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People of Body&Fit: Dutch junior powerlifting champion Michelle de Jong

As part of our mission to inspire the world to live a fitter and healthier life, we at Body&Fit want to continue celebrating our diverse community of fit seekers with a whole new series of health & fitness stories. People of Body&Fit aims to showcase our friends, brand ambassadors and even some of the Body&Fit family, to give you a monthly dose of real-life inspiration to take with you on your own journey. After all, everyone has their own unique goals, bodies, and versions of what ‘fit’ means to them, yet we motivate each other to get out there and succeed.

Our first story comes from Body&Fit ambassador Michelle de Jong, a two-time Dutch national junior champion powerlifter, personal trainer and powerlifting coach from the Netherlands. After being diagnosed with a functional neurological disorder in 2015, Michelle went through years of physical therapy before regaining trust and confidence in her body through powerlifting.

From wheelchair to top of the powerlifting podium

A functional neurological disorder is a condition where impulses from the brain are not sent to the body in the right way. Its symptoms usually affect movements, such as the ability to walk, and the senses. People can also experience spasms, chronic tiredness and even blackouts. In Michelle’s case, it happened almost overnight.

“One moment I was a healthy teenager and one moment I had to be in a wheelchair. I was having spasms and seizures and became highly sensitive to things like sounds, light and taste. The thing that affected me the most was that I just couldn’t walk. Suddenly, I couldn’t go to school or see my friends like I used to. I was stuck at home instead.”

Michelle spent the next 1 ½ years in a wheelchair and went through an intense rehabilitation programme before she was able to walk again. Gradual strength training was an important part of this process and it became something she loved.

“For me, it was such a big achievement to go from someone that was kind of ‘less’ than everybody else to rebuild my strength and become a normal person again. It gave me such drive to be able to trust my body through strength training. I wanted to continue doing it because it helped me not just physically, but mentally as well.”

So, Michelle joined a gym. After a year or so of working out, she discovered powerlifting — a strength sport that consists of lifting the heaviest weight possible in three types of lift: the squat, deadlift and bench press. There are no aids or ways to make these exercises easier. It’s just you and the bar. A true measure of how strong someone really is. Powerlifting spoke to Michelle like nothing had ever done before.

Four months later, she competed in her first Dutch national junior championship, finishing in third place. The following two years, she won. In 2022, Michelle moves out of the junior competition to compete against experienced adult powerlifters — a challenge she’s looking forward to taking on.

An unlikely athlete after a childhood of competitive draughts

Interestingly, Michelle wasn’t much into sports growing up. In fact, she tells us she wasn’t very good at them at all.

“Every ball game I played, at least once the ball hit my face! I also tried dancing – I was terrible at that, too. I used to bike to school every day, which was like half an hour there and back. Next to that, I enjoyed roller skating. I never thought I’d be good at any physical sport!”

What she was good at, though, was draughts. Yes, the board game. It turns out Michelle was Dutch junior national champion at that, too. Three times! Then, she became European junior champion, but when the travel and pressure became too much, she decided to stop playing competitively.

Nutrition and training schedule as a female powerlifter

As Michelle started to realise that she was good at a physical sport — powerlifting — nutrition and training became an important part of her daily life.

“In the past, I had a shortage of vitamin D, vitamin B12 and Iron, so I keep an eye on those as I know I’m vulnerable to deficiencies. Of course, my protein intake is important for my muscles and I try to consume lots of healthy fats. When I was young, I lived in a culture where fats were bad — they had lots of calories and would just make you fat too. I tried to eat as little food as possible, and it wasn’t healthy at all. When I started strength training, I began to see food as fuel and started noticing the difference in my body when I ate right and took care of it. Now, being a heavyweight lifter, I enjoy food a lot!”

Fuelling herself with the right nutrition is the easy part. When it comes to training, it can be difficult for Michelle to maintain a regular schedule because the symptoms of a functional neurological disorder can come and go with varying severity.

“I normally work out five times per week. I get up and go to work for around 3-4 hours then come home, have lunch and take a power nap. After that, most of the time I’m ready to go and train. If I’m not able to complete my programme for that day, I take a break, have dinner, and go back in the evening to finish it off. The most important thing is that I really must listen to my body. So, if it says like ‘hey, you’re too tired today’, I just need to take a step back, listen and remind myself that I don’t want to end up making things worse, no matter how much I want to get better and stronger.”

Inspiring others through social media and personal training

When we spoke with Michelle, she’d spent the past two weeks dealing with a relapse. It had been a rough time. Her symptoms had started to come back. Nevertheless, she remained positive by being able to shift her mindset.  

“At the moment, I don’t need to think about the nationals or lifting PRs. I just have to think small again. Recently, I took my first walk outside in two weeks. It was only two minutes, but it made me feel so powerful. When I was in the wheelchair, I spent a lot of time in bed. Everything outside of that, even something as small as my best friend taking me for drive outside, I saw as an adventure. I learned to appreciate the small things. It’s helped me to realise that it’s not always about striving to be the strongest or most powerful. Sometimes, you need to set goals that you know you’re able to achieve.”

Even though Michelle is surrounded and supported by friends and family, the thought of having to go back in a wheelchair filled her with dread. It was the first time in six years a relapse like this had happened. People look up to the powerful female lifter Michelle has become, which sometimes makes her feel like she can’t have bad days. Still, she continues to provide a real and honest insight into her ups and downs on social media, to help inspire and motivate others facing their own unique challenges.

Michelle is also a qualified personal trainer with a focus on guiding people from beginner to competition level in powerlifting and bodybuilding. At her local gym, she works with clients with all kinds of fitness levels, backgrounds and goals.

“The best thing about my job is that I’ve never worked with anyone who’s like ‘oh, my life is perfect’. I’ve worked with people with addiction problems, eating disorders, body dysmorphia and lots of different insecurities. What I always see is that strength training helps them grow, build trust in themselves and realise that they can do things they never thought was possible. It shows that when you start to care about your health & fitness, it can really change you as a person, not only on the outside but on the inside, too.”

Women are ‘taking space’ in the world of powerlifting

Another thing about her job that excites Michelle is to see people, especially women, ‘taking space’ in the world of powerlifting and sports in general.

“There are still so many clichés out there related to women. I just love to see them take space, speak up for themselves and set out on their own path. I’m seeing more and more women coming into powerlifting not wanting to be skinny like they may have done ten years ago. They want to build muscle, dominate the free weights section and lift big. I think many are realising that if they workout, they’re not going to look like some buff man on steroids. They’re going to craft an even more curvy, feminine figure that’s strong and powerful. I think that’s pretty damn cool.”

Using creativity to find balance in life

In her down time, Michelle likes to write poetry and paint. Being creative allows her to challenge her mind rather than her body and offers a release from powerlifting and work (Michelle is currently building an online powerlifting coaching platform). It also helps her, a self-described overthinker, to process thoughts and prepare mentally for competitions and potential setbacks like relapses, which are always in the back of her mind. For Michelle, it’s important to have that balance of mental and physical outlets. For now, Michelle is focused on getting back to a normal life again. Once she’s ready, she’ll start training for the open powerlifting nationals, where she hopes to achieve a podium finish. Michelle also has her sights set on competing in the European powerlifting championships, as well as pulling off her first 200kg deadlift.

 

You can follow Michelle’s story and all her progress via her Instagram @coco_michellex. If you’ve been inspired to give powerlifting a try, check out Coco Michelle - Online Coaching to learn more about how Michelle can help you get stronger and train the right way. Don’t forget to look out for more upcoming People of Body&Fit stories via our blog or social channels (@body&fit_official). It doesn’t matter where you are on your journey, you can find all the advice and motivation you need to achieve your goals with Body&Fit and our inclusive community of go-getters and fit seekers.