Tabitha Ellem is a woman who knows what she wants and she isn’t going to let anything get in the way of her achieving her dreams.
A skilled powerlifter, who can bench more than her body weight, Tabitha has big plans for herself, including competing in the Paralympic Games.
Tabitha has a rare genetic disorder called Mucopolysaccharidosis 1 Hurler syndrome. Some of the symptoms she deals with every day include arthritic pain, severe hip dysplasia, corneal clouding and hydrocephalus, but she says she is determined not to let her disability determine her future.
“I wanted to prove the doubters wrong and show other people with disabilities that you can still do the things you dream of doing, you just do them differently,” Tabitha explains.
Her determination has been helped by the support of close friends and family. While she danced in school for 12 years and loved it, her body wasn’t able to tolerate the sport so when she turned 18, her mother suggested she tried going to the gym. In December that year, they replaced the traditional opening of the advent calendar door to opening the gym door every day.
The positive results came quickly and it wasn’t long until Tabitha started to look and feel stronger and healthier. This was her motivation to keep going.
Then, a friend introduced her to powerlifting and she fell in love with the sport.
“Cheyarn is an inspiration to me,” Tabitha says. “She helped me to start powerlifting and to not really care about what anyone thought.”
For those unfamiliar with the sport, powerlifting is broken into three compound lifts – deadlift, squat and bench. The focus is to lift as heavy a weight as possible in a single plane of motion.
Showing her cheeky sense of humour and fun spirit, Tabitha says she enjoys powerlifting because it usually surprises people to see her in action.
“It is fun to see everyone’s reactions when they see me lifting something heavier than my own body weight,” she says.
Tabitha trains at Anytime Fitness Chisolm five days a week and says she chose the gym for the great community, convenience and the fact it is open 24 hours. She says the inclusive culture at Anytime Fitness means she feels welcome and supported when training.
“The team helped me a lot and I am forever grateful for them,” she says. “They help get equipment down for me, they help with my form and spot me whenever I need it.”
As an organisation, one of Anytime Fitness’ aims is to be inclusive. Anytime Fitness gym owner Billy Coombes says the clubs in Canberra are particularly good at this.
Billy owns several branches of Anytime Fitness including the Chisolm gym where Tabitha trains. He says he is passionate about creating an inclusive and accessible space in his gyms.
“We have ensured there is access for almost anyone who needs to utilise the club and equipment,” he says.
“We will do whatever we can to accommodate people, regardless of ability, including adjusting the layout of equipment to suit members in wheelchairs and we hire staff based not only on their skills but also on their empathy.”
Breaking down judgement and barriers is a big focus for Tabitha. Her biggest achievements so far include a 45kg bench (she is 39kg) and competing in a para-powerlifting competition.
As for the future? Tabitha says she has a few goals.
“Competing in the Paralympics for Australia in Para-powerlifting, getting sponsored by either LSKD or Gymshark, as they’re very inclusive and studying personal training and becoming a PT,” she says.
Tabitha is also passionate about encouraging schools to bring more inclusive activities to the PE program and has a simple request for teachers.
“If you have a child who has a disability, ask them what they can or cannot do,” she says. “Don’t sit them out. We might be disabled but that does not mean we are unable to do anything we put our minds to.”