“It’s interesting how differently people treat you when you’re the barista as opposed to the weightlifting Olympian,” muses Zoe Smith. “At the moment, I’m just coffee wench.” The 23-year-old laughs – her dark, self-deprecating sense of humour finding endless fuel in her situation. For the last few months, the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist and 2012 Olympian (she missed out on Rio with injury), has been working in a smart, central London cafe – the kind that uses weighing scales and a thermometer to ensure the perfect cup of speciality coffee. After the end of this month, her monthly wage will be her sole source of income after to UK Sport’s decision to cut all of British Weightlifting’s funding from June onwards.
We meet on a Tuesday evening at the Performance Ground gym on London’s busy Kingsway where Smith is being allowed to train free of charge in return for a few social media posts. It’s 6.30pm by the time she arrives, looking grateful for the chance to sit down and restore some oomph to her weary legs.
“At the moment I’m working 8am until 6pm,” she says, “so I’m leaving the house [living with parents in Crayford, south-east London] at 6.30am and after training here in the evening, getting home around 9.30pm. It’s a lot. I think the biggest impact it’s had is on my enthusiasm for training. While I want to do it, I get here and it’s hard to just make myself do the training. My legs are tired and I’m generally more fatigued.
“The plus side is that because I’m on my feet all day I’ve been losing weight without trying, so making weight won’t be hard now. The coffee shop isn’t big but you do more steps than you realise, running around it all day bringing coffees and taking orders.”
The lawyers and city types that frequent Association Coffee near St Paul’s Cathedral do occasionally notice that their flat white is being carefully crafted by an Olympian: “Someone today said: ‘Fair play to you, prove them [UK Sport] wrong.’ I’ve also had people that look confused and just ask: ‘What are you doing here?’ Oh you know, just trying to earn a living.
“They’re always a bit more polite after that. But there are a lot of people who come in and just expect you to know their order. They don’t want to say anything. It’s like, we don’t know each other – I can’t read your mind.”
Smith is a self-confessed coffee geek but that’s not the sole reason she chose the barista route, rather than following many of her fellow weightlifters into coaching. “I genuinely think I would hate weightlifting if I had to do it all day every day as my actual job. My parents weren’t mad keen on the idea of me working in a coffee shop but if I was relying on weightlifting for an hourly wage I can see myself getting pissed off with it. I’m allowed to be pissed off with coffee.
“Coaching would still be long days on your feet and I think it would take it out of me in so many other ways too, like the social energy you’d have to give people. It’s just not something I’m prepared to do at the moment. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve totally found my niche working in a coffee shop. I like coffee. I’m interested in it. But it turns out I probably prefer drinking it to making it.”
As a full-time athlete, which Smith was from the time she finished school until this year, she had time to train and rest with the intensity needed to get the most from her sessions. She was also able to fuel them properly, thanks to a food sponsor who would supply her with meals tailored to her specific macronutrient and calorie requirements.
That is all a world away from where she is now, grabbing croissants on the way to work (when her mum doesn’t leave a bircher muesli bowl for her in the fridge), trying to avoid hydrating on multiple espressos throughout the day, and fuelling her training with leftover pain au raisins after closing up the shop.
The food sponsor scarpered as soon as it became known Smith would not be competing at last summer’s Rio Olympics thanks to a shoulder injury that required the first surgery of her career. “I probably needed support then more than I ever did. It just goes to show – everyone wants a piece of you when you’re doing well but as soon as there’s a fly in the ointment it’s ‘OK, we’re out.’”
Smith was weeks away from probably being named in GB’s weightlifting team for Rio when she “lost the bar” behind her head while completing a snatch at the British Championships. “The bar took most of my shoulder with it and I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. I tried to lift my arm above my head and it didn’t stay there, which considering I’d had an arm plus 92kg above my head 30 seconds earlier, wasn’t a good sign.”
Her best total from 2015 (221kg) would have placed her fifth in Rio – a fact she finds “hard to swallow”. “Who knows, with all the drugs busts going on I could be a medallist now,” she laughs.
It also provides plenty of motivation for her to get back to her best in time for the British Championships in July, which act as a qualifier for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. She’s hoping to change her working hours, starting earlier (“it’ll mean leaving the house by 5.30am”) but finishing in time to train at the Europa gym in Crayford with other British weightlifters and, importantly, her coach Andy Callard.
For the time being, “short of some divine miracle”, Smith sees no end to her work as a barista. But given the negative impact it’s having on her training she knows something has to give. “If I can sort out my hours that should help but if that doesn’t happen then I’ll have to change things because despite it not actually paying me any money, weightlifting comes first.
“This has taught me that I do actually value weightlifting. If I’m still turning up here, getting limited sleep, not getting home until late and kind of hating every minute of it – the whole day – it shows that I want to be an athlete above all else. This year has really tested my drive and determination but it’s there. It has to be there.”
With Tokyo 2020 to look forward to and some big competitions on the horizon – including a world championship at the end of this year – Smith has plenty to keep her focused on the job that will always be her number one priority: “I’m looking forward to being Zoe Smith, the weightlifter again,” she smiles. “I might be the weightlifting barista now, but a weightlifter nonetheless.”