At 22 years old, British weightlifter Sonny Webster is on a roll. Less than two months after his first Olympic Games, Webster — the lone British male to compete in weightlifting in Rio — is planning a UK-wide seminar tour and looking ahead to competitions in 2017.
And if you ask how much time he “took off” after Rio, you’ll get a laugh: Webster loves the gym and won’t stay out of it for long, whether he’s focused on weightlifting or having some fun with bodybuilding bro sessions. Since taking up weightlifting at age 11, Webster has spent roughly half his life training in the sport, and he’s eager to share his experiences and expertise with lifters throughout the United Kingdom.
I caught up with the Bristol resident to talk about his experiences in Rio, his outstanding mobility, and the real story behind his trademark red snapback.
How long did you take off after Rio Olympics?
To be honest I was in the gym pretty much two or three days after, just with one of the coaches doing a bit of bodybuilding. I love the gym, so I’m always trying to stay in shape even if I’m not training completely focused on weightlifting. I’ve really enjoyed it over the last few weeks, just training for fun without the pressure. It was a long buildup to the Olympic Games, it was very intense, so it’s good to have a bit of fun with training.
What’s the next competition you’re prepping for?
The main goal now is the Commonwealth Games, I’m going for gold there so I’m thinking more long term, let the body recover a little bit. Like I said, it was a long buildup to the Olympic Games, so I’m looking to have the rest of the year off. I’m not doing the European Under 23s that’s coming up in Israel the end of this year, not doing the World University Games either. Next year you’ve got the European Championships and the World Championships, so I’ll see what kind of shape I’m in heading into those.
I’ve got a couple of competitions in the French League in January and February where I’ll compete, but I’m just going to see how it goes and see how my body is responding to all the strength work I’m doing at the moment.
What are some numbers goals for next year in the Olympic lifts?
Yeah, I’d like to be in a position, the 200 kilo clean & jerk is looming and has been for awhile now, I just need to get the basic strength stuff right and work a lot on my jerk technique to make sure that’s going to be possible. It’s very different once you start getting over 190 kilos to jerk. I had a very interesting conversations with Sergey Bondarenko when he was over here the other day about it, and he gave me some tips and discussed a few things that may help.
So going over that mark by the end of next year, and then a 160 snatch. I really struggle with my grip, so I’m doing a lot of things to strengthen my grip and help keep the bar closer through the middle. Then I reckon that 160 snatch will be there.
What surprised you most about being an Olympic athlete?
Just how cool everyone was! You watch these superstars on TV all the time. People like Andy Murray, I’m into my golf so Justin Rose. Mo Farah and Usain Bolt. You’re surrounded by superstars the whole time and you kind of have to pinch yourself. You’re having dinner, and two tables down is Usain Bolt, and it’s just crazy.
I got a chance to meet and chat with a lot of celebrities I look up to, I couldn’t believe how nice they are and how normal they are. You expect them to be different, but they’re just nice people.
You’ve been posting a lot recently about mobility drills, and you mobility is superior. Did you have such good mobility before you started lifting, and if it’s something you drill, how do you approach it?
Because I started weightlifting when I was 11 years old, as a kid you have much better flexibility. So starting the sport young helps, I’ve been lifting half my life now. It gave me a good head start on mobility.
But I’m a firm believer, and so is my coach, of all the mobility stuff we do being under load. I see a lot of people stretching with bands, and it has its place for rehabilitation and stuff like that. For weightlifting, if you want to get mobile in the weightlifting positions, you need to practice in the positions. I’m a big believer, whenever I’m coaching people and whenever I’m working on my own mobility, I’m always under load so doing overhead squats and sitting in the bottom, moving my feet out wider than I normally would, thinks like heavy snatch balance are all things I do to drill weightlifting specific mobility.
How many athletes are you coaching right now?
About 10 in Bristol, and I’ve got seminars almost every weekend between now and April. I’m going to get around the UK and get to meet with a lot of people, share their experiences and hopefully give people a bit of advice to help their lifting and their mobility.
How do you see weightlifting growing in the UK heading into the next Olympic cycle?
It’s been the last four to eight years where you’ve seen the biggest growth in the UK, and it’s mainly down to CrossFit. It’s done absolute wonders for the sport of weightlifting because it’s put a spotlight on the sport and the athletes competing in it. Weightlifting was a very small sport in the UK eight years ago, when I was getting into it and getting competitive. But now everyone knows what weightlifting is, what a snatch is and what a clean & jerk is, whereas normally you used to say “Snatch and Clean & Jerk” and people would say “You mean bench?”
Now the British Championships is getting held over two days, and it’s getting more and more competitive. I don’t see why in the next Olympic cycle, Britain can’t be looking to at least win a women’s Olympic medal and have three or four guys who can finish in that top ten.
A lot of people in the U.S. attribute the sport’s growth here to similar factors.
Very much so, in the U.S. championships you’re running multiple platforms at the same time, it’s absolutely awesome what [Phil] Andrews is doing over there.
Well, we have an Olympic medalist in Sarah Robles for the first time in 16 years, so that’s obviously a step in the right direction.
I also trained with Jenny Arthur a bit when I trained at the OTC in Colorado Springs, she’s got an incredible work ethic when she’s training, she’s focused for the whole session. She’s thinking about every lift that she’s doing. No doubt she’ll be an Olympic medalist in the next cycle hopefully!
I have one final question, and it’s one I know you get a lot.
It’s the hat, isn’t it?
Haha, ask away.
What’s the story behind the hat?
A lot of people don’t like it, a lot of people do like it, it kind of came about completely by chance. Myself and Gareth Evans, another UK Olympian who lifts in Wales, we wanted to come out to America to do another training camp at OTC. But it was going to cost us more than we had at the time, so we wanted to use the money to help us with our training and to get some time training together.
So one Sunday afternoon, we were sitting on the sofa and thinking, “What are we going to do?” And I said, why don’t we just jump in my car and travel around to gyms in the UK and see who’s there and who wants to train with us. That idea kind of snowballed and we ended up going to 14 gyms in 14 days giving free seminars to raise money for Healthy Heroes, which is a charity over here in the UK. That’s what we were doing at the time when the hat came about.
We called into a clothing company called Heavy Rep Gear that was sponsoring the tour. For the guys who know me, I’m always doing my hair every morning, always brushing it back, and on the tour we were waking up in the freezing cold at 8am and didn’t have the time to do anything. In the gift packs of apparel from Heavy Rep Gear there were some snapbacks, so instead of doing my hair every morning I just started chucking on the snapback. When we were going into the boxes, I was starting to lift in it.
It just became a bit of a trademark then, lifting in the red snapback.
Now I can’t lift without it, keeps the sweat out of my eyes and keeps my hair from flopping in my face. It’s just a little bit different. Weightlifting has only about five different types of weightlifting boots you can buy, only about two different types of knee supports, and I wanted to jazz it up a little on the platform.
Featured image: @sonnywebstergb on Instagram