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‘I walk around in pain nearly every day’ – Ireland’s new world champion makes big sacrifices

Tommy McCormack chats to The42 about his recent triumph

McCormack pictured lifting at the World Championships.
McCormack pictured lifting at the World Championships.

WHILE THE MAJORITY of Irish sports fans were lamenting their football team’s failure to beat Scotland in a vital Euro 2016 qualifier the weekend before last, a big achievement by another group of athletes from this country went largely unnoticed.

Competing at the World Powerlifting Championships in England, the Irish side took home the title of best team and won several medals to boot.

One man who played as big of a part in the achievement as anyone was Leitrim native Tommy ‘Spike’ McCormack.

Competing at the Telford University campus in Wolverhampton in the Senior 75 kg class, McCormack showed impressive strength and determination to win a World Powerlifting title, lifting 250kg in the process.

The Ballinamore native was treated to a rapturous homecoming, following this achievement, from the people of Leitrim, and he admits he’s still growing accustomed to what has just happened.

“You’d be out training and every now and then, you’d think ‘world champion’ — it’s a great feeling,” he tells The42. “It probably hasn’t really sunk in, because I got home and the celebrations were great. But I’m back in training now — I have a deadlift competition in a few days, so I had to put it down fairly quick and get myself ready for the next competition.”

Up against several competitors, it subsequently became apparent that the title would be between McCormack and an English powerlifter, Dan Richardson.

“He opened with 220,” McCormack recalls. “I got a bit of luck — he opened before me, because he was light on bodyweight. For his second lift, he broke 225, so I knew he was going to go up in 5s. So I went with 230 on the second lift. Even though when I went 220, some of the Irish team said ‘it looked good,’ but it’s tough [to judge].

“I knew the 230 was a one-shot deal. So I kind of said I’ll post the 230 now and he’s right there in front of you… Just to ask the question of him. I don’t know whether it rattled him, because he probably thought I was going try 240. But I was exhausted after 230 and he failed technically on it, he hitched it.

“After that, it was brilliant to know the job was done — the whole body just relaxed. I could have gone to bed for about two days.”

Furthermore, McCormack was boosted by the presence of a 100-strong Irish team, who were always cheering him on passionately. They also managed to outperform every other side in the competition overall, including England, who were on home soil.

And while the physical challenges of powerlifting are obvious, McCormack emphasises that it’s often in the mental aspect of the sport where athletes fall short ultimately.

“A lot of people know you train hard, but the 230, I’d done it the week before down in Gerry Cronnelly’s Target Fitness in Athenry, so I had it in my head that I could do it. But the difference between thinking you can do something and knowing you can do it is the secret, because either you can lift it or you can’t. So that’s the whole thing with the powerlifting — it’s about how much pain you’re willing to take week in week out. And I walk around in pain nearly every day from training.

“I’m a firm believer that where the mind goes, the body follows. Before you step on the platform, different lifters have different ways of getting their mind ready. If the mind isn’t ready, you wouldn’t lift a bag of shopping, so as a lifter, I would use a lot of aggression and out-and-out venom. Other lifters would be very relaxed, thinking about form and technique.”

In addition, McCormack was not the only Leitrim athlete to enjoy significant success that weekend.

Conor Hession, from Carrigallenwon, secured the World Drug Free Powerlifting Federation title in the deadlift unequipped — a competition for 16 and 17 year olds in the 110kg class. Hession simultaneously broke the world record in his age group by lifting an astonishing 220.5kg.

The duo’s feats consequently represent a remarkable return for such a small county, and McCormack is hopeful that their achievements will pave the way for more Irish athletes to follow in future.

“People in Leitrim are sports mad,” he says. “For a small county, we’ve produced phenomenal athletes.”

Colin Griffin Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

(McCormack comes from the same town as two-time Olympian Colin Griffin)

McCormack has a point in relation to Leitrim. In recent years, the county has become a hotbed of sporting talent, with two-time Olympian Colin Griffin and other athletes such as Eanna Madden, Ger O’Donnell and Laura Reynolds making a big impact. In boxing, there’s All-Ireland title winner Mark Stringer, in addition to consummate handball stars such as Martin Rafferty. And as McCormack puts it, “there’s ladies on the county football team there that would make any women’s county team around the country”.

So what does the 31-year-old powerlifter put the county’s tendency to punch above its weight down to?

“We wouldn’t have the high-tech facilities that you’d have in Dublin, but what we have in Leitrim is the people,” he explains. “They’re world champion people. It’s kind of like a family — everyone knows everyone, so everyone gets behind you.

“Even myself and Conor, when we’re competing, we’d be getting tops in the Leitrim colours. We’d be representing Ireland, but you’re there in your Leitrim colours and it’s that underdog thing. We’re up against it really, so we train as hard as anyone and when we put on our jersey, we put it on with the same passion and pride as any Dub or Corkman.

“There are a couple of young lads I know who would be very good and very strong biomechanically for powerlifting, and I think it’s inevitable that success breeds success. So it’d be great if [my achievement] opens up the doors for a few more young men and women to give it a go.”

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McCormack cites a strict diet as a vital contributory factor in his success and also credits his GAA background in providing him with the mentality required to make a big impression at the top level of the sport.

“You’re always a bit wary if you’re out playing a football match and a hamstring goes. I’m lucky enough as a footballer, I never got injured, so touch wood [nothing will happen]. But the ethos of GAA training has lended itself very well for my training as a powerlifter — you have to put in the hard work.

“Success in sport is pain — it’s how much pain you’re willing to ship and get you to where you want to go. So I need a high pain threshold to push myself very hard. But the GAA gives you a great attitude towards training, getting you ready for a competition and knowing that you have to put in the hard yards, because there are no short cuts.”

At 31, McCormack still plays GAA on occasion, even if powerlifting is now his primary commitment, and he will continue to play junior football “when I’m 50 if I can”.

The next big event on the horizon is the World Full-Power Championships, which take place in Killarney next year and which McCormack says “I’d give my left arm to be at”.

He is also optimistic about the future of Irish powerlifting, particularly from the women’s team’s perspective.

“We’ve a phenomenally strong women’s team,” he says. “I think the crossfit boom a few years back is lending itself to powerlifting. They’re taking to it a bit quicker than the fellas.

“It would have been seen as being overly masculine, and dungeon gyms, and lots of men roaring and screaming [at one stage]. But it then became very trendy. The girls have really ran with it and it’s ended up well for the men. They’re in now and there’s a good social aspect to it, going out and meeting in the gym and partying.

“The fellas probably think: ‘Am I going to look weak in front of all these strong guys?’ Fellas are a bit self-conscious, whereas a woman probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid at that. So I think that’s partly why it seems to be growing faster with the women.”

And while the future looks promising, right now, more prosaic matters must be attended to. As the interview ends, McCormack says he is setting off for a much-needed trip to the physio.

“My body is crippled from training all week,” Ireland’s newest and perhaps least well-known world champion explains.

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Paul Fennessy

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