Sunday, February 3, 2008

In Fla., high school girls find their strength in weightlifting

http://www.miamiherald.com/775/story/404563.html

Associated Press Writer

High school girls weightlifting is unique to Florida, and nobody does it better than the Spruce Creek Lady Hawks.

They come in all shapes and sizes, some as slight as 98 pounds and some who lift in the 199-pound and unlimited classes, and they're part of a powerhouse that dominates the sport. The Lady Hawks have won the state tournament all four times it has been held, and try for their fifth title Feb. 9.

Only Florida offers girls' competitive weightlifting, with about 3,800 participants at more than 150 schools, and it is becoming "kind of a recruiting ground" for national teams, said coach Richard Lansky of USA Weightlifting.

While no Floridian has yet competed at the Olympics - women's weightlifting debuted at the 2000 games - six have have represented the U.S. at world junior and university competitions since 2005.

"When you think of weightlifting, you don't think of it being a girls sport," said Jessica Fides, a former Spruce Creek lifter who hopes to compete in the upcoming Olympic trials. "But I think, more and more, through programs like Spruce Creek High School, you're able to carry that out into the Olympic-style lifting afterward. It allows you to get the confidence level up."

On a recent Saturday, the Spruce Creek gym was packed with mothers and fathers as the Lady Hawks hosted a sectional meet for teams from Volusia County, on the central Atlantic coast. A former state champion was in the bleachers, rooting for her younger sister. A grandmother watched as girls fiercely compete in a sport that didn't exist when she was in school.

One by one, the lifters in braided pigtails, spandex singlets and bright lifting shoes came to the iron.

Their faces twisted and contorted during the bench press, and each carefully tried to thrust the heavy bar with the flick of a wrist in the clean and jerk. Some lifted with ease and precision. Some nearly crumpled under the weight.

"UUUUUPPPPPPPPPPPPP!" the crowd groaned in unison, when lifters struggled to hoist the bar.

Some of the best lifters, coaches say, come from sports like competitive cheerleading or gymnastics. They possess the quick reflexes and agility needed to pump a bar skyward in the clean and jerk competition and are fiercely driven and focused.

"They're light. They're explosive," Spruce Creek coach Tom Bennett said. "They're used to doing these explosive movements. And that's exactly what weightlifting is."

Even for Spruce Creek lifters, however, there can be hurdles along the way. The sport has long been reserved for the male population, and parents, friends and boyfriends sometimes grow concerned when a girl announces her intent to take up the sport.

"I didn't want to get big-guy looking, but I didn't think that would happen," said Heather Wolfe, 16. She weighs 108 pounds but can bench press 140 and lift 155 in the clean and jerk. "There were a few girls in the beginning ... they said their boyfriend doesn't want them looking like a guy and all that. But I have a boyfriend and he doesn't mind or anything.

"And if he did, that would be his fault."

Boyfriends, Bennett said, are generally not the problem.

"I think each year, we'd probably have 10 or 15 more girls if their parents were OK with it," he said. "We've had some girls who could literally go on to be state champions, but their parents are like 'Oh, you're going to look like a boy' or 'You're going to hurt yourself.'"

When Spruce Creek lifter Sara Cowles was a child, she wore a back brace and took ballet. Her mother, Dee Young, said she was surprised when her little girl grew up and moved from the dance studio to the weight room.

"There's a lot of battling with your own femininity when you come out for this sport," said Cowles, 17. "I've never really held myself to certain beauty standards that other girls do. For me, having muscles and being toned is beautiful."

Some athletes at other schools also use weightlifting as a way to stay conditioned for other sports.

"I tell them that it's going to help them with their cheerleading or their softball or the other sports that they play in,' said Seabreeze High School coach Dave Eddy. "It's a great cross-training sport."

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