Florida Girls Lift Weights, and Gold Medals
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. — She was an Atlas of the exurbs, hoisting a 210-pound barbell over her ponytailed head and holding it there, arms just barely aquiver, while the high school gymnasium exploded in cheers.
At that moment on a recent Saturday, Jessica Reynolds, 17 and weighing in at 261 pounds, broke the state record for girls’ weightlifting, a high school sport sanctioned only in Florida and embraced, improbably, by girls of all shapes, sizes and athletic abilities.
At an age when appearance often seals reputations, they squeeze into tight singlets, step on scales while their peers watch and grunt their way through bench presses, clean and jerks and other decidedly uncute moves.
“It might not have been the most, like, girly or cool thing,” said Hannah Feliciano, a willowy freshman at Sarasota High School who started lifting last fall. “But I like the fact that I can prove to people that I also have, like, a rough side.”
Or as Sara Hansell, a senior at St. Cloud High School who won her second consecutive title in the 154-pound weight class explained her passion for the sport, “I get to say I’m stronger than most of the boys in my school.”
No other state has officially adopted weightlifting for girls, as the Florida High School Athletic Association did in 1997, a sign that the perception endures of weightlifting as a sport for he-men and the occasional bodybuilding queen who slathers her preternaturally bulging biceps with baby oil.
“I find it very surprising,” said Jackie Metcalf, the weightlifting coach at Sarasota High School. “because it’s a great way to get girls involved for gender equity. You don’t have to be a skilled athlete to do this.”
The presence on many teams of cheerleaders — who become better jumpers and fliers after lifting — has helped remove the stigma from the sport, several girls said. Many wear bows in their hair at competitions, and at a recent meet, one wore pearls with her singlet. They share weight rooms with boys who admiringly call them “beast.” T-shirts emblazoned with “Silly Boys, Weights Are For Girls” and the like are de rigueur.
“In our school, it’s pretty much understood that weightlifting is O.K. and you’re not a boy and you’re not gross if you do it,” said Leigha Nave, a senior at Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange who is the state champion of her 119-pound weight class.
More Video »
Extracurricular club programs for girls have sprung up around the country since women’s weightlifting became an Olympic sport in 2000. But Florida, with 170 high school teams that have produced two Olympians and several dozen world team members, has “set the gold standard” for the sport, said Rodger DeGarmo, director of high performance and coaching for USA Weightlifting in Colorado Springs, the governing body that oversees Olympic lifting.
“I think it’s awesome for this group of girls because there’s so many times you have to be tall, slender,” said Judy Miller, Jessica’s foster mother. “With this, you can be any size.”
At the state finals here, where Jessica captured the title for the third year straight, 240 girls competed in the bench press and the clean and jerk, in which a barbell is swiftly raised from the floor to shoulder height and then, after a pause that is harrowing to watch, overhead.
Some chugged bottles of honey before they lifted — the sugar high helps, they said — while others sat silently in a corner of the gym, summoning their strength. They ranged from 93.6 pounds to 379.1, from featherweight cheerleaders to hulking softball players and even girls who never before dabbled in sports.
“It doesn’t matter how much you lift,” said Jessica, a senior at Booker High School in Sarasota, after collecting her gold medal. “It just matters that you’re trying to make yourself better.”
Some coaches have to recruit aggressively to build a team, correcting misperceptions along the way.
“A lot of girls think if you do it you’re going to get all beefy,” said Alexa DeCristofaro, a senior at New Smyrna Beach High School who won first place in the 199-pound weight class. “Well, you really don’t. If you do it, you get toned, which is different from getting totally muscular.”
In the decade since high schools here began offering girls’ weightlifting, certain towns — Port Orange (near Daytona Beach), Port Charlotte (near Sarasota), Fort Walton Beach (near Pensacola) — have become known for their girl weightlifters. Tom Bennett, a coach at Spruce Creek High, said one of his former lifters won a slot at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and others are bent on joining her.
“The girls are very, very competitive — in some cases more than the boys,” said Mr. Bennett, whose team of 30 girls has won every state weightlifting championship since they began in 2004.
The sport is far more popular in North Florida than in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, possibly because South Florida has more wealth and its young athletes gravitate toward “upper class” sports like tennis and golf, Mr. Bennett said. Altha, a speck of a town in the Panhandle, sent six girls to this year’s state finals, while Miami sent none.
Mr. Bennett’s team practices at least 12 hours a week. Like other coaches around the state, he recruits from the school softball, soccer, cheerleading and basketball teams, with the promise that weightlifting will improve athletic performance in general.
“It definitely makes them faster, more explosive, more flexible, stronger,” said Richard Lansky, a member of the board of USA Weightlifting who runs an extracurricular club in Sarasota.
Mr. Bennett, a former state champion himself, said that while he bawled out boys who did not make a lift, most of the girls on his team preferred positive reinforcement.
“You can’t go at them the same way,” he said. “If you yell at a girl when she misses a lift, she’s like, ‘Forget it, coach, I’m not going to do this anymore.’ ”
Some girls sobbed after missing a lift at the state finals in New Port Richey, about 25 miles north of Tampa. Others snarled as loud as any boy as they reached for the barbell, their coaches slapping their shoulders and barking encouragement. The bleachers were packed with parents and other fans, including many boys, screaming, “Drive it!” and “Atsa girl!”
Leigha, the Spruce Creek senior, said she loved the competitive aspect of lifting.
“It’s a rush, it really is,” she said. “We have boards in our weight rooms with the names of all the record breakers, and you’re thinking about how bad you want your name on that record for everybody to see.”
She broke the record for her weight class in the clean and jerk but failed to match her personal best, stalking off the platform with a look that foretold tears.
But then, amid bountiful cheering, she lay on the gymnasium floor and laughed.