There are two moments that stand out for Zoe Smith in her fledgling weightlifting career. The first was winning a bronze medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, at the absurdly tender age of 16; the second was rather more chastening.
“It was at the European Youth Championships,” she recalls, rather ruefully. “I got the bar up, but it was kind of going forward and I had to run after it. I fell on my face in front of everyone and nearly took out the judges. That was kind of embarrassing.”
Such has been the learning curve for ‘Britain’s strongest schoolgirl’. The epithet was invented after Delhi 2010: to most young athletes it would have hung heavy around their neck, but Smith is different. If anything, she rather likes it. And why not? Standing just 5ft tall and weighing 9st 12lb, at her best she lifts 150kg – more than 23 stone.
Not that Smith always had designs on hoisting dead weights. Her first love was gymnastics, and it was only when she was 12 that she began to take the sport seriously, having been asked to represent her London borough, Greenwich, at the London Youth Games.
That day in the weights gym was a year after London had won the right to host the 2012 Games and Smith did not have an inkling her path would lead her to a home Olympics. Yet here she is, six years on, aged 18, having broken more than 350 weightlifting records, one of just five men and women chosen to represent their country at the ExCel Arena. Not that Smith’s ambitions end there.
“I might not even hit my peak in 2020,” she says. “I’ll still only be 26 and I think females reach their peak in their late twenties, early thirties in this sport. I’ll probably be competing at the Olympics in 2024.”