Marybeth Baluyot has no interest in being an “inspiration” to average athletes, at least not in a way that suggests she should be worth less than them. A competitive powerlifter, occasional Olympic weightlifter, and the co-founder of the Disabled Girls Who Lift podcast, she’s a strong advocate for more inclusivity in strength sports.
Growing up, soccer seemed a natural choice for her given that she was born with only one hand, but in her own words,
I got into a lot more self development and self empowerment, and finding strength as a disabled woman of color, who is very small and who can lift two to three times her bodyweight, I found this beautiful empowerment through strength training, especially powerlifting .
We spoke to Marybeth to learn more about her journey through strength sports and her ideas for how strength sports can be more inclusive.
What inspired you to get involved with strength sports, and why powerlifting in particular?
Sports was a very tough challenge for me, navigating around that idea of only having one hand. I had an awesome stepdad who introduced me to baseball at a young age — you typically wear the glove on your left hand if you’re right-handed, but having only one hand I wore a right handed glove, caught the ball, took the glove off, and threw with it with my right hand. So I’ve found adaptations in sports at a very young age, and have always been an active person, thanks to my family.
So when I began lifting weights at UC Berkley six or seven years ago, I delved into the squat first because it was much easier to navigate. It was a beautiful way to find that power, as an adaptive athlete and as a woman, especially since strength training at the time did not have many of us represented. During training, it was beautiful to see that level of excitement for someone who looks like me and then to see it again on the platform at major competitions. Everyone who didn’t know you still cheered for you regardless of your circumstance.
So I’ve had good experiences with powerlifting, as well as some negative, which I can delve into a little later.
What are your best lifts?
I went from the -48kg weight class to the -52kg and now the -57kg. I don’t limit myself to a weight class — if I see development or strength or growth in my lifts, my weight doesn’t necessarily matter to me.
My biggest lift for the squat is 302lb in wraps, and I’ve deadlifted the equivalent to that with a lifting hook. Benching has been fairly hard for me, I have to balance as much as I can without a hand or wrist or fingers, but my best lift was 130lb.
But I love looking at not just strength, but growth. Before starting powerlifting I never wanted to touch a deadlift bar or a bench because I didn’t think I could do it with one hand. My growth there is something I’m very proud of. It doesn’t matter what your body looks like — if you find strength in your own physical body, there’s a lot to be proud of.
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Which federations have you lifted with?
The one I started off with was USAPL, but I’ve since had some issues with inclusivity.
When I first got in the sport squats were easiest for me, but deadlifting I had some issues with because I was only able to and allowed to perform the lift singlehandedly. You see that as kind of a gag in videos on Instagram, strong guys trying to prove themselves by lifting with one hand, but I found lifting singlehandedly was not good for my body or for my form. And it wasn’t a way for me to level the playing field, because the important thing in powerlifting is to get the highest total you can.
After playing around with some accessible lifting tools, I found a better way to deadlift — but introducing those contraptions to a federation like USAPL wasn’t allowed. I tried it with other feds like USPA and WRPF and they were a lot more open to it.
I’ve loved the USPA ever since they allowed me to use my lifting hook in competition, that’s a huge step for a federation that’s not very used to seeing these types of tools. They were actually interested in inclusivity and looking into the conversation further. After speaking to them about my situation and other adaptive athletes’ situations, they were able to include in their rulebook their inclusivity toward adaptive athletes. So I’ve been happy with their susceptibility to that.
I hope to overcome those obstacles with federations like USAPL and change some minds about inclusivity in sport. That’s a huge reason why I started Disabled Girls Who Lift: I saw very little representation of women of color in strength sports and even moreso very little representation of people with disabilities.
What’s the biggest obstacle for disabled athletes you’d like to see change in strength sports?
It’s a very simple request: true inclusivity.
Not necessarily posting a picture of your one black person or disabled or brown athlete, but working hard internally to change your rulebooks to make more inclusive committees. I saw USA Weightlifting actually had posted a scholarship for black athletes, which is a huge move for any barbell sport federation. I’d like to see a lot more of that in USAPL and USPA, and others. Athletes like us pay a lot of money to these feds already, and if we see some of them give back to those who are not represented as much in these federations, I think that would be great to see as far as action items.
Then there’s this idea they’re having internally of creating separate categories in their federations for adaptive athletes and transgender athletes. But I think what we’re trying to do is make it more inclusive and allow us to compete with everyone else, if that’s what our preferred choice is. Because, of course, trans women are women, trans men are men, the same way adaptive athletes are athletes. So I’d love to see a lot more of that intentional inclusivity.
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I’m a big fan of this t-shirt you’ve been selling. Could you speak to what inspired it?
People use the word “inspiration” in a very positive light, but what people don’t understand is the presumptions that come behind that.
One, there’s this presumption about ability and the idea that people who are disabled do not have the ability to live a normal life, to perform these daily tasks, to have a job, to have healthy relationships, be an athlete.
So the idea behind the shirt and a lot of what we talk about in the podcast is that you should remove these presumptions and remove that awe and amazement of how we perform our daily tasks, and really question what your perception of inspiration is. Before you use it to describe an adaptive athlete or a fat athlete, what does that word truly mean to you? How are we actually inspiring you and how are you separating yourself from our otherness.
Are you considering yourself the image to look up to and then looking at us and saying if they can do it, I can do it bc I’m more “normal”? Or am I, as an adaptive athlete, inspiring another person with disability to do what I thought I could never do before?
So there’s a difference between calling someone an inspiration and what the intentions are behind that. I’m not in powerlifting just so I can have an able bodied white man use that as motivation to get out of bed. You can find other inspirations. I would love to not necessarily represent other people with disabilities, but make it a point in the world that more of us exist.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.