Meet Billen, a weightlifter from Surrey, who has won many national and international titles at the very young age of 16
By Surbhi Gogia
Jeenat Billen is like any other girl in her teens having a tall slim figure, long hair, a glowing face and a charming smile. But inside she is made of steel with physical strength that can hoist more than a 200 pound barbell and mental strength that helps her challenge stereotypes every day. She is the epitome of a modern day girl who dared to enter a largely male-dominated sport disregarding all the bodily stereotypes associated with it.
Meet Billen, a weightlifter from Surrey, who has won many national and international titles at the very young age of 16. This year she made Canada and her community proud again at the Youth Pan Am Weightlifting Championship held at Palmira, Colombia where she won two silver medals for the country. Most recently she won a gold at the Junior Canadian Championship held in Halifax in January and was selected to represent Canadian team for Junior World Championship in July 2018.
Jeenat belongs to a prestigious group of women weightlifters getting training at Lion’s Weightlifting Club in Surrey which includes names like Prabhdeep Sanghera and Jeenat’s elder sister Helena Billen. Women weightlifters trained in this club have met international standards to participate at many national and international weightlifting championship. Sophia Sandhu, Harman Phangura, Manroop Sahota, Snimerdeep Sanghera and Simran Sandhu are some other girls from Lions club who have represented Canada in the Various International competitions.
The club had a humble beginning at the premise of Khalsa School. But eventually, the dedication of the members and the coaches increased its popularity. And now it has got a new location with ultra modern equipment. “In fact, we have one of the best facilities for weightlifters in British Columbia,” claims coach Makhan Sandhu who is part of the three coach team others being Raghbir Sahota and Rajinder Mahey. All the coaches volunteer their time at the club to train weightlifters to compete at the international levels. To the surprise, there are more girls getting training as weightlifters than boys in the Club.
The history of weightlifting is as old as Olympics themselves. However, the inclusion of women in weightlifting competitions events is a recent phenomenon. Before the Olympic Games of 2000, women could not lift at the Olympics. The first presence of women in world weightlifting championships was in 1987.
For such a recent participation in the sport, women are showing constant progress and especially the participation of South Asian women is incredible. “Since there are many bodily stereotypes associated with the sport that can deter any girl to pursue it. People think that weightlifting restrains height and creates a bulky physique. But look at Jeenat. She is as fit and tall as any girl in her age,” says Sandhu.
In fact Sandhu feels that there are many other myths attached to this sport. “People take weightlifting as a supplementary exercise. It is a very good training method for other sports too, but weightlifting in itself is a sport.”
Another myth debunked by Sandhu was the community’s support to women weightlifters itself. The South Asian community is notorious for restraining the girls from pursuing many things that are male-dominated. However, to surprise both Sandhu and Jeenat were proud of the Punjabi community’s support. “It is amazing to see how people respect and look forward to seeing our women weightlifters perform. There is an annual sports meet where the community members wait to watch women weightlifters and give amazing respect and cheers and donate money,” says Sandhu.
In fact Jeenat’s entry to this sport was due to the unconditional support she got from her family especially her father. Her story resonates with Bollywood blockbuster movie Dangal where a father’s dream to win an Olympic medal for the country makes him train his daughters in a male-dominated sport like wrestling. The only difference being Jeenat and her elder sister are trained in weightlifting.
Jeenat’s sports pursuits are rooted in her family. She is the daughter of famous wrestler Harjit Billen, from Punjab (owner of Rustam Wrestling Club). “My dad had a dream to put his son in wrestling and win Olympic Gold. But my mom gave birth to three girls. When my elder sister Helena expressed interest in pursuing a sport, my father put her in weightlifting under coach Makhan. She started doing really well. She participated in the Junior World weightlifting championship and also won a bronze medal at the Junior Commonwealth Weightlifting Championship in Malaysia in 2013.”
Jeenat grew up watching her getting trained. “I developed an interest in weightlifting from there. Plus I always wanted to travel the world and weightlifting gave me that opportunity.” She was only 9 when she started training. “I started with local competitions which really helped me gain experience. Then I started going to Western championships and slowly Junior Nationals. I also competed in senior nationals. My first international competition was in 2013 in Youth commonwealth weightlifting championship in Malaysia where I won a silver medal. There were four girls from our club who won titles in a different category. Then in Pune, India, in 2015 where I won a bronze medal,” she recalls.
After achieving success at the international level Jeenat’s dream is to win an Olympic gold one day. Her disciplined lifestyle paired with hard training are helping her come closer to the dream. She wakes up at five o’clock in the morning to go to the gym. A grade 11 student from Princess Margret School, she follows a strict timeline to balance her education and training. “Once back from the gym I go to school. I come back at around 3 o’ Clock and catch up with my homework till 5. After that, I go to the club for training till 8. I come back and finish my day around 10.” Jeenat says.
She says that she cannot afford to go off the schedule even for one day. “If I am late even for an hour, my entire time schedule goes for a toss. I am either late for training or cannot complete my homework.” Jeenat says that apart from schedule her sport too is an individual sport which makes her more disciplined. “In other sports, if you make a mistake, other team members will catch up. But in weightlifting, if I make a mistake I will be responsible.”
It is human nature to fail or fall behind, so what keeps her going? “It is natural to feel frustrated. Weightlifting digs down into the deepest parts of your soul and digs up some fierce emotions. I once heard if you lose you should only think about that loss for only 15 seconds. And you start training harder. If you think about it way too long then it builds on frustrations.”
Jeenat says failures are there to make you work harder and make you more motivated towards your goals. And this is her advice to all the young girls out there trying to achieve their dreams. “Never think you are weak. If you think you are the greatest, you will be greatest.”
She even requests every girl to follow any sport. “Sports makes you strong and make you achieve many other things in life,” she says.