How is it that a young woman who used to walk five miles roundtrip to campus to avoid sitting on a dirty Boston bus found herself participating in a sport where competitors cover themselves liberally with chalk, baby powder and toaster pastry crumbs to make their lifts? After training for nine months, I made my powerlifting debut at the June 2013 World Association of Benchers and Deadlifters’ national championship. I heard my coach’s voice in my head, “The minute you think you can’t do it, you’ve already failed the lift.” After shoving my fourth Pop-Tart of the day in my mouth, I carefully ran the chalk over my palms one last time before going out to the podium and using each of my 109 pounds to deadlift 200 on the bar. Making that lift won me a trophy, but, more importantly, it allowed me to redefine myself as something I never thought I could be: an athletic woman.
Notre Dame was the site of my Great Athletic Awakening. When I arrived at Notre Dame in 2004, I remember hearing a statistic that something like 85 percent of students played a sport while in high school. I was one of the 15 percent and hideously aware of my absent athleticism. Here were people who did sports for fun! Nobody’s parents were there confiscating their books and forcing them to go outside and play, as my own did in an attempt to get me moving. It was not so much that I was lazy as that I didn’t get the point. Reading a book had a point — get to the end. Throwing a Frisbee around? Not so much. Besides, I did not want to get grass stains on my skirt.
As an impressionable freshman, I decided I wanted to join the 85 percent of my classmates who were seasoned athletes. I channeled the same self-discipline that I approached my coursework with toward my running. I was losing weight and began receiving compliments. But I had a completely distorted understanding of exercise. I became a slave to my workouts, increasing from 30 minutes a day to an hour, and then to two hours. I stopped eating as much and then stopped eating altogether. This went on for the next nine years, when I was too tired and too emaciated to pursue anything close to an athletic lifestyle. I continued to exercise but never achieved anything close to real strength gains.
In 2012, newly married and infinitely fed up with the eating disorder, I promised God, my husband and myself that I was going to claw my way out of anorexia permanently.
The single most important component to my success was recalibrating my relationship with exercise. I wanted to rebuild my body into something strong, powerful and functional. Powerlifting, a sport focusing on the bench press, squat and deadlift, appealed to me because it nothing to do with aesthetics; it all came down to whether or not you could lift that weight.
I found my trainer, Jake, a seven-time world champion at the age of 21, through my local gym. The first time we met, he put a barbell in front of me and put two 15-pound plates on either side, for a total of 75 pounds. I picked it up easily. He added a little more, and I deadlifted my own bodyweight at 95 pounds. No problem. I stalled at 115 pounds. He told me that if I did what he instructed in terms of lifting, eating and sleeping, I could be a real contender in the powerlifting world. Over the following months I slowly restored weight, gaining a total of 15 pounds, and watched my lifts go up as well.
In the 10 weeks leading up to the meet, I woke up at dawn and drove over to Jake’s house, where his father, Steve, helped us prepare for the meet. My warm-ups in his backyard including flipping a log across the grass, performing lunges with a PVC pipe, carrying a rusty barrel and sprinting with his little dog, Rex, at my heels.
Some mornings I was off, and my lifts were terrible. But the mornings when I made new personal records were exhilarating, and I rode the high of my accomplishment for the rest of the day. The first time I deadlifted 195 pounds, I committed that feeling to memory. All it took was grabbing the bar and pulling. “Pull and don’t stop pulling until you get the bar up,” Jake instructed me.
Jake’s work conflicted with the day of the meet, so Steve acted as my coach. When I slipped on my singlet, I expected to feel ridiculous. It is, after all, not the most glamorous piece a young woman can choose to wear. Instead, however, I felt empowered. I was just like anyone else there, prepared and ready to compete.
In the warm-up area, I admired the body and age diversity of powerlifters. Entire families competed, helping strap each other into their lifting belts or sliding baby powder on their legs to help the bar glide up more easily. I chalked my hands repeatedly, while mainlining Pop-Tarts for energy. I wasn’t the only one; the simple sugars provide the necessary release of energy competitors depend on to make their lifts. I briefly paused to consider how a year ago I would not have allowed a toaster pastry in my house, let alone in my body. And here I was snarfing them down like vitamins.
A lifter has three chances. The first lift is a number you can do on any given day, building your confidence. The second is one you have done before but is quite challenging. The third is a number you have never lifted and will be a new personal record for you. For deadlifts, I started with 181 pounds, followed by 192. When I started training with Jake, we set 200 pounds as the ultimate goal, but we both knew it was an ambitious one.
I stepped out on the podium, hearing the judge yell, “C’mon Jessica, you’ve got this! You’ve got this!” I’ve got this, I thought to myself. Spreading my feet out in the wide sumo stance I favored, I took several deep breaths to puff up and brace my core. Keeping my eyes straight ahead, I reached for the bar, gripping it tightly, and starting the pull. This one wasn’t coming so easily, and I felt myself grinding it up but not yielding. I locked it out at hip-level before the judge said, “Drop it!” The crowd was cheering, but what I remember most is running giddy with achievement off the stage to hug Steve.
Powerlifting taught me how we have the power to write and rewrite our own truths. I had spent so many years rooting my identity in being a strong-willed, hyper-disciplined person, but I was actually just really good at breaking myself down, bullying myself into starving and self-denial.
I do not think it is a coincidence that my training coincided with my decision to leave my Ph.D. program, a path I’d always been ambivalent about, to start my own business. Powerlifting showed me how to stop being so afraid. To go after my goals the same way Jake taught me how to go after a big lift — with full confidence in my strength.
This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.