Former cheerleader Stephanie Ciarelli is now coach of the U.S. Junior weightlifting team.
By JEFF MILLER
The Orange County Register
NEWPORT BEACH – That she's a mother wasn't the issue.
Nor was it that she weighs as much as the average jockey.
Even the fact she's a she wasn't the concern.
But a cheerleader? Hey, we all have our skeletons.
"It took me a few years," Stephanie Ciarelli says, "to let that information out."
From cheering on to pumping up. From wool skirts to leather weight belts. From "Push 'em back!" to "Squat the rack!"
Ciarelli isn't what most people would envision when asked to picture a strength coach. But there she is, all right, very much in the picture, along with the rest of the U.S. Junior World Team, the first female to hold such a lofty coaching position in the sport.
"There might be 70 guys lifting and I'm in there coaching," she says. "It might look odd to some people, but I don't even think about it. This is just what I've always done."
Ciarelli is in her second year as the strength coach at Newport Harbor High School. Before that, she was at Huntington Beach High for 12 years. She was named national coach last month, a first for USA Weightlifting, one of the sport's governing bodies.
All this from the rather petite mother of three daughters, a mother who sis-boom-ba'd her way through Santa Ana High, lifting spirits but not barbells; never once, in fact, even entering a weight room.
After attending Santa Ana College in the early 1970s, Ciarelli moved to be with her future husband, Tony, a track athlete on scholarship at the University of Hawaii. She took a job working behind a desk and soon realized pushing a No. 2 pencil wasn't providing much of a physical outlet.
"You should try this," Tony finally said, referring to weight lifting. In a short time, Ciarelli was competing as a power lifter, usually the only woman in a gym full of men, typically squatting more than double her body weight of 114 pounds.
"There was only one other woman we knew of who was power lifting then," Tony says, "and she was on the East Coast."
The Ciarellis, wanting to be closer to family, moved back to Orange County after they were married and had had their first child, Allison, now 27. After giving birth to Maryn, now 25, and Katelyn, now 21, Ciarelli focused on being a mom.
One day, Tony was talking to George Pascoe, then the football coach at Huntington Beach High. Pascoe asked for a recommendation on a strength coach.
"There she is right there," Tony answered, pointing to his wife. "You're not going to find anyone who knows more about lifting."
So began the coaching career of Ciarelli, who had the resume, the experience and the know-how. But she also had the gender not typically associated with a sport thick with testosterone.
"I'm sure some of the older kids were saying, 'Who are you?' " Ciarelli says. "But the younger kids bought right in away. Everyone has been very receptive and supportive. I haven't had any problems over the years. Coaching wise, there's nothing women can't do in this sport."
She works mostly with the football players now at Newport Harbor, monitoring their workouts, demonstrating technique and pushing them toward their goals.
Ciarelli also promotes lifting to all athletes, particularly girls, many of whom still look at the weight room and see a foreign, frightening land.
"There's a stigma among girls about the weight room," Ciarelli says. "It always has been a male territory. But girls get in there, and they find out it's athletic and empowering. They get into it. They love it.
"But it's not a 24-Hour Fitness in there. It isn't all shiny with music blaring. Girls can walk in and say, 'Whoa, what's this?' "
At Newport Harbor, it's cracked concrete floors, scarred metal weights and well-used bars. The place is a weight room by design but a work room by definition.
When in full swing, with all 15 stations occupied and teenage grunts and groans bouncing about, the overriding noise is still those giant iron discs clanging together.
"That's the best music in the world, the best sound in the world," Ciarelli says. "When everything is going at once, that's a very productive sound. I've always loved the ambiance of the weight room."
Sounds like a true coach, a coach who appreciates the sound of effort and isn't afraid of the smell of sweat.
Along with offering the typical qualities of a football coach, Ciarelli also brings an element no man could match.
"I'm a little more motherly than the mean, bad football coaches," she says. "Until they don't do what I want, at least. Then I'll get on them."
Says Tony, an assistant coach at Newport Harbor, "It's a good thing, especially with the freshmen. The rest of us aren't too soft."
The strength coach isn't either, really. At least not since she put down her pompoms.