From young offender to talented weightlifter – Jenny Tong’s journey so far
Weightlifter Jenny Tong in competition (Credit: Under The Bar)
She’s one of the UK’s leading weightlifters and turned her back on a career in entertainment to pursue her passion for politics. But that’s only scratching the surface where TASS athlete Jenny Tong is concerned.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Jenny Tong lifts weights. At 22 she’s experienced more ups and downs than most. She was excluded from school and had been stopped by the police before gaining a string of top GCSE grades and securing a place at the prestigious BRIT School.
Jenny wanted to be a wrestler before falling into weights. “I’ve always been about power,” she said. “I was into BMX and judo as a kid – before everything went pear-shaped.” And everything did go horribly wrong…for a while. To fully understand the inspirational Jenny Tong story it’s important to go back to the beginning.
As a single-minded English girl growing up in southern Spain she seemed to have it all. A touring singer and talented athlete, she performed for fun and her potential shone. At least after the school bell had sounded. During lesson time it was a very different story.
“I lived in the middle of nowhere and there wasn’t really much to do,” she explained. “I just got into trouble all of the time. I didn’t really have much interest in school.
“Between years seven and nine I’d been excluded seven times. Ultimately, the school told my mum that I would be kicked out altogether or be put back a year.
“At that point my mum decided she’d had enough of me and sent me back to the UK. I went to live with my dad in Hull. He’s a teacher and I ended up going to the school that both of my parents attended as kids. I suppose I arrived there with a point to prove.”
Jenny joined her new school with a reputation for failure. A reputation she was determined to shed. “When I went into Year 10 I was predicted Es, Fs or worse in every subject. It was time to wise up. As far as school was concerned, I knuckled down and I did well. I came away with eight As and A Stars in my GCSEs and the rest were Bs. I tried so hard to stay out of trouble at school. Out of school, I didn’t really learn my lesson.”
Swapping southern Spain for East Yorkshire was never going to be an easy transition for a teenager desperate to fit in and make new friends.
“I was hanging around with the wrong groups and the wrong people and inevitably I got into trouble again,” she admitted. “I got stopped by the police twice. I ended up having to do community service and I was placed on the young offenders list in Hull until I was 18. I knew that if I didn’t commit any more crimes before I turned 18 then my record would be wiped clean and that became a huge motivating factor for me.”
Clean record or hit record – Jenny was determined to change. And change for the better.
Gaining a place at the prestigious BRIT School – breeding ground for top entertainment talent including Adele, Amy Winehouse, Jessie J and Leona Lewis – enabled Jenny to start afresh in London. Reconnecting with her childhood passion for the performing arts, the hotly tipped teenager had the world at her feet.
“I did a bit of everything before I joined the BRIT School – and while I was there. Growing up in Spain, the performing arts were my release from everything else that I struggled with. I was a singer when I was younger and toured across the south of Spain. At the same time, I was aware that I wanted to study politics when I was older.
“I certainly didn’t want to put all of my eggs into one basket but I wanted to make the most of my time in London. I was involved in various community arts programmes and did a lot of singing, dancing and acting. I worked with Age UK and the Chicken Shed Theatre Group as a volunteer. It was brilliant and gave me an invaluable insight into the real world.”
Jenny Tong at the Hull Daily Mail Sporting Champions Awards (Credit: Handout)
Ultimately it was the real world, rather than the frequently fake world of celebrity, that held sway. The pull of politics – and the opportunity to help people – persuaded Jenny to put a career in entertainment on hold.
“During my time in London I sat two A-Levels independently – I passed Spanish and Politics A and AS Level,” she explained. “Even when I was at the BRIT School, studying politics was still an ambition. Having said that, it was a really difficult decision leaving the BRIT School and leaving behind entertaining. I was worried about would other people thought of my decision and concerned that they had certain expectations of where I might go or what I might achieve in the entertainment industry.
“But I’ve always been so passionate about politics and I want to help people. The decision was based on helping people and how to the best by others.”
At the tender age of 18 another significant move was on the cards. Jenny made Sheffield her fourth home in as many years and it was in South Yorkshire where she sought a life free of pressure and a life focused on politics. For an elite athlete targeting European Under 23 glory in 2019, weightlifting was never meant to be part of the equation.
“I’d never been to Sheffield before I accepted my place at university,” added Jenny. “It was my first choice but I got into all of my preferred universities: LSE, Warwick, Durham and Sheffield.
“I’d always put a lot of pressure on myself to perform wherever I’d been. Sheffield looked like the best of both worlds – a place where I could enjoy my education and be near to my family. I love being a few minutes from the Peak District and all of that open space and fresh air. It’s so liberating.”
Determined to get to grips with a degree in International Relations and Politics at the University of Sheffield, Jenny still wanted more. In the back of her mind keeping busy meant staying out of trouble. And the university’s sports fair was bound to keep her busy.
“I was actually looking down the list for wrestling,” she added. “I thought with my judo background that would be perfect. But there was no wrestling on offer and I spotted weightlifting.
“There was a ‘give it a go’ session and that was in November 2015. More than three years down the line I’m still giving it a go. I was supposed to graduate in 2018 but I’ve been given an extension to complete my dissertation due to my weightlifting commitments!
“After the first weightlifting session I loved it and couldn’t wait to go back. After just two weeks I realised I was rather good at it. Within a fortnight I was lifting the same kind of weights that girls who’d been there for two years were lifting.
“The movement came quite easily to me – I say that now but when I look back at the videos from that period they tell a different story!”
But Jenny did possess a natural talent for lifting weights. A first competition followed in March 2016 and later that year she competed at her first national event – the British Under 23 championships. Last year she finished runner-up in her first English championships and 2019 will see her chase glory on three fronts with the European Under 23 championships a key priority.
A second-year TASS athlete, one of British weightlifting’s brightest hopes heaped praise on a programme that continues to encourage a dual career approach and encourage elite athletes to combine education with performance sport. “I swear by the scheme,” she added.
“The physio support that I receive as a TASS athlete is invaluable. In my sport it’s more about injury prevention than it is about dealing with an injury. Weightlifting puts the body through a lot of stress so having access to soft tissue expertise is really, really useful.
“There’s been a clear correlation when I look at the lack of injuries I’ve suffered since I’ve been awarded TASS support. It’s that important to me.”
So what does the future hold? Will Jenny emerge as a future Olympian or go on to realise her dream as a heavyweight politician? Like every good dual career athlete, the 22-year-old is keeping her options open.
“My plan is to graduate this summer and education-wise I’m applying to study for a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory at York University,” she explained. “I intend to continue my weightlifting training alongside my studies.
“I’m also working for the University of Sheffield as a specialist visiting lecturer. And I work for an organisation funded by the European Commission that promotes clean sport and educates people on anti-doping.
“When I can, I visit schools and talk about overcoming obstacles – something I know a lot about!”
And how about following in the footsteps of fellow BRIT School Alumna Adele? “The only time you’ll hear me singing these days is in the shower,” added Jenny. “But I never say never.”