Sunday, January 27, 2008

powerlifting: Holmen's Larsen discovers a new passion

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1/26 powerlifting: Holmen's Larsen discovers a new passion

HOLMEN, Wis. — Lisa Larsen was searching for something she would enjoy, excel at, and perhaps push her out of the comfort zone she had spent much of her life in. She was in gymnastics for eight years and basketball for four.

She liked both, but she didn’t have a burning passion for either. Then she discovered powerlifting.

“I got into it because I knew there would be a good environment and I wanted to improve my self-esteem. I knew it would help,” said Larsen, a 15-year-old freshman at Holmen High School. “I would like to get stronger and stuff. With this, I am doing it.”

Larsen was one of 176 competitors who packed the Holmen High School gym on Saturday for the West Coast Region, which serves as a state qualifier for powerlifting. Yes, packed the gym. There were more fans in attendance for this club sport than there are for a number of other WIAA-sanctioned sports — a fact that surprised me.

There were competitors of all sizes — tall, short, strong, lean. And get this: There were almost as many girls as boys.

“It’s an equal opportunity sport,” said Jon Steffenhagen, the Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau High School football coach who has served as the school’s powerlifting coach since its inception 10 years ago. “You are competing against yourself. And one of the great things about it is there are so many opportunities after high school, for national and world championships.”

One of the neat things about powerlifting — outside of building muscles and establishing a feeling of well-being — is the overall confidence it creates in oneself. Or at least that is what Emily Sue Steck — yes, the same Emily Sue Steck of local stock car driving fame — told me.

Steck got involved as a powerlifter as a sophomore at Holmen, and lifted throughout high school. She’s not lifting competitively at this time, which is understandable considering she’s a full-time college student at Winona State University, working, and building a life with her new husband.

“I remember, it was in a gym class. It was one of those, ‘You can’t do this,’” Steck said, smiling. “I did. The biggest thing to get over is I didn’t want everybody to know my weight. That, and I didn’t want to have so much muscle that it was big and gross. Most girls don’t want to look big and muscular.”

Steck loved powerlifting, worked hard, and got pretty darn good at it, too. By the time she was a senior, she had earned a state championship, then finished third at the national meet. Larsen would love to follow a similar path.

“I’m going to do this sport for the next three years,” said Larsen, who was competing in just her second meet. “It’s a ton of fun. For all of you boys and girls who are not into it, it is so much fun.”

It must be fun. It has to be fun. How else could you explain all the smiles, pats on the back, bear hugs and firm handshakes being passed around the gym? It didn’t take a genius to see these kids were having fun.

Getting stronger, competing, making friends, and pushing themselves to levels they probably never thought possible. Seems like a win-win situation to me. Maybe that’s why powerlifting clubs have continued to grow in popularity in this area, and in Wisconsin.

“Our first year, we had four boys in the original club,” Steffenhagen said. “By the third year, we were up to 50. Now we’re around 60. The state of Wisconsin is on the cutting edge of powerlifting. Louisiana and Texas, they are probably the next two (in terms of interest).”

Steffenhagen said around half of the competitors at last year’s national meet were from Wisconsin.

The interest in Holmen’s powerlifting club is growing — and has been for a number of years — said Chris Sepich, an assistant coach with the Holmen club. Sepich said the club had three kids in its first year (1999), but has grown to 92 kids this year.

Whitehall, with John Kleinhaus coaching the team, has grown to more than 40 members in a few short years.

What is it about seeing how many pounds you can squat, bench press and dead lift? It’s pushing your body, but it’s also about the camaraderie that exists among lifters — past and present — Steck said. That’s why she was among the 120 volunteers at the meet on Saturday. That’s why she was enjoying herself as a judge at one of the competition stations.

“I have always enjoyed it, and I want to be a powerlifting coach some day,” Steck said. “I played volleyball and was in track and field, but powerlifting was a fantastic experience.”

That’s certainly been true for Larsen so far.

“You get a really big adrenaline rush. You get so many butterflies they end up coming out of your throat,” Larsen said. “It has already done so much for me.”

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