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Chipo Maenzanise is Zimbabwe’s own superwoman

AFTER facing ridicule for her “muscular” stature during her school years, Chipo Maenzanise found solace and inspiration in weightlifting. She started jogging and eventually joined a professional health and fitness club where her passion for powerlifting was ignited after she was introduced to the sport. That passion has turned into gold for the women’s powerlifting star.

Chido Maenzanise grips a 300-kilogram sandbag with her gloved hands and her eyes narrow in intense focus. The pounding beat of Sia’s “Unstoppable” fills the air as she begins her early morning workout routine. Sweat glistens on her brow as she transitions into her core powerlifting exercises – the squat, deadlift, and bench press.

“The bench press is my personal favourite. I’m the only woman in Zimbabwe who can handle these weights. No one can beat me when it comes to the bench,” Maenzanise said.

At 29 years old, Maenzanise has emerged as Zimbabwe’s first female powerlifting star, capturing an astounding 8 gold medals, 2 silvers, and 2 bronzes on the national and regional stage. Her rise to the top, however, has been anything but easy.

Growing up in the working-class suburb of Highfield, Harare, Maenzanise was often teased for her muscular build.

“People used to call me names and say I should join the army. They didn’t understand that I was just built differently,” she explained, wiping sweat from her brow with her towel.

It wasn’t until 2016 when a chance encounter led her to join a local fitness club that Maenzanise discovered her true passion – powerlifting.

Powerlifting in Zimbabwe is regulated by the Zimbabwe Powerlifting Federation, which is registered with the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC).

However, regular powerlifting competitions are not very common in Zimbabwe due to the high costs involved in hosting them. Competitions are typically held when the national team is preparing for major regional or global competitions.

Maenzanise is one of only 3 female powerlifters nationwide in Zimbabwe currently with around 8 recognized male powerlifters in Zimbabwe.

Under the guidance of coach Bla Ganza, she quickly excelled, her natural strength and commitment setting her apart.

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“At first I was so intimidated, all these big, burly men in the gym, I didn’t know if I could keep up. But Bla Ganza pushed me and believed in me. That’s what gave me the confidence to try,” she added.

Garnet Panavanhu, famously known as Bla Ganza, a local Health and Fitness club member, highlighted how Maenzanise’s approach to the sport has empowered other women.

“I met Chido a few years ago early morning while she was doing her morning jog and I invited her to our gym sessions at Zimbabwe grounds. We worked together and within a short time because of her commitment to her training sessions, we appointed Chido to be one of the female trainers in the Health and Fitness Club. Her approach to the sport has inspired a new generation of lifters, particularly women, to take up the sport.’’ said Panavanhu.

In 2020, Maenzanise caught the eye of Zimbabwe’s powerlifting chairman, Moses Nyamhotsi, professionally known as Black Moses, who invited her to join the national team – her first competition that year was a revelation.

“I won gold on my very first try. I couldn’t believe it. That’s when I knew this was my sport.”

Since then, Maenzanise has been unstoppable, shattering national records and earning selection for the African Strongwoman championships, where she claimed a bronze medal in 2022. But her success has come at a price.

“The pain, my back, my legs, it’s constant. And the loneliness – sometimes I train alone, with no one to push me. That’s the hardest part.”

Maenzanise’s mother and sisters have been a vital source of support, providing encouragement and even giving her massages after gruelling sessions. Her coach, Black Moses, has also been a key figure, pushing her to her limits and helping her navigate the demands of the sport.

“Black Moses, he’s like a father to me, he gets overwhelmed sometimes, but he’s been instrumental. He’s the one who made me believe I could do this,” added Maenzanise.

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That belief has been essential, as Maenzanise has had to overcome not just physical challenges, but societal ones too. In a country where traditional gender roles still hold sway, her muscular physique and competitive success have at times been met with scepticism and even disdain.

“People would say, ‘How can you be a woman and lift all those weights? Aren’t you worried you won’t be able to have children?'” Maenzanise recounted, her brow furrowing. “But I always tell them, ‘Muscles don’t define a woman. I can be strong and still be a wife and mother.’’

Chipo Maenzanise lifting weights at Black Moses Academy Gym, Highfield, Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo: Shingirai Manyengavana, bird story agency

Indeed, Maenzanise’s powerlifting prowess has not diminished her femininity in the slightest. Off the platform, she is soft-spoken and unassuming, radiating a quiet confidence. It’s only when she steps into the gym that the transformation occurs.

“In the gym, I’m different. I become unstoppable. But outside, I’m just a normal single woman, living my life. Lifting 200 kilos doesn’t make me any less of a person,” she said.

Maenzanise ‘s ability to navigate these dual identities has inspired others, who see in her a reflection of their potential. That is the greatest reward of all for her.

“When I see the younger girls watching me, I know I’m making a difference. They come up to me and say, ‘You are my hero. I want to be just like you.’ That’s what keeps me going, even when the pain gets too much,” she said.

As she prepares for her next big competition, Maenzanise is keenly aware of the weight of her nation’s expectations.

“There’s a lot of pressure, for sure,” she admitted. “But I use that as fuel. I know I’m not just representing myself, but an entire country. That’s what drives me to be my best.”

According to the South African Powerlifting Federation, a recognized member of the International Powerlifting Federation (IFP), Libya is the highest-placed African nation in powerlifting, while South Africa is ranked 40th in the world. When compared to these other African countries, powerlifting in Zimbabwe is still emerging.

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The prize money and sponsorship package for men versus women are not specified. The sport is still developing in Zimbabwe and does not have significant sponsorship or prize money yet.

Nyamhotsi highlighted the current state of powerlifting within the country and how Zimbabwe’s powerlifting landscape fits into the global powerlifting scene, describing the ongoing efforts being made to cultivate and promote the sport locally.

“The sport has spread to 4 provinces and Harare tops the charts since it managed to qualitatively produce 2 females and 3 males who represented the nation in 2022 at our first-ever appearance on the world stage. This litmus test is a true indication we are now a force to reckon with. Our 66-kilogram category Male Athlete was crowned the best lifter in Africa at that Global Competition which shows us that we have generated much heat and discomfort amongst our contenders,” Nyamhotsi said.

“Locally we still have to exert strenuous efforts in terms of techniques and resources. Our equipment is outdated and we are improvising and modifying it so that we do not remain stagnant. We need to carry out more workshops and training together as a team, but the current resources do not allow it,” Nyamhotsi added.

Looking to a golden future, Maenzanise has her sights set on even greater heights. Her long-term goal is to open her own gym and powerlifting federation, with a particular focus on empowering women in the sport.

“I want to create a space where women can come and feel safe, where they can push themselves and realize their strength. Powerlifting has given me so much – confidence, self-belief, a sense of purpose. I want to share that with others,” she said.

By SHINGIRAI MANYENGAVANA, BIRD STORY AGENCY

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