Powerlifters build comradery through competition
Weightlifters from their teens to their 80s grunted and groaned through a national powerlifting championship in the Brophy Hall gym at Western Illinois University.
For the most part, those grunts and groans were drowned out by the cheering. And even though it was a competition, the loudest cheers for each lifter came from those they were going up against.
“When you step on that platform, you are competing against your own demons and your own stuff,” said Charla Wrenn of Good Hope.
“And when you succeed at whichever lift you do, you succeed. You can succeed in life, and then you can face other challenges that come your way.”
Wrenn is the Illinois State Chair for the group that sponsored the event – the American Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation.
The non-profit organization said it formed to provide all amateur athletes with legitimate drug-tested powerlifting. Results from the ADFPF Single Event Nationals at WIU can be found here.
Wrenn began lifting when one of her sons wanted to get stronger for playing football.
“He’s only 5’4” and 120 pounds dripping wet. He figured even if they could pick him up and take him to the end zone, that he would put up a fight on the way,” she said.
Her son started going to the Salvation Army gym in Macomb, and Charla was his ride, which eventually led to the gym’s Judy Gedney showing Charla how to use the equipment and encouraging her to give it a try.
“Then a couple of my other kids started coming in. They said, ‘C’mon mom, come over.’ And so I started bench pressing,” she said.
Now Wrenn is a veteran at powerlifting, with a dozen years of competing.
Wrenn encourages others, especially women, to try the sport. She said it helps your posture, cardiovascular health, bone health, and it increases your confidence level.
Tim Piper of Macomb called powerlifting a pure strength sport, and said every competitor has their own sequence of things they think about as they walk onto the platform and prepare to lift.
He said some are complex, while others are pretty simple.
“Myself, I clear my mind of everything else. I don’t even hear noises around me. I don’t really focus on anybody else’s information or what’s going on. I really kind of zone out during the lift. Once it’s over, I’m back to reality, I guess,” he said.
Piper teaches exercise science at WIU and volunteers with the Salvation Army lifting team to coach the athletes.
He brought the championship event to Macomb and worked to organize and promote it. He also competed as a lifter and helped judge.
But Piper said perhaps the busiest people of the day were the ROTC students from WIU who helped out. They spotted each lifter to ensure no one got hurt.
In addition, they were responsible for loading and removing weights from the bar between competitors. They worked like a pit crew at the Indy 500 to make the changes quickly and keep the event moving along.
Piper said the ROTC crew lifted the most weight during the course of the competition.
“They load every plate on and off the platform every single time. They have done thousands and thousands of pounds of movement,” he said
“It’s probably approaching somewhere around six or seven, maybe even approaching ten tons of total weight moved today by the ROTC crew.”
Piper said he uses the ROTC members because they follow orders well, they’re on top of everything, and they know what they’re doing.
As for the competitors, they all wear pretty much the same uniform – a singlet, liked a wrestling singlet. Piper says that makes the judging consistent and easier.
The family that lifts together
Piper is part of a powerlifting family. His wife Dawn and their daughter Whitney also competed.
Dawn Piper is a yoga instructor and yoga therapist. She said powerlifting and yoga complement each other, and she uses the principles of yoga in her lifting to take care of her body.
She said powerlifting it about both strength and technique.
“There’s a mind game that comes in as much as there is a physical aspect of it. You have to have the right attitude when you approach the bar,” she said.
Like others, Dawn Piper said lifters are competing against themselves more than others.
“There might be other people in your weight class. There might be other people that you’re going against. But we are so supportive of each other because we know how hard it is to do this stuff,” she said.
Dawn said it’s not for everybody, but if you want to challenge yourself and learn some good technique and do it safely, powerlifting is a pretty good way of doing so. She said there is an art to it, and you learn how to get your body into a good position before you pull.
She also said powerlifting teaches resilience, and no matter if you’re young or old, if you start training and keep at it, you can push through hard times and gain strength.
“And that is mind, body, and spirit,” Dawn Piper said.
Lifting for life
Keri DeVolder of Macomb started lifting when she was 15.
DeVolder is now 21, and she tries to get everyone she knows to lift.
“It’s so fun. There’s a big sense of comradery. I’ve seen so many lifters that come into our gym and they gain so much confidence in themselves through gaining their strength. It’s just a really positive environment to be in,” she said.
DeVolder is a senior at WIU in the speech pathology and audiology program. She hopes to become a speech language pathologist and work in schools, especially with special education students.
DeVolder took time off from lifting when she got busy with classes. The meet at WIU was her first one since she resumed training, and she hopes to lift for the rest of her life.
“It’s a great time and a great environment to be in,” DeVolder said.
Tri States Public Radio produced this story. TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.