How weightlifting saved me – going from fear, depression and anxiety to international sport and medals

Syuhaidah Ahman pictured wearing a Loughborough Sport vest top, lifting weights

Syuhaidah Ahman took up weightlifting while at Loughborough University to help her cope when her self-esteem plummeted.

In 2016, she left Asia and came to Loughborough to study architectural engineering. In 2021, she began a Masters in low-energy building services engineering, graduating last year.

However, being 7,000 miles from home in a strange country, with the pressures of university life piling up, her mental health deteriorated. So, she threw everything into a completely new sport, weightlifting, hoping for some respite.

She said: "I was very lost in knowing what I wanted for myself. I was also very fearful of my future and always feeling like I was never good enough - which was one of the causes of my obsession with perfection.

"These obsessions led to damaging my self-esteem, afraid to make mistakes. Where mistakes are inevitable, I would sabotage myself and I was unkind to my own mind.

"Although I had a lot of great people around me, I still find myself feeling rather lonely with these unkind voices in my head haunting me and spiralled into severe anxiety and depression.

"I had psychiatrists and psychologists helping me to fully understand my actions, but I still couldn't bring myself to change for the better.

"I knew I needed some kind of healthy interest or activity that can push me to accept imperfections and perseverance that I can metaphorically apply in my life."

So, Syuhaidah began at CrossFit.

And started lifting.

Then she saw that Loughborough had trials for its various weightlifting teams and got a place representing the university in the under 49kg category.

The 26-year-old had only ever seen the sport on television - never did she think that she would go on to represent her home nation of Brunei at the Commonwealth Games qualifiers.

Syuhaidah said: “Loughborough is the home of sport, so I took up a completely foreign sport called Olympic weightlifting in my final year with no prior experience, nor any knowledge of it except through watching it on TV.

"I wasn’t particularly the strongest or the best, but the nature of the sport being the most mentally challenging – where your current mindset determines your performance – ironically made me look forward to it every day."

Now, six years later, Syuhaidah is being trained by Olympic coach Julius Nanjaro and regularly competes in the under 49kg category in snatch and clean-and-jerk competitions and has a collection of medals flaunting her accomplishments.

Syuhaidah’s competition record:

  • London University Championship December 2021: Bodyweight 49kg category, Snatch - 42kg, clean and jerk 56kg, totalled 98kg. Won 2nd place
  • Commonwealth Online Qualifiers February 2022: Under 49kg category, Snatch 45kg, clean and jerk 55kg, totalled 100kg
  • British University College School (BUCS) April 2022: Under 49kg category, snatch 45kg, clean and jerk 59kg, totalled 104kg. Won 2nd place
  • Welsh Summer Opens June 2022: Under 49kg category, snatch 42kg, clean and jerk 60kg, totalled 102kg. Won 2nd Place
  • British Virtual Opens August 2022 - to qualify for English Seniors Championship: Under 49kg category, snatch 48kg, clean and jerk 63, totalled 111kg. Qualified
  • English Seniors Championship October 2022: Under 49kg category, snatch 45kg, clean and jerk 63kg. totalled 108kg

She said she wanted to share her experiences with other students who are struggling to show them that there are ways to beat issues such as depression and anxiety.

"I want to share what happened to me so that others can relate to leaving their home country for their studies.

"The loneliness, culture shock, and climate can affect your mental health, but there are ways out of your lowest moments," she said.

“The 20-year-old me would never have imagined I would be in this position getting first-class in my undergraduate, a distinction in my masters, an award for achieving the best performance for the MSc and being one of the first two females in my country to represent the Olympic weightlifting sport.

"I'm still training hard every single day to be better. I know I still have a long way to go with both my mental health and the sport, but I hope this story can inspire many others, especially international students like myself."

Syuhaidah has aspirations to raise the profile of weightlifting at home in Brunei - a modest-sized sovereign country on the island of Borneo, in the South China Sea.

"I'd like to build a bigger community of weightlifters in the country in hopes to continue raising the flag in international competition, especially for women.”

Syuhaidah, who has now returned to live in Brunei, works as a technical instructor for Buildings and Construction Engineering at Brunei's Technical School.

She said she is keen to use the skills and knowledge she learned at Loughborough to help Brunei tackle environmental challenges and improve people’s standard of living.

"Brunei is still considered a developing country and we are still very far from achieving sustainable development.

"I'd like to bring more awareness to Brunei and together help implement these sustainable technologies and designs for buildings as global warming and climate change have drastically heightened the demands for air conditioning to allow comfortable living."