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The strength to lift up Special Olympics athletes

By Anthony O’Brien


Jo Tarlton MIML is an extremely busy member of IML ANZ. For starters, Jo is the general manager of Eco Maintenance, one of Auckland’s few mid-sized companies dedicated exclusively to the provision of amenities maintenance services.

Away from the office, the indefatigable executive and mother is a successful powerlifter and a dedicated volunteer who supports Special Olympics athletes seeking to participate in powerlifting either recreationally or competitively.



Powerlifting is a sporting activity many of us may associate with eastern European Goliaths or a workout used by the hulking All Blacks to help them mercilessly maul the Wallabies. Yet representative New Zealand powerlifter Tarlton claims she didn’t have a particularly strong pedigree in sports or athletics until five years ago. “I played netball through college, and on and off socially for some years after that,” she says.

The Eco Maintenance GM also dabbled in gym workouts to stay healthy. However, it wasn’t until 2014 Tarlton dived into fitness, boots and all. “I started CrossFit in 2012 after having my second child the previous year and wanting to get back in shape.”

While getting in shape, Tarlton somehow found the time to start volunteering with Adaptive Athletes, a program run by Michael Hynard, founder of Functional Adaptive Movement (FAM). Adaptive Athletes uses functional exercise regimes such as CrossFit, according to Tarlton. “My fitness journey then evolved from CrossFit into powerlifting in 2016 and, as I love the sport so much, I now volunteer with Special Olympics athletes.”



The compassionate Tarlton says the motivation and inspiration for volunteering stem from the challenges faced by the Adaptive Athletes and Special Olympic weightlifters. “These athletes have a can-do attitude that is a breath of fresh air, and they sometimes think they can do absolutely anything! It can sometimes be a mission to hold them back from going heavier with weights when we are still trying to work on form.”

Tarlton tells of one athlete who is terrified of using a gym bench when undertaking the arduous bench press. Some weeks it takes multiple attempts to encourage this athlete to use the bench, Tarlton explains. “But he never gives up, and I never give up, and every week he does it. Then, the next week he comes back and faces the same fear again.

“A lot of able-bodied athletes would give up and just not do that exercise anymore because it was too hard.”

The massive achievements clocked up by the athletes who face myriad daily challenges motivate Tarlton to help. “Powerlifting is a marathon sport, and it takes much time to improve mobility, build muscle and make strength gains that translate into increased totals on the bar,” she says. “Watching these athletes build on all these aspects and then looking back to compare them from when they first walked in the door is amazing.”

Likewise, Adaptive Athletes demonstrate the same level of determination to improve. Tarlton explains, “From walking in the door with a lot of physical and mental limitations and having little in the way of a sporting or physical activity background, to being able to compete in a CrossFit competition is a massive achievement.”



Many managers and leaders are accustomed to being in charge and taking the reins, insists Tarlton. “Leading an organisation of 120 staff I am used to directing, creating the vision and making the calls so to speak.

“At the top, you often need to be the one that has all the answers and who drives the business forward while simultaneously dealing with different obstacles and setbacks that all businesses face, which can be mentally very tiring.”

In contrast, volunteering puts Tarlton into a situation where she is working with “someone else’s vision or program”. She adds, “You are just a cog in the machine, albeit a necessary one. This experience enables you, and at times forces you, to step back from a position of being the key decision maker for everything and gives you the opportunity to relax and enjoy being part of the process. It gives you a mental break which is invaluable when dealing with high-powered or pressured day-to-day business roles.”

Tarlton believes volunteering has improved her patience and self-awareness. “I am a pretty empathetic person, but in business, you sometimes need to be quite hard-nosed and take a ‘business is business’ approach, primarily as a woman leader in my industry. “Working with these athletes, you need to take an approach to see life through their eyes to be better connected and give them what they need, which is your reason for being there.”

Finally, for managers and leaders considering volunteering, Tarlton urges, “Just do it! Don’t make excuses, get out there and volunteer and give something back. What you get back from giving is tenfold.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 edition of Leadership Matters, IML ANZ’s quarterly magazine. For editorial suggestions and enquiries, please contact

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