Beyond Strength: Powerlifting at St. Olaf College

On all of the weather websites we searched, a long red bar appeared across the top of the page: SNOW EMERGENCY IN EFFECT.

We were less than a week out from the 2nd Annual Midwest Powerlifting Meet at St. Olaf College. The reports said that all should be clear by Saturday, the day of the meet, so normally we would not have thought twice about it. But we did.

One year prior, during the first meet held at St. Olaf, we didn’t even check the forecast. It was mid-April. The Good Athlete Project team, and about twenty-five college athletes coming from all corners of the midwest, set out in the direction of Northfield, Minnesota, excited for the weekend. At first there were no issues. It was colder than usual for mid-April, but no one had any real concerns. As we crossed through Wisconsin into Minnesota, however, we were face to face with the front end of a record setting blizzard.

Over the next two days, nearly two feet would fall in certain parts of the state. We were stuck inside the weightroom, all of the windows were whited out with heavy, horizontal snow.

Although there was a blizzard on the outside, there were great things going on inside the Tom Porter Hall. A collection of fantastic young athletes came together to go Beyond Strength and compete in the high character ways which have come to define these meets. The St. Olaf student athletes did a great job hosting, personal records were set, and everyone had fun. Though the drive home was treacherous, the weekend was a great success and we were excited to make this an annual event.

Which is why, this year, we were so thrown by that big red emergency warning.

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The first priority of any powerlifting meet is safety. We have to get people into and out of the event safely. We go to great lengths establishing safety protocols, reiterating rules, training spotters, and holding everyone to a high standard. If a lifter does something blatantly unsafe, he or she may be dismissed from the competition. We have to keep people safe.

The storm warning was supposed to end on Friday, which is when most people were traveling – many of them 6 or more hours. Although we were all convinced that the weather would be fine on the day of the meet, we wanted to be sure that the travelers would be safe. There was a ton of deliberation, we checked all weather sources, and by midday Thursday we were leaning toward cancelling the meet.

There was no good to come out of the day that would outweigh news that one of our lifters got caught in a ditch due to hazardous driving conditions.

So we took our time.

We thought long and hard about it.

The St. Olaf Powerlifting team and the reps from the St. Olaf chapter of the Good Athlete Project were working hard on the ground, readying everything and everyone for meet day, and keeping us informed as to how the weather was progressing.

At 6:00pm on the day before the meet, we found what we had been looking for: 0% chance of ice. Without ice on the road, we felt confident that travel would be reasonable. The meet would go on.

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The meet was a huge success. Athletes representing St. Olaf College, Knox College, Carleton College, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Northeastern Illinois University were in attendance. Many were competing for the first time.

Quinn Sharp, an outside linebacker from Knox College, started the day with a squat PR (personal record) of 465lbs. Then he hit a bench press PR of 335. Then something amazing happened.

He supported his teammates.

While this seems obvious enough, most powerlifting meets primarily feature individual competitors. In its second year, the leadership within the St. Olaf Powerlifting Club decided to make this a team event. They recruited hard and made it happen. April of 2019 marked the first team-based college meet hosted by the Good Athlete Project – the Oles have raised the bar.

Because of the team element, after two PRs in the first two lifts, Quinn Sharp was responsible for more than just getting his mind right to deadlift. He was responsible for his team.

He talked through technique and strategy with his teammates. He cheered them on when it was their time to perform. He talked his team through tough moments and planned for next attempts. He supported as they failed and as they succeeded.

Adam Danzig, an Offensive Guard for the St. Olaf football team and one of the founders of the St. Olaf Powerlifting Club, greatly appreciated the team element of the meet. Before deadlifts, he rallied the team together for a team speech and breakdown. They analyzed their work up to that point, recognizing that the other competing teams might have outperformed them in bench press, and would have to “pull big” to finish the meet strong.

They did. He did. Danzig pulled a competition personal record of 505lbs, a 30lb increase from his performance the previous year.

Time after time, athletes report hitting personal records at these meets. There is something special about the atmosphere, about the moment when preparation blooms and performance peaks, with the support of a team cheering you on.

“If you want to go fast go alone, if you want go far, go together.” – African Proverb

It was the second powerlifting meet hosted by the Project in a week and there was a theme emerging. Lifters, especially those who had never previously competed, were accomplishing things they had never before accomplished. They were bolder, more confident, somehow stronger, with the support of the group.

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Though the spirit of the meet is always about process and community, it is important to note that some of the individual performances were outstanding. The field was full of competition. James Dinaso from Knox College noted that “competition allows me to push myself harder,” and he included that he was “happy to compete in a meet that supports a good cause like the Good Athlete Project [knowing that] somewhere down the road, someone else will benefit too.”

Rijad Pekmez of Northeastern Illinois University competed in 2018 and 2019 and said, “seeing the improvement by a lot of the same lifters as last year was really cool. [The meet] is a moment people finally get to show others how hard they have been working.” Pekmez has been working. Competing in the Bench Only Division, he bested last year’s score of 330lbs by making 360 look easy, then missing a tough battle at 385 lbs.

Individual Placement

Division/Placement Name School Wilks
Men’s Division
1 Quinn Sharp Knox 413.44
2 Josh Vannoram St. Olaf 398.9
3 Christian Cavan Carleton 368.9
Women’s Division
1 Jenesis Fonder Carleton 376.1
2 Sarah Carter Knox 280.24
3 Lucy Fuller St. Olaf 233
Bench Only
1 Rijad Pekmez Northeastern Illinois 93.31
2 Jakob Otten St. Olaf 79.91

 

We do hand out awards. We keep score for a reason, but we acknowledge that the true value of the event is the process it took to get there. It’s the character necessary to push yourself. The focus necessary to perform. And the community which raises the performance of all in attendance.

Sarah Carter, who finished 2nd overall in the Female Division, agrees, acknowledging that she “learned a lot about competing and met a lot of great people who helped me grow.” Growth. That’s the key word.

In all of sport, powerlifting offers one of the most clean and pure examples of process yielding product. An athlete might have a fantastic process as a basketball player, putting up countless shots, refining his mechanics, working on his mindset, and taking care of his health – he might go then go up against an All-World defender and score only a few points. In that case, the quantifiable feedback he receives might not validate his process. In powerlifting, however, if you lift well, with great and consistent technique, thoughtful rest and nutrition, and repeat that process regularly, then over time, you will grow. You will improve. There’s no guarantee that you will set world records, but you will improve.

Jack Klein and Anthony DeBella, leaders at St. Olaf, recognized that growth in the meet. Klein and DeBella both started on the Offensive Line for the Oles, with DeBella earning 1st team All-MIAC recognition – they have both lifted in the past, but this year took behind-the-scenes roles on the administrative side. They noted that “the operations felt smoother and we knew what to expect, from there, we were able to fully engage in the meet and have fun.”

They did a great job. Quinn Sharp was quick to thank “all of our hosts. [He was] particularly impressed with the spotting,” Sharp went on to recognize that “at these meets I have been able to push my mind and body to new limits. I’m thankful to be part of the Project and looking forward to continue the process.”

That process brought Sharp a 615lb deadlift at 195lbs bodyweight.

When we left, the sun was out, the snow was melting, and it was clear that spring was approaching in Northfield Minnesota.