BYU student Kaija Bramwell had one last chance to fight for her spot to make the Junior Worlds team at the Senior Nationals Weightlifting Competition in April 2016. After two brutal weight cuts and a devastating competition, she was overworked and exhausted. Giving every ounce of energy she had, Bramwell lifted her best, but fell just short of qualifying for the Worlds team that year.
This blow pushed Bramwell to work harder. The opposition was fuel added to a fire that would soon ignite and help Bramwell reach her dreams of competing at the World University Championship.
Now, two and a half years later, Bramwell was the first 2018 overall gold medalist representing Team USA for the FISU World University Weightlifting Championship held in Biala Podlaska, Poland, on Sept. 20–23.
After her heartbreaking defeat two years ago, Bramwell decided to make some changes to her competition style. This included gaining the strength and muscle necessary to go up to a higher weight class than usual, according to Bramwell.
“I was stuck in a rut for a while. I decided to go up a weight class, get healthy and get strong,” Bramwell said. “I kept the bigger picture in mind and focused on improving who I was as a lifter one step — or rather — one rep at a time.”
A major influence for Bramwell during this transition and training process was her father, Eric Bramwell. Kaija said her father is the most influential person in her weightlifting career. He was there at every competition and always encourages her to keep going.
Weightlifting coach Spencer Arnold has watched Bramwell’s progress since she started as a youth in the sport. A year ago, he began working with her to help her reach her goals as a weightlifting competitor. Arnold said Bramwell has what it takes to go far.
“Her strength is clearly her tenacity. She has a knack for rising to the occasion. She’s aggressive and focused. I love athletes like this that sometimes I have to calm down rather than amp up,” Arnold said.
Bramwell’s daily training routine was more jam-packed than the average athlete, with lifting, school and work. As the World Competition crept closer, Bramwell chose to go to Georgia and train full-time with her coach and team at the beginning of summer 2018. She was there for a few weeks getting as much personal coaching as possible in preparation for Worlds.
Once returning from Georgia, Bramwell didn’t seem to stay in one place. She participated in a summer internship and chose to work throughout her time off school, always planning her schedule around her training sessions.
“Due to the lack of time, I only got to train once per day, six days a week. Previously I would train six days a week, with three of those days training two times a day,” Bramwell said. “Once the semester started I would go to work, class, lift, back to work or class, and eat and sleep between all of that.”
Meikel Reece, the executive assistant to BYU football coach Kalani Sitake and Bramwell’s manager at work, also played a huge role in Bramwell’s growth. Bramwell said Reece is her “life coach or mentor.”
Reece always took note of Bramwell’s focus and determination during this training period.
“Working in a football setting, I am used to seeing students work in a team, motivating each other and keeping one another accountable. That is easy compared to what she does,” Reece said. “She doesn’t miss a lift or a shift, she is so focused and self-motivated. There’s not a parent or a coach there pushing her.”
Bramwell’s favorite piece of advice she relied on while preparing for the World Competition was from Reece: “Know who you are and live in the moment.”
Bramwell was in disbelief the day she won gold at the World University Championship. Not only did she make it there, but she proved she was the best.
“When I got to Poland, my body still felt pretty good after all the travel. The start list was not even released until two days before I competed, so during all of my training I had no idea where I was ranked. I just focused on what I needed to do — just lift,” Bramwell said.
Bramwell had a goal during the competition to execute each lift and trust what weights the coaches decided should be on her bar. It paid off.
“The moment I was standing on the podium watching the American Flag rise, I realized what I had actually done. The sacrifices were finally worth it. I not only medaled, but I became a champion,” Bramwell said. “I was overwhelmed with gratitude for what it took to get there. I knew I put in the work to get there but to be standing there on the podium was surreal.”
Arnold knew Bramwell had a great shot at placing and wasn’t surprised by her win.
“She earned every bit of that total. We knew she had a good shot going into the competition, and I knew she was prepared to do it. I was just really happy for her. She deserved it,” Arnold said.
Qualifications for Worlds include placing first or second in each designated weight class at University Nationals, being under the age of 25 and currently enrolled or working toward a college degree. All athletes competing are in the same demographic, according to Bramwell.
Even after such a victory, Bramwell still sees this as only a step in the right direction and plans to do bigger and better things with the sport.
“Qualifying and competing at Worlds has always been an expectation. The first year I competed in this sport was to Youth Worlds. From there I’ve been on several Youth, Junior and now University level world teams for Team USA. This year was just the next step,” Bramwell said.
Arnold also sees the Olympics in Bramwell’s future.
“As she finishes up at school, she will have some choices to make, but she is certainly in the top tier of the talent pool for USA Weightlifting. I expect her to continue making World Championship and Pan American teams and representing Team USA, potentially taking a shot at the Olympics within the next four to six years,” Arnold said.
Bramwell said her personal goals are to “continue getting stronger, more efficient and qualify for Senior International Teams.”
Her weightlifting journey may not be stopping here, but Bramwell’s return to Worlds was a feat she will never forget.
“The last time I competed internationally I was a disappointment. This time I put in the work to come this far and it paid off,” Bramwell said. “For me, it was redemption.”
Although Bramwell doesn’t see the Olympics in her immediate future, she sees it as a “big picture” goal — one she has worked toward throughout her athletic career.
“The Olympics won’t be for at least six years, so I wouldn’t consider myself an Olympic hopeful yet,” Bramwell said. “Right now, I’m taking one step at a time, but making it to the Olympics has always been one of my goals since I started.”