Emma McQuaid never dreamed she would become an international athlete, never mind find herself dubbed ‘the fittest woman in Ireland’.
Up until six years ago, despite working as a personal trainer, quad-biking was the 29-year-old’s sporting passion.
Now the Lisburn-based Newry native competes for Ireland at CrossFit and also competes for Northern Ireland in weightlifting.
CrossFit is the new fitness training form that has exploded in many of the no-frills lifting gyms that proliferated across Ireland during the recession.
No one is more surprised at her success than McQuaid yet how she came to her new sport perhaps also explains why she’s so driven at it.
As a multiple Ulster underage quad-biking champion she regularly competed alongside boys and men, including her boyfriend David Wray who was a Northern Ireland champion.
But when he crashed while competing in Tandragee in 2012 both of their lives changed forever.
Wray’s spinal injury left him needing a wheelchair, and McQuaid quit the sport. Wray went to California for six weeks of specialist physiotherapy and it was there that McQuaid first came across CrossFit.
The dynamic strength training system originated in California in 2000 and is a combination of weight-lifting and plyometrics.
Many mainstream gyms now also offer CrossFit classes and Trinity College has just introduced them into its sports centre which has student and public members.
But since 2007, CrossFit has also evolved into a competitive sport, which culminates annually in the CrossFit Games in America.
Athletes are given workout challenges with just an hour’s notice and these combine strength and endurance tests with other sports like swimming, cycling, climbing, or paddle-boarding.
“When I started I could only run poorly and I couldn’t do one pull-up. I could do push-ups and burpees and squats but nothing at any high weight or speed. I also had to learn how to skip and swim. I have a fear of water which I’m still overcoming,” McQuaid says.
But she loved learning new lifting techniques and increasing her reps and weights and, after watching her rankings rise on her own gym’s white-board, she entered the Titanic Games in Belfast, one of CrossFit’s sanctioned national events.
Next step was the international CrossFit Open.
This is a worldwide ranking competition that athletes can enter directly from their own gym. A specific workout challenge is released on social media on a set date and entrants have three days to complete and submit their entry via video.
At first McQuaid finished somewhere in the mid-3000s but she noticed that, in one element (a dead-lift and box jump) she’d actually placed 33rd.
That was the spark.
Within a year later she ranked 34th overall and, since 2015, has consistently placed 20th at CrossFit’s World Games (to which over 130 qualify via continental or world rankings), over 20 places higher than Ireland’s two best male competitors.
She is only 5’4” and weighs just 63kgs but now split-jerks 120kg and can do multiples of the devilishly difficult kipping-style pull-ups.
She’s still working as a personal trainer but trains alongside other competitors at CrossFit Berserk in Belfast, funding her international travel and competitions through nutrition and gear sponsors.
In the most recent world-wide ‘Open’ McQuaid placed seventh overall, giving her realistic hope of breaking into the Top 10 at next year’s (2020) World Games.
“As a sport, CrossFit is getting huge but it’s even bigger as a part of health and fitness. I think people get the two mixed up,” she says.
My mum, my sister, your granny or grandad, they can all do CrossFit as a form of training. It’s really adaptable for all levels, from kids right up. You can start simply with a broom handle and your own body weight.
“You’re not just getting stronger but learning body awareness, hand-eye coordination, and balance, and it corrects posture for so many people who are now sitting at a desk all day.
“I just started it for health and fitness but got into it for the competitive element because I’m naturally very competitive.
“At World Games they can throw anything at you. One workout was a 1km swim straight into a 1km paddle-board. Another was a six-mile run with a weighted rucksack. The weight increased with every mile and was 50lbs (22kg) by the end.”
Competitive CrossFit is well described as the old 80s TV favourite ‘Superstars on steroids’ for the millennial and post-millennial generations and, unfortunately, that is not just a metaphor.
Seven CrossFit athletes failed drugs tests last summer and McQuaid was the direct victim of one.
She finished 21st at the 2018 World Games in Winconsin but has since been promoted to 20th because the woman ahead of her failed a test.
Twentieth place, noticeably, marked ‘the cut’ for the next day’s competition and also for prize money.
Her retrospective promotion earned her £8,000 and covered the whole trip but she could have finished higher, and earned more, if she wasn’t cut at that point.
“The other thing I don’t like about CrossFit is that the (drug) test results go back to CrossFit. They won’t necessarily publish them and I don’t think there’s an appeal system either.
“I’d much rather be (tested) under WADA who release all the results and make it very black and white,” she says.
There is a sad irony too that McQuaid only discovered her passion and talent due to her fiancé’s life-changing accident.
“At the start it was devastating,” Wray says.
“It changed both of our lives around and, it’s going to sound strange to say this, but for the better,” he insists.
“I was too focused on my racing. I went to work simply to get money to race, whereas work’s going really well for me now and Emma found a new sport with much less risks which she really loves.”