Inspiring Women to Succeed in Life and at Work

A Q&A with Sylvia Atkinson, Medavie Blue Cross’s Client Services Manager and World Powerlifting Champion

To mark International Women’s Day — an annual celebration at Medavie — and in keeping with this year’s campaign theme to “inspire inclusion”, we sat down with the inspirational Sylvia Atkinson for a conversation on goal setting. Sylvia is manager of Client Services for Medavie Blue Cross and a reigning world champion in powerlifting. Last October, Sylvia, at age 50, broke a world record at the IPF World Classic Powerlifting Championships in Mongolia, helping Team Canada win the Team Award (beating out the USA team).

Were you always a physically active person? Or were you new to sports when you took up powerlifting?
Throughout my life, I have always been athletic, but a few years ago, I lost a healthy balance. I had gained weight and, in the winter of 2017, I decided to take charge of my physical wellbeing. I found group exercise classes that I enjoyed, and it motivated me to get back into a regular routine!

The goal was weight loss at the time but by April 2018 the class I took taught me the importance of being strong which was the key to living a healthy lifestyle for me. I was inspired to train with a purpose! Being strong helped my confidence which also improved my mental health and wellbeing.

I wanted to learn more about building a strong body, so I signed up for personal training sessions. The trainer I worked with encouraged me to find my passion and set a goal. My trainer was aware of my competitive nature and encouraged me to train for a strength-type sport, such as CrossFit, Powerlifting or Olympic lifting. It was overwhelming at first, thinking about starting a new sport at the age of 45, but I was locked in with the concept of training with a purpose!

Sylvia Atkinson competing at the IPF World Classic Powerlifting Championships in Mongolia
Sylvia competing at the IPF World Classic Powerlifting Championships in Mongolia.

How do you prepare for competitions – mentally and physically?
To physically prepare, my workouts focus on compound lifts such as squats, bench and deadlifts. I have a coach who develops a periodized program emphasizing strength, hypertrophy and peaking phases. To be competition ready, I need at least 12 weeks to train for it. Adequate rest and nutrition are also crucial for my recovery and performance.

Usually, two weeks out from my competition, I will prepare mentally by practicing visualization. I will replay in my mind how I want each lift to feel on competition day. My mental preparation also involves goal-setting and positive self-talk. I’ve had competitions where my biggest challenge was my mental resilience, not my physical strength. Over the years, I have cultivated a stronger mindset to handle challenges, and this mental resilience was key to me performing at my best.

How do you keep your mind sharp and body in shape?
I try to focus on the five pillars of health: sleep, nutrition, movement, recovery and stress management. These pillars provide a strong foundation and have served me well in staying injury-free and succeeding in my five-year powerlifting journey.

What are your top health tips for others?

Establish a consistent exercise routine that includes a mix of cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training, which will contribute to mental and physical wellbeing. It is also paramount to manage stress through relaxation techniques and prioritize self-care to maintain overall health

Sylvia at Employee Appreciation Day
Sylvia and Natasha Urosevic, Account Associate, Medavie Blue Cross in Toronto.

Have you faced barriers as a black woman in pursuit of personal or professional goals? How did you overcome them?
The lack of representation sometimes makes me question if I belong. I have felt this way even entering my sport of powerlifting as it was unusual to see Black lifters, let alone women Black lifters. Since I started, it has been growing, but I want there to be more, as I want people to go after what they deserve. I show up to every competition proud and encourage diverse participation to people I meet in and out of competition.

Was age an obstacle? Did you think you might be too old to get back into sports as you approached 50?
At first I thought starting a new sport at the age of 45 was a bit crazy, but my competitive nature provided me the push to try! After my first competition, I quickly changed my mindset to “It’s never too late! You’re never too old to try something new!” Age is a mindset and I have taken on #ageless!

How did it feel when you achieved your goal of winning a world powerlifting title?
I never intended to become a world champion when I first got into powerlifting; I just wanted to be strong and healthy. But I ended up surpassing my expectations.

Being able to represent my country and earning the right to climb the platform as the national anthem began to play was a surreal and emotional experience. I wanted to represent Team Canada in track and field when I was a little girl, and honestly, I forgot about that dream until just a couple of years ago.

I’m so proud to admit I achieved my goal of representing my country and when I got up on the platform and the anthem started playing, I cried.

Sylvia Better Together
Sylvia proudly displaying her Black History Month t-shirt.

What advice do you have for setting and achieving goals?
Keep dreaming. Never, ever give up. Sometimes, you have to reshape your dreams. Sometimes, they have to evolve and adapt, just as we do as people. But find something you’re passionate about. Be consistent; consistency will aid progress. You’ll have days when your motivation won’t be there, and that’s life. But keep building to your goal; stay committed and patient, and you might find that where you get to is even better than your initial goal!

How do you stay on track to reaching your goals, especially when life and work get in the way?
I schedule my workouts like I would for doctor’s appointments. Whenever conflict arises, then I readjust. I try to be patient and kind to myself when things don’t go as planned, but then I reflect, learn and try again to get back on track. I’m constantly assessing progress and never give up!

What goals have you set for 2024?
Defend my World Title in October in Sun City, South Africa! 💪🏽

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