Editorial: The world's strongest woman

19:42, Sep 05 2012

It's unlikely the irony was lost on Southland's newest world champion Sonia Manaena.

Competing at the Powerlifting World Cup in Sweden in June, she was beaten by Russian rival Irina Yaroshenko. Still, silver isn't bad - after all, that's what her friend, shot putter Valerie Adams, achieved at the London Olympics. Until, of course, her Belarussian counterpart was found to have taken a banned substance.

But silver is what Manaena thought she had deservedly won in the open-class heavyweight division (84kg-plus). Until last week that is, when it was confirmed Yaroshenko had also taken something illegal to boost her performance. That's a wordier way to say the Russian had cheated.

Patience is an asset in these situations - something Manaena knows well. Her mobile phone once had a message on it: "Patience, perseverance and willpower is the key to success."

Although she would never have thought the patience referred to waiting on the results of drug tests.

Suddenly the Invercargill retail worker is a world champion, one of the strongest women in the world. One of the first to be told was Adams, who, not surprisingly, was delighted. After all, both now know what it's like to wait on the outcome of drug testing to decide the result of an important event.


It's a pity powerlifting isn't at the Olympics - it would have lifted Southland's medal haul to two gold and a bronze.

But don't let that omission tarnish Manaena's performance. Just because powerlifting isn't an Olympic sport is no reason to dismiss this result.

Her victory is an awesome achievement, and not just because it demonstrates that pure strength and ability has again overcome a cheat's desire to beat the system. Manaena's golden moment is an outstanding example of what can be achieved through hard work and determination, and the support of a super coach.

In 2006, the mother of three weighed an unhealthy 145kg. But after reading about Southland singer Suzanne Prentice's remarkable weight transformation, Manaena decided enough was enough. She contacted Prentice's trainer, Brian Jenkins, and embarked on her own journey, taking her first steps from a garage in Otatara.

She began training with Jenkins, before being convinced to move into powerlifting. In two years she lost 60kg and lifted the right to wear the silver fern at the world championships in Norway. She's now competed in seven world championships and has previous experience on the podium. In the deadlift section she's won bronze, silver and gold but until now success in the combined section - the deadlift, bench and squat - had eluded her.

And at 51, she could be forgiven for thinking success would be difficult. She's competing against lifters in their 20s. But that's when Jenkins' support becomes invaluable. He is full of praise for her impeccable technique, her ability to stay free of injury and being a quick and eager learner. Powerlifters often get better as they got older, he says.

That's true in Manaena's case. Her combined weight lifted was 515kg - that's 1030 packets of butter, in case you were wondering.

Who knows what her rival will do now. But you can be sure that Manaena will be back in that Otatara garage, lifting weights with an eye on adding another medal to her collection.

Because we're sure she'll want to keep calling herself the best in the world for some time.

The Southland Times