After Decades of Uncertainty, Lebanese Weightlifting Finds a Female Star

One of the most fascinating stories I heard at the 2016 Asian Weightlifting Championships revolves around the Lebanese Woman’s Weightlifting Team — which is currently just one lifter. Her name is Mahassen Hala Fattouh Paiva, but her friends just call her Hala. She currently lives in Port Orange, FL, and she is the first woman in history to represent the country of Lebanon in Olympic weightlifting on the international stage; her ultimate goal is to qualify for the Olympic Games.

To understand the significance of her feat, it helps to know a (very) brief history of the country of Lebanon. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon was occupied by the French before gaining independence in 1943. From 1975 to 1990, the country was embroiled in a brutal Civil War, with hundreds of thousands of casualties. Approximately 900,000 people — representing 20% of the pre-war population — fled the country to find a better life for themselves and their families. Hala’s father was part of the exodus, as he immigrated to the United States for a better life.

Hala’s weightlifting career started in high school, where she was a 2006 Florida state champion. She represented the United States at the 2006 Youth Pan Am Games, and continued to progress as a multi-time medalist at USAW Junior and Senior National Championships. However, she has always been proud of her heritage as a Lebanese American, and has held dual citizenship since she was a little girl.

In 2014 she contacted the Lebanese Olympic Committee about the possibility of competing on their National Team. The next day, she was contacted by the President of the Lebanese Weightlifting Federation, Mr. Souheil Kaissi. Kaissi, himself a member of the Lebanese National Team in the 1970’s and a highly esteemed coach throughout Asia, said he would be happy to help her with the process. Days later, the Lebanese Federation had entered Hala into the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) drug testing database and placed her onto their National Team for the 2014 World Championships.

Going into the 2016 Asian Championships, it was Hala’s goal to total 210kg (462lbs). This was expected to result in earning an individual qualification spot that the IWF will allocate for the 2016 Summer Olympics (which can happen for the top seven ranked women who represent countries that do not have any spots already qualified for the Olympics).

She finished the Asian Championships with a 193 total that placed 8th in the competition. If that total is not high enough, the last opportunity to go to Rio would be to earn one of four Triparite spots, which are awarded to athletes from countries that may be underrepresented in order to enhance universality in the Olympic Games.

Regardless, if she makes the 2016 Olympic team or not, Hala and her husband/coach Ryan Paiva (himself a former USA Junior World Team member) have made a lifetime commitment to Lebanon and growing their weightlifting community. Currently it exists in the form of a men’s masters weightlifting team, along with Hala herself. In the near future, they feel they can bring a full woman’s team to international competition. Many displaced Lebanese nationals around the world have reached out to the Paivas in support and wanting to follow in her footsteps. The Paivas feel they are part of a growing movement to stop skills and talent being drained from Lebanon, and they are adding to the movement through athleticism.

While there is little to no financial support from Lebanon, their Federation has provided a commitment to helping them grow the movement. USA Weightlifting additionally has been very supportive of Hala by granting her release to compete for Lebanon, as they saw she had made a personal decision to get more in touch with her Lebanese roots. Hala and Ryan hope to travel to Lebanon in the near future for several months to train with Coach Kaissi and promote the sport. There are even two Lebanese CrossFit gyms that have a “Hala Fan Club,” and they often send her lifting videos online so she can provide feedback.

After the Olympics this summer, Hala plans on starting to train towards the 2020 Tokyo Games. The goal, like everyone else, will be to earn a medal for her country. But even if she falls short, the opportunity to represent her family’s homeland in an athletic endeavor is probably an opportunity few saw possible only a few decades ago. That in itself is a win.

Update: Language has been clarified in the article regarding Tripartite Olympic spots and the history of the Lebanese weightlifting team.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.