Beyond Strength: Powerlifting at Knox College

The word “powerlifting” sounds intimidating. If you search the word on Instagram, you will find massive, muscled-up people shouting through maximum efforts in gyms all over the world. It is intense. Intensity is part of the fun of a powerlifting event, but when done well, it can be far more valuable than that.

On February 9, Knox College paired with the nonprofit organization Good Athlete Project (501c3) to host the Prairie Fire Powerlifting meet. Knox College lifters were joined by athletes from University of Illinois, McKendree University, North Park University, and Northeastern Illinois University. 22 athletes from colleges across Illinois competed in the coed event in the E & L Andrew Fitness Center on the Knox College campus.

In addition to high-level competition, the meet doubled as a fundraiser. The proceeds supported the international work of the Good Athlete Project, which was founded by former Prairie Fire football player, Jim Davis (’06). The Good Athlete Project acknowledges athletics as a powerful platform for all sorts of education, including the development of psychological skill sets and leadership capacity. The work of the Project takes Davis, fellow Knox alum Alex Nadolna (‘14), and a team of dedicated educators around the world (to places like Boston, Ireland, and Haiti), but in February, it brought them back home.

“It is so good to be back here [at Knox]. The culture of strength that Andy is creating is exceptional,” said Davis. “Half of the lifters from Knox had storylines like ‘I barely knew how to squat a few months ago’ and yesterday they had not only the strength, but the technique, and also the confidence to participate in a powerlifting meet – things are moving in a great direction, and it’s exciting to see.”

Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Andy Gibbons coached Davis in college and has built the Prairie Fire Strength and Conditioning program from the ground up. The powerlifting meet is another step in that process.

Annie Gerdes from Knox enjoyed the experience saying, “It gave me a chance to see where my strength has come in the last couple of months. It was exhilarating, I would be mid-lift and people were screaming for me to get there. I got two PR’s and it was only because people were cheering me on.”

It is comments like those which begin to highlight the true power of powerlifting, when it is done well. Gerdes played soccer at Knox – a team which has been extremely successful in recent years, winning three consecutive Midwest Conference Championships – but she is coming off of a significant knee surgery. She found out about the meet during her recovery and though she was initially skeptical, she found comfort in the process of strength training, and slowly watched her numbers rise. In the right environment, and with a healthy mindset, powerlifting can be wildly empowering.

It is moments like those where actual life lessons are learned.

Rijad Pekmez, who won the Bench Press division with a massive 370lb paused press, said that “there’s so much more than just lifting going on here. There is support all around, you can see people building confidence and character. Not all meets are like this, but you leave the good ones feeling like you’re on top of the world.”

The event was intentionally filled with additional learning opportunities. For example, lifters were asked to consider the qualities they tapped into when exerting full effort, and consider how they might apply those qualities to the rest of their lives. “Was it grit? Was it resilience? Which of those will translate to academics? Which character trait on display today can you use in your professional life?”

Though competition and moving big weight is important, the event went beyond strength, teaching the life lessons we so often hear about in sports.

There are few places where life lessons occur so cleanly as powerlifting. Whereas in other sports the opposition, the referees, perhaps the weather all play big factors, in powerlifting they are controlled. There are two variables: you, and your training. A powerlifter trains hard, works on his (or her) technique, recovers appropriately, and shows up the next day to do it again. The process works. At the end of that road, there is growth. And on the day of a meet, the lifter puts that growth on display. It can be one of the most empowering moments in sports.

Tyler Podwojski, a graduating senior for Prairie Fire football team, has learned to be proud of his athletic experiences stating, “There is so much more to take away from athletics than just exercise and competition. I think some of the lessons I have taken from sports are the most important learning experiences of my life, especially the ones at Knox. I am extremely grateful to [Andy Gibbons] for the time he invests in us as athletes. It is really motivational to have a coach believe in you like he does.”

Quinn Sharp, another graduating senior from the Knox football team, won the event by accumulating the highest Wilkes score (a formula which takes bodyweight into consideration alongside overall weight lifted), was happy to have another opportunity to compete with his teammates. “Coach Gibbons and Tyler Podwojski motivated me to train hard and represent Knox. My roommate Duncan Wheeler and I trained hard together for the past month and it show on Saturday. I would like to thank everyone who helped make it happen!”

It was the first event of its kind at Knox, and the positive feedback has already led to the planning of the second event. Gibbons said, “It was just a great event overall and I cannot wait to do it again next year,” said Gibbons. “These guys do a fantastic job, and it’s always good to have alumni back. I have to thank the athletes who traveled to compete, and everyone with the Good Athlete Project who worked so hard to make the day a success.”

“I was so pleased when Jim reached out and proposed using our Prairie Fire weight room for this competition,” said Director of Athletics Daniella Irle. “We were excited to host the event. Anytime you can bring like-minded participants together to compete and learn from each other that’s a win.”