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Yerevan, Day 1: First ever medal for Ireland and records for Romania at European Weightlifting Championships

Thammy Nguyen, who gave up competing for nearly seven years to start a business and a family, was in floods of tears after winning Ireland’s first ever European Championships medal in senior weightlifting.

Ireland’s coaches Harry Leech and Beata Jung were also overcome after Nguyen’s remarkable effort in the women’s 49kg on the opening day of the 2023 continental championships in Yerevan, Armenia, an Olympic qualifier.

“The main thing I keep thinking about is fate,” Nguyen said after the medal ceremony, before detailing a series of events that led to her moving into the top 20 in the rankings for Paris 2024.

Her parents moved the family to Ireland when Thammy was seven, and after trying CrossFit as a teenager she swiftly moved into weightlifting with one thing in mind: competing at the Olympic Games.

After a promising start she lifted at the IWF World Championships – the first Irish female to do so – in 2015, but in the summer of 2016 she stopped competing.

In the next few years she got married, started a couple of businesses with her husband Mark Gough, had two children – Lilly, now four and Marc, two – and was “a bit of an entrepreneur”.

She and Mark now run a CrossFit gym in north Dublin.

While all this was happening Nguyen’s brother Nhat became an elite badminton player and made the Ireland team for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

“When he went off to the Olympics, that was when I knew I had to come back into weightlifting,” Nguyen said.

“I asked his coach, a Malaysian, ‘I don’t suppose you know any weightlifting coaches do you?’ and he said he’d come back to me.”

He was true to his word, and recommended his friend Faizal Baharom who lifted for Malaysia at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

“I hired him to come over to Ireland and coach me.

“He arrived in January 2022, when I got really serious about training, and I wouldn’t let him go home.

“I owe thanks to everyone in my family, to my husband, to other coaches but the fact is without Faizal I wouldn’t be here today.

“Now I just want to go to the Olympic Games with my brother.”

By making her final attempt at 98kg after an earlier “good lift” decision at the same weight had been overturned by the jury, Nguyen became the first Irish female to lift twice her own bodyweight and its first senior medallist, taking bronze in clean and jerk.

The only other medal Ireland has ever won was a silver in the European Juniors in 2013, claimed by the social media fitness phenomenon Clarence Kennedy, who never lifted in competition again after that event.

Nguyen was overcome in the warm-up room after her final lift and tearfully asked several times for confirmation that she was guaranteed a medal.

Her 75-98-173 was a career best, placing her fifth on total.

The impressive winner was Mihaela Cambei from Romania, who had a sweep of golds and two continental records in snatch and total, making a six-from-six 92-106-198.

Giulia Imperio from Italy was second on 83-100-183 and Anhelina Lomachynska of Ukraine third on 81-95-176.

This was a first senior title for Cambei, 21, who has been youth and junior European champion and who was the top European finisher in the IWF World Championships in Colombia in December, when she was fourth with a 194kg total.

Romania had the highest European finisher at those World Championships in all the three lightest weight categories for women – Adriana Pana at 45kg, Cambei at 49kg and Andreea Cotruta at 55kg – as well as a world record victory for Loredana Toma at 71kg.

In the first medal event of the day at 45kg Pana finished second to Turkey’s Cansu Bektas, who had a sweep of European junior records on 72-90-162.

Bektas, a 19-year-old who has won world and European youth and junior titles, improved on last year’s second place to claim her first senior title.

Pana made 70-83-153 for silver ahead of another 19-year-old, Marta Garcia from Spain, who had a career-best 68-85-153.

Cotruta lifts at 55kg on Sunday evening and has the joint highest entry total of 205kg.

It was also a memorable day for Portugal, back in the weightlifting fold after more than two decades of exile.

Nair Rosas Pinto, a forensic doctor from northern Portugal, did not start weightlifting until  she was 30.

Now 37, Rosas Pinto made the first lift of the Championships and the first by a Portuguese lifter in international competition since 2001.

The old Portuguese Federation, which last sent a team to the European Championships in 1999, had “legal issues and no support” said Paulo Antunes, national coach and secretary of the newly formed federation that gained full membership of the EWF this year.

“At one point we had only four clubs, we nearly died and it was Masters weightlifting that kept us alive,” Antunes said.

Portuguese federation president Vitor Estevao said, “Now we have nearly 70 clubs, including in the Azores and Madeira, and almost 700 athletes.

“We all work as volunteers and becoming full members has given us a big jump up.”

Rosas Pinto went on to make six from six in the women’s 45kg B Group, making 44-58-102.

“Maybe I’m too cautious with my numbers – I’ve had six from six a few times,” said Rosas Pinto, who did not practise any sport until a work colleague suggested she try CrossFit.

“I was lucky that there was a weightlifting coach at the gym and I’ve been training ever since.”

By Brian Oliver, Inside the Games

Photos by Brian Oliver