At 53, Karen Barry is lifting five times her body weight – and she’s only a novice at the sport, writes Áilín Quinlan.
As she climbed the podium in Hungary to receive first prize in the European Masters Powerlifting Championship, the sound of Amhrán na bhFiann playing over the speakers, Cork grandmother Karen Barry felt an immense rush of pride.
It was the first time, recalls the 53-year-old, that anybody from the Irish Powerlifting Federation had come first in the European Masters Championship - so it was also the first time, she says, that the Irish national anthem had ever played for an IPF member on that podium.
“It was the proudest moment of my life; it was all I wanted. I could see Jay Farrant, the Irish team coach, and my personal coach, in the audience and he had tears in his eyes.”
That moment last March was a heck of a way from the day, nearly a decade previously, when the self-confessed couch potato went for a walk, and, after just two miles, suffered such excruciating pain in her legs that her husband had to bring her back to the family home in Carrigaline- in the car.
Now Barry is the subject of an hour-long documentary, Lift, which tracks her meteoric rise through the ranks of the power-lifting world. Yet until the age of 43, says Barry, who works as a clinical administrator at the Bon Secours Care Village in Cork, she never exercised. “I never did any sports until my early to mid-forties. I was very unfit.” The turning point came when she decided to go for a walk.
However, the mother of two adult sons - and grandmother to two young boys -gamely persisted. Over the next four years, Karen tried running, spinning classes and boot camp training. But she says now, she enjoyed none of it.
Then one day, she was participating in a spin class in her gym when she noticed people using weights in another room.
“I decided to try weights,” she says. Around that time a new gym which specialised in strength training opened not far from her home, so the then-47-year-old signed up for a beginners’ course.
“The moment I picked up a barbell I knew I was now doing something I loved. It was amazing! I started with just one bar. It weighed about 20 kg,” she recalls.
Within eight months Barry was deadlifting 100 kg, benching 45 kg and squatting 100kg. And she was loving every moment of it. “I loved the way it made me feel strong,” she recalls now.
“It’s hard to quantify the feeling but there was an amazing sense of satisfaction. I was getting stronger,” she says. Over time, she dropped several inches from her waist and hips and toned up significantly. She performed well in her first competition in Arklow in March 2014, breaking four national powerlifting records.
That autumn she competed in the World Powerlifting Championships in the UK and came first in her Squat. After joining the Irish Powerlifting Federation (IPF), she competed in the Irish Powerlifting Revfit Open in Dublin in October 2016, qualifying for the Irish team.
During this time Karen reconnected with an old friend, Ken Williams, who had seen some of Karen’s weight-lifting videos on Facebook and who, along with fellow Carrigaline man Denis Fitzpatrick, now headed up Stanley’s Deathpark Productions, an award-winning London/Dublin/Cork-based production company.
“Ken got in touch and asked me to tell him about the powerlifting and how I got into it. He felt that it was a great story and talked about making a five-minute short film.”
Ken and Denis began to follow Karen, filming her over a period of some three years, including when she represented Ireland in the European Championships in Denmark in March 2016 - she broke two world records, one in the Squat and one in the Bench.
In June of that year, they filmed her at the World Championships in Minsk where she came second overall and broke two world records. Last March, Karen, who trains in Abs Powerlifting Club in Douglas, competed in the Master’s European Championships in Hungary, and came first.
“Nobody in IPF had ever reached Number One in the Master’s European Championships. It was the first time we even had the Irish National Anthem played and it was the proudest moment of my life - that was all I wanted. It was amazing,” she says, adding that when she travelled to Sweden to compete in the World Masters Championships last June - she came second overall - her employers sponsored her travel and accommodation.
Recalls Ken who along with Denis Fitzpatrick became a co-director and producer of Lift, “Karen’s career in powerlifting kept going from strength to strength - you simply couldn’t stop following her!
At a full hour in length, Lift which is due to be screened during the Indie Cork Film Festival which runs from October 6 to 13, is the duo’s first foray into feature-length storytelling. Their latest short film, Blanket, is also screening at IndieCork.
“The striking thing for us wasn’t just the achievements themselves,” says Williams, “but the fact that Karen was a novice at the sport, only arriving at it in her late forties.
“We instantly knew that here was a great story worth telling; a family woman you’d wave to on the street but who can also lift five times her body weight! This is our first feature length documentary; it’s completely self-funded and made on a shoestring and with the use of a credit card,” he said, adding that the company is hopeful that Lift will move to TV in the coming year.
“We’re in talks with a number of broadcasters companies and we’re hopeful it will find a home following the premiere!” Observes Karen, “It’s nuts - how weird is it that a woman in her fifties would do this?
“Who would have thought that at that age I could find something I could compete in internationally?”
Lift premieres at the IndieCork film festival on October 12 4:15pm at the Gate Cinema