12 May 2022
Powerlifter Britney Arendse experienced a life-changing accident at just nine years old but woke up to a world where anything was possible with determination and grit. In the runup to Paris 2024, we meet the woman who proves no obstacle is too great.
“You need a bit of aggression in powerlifting,” says Britney Arendse. “Nobody goes out on stage and lifts the bar with a big smile on their face.”
Her soft Cavan accent, the delicate floral tattoos that twist around her powerful arms, a kilowatt smile: these things belie the intensity of feeling that has driven Britney Arendse throughout her life, powering her through displacement, disability, and despair to national hero status.
The Arendse family moved from South Africa when Britney was five years old, looking for a better life in County Cavan. Though Britney remembers very little of that time except for having her ears pierced in what must have been a treat meant to mark such a big moment, the family brought a love of sport and athletics with them.
“My Mam was a powerlifter herself,” recalls Britney. “She stopped at around my age as there was no competition left for her. It wasn’t a really big sport in South Africa - most women saw it as too manly and wouldn’t take part.”
That move to Mullagh, county Cavan was the making of the Arendse family. “Growing up around Irish people, it was quite easy to fit in,” she says. “People showed us the ways and how to fit in. We made a family out of the people in Mullagh.”
Arendse’s personal motto is ‘persevere and overcome’, something she has lived every day since the 2009 accident which left her paralysed from the waist down. It’s a story she has told many times in interviews - the family day out in Bettystown, county Meath; the oncoming car that lost control on a bend; the lap belt that cut across a nine-year-old Britney’s lap, causing the life-changing injury.
“I woke up after my coma,” she recalls. “I wanted to get up and go to the toilet myself, and I couldn’t. My Mam was looking at me and said ‘You can’t walk, I’m very sorry’. I thought they were playing a trick on me - it took me a while to get used to not being able to do things for myself.”
The story of Britney’s long road to recovery is one which can teach us all something about life and persistence.
“It took me a year and a half to become this new person, to adapt to the wheelchair life,” she says with an earnest smile. “A lot of things changed about me - not just my physical appearance, but my mental health, the way I speak, everything,” she admits.
“I have my down days because of the wheelchair but I never let it stop me. In my house we never stop ourselves from doing anything: we pursue and overcome.”
Arendse went from a coma to recovery, fighting depression and a near-fatal organ shutdown to emerge into a world where sport - initially basketball - were key to building what she calls ‘a better life’.
The naturally powerfully-built Arendse was scouted during a basketball ‘blitz’ event, quickly showing her talent for powerlifting when under the bar.
The Arendse family were, as always, united behind her goals.
“From the start of my powerlifting journey, my Mam and Dad were really helpful with the training, the nutrition and getting me to places where I needed to be” she says of her parents, who are both now qualified as coaches.
“Coaches come and go,” she smiles, “but my Mam and Dad have always been there.”
The young powerlifter’s career made rocket-fast progress. In 2018, she won her first gold medal in the 67kg category at the World Powerlifting Fazaa Championships (“It’s not always about the gold,” she shrugs with good humour, “but it’s a bonus.”) and set a junior world record in the 73kg category Asia-Oceania Open Championships.
“I’m always ecstatic when I get a good lift,” she says, “but when it was put up on the board as a junior world record my breath was taken. I still can’t believe it. I’m still waiting for someone to beat it,” she adds with a wryly raised eyebrow.
For Britney, competing in the Paralympics was always a dream - “There was a lot of talk throughout the years of going to the Paralympics, a lot of emotion and build-up to that” - but when the call finally came, despite Britney’s non-stop training during the Covid-19 pandemic, the timing could not have been more dramatic.
“At the time I had two injuries,” she explains. “I had a very bad shoulder and a graze on my bottom from a picnic bench - and if you get over there and you’re injured, you’re not allowed to compete.
“I had to get doctors, physios, it was very emotional. When I got the call, I was bawling my eyes out - even to be selected for the Paralympics was phenomenal.”
In the end, those injuries didn’t stop Britney from representing Ireland in Tokyo in 2021. To both her and the nation, there was a sense of a fairytale story.
“I got a massive send-off going to Tokyo,” she beams. “It warmed my heart and I felt so supported. I never thought I’d get that support in my life, ever. Seeing all the little kids out on the road, smiling because someone was out in Tokyo raising the flag for them. It was amazing.”
The journey itself was a way of earning her independence. “Getting there was tough for me,” she says. “It was my first time so far away from home without my parents, due to Covid. It was very scary, I didn’t know how to go about things myself, but it did set me up for life. Going abroad alone is now my preference.”
With all eyes now on Paris 2024, Britney remains calm and collected, her eyes fixed on the bar as always.
“My plan is to go to the very important competitions, which are mandatory to be chosen for the Paralympics. We’ll be very busy, and fingers crossed I’ll get picked again. Going to the Paralympics is a goal in itself. Honestly,” she laughs, “I’m just all about getting there and getting the lift up.”
“But getting a gold medal would be a bonus.”
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We believe that greatness isn’t something you’re born with. It requires work, dedication, self-belief, and support. In 2024, Team Ireland will travel to Paris with the hopes of a nation on their shoulders. And we will be supporting them every step of the way.
So when our Olympians and Paralympians take to the world stage, let’s come together in raising a nation to greatness.