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Houston Day One report

No medals, but plenty of glory for Charles and ‘Miss Muscles’ on day one of Houston 2015

By Brian Oliver at the George R Brown Convention Center, Houston, Texas

It was appropriate that the first four lifters on stage at the 2015 IWF World Championships were from four different continents, because this year’s Championships have attracted athletes from more parts of the world than ever before.

The highest number of national federations represented previously was 87 in Paris in 2011. This year the 609 lifters are drawn from 98 nations, several of whom are competing for the first time at this level.

Before the first session, the men’s 62kg D Group, the 7ft 2in basketball superstar Dikembe Mutombo appeared on stage to say a few words. Mutombo, who also played a role in the opening ceremony on Thursday night, was an NBA player for 18 seasons, the last five of them in Houston.

He is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and is renowned for his humanitarian work in Africa. In a message to all athletes he said, “I know what it takes to compete on the international stage. I wish you good luck and good success.”

Success, for the lifters on day one, was not winning medals – there were no A Groups in action – but setting personal bests and perhaps national records.

Mutombo, who retired from playing six years ago, would have been happy that the first lifter to make his mark in that respect was an African, Charles Ssekyaaya from Uganda.Ssekyaaya made six good lifts for a total of 263kg, beating the Ugandan national record in the clean & jerk and the total.

“Six from six! I am so happy,” he said. “This is better than anything I have done before, and now that I have such strong support behind me I feel that nothing can stop me.”

Ssekyaaya has spent the past two months at Colorado Springs, being coached by Zygmunt Smalcerz, head weightlifting coach at the US Olympic Training Center. The Ugandan won an Olympic solidarity scholarship and will be in Colorado Springs until June, hoping to get a wild card for the Rio Olympics next summer.

“I have improved really quickly,” said Ssekyaaya, 21, whose total was 24kg up on his recent fifth place at the All-Africa Games in Brazzaville, Congo. “I have a coach, a room, the right food – I never had that before. I can just train.”

Another athlete dreaming of the Olympics is Tham Nguyen, who has been weightlifting for only a year. Nguyen, known as “Miss Muscles” to her friends, is one of four women competing for Ireland, whose females have never been good enough to lift at the World Championships before.

“Miss Muscles” is only 19, and has made rapid progress, as have all Ireland’s women’s team. “A few years ago we barely had any female lifters,” said coach Harry Leech. “But there’s a new openness about strength and conditioning in women’s sport and it has led to a big increase in weightlifting numbers in plenty of countries.”

Nguyen’s 15-year-old  brother, Nhat, is a top badminton player and the siblings hope to both compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Their parents moved to Ireland from Vietnam.

“Miss Muscles” snatched 57kg, clean & jerked 73kg and had a total of 130kg in the women’s 48kg C Group, in which her teammate Alexandria Craig lifted 57-71-128. Craig, 30, a former gymnast and circus performer, has strong American connections. Her mother is from San Francisco and, on visits to her late grandmother, who lived there, she sometimes trained in California.

Their efforts were well behind the other 11 lifters but, given that one of her rivals was 20 years older than her – the 39-year-old Italian Eva Giganti – Nguyen has time on her side. Her next big aim is the 2016 European Juniors.

Ireland’s other hopefuls are in the 58kg C Group. Aoife Macneill, 20, is a former track sprinter, while Emma Alderdice, 23, the top-ranked Irish weightlifter of all time, played volleyball before taking up weightlifting. “It’s just great to be here,” said Alderdice.

Irish weightlifting is a volunteer operation that survives on funding of about $20,000 a year to cover everything. The only way is up.