Hani Watson’s father Charlie would often say to his daughter ‘focus on your superpower’.
Charlie’s superpower was as a bodybuilder. In his many hours training in the gym, young Hani would join him, doing curls and bench presses. She listened and learned and came to understand the discipline required to be the best.
“I learnt most of it through my dad until he passed away a few years ago,” Watson said. “I stayed in the gym because it was something I’d always loved doing.”
Watson also loved the name her father and grandfather called her. ‘Hannah’ was on her birth certificate but Charlie’s lineage was from the Pacific island nation of Niue and ‘Hani’ in Niuean Polynesian had a special meaning.
“‘Hani’ was to do with enjoying rain, being one with the water, which is something that I find very healing,” Watson said. “So I ended up adopting that name legally later in life.”
It’s pronounced ‘H -ah- ni’, not ‘H -an- i’ and it’s a name Australian sports lovers should get used to.
After taking up competitive powerlifting in 2018 and getting classified for Para-powerlifting barely a year ago, Watson announced herself with an Oceania record of 120 kilograms in the +86 kilogram category at the World Para-Powerlifting Championships in Georgia late last year. It placed her eighth in the world. It was her first international tournament and just her second ever Para-powerlifting competition.
At an event in February, Watson further improved her world standing and at the Para-Powerlifting Brisbane Classic on Saturday she will aim to ensure her passage to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July.
“I want to just keep competing and lifting my ranking until the rest of the world knows that there’s this female Aussie they should watch out for,” she said.
“It’s been such a quick turnaround and it’s going to be a big push with only two years until Paris. But I’m all-in.”
Watson had started with Powerlifting Australia in 2018 primarily, she said, because she’d had multiple surgeries to try and correct her legs. She was born with bilateral metaphyseal dysplasia, which bowed her tibia and femur bones at about 45 degrees.
“Each year for about six years they broke a leg, put it back together, plated it all up, but eventually they had to remove all the metal,” she said.
“When that all happened, I was doing powerlifting because it was a compound movement to try and get my bones to move and get stronger.
“I tried doing squats for a while but because the surgeries failed and my legs got worse I had to stop. Eventually, Simon [Australian Para-Powerlifting Head Coach Simon Bergner] said to me ‘Hang on, you’ve got a disability, can I help?’ He pointed me in the direction of Paralympics Australia, I was able to get classified and I was blown away. I thought, ‘This is awesome’.”
Bergner thinks Watson is awesome. He sees the Queenslander as someone he can build a new generation of Para-powerlifters around and get Australia back to the Paralympic Games for the first time since London 2012.
“She’s a very motivated athlete, has great discipline and takes advice on board,” Bergner said. “She’s really striving to be the best athlete she can possibly be. She’s come up in the world rankings at a very fast pace and has a lot of medal potential at the Commonwealth Games and then at Paris. When you get athletes like that, they’re great for teams and team building.
“We’re chasing gold. But I said to her at a training camp recently ‘Don’t just think Paris, we’ve got Brisbane 2032 coming up’. She said ‘But I’m getting old’. I said ‘Nah, you haven’t hit your peak yet, I’m telling you. You’re improving week-to-week, training session-to-training session’. It’s exciting.”
Bergner is familiar with Watson’s background. He said her father would sit at the dinner table and say, ‘We’ve got a barbecued chook and a couple of multivitamins’.
“She grew up around it from a young age and spent a lot of time in the gym with her dad, who was an awesome bodybuilder,” he said. “It’s made her really easy to work with because she knows the work you have to put in to get to a very high level.”
Watson said her parents never acknowledged her disability. They told her she should just do her best, regardless of obstacles.
“My Dad always told me, ‘focus on your superpower’,” she said. “Bench pressing has always made me feel empowered, especially as a woman.
“I want more females to know about doing bench press, I want more people who have a disability to focus on what they can do. You might not have good legs but you can do this. We should use fitness as a tool to help people’s mental health as well, especially in this climate.”
Watson’s positivity is infectious. Her mother would tell her she was a morning person and a night person, such was her energy. In the past two years the opportunities she’s earned have given rise to reflection, humility and gratitude.
“It’s kicked me up the backside, saying, ‘Here you go, kiddo, run with it’. It’s like winning the Lotto for me, to compete for Australia. I always wanted it but didn’t know I could do it.
“It’s about experience now and just making sure that I stay consistent. I want to bump my numbers up. I’m chasing top dog position at Paris 2024, so I want to be up in the top three in the world, where you’re benching over 150 kilos. So I’ll keep doing as many comps as I need to keep getting stronger and more experienced.
“Having failed surgeries… no matter what life throws at you, anything’s possible. Powerlifting is a long game, you have to stick with it and build up. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Watson hopes her story and approach inspires others.
“I’ve had lots of people reach out to me on social media saying they want to get into Para-powerlifting. I just want people to be their best selves and find out what their superpower is, whatever it may be. Find it and be great at it.”
By: David Sygall, Paralympics Australia
Posted: 21 April 2022