“When I went to my first competition aged 17, I had my twin older brothers with me – they’re quite well built – and the referees automatically asked them, ‘Are you two looking to compete today?’” Such interactions are why Karenjeet Kaur Bains is keen to break down barriers and challenge assumptions.
“I’m proud of where I’ve come from, being the first British Sikh female to represent Great Britain, at the World and European Championships, placing in the top 10. We don’t see many women from my background or minority backgrounds doing strength sports, because often they’re fed the narrative that girls don’t do this kind of thing; they should be focusing on their studies. It’s about inspiring the next generation.”
If you can see it, you can be it, the saying goes, and as a female Sikh powerlifter, Bains is passionate about encouraging women, and particularly women from minority ethnic backgrounds, into sport. The Commonwealth Games is just getting under way in Birmingham and while Bains will not be competing (powerlifting isn’t currently an Olympic sport), she will be doing her bit to promote the benefits of sport for everyone.
For those unfamiliar with powerlifting, there are three distinct disciplines: the squat, where you hold the bar on your back, squat down to below parallel and then stand back up; the bench press, where you lie on a bench with the weight on your chest, pause and then press; and the deadlift, where you just pick up the weight from the floor. Bains can squat about 150kg, deadlift 175kg and bench press 97.5kg – not bad for someone who weighs about 65kg. Aged just 26, Bains has an impressive trophy cabinet: she is reigning Commonwealth powerlifting champion, winning three gold medals in the squat, deadlift and overall, as well as two silver medals in the bench press and bench press only competition; she came sixth at the World Bench Press Championships in Lithuania, last year, and recently won the All England Bench Press Championships.
Sport is in Bains’ blood, it seems. “I’m trained by my dad – he got me into powerlifting at 17, but I did athletics for 10 years before then,” says Bains. “It’s a very kind of homegrown story. I train at my home gym at the bottom of the garden, it’s got all the weights and machines. My dad’s an engineer and created it all by hand. He’s also a former bodybuilder.” Her twin older brothers were 400m hurdlers at national level as teenagers, and her mum has been getting in on the act too: she didn’t pursue sport until she was in her early 40s, but as a masters athlete, she won five golds and four silver medals at the Warwickshire Athletics Championships in track and field. “Now I’ve got her into powerlifting and I reckon she could do pretty well. She’ll probably win a World Championships medal quicker than I will!”
Bains joined KPMG as part of their school leavers programme, gaining a degree in accounting at Durham University, studying for her ACA and working in audit. “It was very structured,” she says. “I knew what my goals were: I wanted to become qualified, I wanted to get a first in my degree, and I wanted to achieve in my sport. In 2019, my final year of university, I was also training for the World Championships in Sweden, my first time representing Great Britain. It was hard to balance everything.
“I’m very proud of that ACA,” she continues. “I worked damn hard to get it! And I didn’t just sail through it. I’ve had to resit exams, and there were a few I just scraped through. It taught me good lessons about perseverance.”
After six years with KPMG, Bains decided it was time to move on. “I took a little gap, just to have a break from the long hours I’d been doing over lockdown. I’d achieved what I wanted in the sense of being ACA qualified and working up to assistant manager. Now I’m a business planning and finance manager for a small company in the arts and culture sector called People Make It Work. They drive change in galleries, theatres, etc, promoting leadership change, making these organisations more diverse.
“I kind of fell into it. I was speaking at an event they were doing, talking about my corporate experience and my sporting achievements. I spoke to the boss, Richard – I liked his attitude so I sent him my CV and said, ‘I’m on a career break now but if there’s anything you think I can do, let me know.’ He said his finances needed an overhaul, so here I am. It’s more flexible. It’s four days a week. So I’m still able to do other things.”
Bains has also recently launched an online coaching app offering bespoke training programmes and nutrition, and is looking to start delivering tailor-made corporate packages, to help companies look after their staff. “I think it’s important as a professional to have a work-life balance for your mental and physical health, you need the feel-good endorphins of exercise. Because I’ve lived that life myself, I’m well placed to advise people to take care of their health.”
“Back when I started powerlifting not so many girls did it. It’s really growing now which is fantastic to see,” says Bains. “When I went for my first interview at KPMG I brought along a newspaper clipping of me being British champion at the time to try and impress the partner who was interviewing me. He seemed surprised when he realised I was the powerlifter. I think it’s nice to have that different side of you, like an accounting kind of Clark Kent. It should be celebrated.”
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