Heart surgery not holding Russell back

You have to press hard to get Amber Russell to talk about her medical condition.

The Otago powerlifter was raised to accept her limitations and just get on with it. And get on with it she has.

Eighteen months after heart surgery, the 26-year-old competed at the Asia Pacific Powerlifting Championship on the Gold Coast in March and set an Oceania record in the women's under-84kg bench press of 102.5kg.

It is an extraordinary story made even more remarkable by the fact she was basically a novice.

It was her first international competition and, had it not been for the encouragement of a friend, Russell would probably have been happy pushing tin around at the gym just to stay in shape.

Otago powerlifter Amber Russell set an Oceania bench press record 18 months after heart surgery....
Otago powerlifter Amber Russell set an Oceania bench press record 18 months after heart surgery. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH

She took up the sport at the beginning of last year and was a natural. But even naturals have to work hard to get better.

"I did work pretty hard at it to be good at it but I did have a decent starting point," she said.

For her first proper attempt at the bench press she managed to press 60kg which was awfully good.

Russell, who works for the University of Otago as a community support co-ordinator for university flats, had rheumatic fever as a child. She spent about a year in hospital when she was 10 and had an aortic valve replacement and mitral valve repair.

"When that happened they told me it would need to be replaced again and that happened in 2017.

"I understand that it is a serious thing [but] just the way I was brought up is that if something happens and you can't change it, then it just becomes your life and you accept it and adjust to it."

It has not really held her back in powerlifting other than she cannot bounce the bar off her chest. The touch has to be light as her sternum area is sensitive. She also tires more quickly than other athletes.

Russell will compete at the South Island Championships in Christchurch today and hopes to successfully defend her title.

The athletes will compete in three disciplines - squat, deadlift and bench press.

She is hoping to match her best bench press of 102.5kg because she has never pressed that much when she has done squats first.

Her next goal is to break the New Zealand women's under-84kg bench press record of 110.5kg by the end of the year.

While she holds the Oceania record, she has not beaten the New Zealand mark set by Ashley Lester in August 2016.

"That's the goal and we've talked about going to worlds this year or the year after.

"Personally I don't think I'm good enough but we're working on it. Worlds would be amazing - even just to be surrounded by people that I'm looking up to at the moment. That would be crazy for me."

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