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More than Muscle: Atika Sikun, Redefining Feminine Strength Through Powerlifting

Most athletes strive to be the strongest - but not Atika Sikun for she strives to be the first, shattering glass ceilings in the world of powerlifting. Being the first female Category 2 referee in Malaysia and the first Southeast Asian Muslim woman elected by the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) Women’s Commission to regulate women’s rights in powerlifting, Atika has paved the way and inspired others, particularly those who share her background, to thrive in the sport. 

Shining brightly in a male-dominated field, Atika Sikun is a force to be reckoned with. Her accomplishments and how she manages them alongside a full-time job have piqued the interest of our Charisma Movement journalists.

Euan: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today, Atika. Let's jump right in. Can you tell us a bit about the powerlifting organization, specifically the one you're involved with?

Atika: Sure. The International Powerlifting Federation, or IPF, is probably the biggest name in powerlifting. They're also known for being very strict in competitions. Sometimes, I think their rulebook might be a bit too rigid – it can even discourage some lifters from competing.

But here's the upside: the IPF is one of the federations that's directly drug-tested by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is a big deal for ensuring fair competition.

Marsya: That makes sense. Now, within the IPF, how are things structured? Are there different roles for athletes and officials?

Atika: Absolutely. There are obviously the athletes, but there's also a whole network of referees who ensure everything runs smoothly and according to the rules. There are three levels of referees: the Malaysian Association for Powerlifting (MAP) National referees who can judge national qualifiers, Category 2 referees (they wear a blue blazer, tie and scarf!), and then the top tier, Category 1 referees (those are in red). Category 1 referees are qualified to be on the jury at a World Championship – they can even judge and potentially set new international records!

Marsya: Wow! How does someone become a Category 1 referee?

Atika: It's a long road, but definitely achievable. Once you become a Category 2 referee, you can take the exam to become a Category 1 after four years. But it's not just an exam – you also need to take practical tests on competition days, including written tests and a "return test" to make sure you retain the information. Plus, you have to referee at least four international championships within a four-year period.

Euan: That's a lot of dedication. How did you get involved in the refereeing side of things?

Atika: It really boils down to being active within the organization. That's how you hear about opportunities.  In my case, I was lucky – MAP was looking for a female representative on the refereeing team. Since I was already a woman involved in the organization, my President, Dato' Dayalan Jeevan, saw my potential and started getting me involved as a jury member and referee.

Atika as Assistant Meet Director at Sarawak Powerlifting Open 2023.

Marsya: Speaking of big developments, has there been any talk about powerlifting potentially becoming an Olympic sport? What can you tell us about that?

Atika: We’re definitely working in that direction. The aim is that powerlifting could be included in the Olympics. That will be a huge validation for the sport because some people still don't consider it "legitimate”. But first, we're preparing to introduce powerlifting at the upcoming SUKMA games in Sarawak. And currently, we’ve been getting traction from Hannah Yeoh, so that’s another good news!

Marsya: That's exciting news for the powerlifting community! Okay, just to clear up a common confusion: what's the difference between weightlifting and powerlifting?

Atika: (laughs) It all comes down to the movements! Weightlifting uses the snatch and clean & jerk, while powerlifting focuses on the squat, bench press, and deadlift. That’s how I usually explain to non-powerlifting folks. And a fun fact – the weightlifting sport emoji on WhatsApp is actually for weightlifting, not powerlifting!

Euan: We've talked about the structure of powerlifting organizations and the exciting news about the Olympics. Let's shift gears a bit. Is being a female referee in this sport a competitive field?

Atika: It definitely used to be. But things are changing! After we hosted the Asian Championships, people started to see the importance of having diverse representation among officials. I'm excited to see a shift happening – thanks in part to my qualifications as a referee. People take what I say more seriously now, and it's like a form of validation. For example, at competitions, lifters seek my approval on their form, and even my powerlifting friends message me for feedback. It's a great feeling, especially considering the historical male dominance in the sport.

Marsya: Speaking of that dominance, how did you, as a female hijabi, break through the stereotypes associated with powerlifting?

Atika: Being very involved in the powerlifting community has been key. I get to challenge those misconceptions head-on, like the idea that powerlifting makes women bulky or "manly”. Actually, some of the strongest female lifters I know are incredibly feminine! This sport actually helps you build a physique that allows you to wear clothes better – you develop good proportions that look great in feminine styles.  For me, powerlifting has definitely enhanced my femininity, not diminished it.

Euan: That's an interesting perspective. Does powerlifting change how you view female beauty standards?

Atika: Absolutely. A lot of people wouldn't guess that powerlifters are gym regulars based on appearance alone. I have a petite friend who holds a national record – her current SBD (squat, bench press and deadlift) total is close to 300kg! Powerlifting is all about raw strength, not necessarily aesthetics. That's more of a bodybuilding territory. Of course, with powerlifting, some aesthetic improvements come naturally. It's kind of a two-for-one deal. The strength training might be slow, but it helps you move better overall. Plus, having a good coach guiding your program helps prevent injuries, which is crucial.

Marsya: We've delved into your experiences as a female referee and how you challenge stereotypes. Now, let's talk about coaching, a crucial aspect of your success. You mentioned the importance of a good coach-athlete dynamic in your past interview. Can you elaborate on your relationship with your coaches?

Atika: I see my coaches as teachers. At first, I followed their instructions diligently. But as I learned more about the sport, I became more inquisitive with them during training sessions. They're fantastic because there's always a scientific reasoning behind every instruction they give me.

Euan: But it's a two-way street, right?

Atika: Exactly! You have to put in the same effort as your coach invests in you. It's also important to find someone who matches your energy level, someone you trust with your "externals" –  life events that can impact your performance, like a bad day, traffic jams, or even pet loss.

Marsya: Interesting concept, these "externals". Why is it important to have a term for them within the gym community?

Atika: It simplifies things. Most people at the gym are focused on their own workouts, so having a term like "externals" cuts down on lengthy explanations. It has also helped me manage my emotions better. By acknowledging these external factors, my support system, both at the gym and online, can offer help when needed.

Marsya: Here’s a curious question. What goes through your mind when you're lifting those weights under intense pressure and time constraints?

Atika: It's all about mindset. I focus on the idea that if I can conquer this weight now, I'll be able to lift even heavier in the future, or at least find the next session easier.  Another motivator is the science – strength training is proven to slow down osteoporosis and improve posture.

On her second deadlift attempt (120kg) at Johor Powerlifting Open 2024, organised by Johor Association for Powerlifting.

Euan: It's clear that powerlifting has opened doors to new knowledge beyond just physical strength. Have you ever considered becoming a coach yourself?

Atika: Definitely!  Last year was a turning point in my powerlifting journey, and I've set goals for the future. If I'm not married by 35, I'd love to start coaching, especially for hijabis. Gyms can be intimidating, and I understand that firsthand.

In the past, my old self wouldn't have dared to share weights with others during warmups. Now, I'm more comfortable approaching people at the gym –  it's a great feeling! It's all about self-perception.

Marsya: You mentioned being more driven by being "the first" than "the best."  Can you elaborate on that?

Atika: Of course. Being the first paves the way for others, whether as a referee or athlete. Powerlifting is still relatively new in Malaysia, so it operates as an NGO. Funding is tight when you’re the pioneer, and we rely heavily on volunteers who work for free, which isn't ideal. But we're fortunate to have dedicated and passionate young people who are eager to learn and contribute. As a senior, supporting and being kind to them is crucial.

Euan: That’s a good mindset to have. Okay, let's dive in on how your work and your passion for powerlifting intersect. How does your job at Shopee support your powerlifting journey?

Atika: Let's be honest – my career at Shopee is what funds my powerlifting. This sport isn't cheap. Just the basic equipment – belt, suit, wrist wraps, long socks, and shoes – can cost thousands of Ringgit. Without my day job, I wouldn't be able to compete.

But it's more than just financial support. Powerlifting has become my superpower at work, too. Sometimes, I face gender discrimination. In those situations, even though it shouldn't be necessary, mentioning my powerlifting achievements can help me gain respect from condescending colleagues.

On a more positive note, powerlifting has kept me in phenomenal shape. I can deliver long, energetic talks for hours without any back pain – a huge advantage in my role!

IPF-approved full meet equipment prepared for the competition.

Marsya: Interesting that you’ve mentioned making it as your superpower. Now I’m curious to know, what was your source of confidence before you discovered powerlifting?

Atika: I was always physically active – I tried Muay Thai and yoga before. But with each sport, I plateaued within the first two years. It felt like something was missing. Powerlifting is different. I can see myself constantly progressing, and there are so many directions you can go beyond being an athlete – referee, official, announcer, coach – the possibilities are endless.

Euan: With your busy schedule at Shopee, how much time do you dedicate to powerlifting each week?

Atika: I train for 2-3 hours, 4 days a week.

Euan: But balancing powerlifting with your lifestyle can't always be easy. Do you ever face any conflicts?

Atika: Of course! For example, during Shopee events, there might be a buffet spread, but I'm on a competition diet and need to control my calorie intake. To be respectful of the organizers, I do eat something. But then, I have to train even harder and adjust my meals to compensate for those extra calories.

Another challenge is building a lean physique for competition. Sometimes, that means chicken with every meal, day in and day out. It can get pretty boring!

Marsya: I can see how these can be of conflict. Alright Atika, just one last question for you. What drives you in life? And how has that shaped your approach to challenges?

Atika: My determination definitely comes from my childhood experience. I was bullied in primary school because my dad worked as a lorry driver for Alam Flora. One kid even threw my backpack in the dumpster. I didn't fight back, but that experience made me vow to never be that kind of person, and to raise my children not to be like one of them.

As I mature and able to see that life is a series of ups and downs, I learnt to hold onto the power of prayer and manifestation. Last year was a prime example. It was a great year for powerlifting, but I also faced external challenges – financial debt, work and relationship problems, and even my dad having a stroke that wiped out my savings. It was humbling and forced me to live within my means. Through it all, I kept showing up, even though it was incredibly hard. Luckily, the powerlifting community offered incredible emotional support.

Now, things are looking up. My manifestations and prayers seem to be coming true! I got promoted to the Women's Commission of the IPF, my dad's health is improving, I have a new car, and I'm even getting offers to guest-judge competitions overseas! In February alone, my powerlifting friends from Brunei, Qatar, the Philippines, and Singapore had their national championships and I was supporting them from afar. This year, I hope to referee at the World Championships in Lithuania and the Asian Championships in Uzbekistan. All the hard work is paying off.

My secret is to just focus on your positive attributes, like being reliable or having good communication skills. The more I practice this, the more good things seem to come my way. That's my attitude for life and work moving forward.

Atika made her core values and non-negotiables a screensaver on all of her devices as a daily reminder.

Atika Sikun's story is a testament to the power of perseverance, hard work, and a positive mindset. She is not only a rising star in Malaysia’s powerlifting arena, but also a role model who is breaking barriers and paving the way for others. We are genuinely excited about what the future holds for Atika. It was an honour to be able to meet and converse with such a striking character. Her journey is far from over, and we can't wait to see what incredible things she accomplishes next. To learn more about Atika or powerlifting in Malaysia, you can visit her Instagram here. On that note, don't miss Atika Sikun as she competes at the upcoming MAP National Championship on May 24th at Da Men Mall, Petaling Jaya! Everyone is welcome to cheer her on!


Marsya Mahfis,


Charisma Movement 23/24.

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