Northern Ireland’s strongest man opens up about his toughest challenge

Rory Girvan competing in the Tough Mudder event
Rory Girvan competing in the Tough Mudder event

Rory Girvan is at the top of his game as the current All-Ireland Powerlifting Champion - but the Belfast man has been through many dark days with depression. Here he tells Graeme Cousins how exercise and strength training helped him cope with this debilitating mental illness.

Belfast man Rory, who refers to himself as the former overweight depressed guy, is the current All-Ireland Powerlifting Champion who founded one of Belfast’s most respected strength coaching gymnasiums - HENCH.

But how did this transformation come about?

“I was pretty active when I was at school,” he said. “I got into strength training as a teenager and really loved it.”

However a lot of things changed when Rory went to university.

He studied Biomedical Science in Liverpool before moving on to study Exercise Science in Edinburgh.

Rory said: “When I was in Liverpool I fell victim to the student lifestyle. The training stopped and the weight started to pile on. I was living like my peers but I wasn’t one of those people whose body could adapt. Their bodies showed none of the toll while I just got fat, and my health began to suffer.

“That was a time when mental illness was worst for me. I had severe depression but didn’t even understand at the time what it was.

‘‘I didn’t realise but the strength training I’d been doing had been modulating my condition. When I stopped training and living well, that’s when the depression really hit hard.

“It was in Edinburgh that I learned more about depression after being diagnosed, and I then made the conscious decision to re-engage with my passion.

“I weighed almost 106kg, unrecognisable from the person I was in my late teens who loved training - in a dark place physically and mentally.

“Every area of my life was hanging on by a thread and I felt overwhelmed. The gulf between my expectations as a teenager and reality grew deeper each year.

“The pain of where you’re at has to become less than the pain it’s going to take to change your current circumstances.”

Thanks to his reinvigorated passion Rory not only tackled his weight issue but also made inroads into his depression. He did his first powerlifting competition at the Scottish Open in 2008.

But it wasn’t to prove an easy journey, more stresses in Rory’s life were to bring about another dark time for him.

He explained: “After Edinburgh I came home to Belfast, working in Strength and Conditioning and Applied Exercise Physiology in professional sport to getting graduate job in the hopes of learning more about business. I thought I was going to be a high flying graduate. I ended up spending the majority of my time making cold calls for a company.

“However I worked as hard as I could, and played the office martyr, first in, last out. I was pushing things so hard that psychological stress of it all manifested itself as adult chicken pox... shingles.

“Ultimately I wasn’t happy with life.

“Things got worse around Christmas 2011 and I took time off work. I couldn’t get out of bed and I ended up losing that graduate job because of depression.

“For someone that age it was like my world caving in. I can remember the letter I received which questioned my credibility. I was so angry.”

Ever the competitor, Rory turned this anger into something constructive.

He said: “I stopped compromising on my dreams, followed my passion and I opened HENCH in 2012, the first dedicated group strength coaching gym in the UK and Ireland.”

HENCH gym has gone from strength to strength while Rory has done the same, being crowned Overall All-Ireland IPF Powerlifting Champion and Overall Northern Ireland IPF Powerlifting Champion, one of two titles which he currently holds and is one of the most decorated Irish strength athletes ever.

He’s a member of the Ireland team going to Texas in June for International Powerlifting championships, which will be the first time in history an Irish Team has attended the event.

Rory now competes in the under 93 category and his strength in relation to his weight means that pound for pound he’s the strongest man in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

The governing body of the discipline that Rory’s competes in is the largest in the world and upholds a strict no drugs policy, so all the athletes you see have sculpted their physiques solely through hard work and dedication.

Rory said: “A big problem with fitness is the culture of aesthetics at all costs - characterised at the extreme end by extreme drug use in past times like Bodybuilding. Higher profile figures in the fitness industry need to be cognisant of the example they are setting. It’s my belief that real fitness needs a foundation of strength, built on good health and well being. This is fitness with a real world application, the stuff that builds true confidence.”

Rory has received the 2015 Ulster Bank Enterprise Business award and has been made a Mental Health Ambassador for Niamh Wellbeing.

The 30-year-old said: “Although working harder than ever, this is the happiest I’ve ever been. I’ve learnt to modulate my condition by applying what I have learned. There’s no such thing as being ‘cured’ of mental illness, but I’m staying on top of it thanks to the changes I’ve made to my lifestyle.”

Speaking about why the charity brought Rory Girvan onboard to act as its ambassador for male wellbeing, Professor Peter McBride, chief executive of Niamh (the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health) said:

“Here at Niamh we know only too well through our mental health and counselling services that men are just as likely to experience mental ill-health as women, yet they are often reluctant to admit they need help.

“I can think of no better an example of a ‘strong man’ than Rory. In his capacity as our ambassador for male wellbeing, Rory is a positive role model to other men out there who may be struggling with their own mental or emotional wellbeing.

“As an ambassador for Niamh, Rory is really helping to draw attention to the issue of male mental health here in Northern Ireland, and as Northern Ireland’s Powerlifting Champion he is a great example of physical and mental wellbeing going hand-in-hand.”