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The Power of Lift

Updated: Mar 9

I attended an event this weekend and fell in love with a sport I know nothing about.

Like anyone who's raised kids/grandkids, I’ve been to plenty of tournaments and competitions over the years: lacrosse, soccer, football games, dance recitals, gymnastic meets, cheer comps - raising kids is rife with opportunities to stand on a field for hours, sit in a darkened auditorium, or in a large echo-shattering arena. But this was different.

Sequestered in a darkened room with a few hundred others, aglow in ambient red light, good music, good vibes - a bit of a theatrical atmosphere for a sports competition, it seemed.

My 21-year-old grandson, Luke Hirsch, a Phi Beta Kappa college student studying to be a physical therapist, was competing in a powerlifting event. I’d never been to an event like this before and had no idea what to expect.

I conjured up Bluto-like figures in spandex leotards on an elevated rotating platform holding up something heavy over their heads as spectators ohhh’d and ahhh’d in admiration of their impressive, muscular physiques. But that’s more like bodybuilding than powerlifting, I learned.

“What do you wear in these comps?” I wanted to know.

“A singlet,” Luke said. I thought he said “a sling” which conjured up other images – maybe I'd be seeing more of my grandson than I thought. But there he was on Saturday at ABC Sports & Fitness in Latham NY in a singlet, a form-fitting one piece garment which looks like shorts and T-shirt. Luke had trained intensely for 9 weeks at Legacy Fitness Club in Schenectady, where he works as a personal trainer, to prepare for this meet. An arduous regime.

Inside, the crowd looked pretty much like at any other event, an amalgam of Americana: puffy coats and knit caps, tight T-shirts and tattoos, branded sweats or jeans and nice sweaters. A few hundred spectators had gathered for the 5-hour "Rookie Ruckus 2" afternoon session, cell phones in one hand, coffee cups or water bottles in the other, CVS rewards cards on keychains, take-out containers on their laps, some carrying flowers or small gifts - it looked like any other high-spirited spectator crowd. But this was not like other sporting events I had attended.

Once the MC takes the stage, things move very quickly; like watching people trying to catch a train. The competitor’s name is announced, the equipment and weights are rapidly adjusted, a monumental choreographed task, managed by the spotters with the aplomb of prep cooks in a busy Michelin starred kitchen. The air oscillates with anticipation, loud music reverberates, and the lifter takes the stage, the next one waiting in the wings.

Each lift only lasts a few seconds, and as that bar inches up with incremental intensity, the cheers intensify too. The volume races from zero to 100 decibels as not only the competitor but also our cheers will the bar to go higher and higher. Passion-personified rapidly ricochets throughout that room, zip-lining between the audience and the athlete as one by one, the competitors pick up heavy things.

And these things are very heavy: I held my breath as my grandson approached an object that I would have walked around, carefully positioned himself, took a beat, and lifted something three times his weight.

“That guy can really lift!” excitedly extolled Gino, the Powerlifting Pirate emcee, garbed in a red sequined pirate outfit and bandana. Gino, formerly fluent in finance, not the high seas, doles out bits of education, instructions, and enthusiastic accolades from the podium with a staccato non-stop rhythm.

Powerlifting competitions include three lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift and each participant is afforded three attempts at each event, their highest weight in each event cumulatively equals their total. At this event, Luke’s total equaled 1,052 pounds, a personal record for him. I’m pretty sure that's how much my car weighs.

“What do you love about this sport?” I asked Luke, a former gymnast who also excelled at soccer and golf.

“Lifting all that weight gives you an adrenaline rush. And having all those people, everyone support you like that, it’s just a different type of environment. All positive energy, no real negativity in there.” And then, quietly, an afterthought, “Even if you fail and can’t complete your lift, people are still cheering you on.”

And that’s when I fell in love …

Everybody cheers for every single competitor. It doesn’t matter if it’s your husband or boyfriend, girlfriend, neighbor, coworker or third cousin up there or someone you’ve never met - everybody cheers for you.

It’s not often I’ve been in a place where everyone in the crowd supports each and every person that way. I wondered how it would feel if everyone at the Super Bowl cheered for anyone who caught the ball, no matter what.

“How is this different from other sports? I asked my grandson the next day.

“In every other sport, you basically don’t want anyone else to do well. You don’t want the other team to play well, but in powerlifting, everyone wants you to succeed and wants to see you lift the heaviest weight humanly possible.”

And that’s the difference.

As each participant steps up, the positivity meter in that room races from zero to a thousand in under four seconds. Everyone is pulling for you, and even if you fail, they cheer their hearts out anyway. I can’t remember being at a sports event where everyone was so well behaved, polite, respectful, engaged, and supportive - ever.

Here, no one yells at the refs, or screams at the other team, spits out obscenities, stamps their feet or throws a tantrum. Ill will, bad language and bad manners are not welcome here and those who do not abide will be escorted out.

Most of us have difficulty committing to a fitness routine and I wondered how he stays disciplined and motivated. For Luke, “The only person you’re ever competing against is yourself. For me and others, working out is a way to get away from everything else that’s going on in our lives and in the world, whatever it may be. What drives me is that I want to be better and better every day and see myself succeeding in ways that I never thought I could. The challenge is not only in picking up the weight, it’s really the mentality of getting in the mindset where you believe you can pick it up.”

Both physical and mental strength and training are required for a successful lift. And recent

studies show that resistance training has benefits for the mind as well as the body; resistance training may reduce anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem, sleep quality, cognitive functions and overall mood.

Powerlifting is a small, but rapidly growing sport. Jan Daurio, NYS co-chair of USA Powerlifting, is planning 30 events this year, up significantly from last year. Jan, a powerlifter himself, exudes enthusiasm. “I love it. I love the way it breaks down boundaries and stereotypes. Anyone can lift. The competition is just between you and the iron.” Jan hopes to grow the sport and encourages those involved to stay active in other ways besides lifting, as mentors, coaches, spotters, refs or in administration.

At the end of the event, two competitors, former Special Olympic powerlifters, were recognized in an emotional tribute. The air is buoyant with good will, affirmation and support: The Power of Lift.

Luke took a 1st and 3rd place at the awards ceremony that evening, and I'm already looking forward to the next powerlifting event. I’ll be sitting in the front row and along with all the others cheering loudly, helping to raise that bar for every single competitor on that platform.

More info about powerlifting here.

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