This weekend, I competed with myself. At a U.S. Powerlifting Association meet held at Surge to New Levels Gym in the Western burbs, I set three state powerlifting records in my age group and weight class.
Over the last six years, powerlifting has become a part of my life and lifestyle. I only returned to the gym in fall of 2016 because I need something to do. I enjoyed running but wouldn’t run during the winter. So I had to find a replacement for the endorphins to fight the winter blues–which were real for me.
At Mr. Bigg’s Gym on Chicago’s Southwest side, I met a group of powerlifters who welcomed me into their community. And I started to lift–with just the forty-five-pound bar.
Powerlifting, unlike weightlifting and bodybuilding, focuses on three exercises: squat, bench press, and deadlift. I feared the first and last lifts because of serious back issues about year before I started lifting. But my knowledgable trainer assured me if I used good form, I’d be fine. And I was.
So Saturday, I pushed myself and set three state records:
374.8 pounds on squat
248 pounds on bench
347.2 on deadlift
Beyond learning how to powerlift, I’ve learned a few other lessons that help me life.
We should always put up a good fight.
When I competed for the first time last year at an American Powerlifting Federation meet at 2XL Powerlifting Gym in Lombard, I walked in determined to squat over 400 pounds. I trained for months thanks to equipment I could access safely despite the pandemic. Mathematically, all the numbers added up. So I aimed for 407 pounds. I got stuck halfway up. Time froze while I fought the weight then let it go so the spotters could save me.
The same thing happened this time on the bench. The math said I should be able to bench 252 on my third and last attempt. Again, I got stuck. Time froze. I let the spotters save me. But the second attempt still set a record.
During moments when I must fight for myself, or someone else, or for a cause or an idea, I remember these powerlifting moments. And I fight until I can’t.
In any competition, it’s easy to compare ourselves to others–and feel incompetent. But for a 179-pound, 48-year-old Latino who started powerlifting a few years ago, these lifts mean success.
At last May’s APF meet, I aimed for a personal record on the bench: 259 pounds. On my third attempt, I had it! As I raised the bar, I thought, “I’m doing it!” But I forgot to listen to the judge’s signal to re-rack it. I realized my mistake the microsecond I heard the click. The lift didn’t count. I sat up, pounded my legs, yelled–then laughed. It lifted it–just not according to the APF’s rules.
This time, I followed through with all the judge’s cues on bench for two successful lifts. Even though this year’s lift is eleven pounds less than last’s year’s max, I succeeded in today’s context.
When I fight or advocate in other contexts, I remind myself that–like in my powerlifting moments–success doesn’t mean I win. Success means I did something that made a difference for me or someone else.
We must finish strong.
By the time the deadlift portion comes around in the late afternoon, I feel drained. But last year, after my bench mistake, I knew I needed the strength to lift a new max: 352 pounds. I did.
This year, while I deadlifted 355 pounds the previous Monday, I debated with myself during the one minute I had to tell the judges the weight for my final lift. Whatever I lifted would be a state record. I decided to play it safe and said, “157.5 kilograms–for the state record.” That’s 347 pounds. I needed to make my last lift.
As I waited my turn, I tried to feed off the energy of the crowd and other lifters who–at twenty-two to thirty years younger than me–were lifting much more weight.
Then a meet organizer came up to me: “What song do you want for your last lift?”
House music–of course! “Paul Johnson’s ‘Get, Get Down!” I said.
Because I started the deadlift attempts with the lowest weight, the lifter before me was the last in our group–and lifted a massive amount. So it would take a bit for the spotters to unload all that weight.
Meanwhile, the house beats dropped. “This is ME!” I yelled to my buddies. I tightened my belt and let the music lift me up. House music pounded all over the gym. My buddy shouted, “Damn, Ray! You got everybody goin’!”
When I heard the judge say, “Platform ready!” I walked out and saw the Black judge in front of the bar groovin to the beat. I pointed at her and said, “Yeah, you know!” She nodded.
I prepared, listened to my breathing among the applause and screams. I listened for the song’s hook. I lifted and I knew I had it. I could have lifted 355 pounds to that house music! But no regrets. I finished strong.
My buddy laughed that I timed the lift to the song. I did. When Paul Johnson hit the hook, I hooked the bar–and set my last state record of the day.
In those moments in life when I feel like I just can’t anymore, I remember to finish strong.
At this point, I don’t see myself giving up powerlifting. It’s become an essential part of who I am. Lifting changed the way I look, feel, and think.
In May, again, I compete.
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