September 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Emily Mwaja places her hands on the bar, making sure her grip was is right. She plants her feet. It’s time. Time to set a new world record.

Lifts of  264 lbs…286…293…and, finally 301 lbs.  followed. She had dead-lifted almost three times her body weight. And she had broken her own record.

Emily Mwaja stands all of 5’4.”

The pint-sized powerhouse came to the United States from Kenya when she was a young girl and (in 2001) to Omaha to attend Bellevue University. She received her degree in education and science in 2004.

Mwaja had always been a runner, but when her knees began to object she shifted her fitness regimen to the YMCA. It was there that she first encountered dead lifting.

“I thought, ‘Oh that’s interesting,’” Mwaja says, “because some of the lifters looked really big and masculine while others were just…normal guys. But all were lifting really, really big weights.”

She began doing her workouts near the men, mimicking their actions. Her efforts were noticed by gym-mate and trainer John Jones, who asked her to deadlift with him.

“I needed someone to tell me what to do in the gym,” she says, “and he didn’t have to tell me twice. I warned him right away that I didn’t want to look like a bodybuilder. I told him I just wanted to be…strong!”

She soon graduated from lifting a mere 45 lbs. to a weight of 225 lbs. with ease. Jones encouraged her to enter competitions.

Strong she became, winning first place in the 123 lbs. weight class with a 286-lbs.-lift at the World Championships in Las Vegas in 2013.

“I’m very competitive,” Mwaja adds, “but it’s really mind over matter when you are lifting.”

That same intensity and commitment carried her from a seasonal position with Girls Inc. to the title of program director. Now she works with girls in winning the national organization’s affiliate awards and, just like her deadlifting, Mwaja is always out for gold.

“I will see another affiliate is recognized and I’ll tell my boss, ‘We gotta get on this! We have to make this happen!’ And she’ll tell me, ‘Emily, we can’t do everything,’ ‘But we can do almost everything,’ I tell her.”

Sizing up the competition, it would seem, is a key to her success both in the gym and with her girls.

“I’ll see a woman from Canada is the current record holder,” Mwaja explains. “She lifted 296. Okay, I can do 296. I can do more. That’s my drive. I tell myself I’m gonna put up 300.”

Mwaja now has 19 trophies, most residing in her office at Girls Inc.

“Some of the little girls ask if I won those in math or something like that. I just laugh and tell them, ‘No, I’m really strong.’”

Just like she hopes her Girls Inc. kids will be in all of life’s challenges—strong.

Emily-Mwaja1

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