Para-powerlifter Hani Watson: ‘There are people who don’t want to be your inspiration, but why not?’ | Commonwealth Games

Hani Watson made her international debut barely six months ago. When she left Australia for the world para-powerlifting championships in Georgia she was ranked 30-something in the world. A week later, when she turned around and came home, she was in the top eight. If that signified a physical leap of quite some margin, the flight over offered some intellectual gains she has carried with her since.

“Seeing how airline people try and assist people with wheelchairs and people with disabilities, that was an eye-opening experience, let me tell you,” Watson says. “On one particular flight there were like 50 wheelchair athletes on board. I’m lucky I can still hobble about, but for others who needed to go to the toilet, transferring people up and down the aisle takes a long time.

“And there was one particular athlete who was just really nasty to the air hostess. I’m just like, ‘you’re not teaching able-bodied people that we are nice people, that we’re individuals and we’re humans. You’re giving them an educational experience in a negative way’. That’s their encounter now with wheelchair users. I’m trying to change it. We’re not all quite like that. We all just need to approach it differently. Be nice to each other, be kind – we’ve all been through so much in the last two years.

“Maybe that person had seen more of a negative impact in their life than what I’ve seen. But disability in my life was not at the forefront, it was not something we talked about when I was growing up. I kind of wish we did, but, but I suppose my attitude towards it is, we’re still normal. We’re still individuals. We just have different ways of doing things, really.”

It may be obvious by now that Watson does not subscribe to stereotypes. Yes, she is disabled, born with bowed tibia and femur bones which will never be fixed despite a series of “horrible” surgeries. But she is also an elite athlete who can comfortably bench press 130kg, an administrator at a Brisbane hospital, an Australian born in New Zealand with a Scottish mother and Polynesian father (“there’s a bit of Jamaican in there somewhere”), and a proud gay woman with a “rockstar” wife without whom “I’d be a lost sausage”.

Watson bench presses during an early morning training session at her home gym in Brisbane.
Watson bench presses during an early morning training session at her home gym in Brisbane. Photograph: Dan Peled/Dan Peled for The Guardian Australia

Watson has just been selected to represent Australia at the Commonwealth Games. She will head to Birmingham in July, little more than a year after securing a para-powerlifting classification in the over 86kg category. At 39, she has found her “superpower”.

That word comes from her late father, Charlie, who used to pick up his young daughter at the gym and bicep curl her in front of the mirror. “I thought that was hilarious, as kids do,” Watson says. “I’d watch him and all the body builders in there. I remember the stringer singlets and striped tights. That’s a very iconic look of the late 80s I reckon. I was so fascinated by the muscles.”

That intrigue was fostered by Charlie’s extensive collection of Joe Weider magazines, which she would study on the floor of his spare bedroom. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the man of the moment – more specifically, his big chest was the stuff of global envy – and Watson learned the movements.

“We didn’t do a lot of leg stuff or anything like that because he didn’t point out my disability,” she says. “He didn’t really concentrate on that side of life, but I did a lot of upper-body stuff with him. He says you can only focus on what you can do at the end of the day. I can’t go and run a 100m sprint. But it blows my mind that I’m almost 40 and going to the Commonwealth Games this year and possibly Paris in 2024.”

A lot has happened in between. Watson’s father died aged 44, when she was 17. Her grandfather died during the Covid-19 pandemic. She changed her birth name from Hannah to Hani, a Niuean term of endearment which both men used and which relates to her enjoyment of rain and the water.

Watson’s wedding day in 2018, when she married ‘rockstar’ Kate at a ceremony in Queensland.
Watson’s wedding day in 2018, when she married ‘rockstar’ Kate at a ceremony in Queensland. Photograph: Rebekah Marie Photography

She has been in and out of hospital since she was nine with problems relating to her bowed legs. At 11, doctors removed the growth plates from her legs. Had they kept growing, she says, she may have ended up as tall as her dad at six foot, which would have exacerbated her condition. Today she stands at five foot two.

Over the years there have been numerous procedures, and when she was 31 she had an osteotomy. The surgeons sliced into her left tibia, removed a wedge of bone, swung her lower leg out straight and inserted a plate into the gap. Then broke her femur halfway up, pulled it apart, moved it around and attached a bigger plate to hold it straight.

Watson and her dog, Peggy.
Watson and her dog, Peggy. Photograph: Dan Peled/Dan Peled for The Guardian Australia

The idea was that her bones would grow into the spaces. When, six months later, that wasn’t happening, Watson took herself to the gym on crutches in an attempt to regain some movement. After a further five months of gruelling work she could partially weight bear on her left leg, which now looked straight. The right leg, however, was still bowed, which meant a second identical surgery.

The gym rehabilitation was working and Watson, who was excelling at bench press, joined Powerlifting Australia.

“But eventually something happened with my left leg, I couldn’t walk on it and they had to take out the metal support system that was in there. They ended up having to take the metal out of my right leg as well because the legs wanted to bow again. I have a genetic disposition where my cells just want to form the bone in the direction they want to form it in. They looked straight but on the inside they were growing in the direction they were originally born, which has caused quite a bit of damage.

“No one could have preempted this would happen. It’s not usual. That just makes me a little bit, special? My surgeon was very disappointed and felt sad. I said, ‘well, this is what we’ve been dealt with’. I could sit there and let this disability run my life, or I can focus on what I can do.”

Watson chose the latter. Her progressively worsening disability was now severe enough to meet the para-powerlifting classification criteria. “Which I think is hilarious,” she says. “I was disabled enough now and I was like, ‘yay’. In May of last year she competed for the first time in Brisbane and in November announced herself to the world in Georgia with an Oceania record of 120kg in the +86kg category.

When she was informed this month she had qualified for Birmingham 2022 she “lost my banana peel”. Her coach, Simon Bergner, is telling her to look as far ahead as Brisbane 2032. She’s aiming to be pushing 150kg by Paris 2024. The only athlete in her weight category to have pressed more than that in 2021 is Chinese Tokyo 2020 Paralympics gold medallist Deng Xuemei, who topped out at 157kg.

Watson feels the burn.
Watson feels the burn. Photograph: Dan Peled/Dan Peled for The Guardian Australia

This is even more impressive than it sounds, mainly due to the competition’s strict rules. Athletes must start holding the bar at arm’s length with locked elbows before lowering it to their chest, where they must hold it motionless. Then they must press it upwards, evenly, until their elbows are again locked and judges give the green light to rack.

“It’s precision benching,” Watson says. “You can’t get a thing wrong with it. It is the supreme sport of strength. Other women who are lifting 20kg above me, they might be lifting without the use of legs, or some people don’t have much core because they’re quadriplegic. Think about that upper-body strength they’ve got to be lifting 120-125kg.”

Watson’s wife Kate, who she married in Queensland in 2018 and who has supported her through it all, keeps reminding her this is all kind of a big deal. Watson herself is incongruously low key, but does believe she has a role to play as a disabled athlete.

“There’s sort of a long way to go with how we support people with disabilities,” she says. “How do we talk about certain things? There are people out there who have triggering words, who don’t want to be your ‘inspiration’ because they have a disability.

“But why not? If you were able-bodied you would want to be an inspiration to someone else’s life. Why is it any different? We’re all human and we need to learn to be respectful to each other, be kind to each other and we’ll all learn together.”

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