medal at the Tokyo Olympics before jetting off to New York to take part in another pageant in swimsuit and high heels.
The 2018 Commonwealth Games 69kg silver medallist is eager to serve as a role model and show young girls that strong is beautiful.
"I get quite a lot of people go ‘you don’t look like a weightlifter’ and I’m like ‘well, I am a weightlifter, I’m quite a good one. This is what a weightlifter looks like’," the 28-year-old told Reuters.
As chair of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) athletes' commission, with a vote on the executive board, she is also active in seeking structural change and speaking out against the 'men from another era' running the show.
In a '22 voices' podcast launched by the 2022 Commonwealth Games on International Women's Day, she recalled being bullied in school for being muscular and encountering hostility at a pageant in the Philippines.
There was even an attempt to stop her walking out in a swimsuit.
"It was very much the fans that were the problem as opposed to the other girls," she told Reuters. "The other girls were really supportive. They were kind of saying ‘you’ve got the fittest body here’.
"If you actually spend time in the pageant world, you realise that actually there are a group of really inspirational women who are doing everything they can to put themselves out there as the best role models for the next generation."
Davies said there had been a huge change in British weightlifting, a sport that globally remains beset by an image of doping and corruption and whose Olympic future remains uncertain.
"It’s my 10th year of lifting now and we used to have hardly any women in this sport in this country and now we’ve got at least a 50-50 split, if not more women doing weightlifting than men," said Davies.
"Our Tokyo team will be a full team of women and no men qualifying, so that is a huge tip of the scales.
"If you look at our medals from the Commonwealth Games last time, it was very women-heavy. It’s cool that we are seeing that change and generally the way people perceive weightlifting is definitely changing."
At the 2019 world championships Britain celebrated a first women's medal in 25 years and Emily Muskett, the 2018 Commonwealth Games 75kg gold medallist, shared the podium with two Americans.
"It was a good-looking podium, to put it that way," said Davies.
"You’ve got more of that now across weightlifting. You have more women that you’d say break the stereotype of weightlifting but are almost becoming weightlifting and really changing that stereotype."
Davies said change needed to speed up, however.
At the governing body, she is one of just two women on a voting board of 22.
"Weightlifting has a 50-50 split of participants in terms of weight categories so we need to see that reflected up the chain in the organisation," she said.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)