Thursday, February 05, 2009

Weekend America - Women Power Lifting

Very cool - women can be damn strong and still be, well, women. Very inspiring!

Women Power Lifting

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Faith Ireland
(Jeannie Yandel)
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Jeannie Yandel

This weekend a woman in Seattle is trying to lift 290 pounds. She's a former Washington State Supreme Court justice. And she's also a member of the best women's masters powerlifting team in the country. Masters means over 40 years old. In two weeks, Faith and the rest of her team will defend their title at the USA Powerlifting Women's Nationals in Miami. Jeannie Yandel explains how Faith went from being one of the most important judges in Washington to one of the best powerlifters in the country.

Faith Ireland's used to being a pioneer. In 1999, she was one of the first women on the Washington State Supreme Court. Before that, she was one of the first female superior court judges for King County - that's the county Seattle's in. Today, she's a different kind of trailblazer. She takes a deep breath as she lifts a 275 pound barbell off the ground and up to her hips. She exhales as she puts it back down on the ground. She's successfully completed a deadlift.

"That's the American record for women my age in weight", says Faith. "I hold that record, and I want to break it in this next meet. If I hit a personal best, you'll hear me jumping around and squeaking."

Faith Ireland is 66, about five-foot-three-inches, and 135 pounds. She looks healthy, but not overly muscular and veiny like you might expect. She discovered powerlifting by accident, literally.

"I was in a car wreck in 1983, and I spent 15 years in agony with my back," says Faith. "Then I actually had a juror talk about lifting weights to overcome back injury when he was talking with the lawyers about his back injury." Faith had tried lifting weights for her back before. But she was so inspired by what the juror said, she was determined to try again. She found a new trainer, a guy named Willie Austin. He was a powerlifting coach, so Faith hoped he'd push her to lift through her pain. Faith was 55 and in her first year on the Supreme Court when she started training with Willie. She was also 30 pounds overweight.

"Willie was the person who got me out of pain and strong and starting to lose weight, so I would do whatever he told me," Faith says.

What Willie told Faith to do was compete in a local powerlifting match. She didn't win, but she found she loved challenging her body that way. She entered women's nationals and lost again. But the experience galvanized her to get ready for next time. For many people, two losses would have been enough to make them stop powerlifting. But not Faith.

"I've never been a quitter," laughs Faith. "When I start something, I stick with it."

Sticking with it meant Faith had to perfect three moves. The deadlift, or pull, is what Faith did when she lifted that 275 pound barbell. There's also the squat, where you hold a barbell above your shoulders and slowly bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the ground, and then you stand back up. Then there's the bench press, or the push. That's probably the most well-known of the powerlifting moves. You lie on your back on a bench and push a barbell up from your chest and back down.

None of these moves are easy to do right. But everyone in Faith's gym stops what they're doing to cheer on another lifter during a tough push or pull. The place almost feels like a secret clubhouse. The gym's in the basement of an office building in downtown Seattle. It's not visible from the street. And you can't get in unless someone lets you in. Faith is an elite member of this club.

So is her teammate, Natalie Harmon. Nat looks like Justine Bateman - if Justine Bateman could deadlift 330 pounds. Nat has an unconventional method to pump up for tough deadlifts. "I get a kick out of a smack", she divulges with a smile. "If I'm pushing I'll smack my face. I'll often leave with a handprint on my leg."

Sometimes the person who smacks Natalie is the women's masters' coach, Todd Christensen. He's been a powerlifting coach for 25 years. And he first met Faith when she needed help putting on a bench shirt. That's a tight shirt powerlifters wear for support during the bench press. He was pulling it over her head, his hand slipped, and he smacked her upside the head.

"I thought, 'That's great, my introduction to the Supreme Court justice.'" Todd shakes his head and chuckles at the memory. "Then she looked at me and said, 'Look Todd, I'm tough. I'm not a…'" He stops and looks at me. "Are you gonna edit this?" he asks. I say yes, and Todd then uses a word for wimp we can't use here. "I'm like, 'That's great, you're my kind of gal,'" Todd says with a grin.

Todd's coaching made Faith more than a stronger powerlifter. The physical discipline and the concentration the sport requires made her a more focused justice. In 2005, after six years on the Supreme Court, Faith decided to step down. Justices are elected here in Washington State, and Faith did not want to go through another campaign. She says she doesn't miss being a judge, but she misses her colleagues at the Supreme Court. She's OK with that, though.

Faith smiles as she describes life with her new colleagues, her fellow powerlifters. "We get together at holidays, we get in tiffs, we have irritations. But there is a closeness. And they're my most immediate peer group, even beyond lawyers and judges. We're like family."

This weekend is Faith's last heavy deadlift workout before Women's Nationals. Next weekend, she'll gear up and work on heavy squats and bench presses. After that, she and her second family will back off the heavy lifting to rest up and heal before heading to Miami to defend their title as the best women's masters powerlifting team in the United States.


trustinspace said...

She is definitely integral and ahead of the game. I'm impressed.

Anonymous said...

Cool article, but I wasn't sure what you meant by "women can be damn strong and still be, well, women." You might not have intended it, but that comments seems to suggest a certain rigidly defined vision of femininity and also to play into the myth that SOME women who lift are man-like (which often discourages women from lifting heavy!)

The article also expresses surprise that a power lifter isn't ripped and veiny, which is somehow what a lot of people expect a woman who lifts will look like. That image comes from women bodybuilders at contest time -- but it takes extremely specific training,certain genetics, a relentless diet (and in some cases drugs) to get that look, and most women who lift don't and frankly can't look like that. In general, a good lifting program will help women to decrease body fat and increase bone strength -- two amazing benefits and not the ones people fear.

Anyway, just want to bust that myth. Plus it's fun to watch guys be shocked when you load up the bar!

william harryman said...

Hey TY,

Agreed, my bad phrasing. I daily fight the idea that women who are strong will not be feminine, so I totally get it. [In fact, just had that discussion with some women in my psych class last night.]

You're also right about the bodybuilding women, except the reality is that they are ALL on drugs, either to be big (steroids) or to be lean (various metabolism boosters, but not the legal kind).

I have women who squat their weight, bench nearly their weight, and so on, and I love when the men stare at them working out, not believing how strong they are.


Anonymous said...

Yeah,I love it when men take the weights I are using off the machine thinking I can't lift them...or rather I should say used to, because now I am weak. SO much for dating a personal trainer will make me stronger LOL -me