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How Rocky put Raghul Parthipan on the way to pursuing sporting goals in powerlifting

Sporting inspirations come in all shapes and sizes but Raghul Parthipan’s route into powerlifting came via the small screen.

“When I was growing up, I was not a sporty individual at all,” said the Selwyn College student.

“I tell myself that a lot of the sports I was exposed to growing up were through school, and a lot of the school sports are primarily team sports and ball sports.

“I believe my hand-eye coordination was never that good so I never really did well in those sports.

“But there was a point in my early teens where I watched a Rocky film; I watched all of them.

“I got so inspired and motivated and wanted to be like Rocky so I started doing all the press-ups, the pull-ups, everything he did.”

It was an eye-opener that was to eventually lead Parthipan, 23, to represent Great Britain at the European Bench Press Championships in Luxembourg in 2019, having won the 74kg weight class at the British National Bench Press competition.

His story shows that there really is a sport for everyone, away from the traditional football, netball, hockey or rugby union that we most associate with schools and teams.

It is just how to find them that can prove difficult.

Parthipan’s interest in Rocky did not lead to an instant connection with powerlifting, but to fighting sports and martial arts, such as karate, judo and kickboxing.

Strength training became essential and so there was an added pursuit.

University of Cambridge powerlifter Raghul Parthipan. Picture: Keith Heppell
University of Cambridge powerlifter Raghul Parthipan. Picture: Keith Heppell

“I would go to the gym to do these combat sports, but to me the gym was more a hobby at that point,” he explains.

“I was going to just build my strength, however, when I joined the university I wanted to continue my combat sport so I boxed for a year.

“I had to put my strength training on hold to focus on the boxing; it was really intense.

“After a year, it wasn’t for me. I had given a lot to it, but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I was enjoying my strength training. I felt my strength could be leveraged elsewhere.

“I liked strength training and going to the gym, then I came across powerlifting.”

It was through word of mouth, and also through the boxing training at the University of Cambridge Sports Centre, which was happening above the weightlifting gym.

One thing led to another, and Parthipan had found an event in which he could bring together all the elements of sport that he enjoyed the most.

“The appeal is there is a lot of autonomy,” he explains. “You are more or less in complete control of how you train, when you train, whether you train, your goals.

“It is very easy to track if you are making progress. You have the weight on the barbell, and if it is going up you are doing better. If it is going down, maybe less so.

“There are fewer variables in the equation of what determines your performance compared to other sports.

“In team sport, you have lots of different players on the pitch and even if you do your best, you may not win if not everyone is doing their best.

“In a sport like boxing which is individual, you’ve got the other boxer and that is another variable which is hard for you to control.

“In powerlifting, there is a lot under your control. At the end of the day, if you can lift the weight, you can lift the weight. If you can’t, you can’t.

“I like that knowledge that I will determine my performance.”

University of Cambridge powerlifter Raghul Parthipan. Picture: Keith Heppell
University of Cambridge powerlifter Raghul Parthipan. Picture: Keith Heppell

Powerlifting also offers Parthipan the perfect balance with his studies.

He is studying a PhD in AI for environmental risks, which involves modelling and machine learning to improve global climate models.

“I’m part of the first cohort of a CDT – the Centre for Doctoral Training – for the application of artificial intelligence to the study of environmental risks,” says Parthipan.

“In essence, we’re trying to use machine learning and data science to use large environmental datasets to improve our scientific understanding of major environmental issues and figure out ways we can monitor and tackle them.

“One way to understand science as a discipline is to see it as the process where we build models of our physical world.

“We can then test these and make predictions. It’s a cyclical approach where we may model a process, then we can make predictions.

“You can update your model to reflect the deficiencies in it and to reflect new understanding. In doing so, you develop a better understanding of our world. I’m working on climate models.”

The PhD is concerned with using machine learning to improve the accuracy of climate models, without having the increase in computational cost.

They are two big parts of Parthipan’s life, and they offer a trade-off against each other – if something is not going well on the sporting side or there has been a poor session, then there is the academic side to make progress on, and vice versa.

“At Cambridge, I think it was extremely helpful to have another completely separate pursuit which you could really focus on and also make meaningful progress in,” says Parthipan, who first arrived in Cambridge to do an undergraduate degree in chemistry.

“I spent a lot of time doing it so socially it was very important, and I met a lot of like-minded people.

“I’m sure that doing sport only elevated my academic performance. I think you can’t study all day, you need to do something different.

“It gave me an opportunity to tune off, go to a different place and focus on something else – it was great for mental health and physical health.”

There has been support provided to Parthipan through the University of Cambridge Athlete Performance Programme, which has given access to physiotherapy, sports psychology, nutrition and strength and conditioning.

“They have helped me become a better athlete and the team themselves really care about you, and want to help you succeed,” he says.

University of Cambridge powerlifter Raghul Parthipan. Picture: Keith Heppell
University of Cambridge powerlifter Raghul Parthipan. Picture: Keith Heppell

Success for Parthipan will now be in the senior ranks.

Having been unable to compete in his final year as a junior in 2020 because of the pandemic, the objectives are slightly different.

“It’s a different arena. My short-term goals are to get back to the competition platform and hit some personal bests,” he says, with the current highs being 217.5kg in the squat lift, 145kg in the bench press and 227.5kg in the deadlift.

“Mid to long-term I would like to make the podium at British Universities again. In 2018 and 2019, I won British Universities in two different weight classes.

“It would be nice to go back to British Universities and get on the podium, and then represent Cambridge at the University World Powerlifting Cup.

“I would also like to represent Team GB in bench press again.”

With those ambitions in mind, then maybe Parthipan can return to Rocky for his inspiration: ‘Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up’.

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