Isaiah Isijola is the strongest man on campus – this much is clear. What’s also true, though, is that he’s an up-and-coming powerlifting sensation for Ireland. Nicknamed by fellow gym-goers as the “Ghost of Irish Powerlifting”, due to his quiet demeanor and reluctance to boast about his training, he has been described as a “genetic freak”.
Over six-feet tall and weighing 120kg, Isijola is sending shockwaves throughout the Irish powerlifting community: “I run out of weights in the gym. Like, there’s not enough plates for me to squat or deadlift.”
Explaining what drives him in his weight training, Isijola says simply: “I think it’s important to be strong.”
“I think everyone wants to be strong”, he adds. “I feel like that’s a basic human desire, being able to be confident in your ability to do something, and a lot of things we do require strength – physically and mentally.”
His coach at Odyssey Strength gym, Adam Philips – who took him under his wing free of charge after noticing his obvious talent – hails Isijola as “one of the most promising strength athletes Ireland has ever seen”.
I run out of weights in the gym. Like, there’s not enough plates for me to squat or deadlift
Isijola is 19 years old, and is still eligible to compete in junior competitions for four more years. However, the Trinity student is only getting started – the 120 kg phenom only took up powerlifting in April of last year. While admitting that his “genetic predisposition” has certainly been a contributing factor to his rapid progress, Isijola has a fierce competitive drive, a grueling determination and an unwavering dedication. All have been key to his success so far.
Isijola wants to win – as he bluntly puts it, “I want to destroy the competition”. He pulls no punches when he describes the motivation behind his goal to reach the top: “There’s some people in the current IPF (Irish Powerlifting Federation) that I don’t like and I don’t want them to win, so spite – spite is a major one.”
His passion for winning is also why he is so quiet about his training. He doesn’t have a large online profile, relative to other competitors in his field. He maintains that an element of surprise gives him a competitive edge, explaining that “if they find out I’m lifting a lot heavier than them they might train harder, and I don’t really want that if I’m being honest”.
“I want to win and as my mom always tells me: ‘Empty barrels make the most noise.’ So I shouldn’t really talk if I don’t have to.”
Being relatively unknown certainly served Isijola well when he shocked the powerlifting community three weeks ago, setting four records en route to claiming victory at the IPF Junior National Championship.
Just weeks beforehand, however, whether he would even compete was a doubt. After an intensive exam period, he was seven kilos over the required 120 kg limit for his chosen category: “I was just dieting trying to lose seven kg and I hated life. I was swimming like four times a week and was not enjoying it.”
His hard work paid off when the day of the competition came – just. “I got on the scale and I was legitimately at the weight limit. I was at 120 kg on the dot. If I drank water that morning I would have had to have run or something.”
The competition itself was a tense two-horse affair, with renowned Dublin City University powerlifter Mark Stell serving as Isijola’s Apollo Creed. The showdown started off close, with both powerlifters setting junior national junior records for squat. But having been out-performed on the bench press – Isijola admits this is his worst lift – he found himself down 30 kg in cumulative weight with one lift remaining – the deadlift.
Although this is his strongest lift, Isijola and his coach knew he would have to push himself to the limit in order to bridge the gap. To win, he needed to exceed his previous personal record by over 20 kg and deadlift an astonishing 320.5 kg.
There’s some people in the current IPF (Irish Powerlifting Federation) that I don’t like and I don’t want them to win, so spite – spite is a major motivator
Despite the mammoth task he set himself, Isijola succeeded. He pipped Stell by 0.5kg on the cumulative total, and secured third place overall in the open nationals competition.
Isijola, the mysterious and relatively unknown “Ghost of Irish Powerlifting”, set three junior records that day – squat, deadlift, and total – while also setting the open record for deadlift. Nobody else in the country at the 120 kg weight category has deadlifted more than he has.
The model athlete, he shrugs off the feat: “I wouldn’t really consider it that phenomenal. Like, I could definitely do more.”
His coach, Adam Philips, put Isijola’s achievement into perspective. In an email to The University Times, he says: “Only a few years ago, a 320.5kg deadlift would’ve netted you worldwide renown and now we have a 19-year-old junior who’s only been in the sport for nine months, hitting that weight rather casually.”
You don’t have to be of a particularly cynical disposition to ask questions of a guy who can deadlift 320.5 kg after only powerlifting for nine months. However, the IPF takes a strict stance against doping, and their regulations are in line with those of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Isijola, though, is disgusted by doping, and lays to rest any doubts anyone might have when he explains that not only does he not want an unfair advantage, he also feels an obligation to those that might look up to him: “I don’t want kids to start taking steroids just for the health aspect of it. I don’t want to promote that at all.”
After a recent AGM, the IPF announced that more thorough drug testing would be implemented moving forward. “I approve of the testing and I am very happy about that”, Isijola says.
I ask why he thinks it’s necessary, given he says he doesn’t think there’s much of a drug problem in Irish weightlifting. His response is assertive: “It’s better to be proactive than reactive.”
“Why not say: ‘We’re going to start drug testing now, so you shouldn’t take drugs because we’ll catch you’, versus: ‘Oh, we’re trying to catch up with the new developments in drugs.’ So no, they’re being proactive.”
The next IPF is intervarsities next month. Undoubtedly, all eyes will be on Isijola to see what mountains he can climb.
But for him personally, the top concern is beating Stell for a second time. To do so would solidify his qualification in the upcoming open international competition, set to be held in Belarus this June: “If I beat Mark Stell again I’ll definitely be going to worlds.”
Isijola points out that the accomplishment would officially make him “the best [of the] under-23s in Ireland” – a sizeable title for a sizeable man.