Written by Sarah Paulsen
There’s something so empowering about having over twice your body weight in your hands, the mass of it ripping off those hard-earned calluses, the sound of the plates hitting the platform after the “drop” command… and you look behind you and stare down three white lights. Very few things in life can be more satisfying than that feeling. Powerlifitng is a sport that not everyone will understand the appeal of. But for the brave souls who venture down this path, it becomes a lifestyle filled with talk of PRs, a ridiculously high numbers in kilos, and refueling in doughnuts. Powerlifting is the sport I have fallen in love with, and the pastime that helped me through a difficult divorce and becoming a single parent.
I had always been athletic growing up, playing a myriad of sports from softball to basketball to volleyball. I never really got into fitness, though, until after college at age 21 when I decided to leave my career in curriculum development and become a personal trainer. It was a huge shift, but the gym was calling my name. Admittedly, though, I did not touch any heavy weight for the first few years. I was in a relationship with someone who ridiculed my body and told me that lifting heavy was manly and unattractive. But in 2014, I left that relationship and my view of lifting as well as of myself changed drastically.
My daughter was just one-year-old at the time, and I had no idea how to survive as a single parent. I ventured into becoming a self-employed personal trainer, which was extremely scary. It was in this endeavor that I met Anita Spartage, the owner of the personal training gym I work at who competed in powerlifting in the 80s. She watched me lift, commented that I was strong, and encouraged me to compete in powerlifting. I was so scared at first. Me? Compete in a sport of strength? I had so much going on, when would I have the time to work on myself? I had a business to run, clients to help, and a beautiful baby girl to raise. “Me time” just wasn’t in the cards.
Despite my hesitations, I decided to give it a go. I started training for my first powerlifting meet, and saw significant strength gains in just three months of training. Powerlifitng didn’t just make me physically strong, but it improved my outlook on life and helped me gain mental and emotional strength. On days where I felt like I was failing as a parent, a good deadlift session brought back my confidence and gave me the endorphin rush I needed to combat the “terrible twos.” I have my daughter full time, and we’re both pretty strong-willed. I’m excited that she is growing up in the gym. I bring her with me to workout, and have even done full workouts with her on my back in a baby carrier. She has her own plastic barbell and loves pretending to be me, lifting it and shouting “I’m strong!” I’m one proud mama when I see my toddler pick up that toy barbell for a deadlift. She’ll learn the proper techniques of lifting, and that she can lift and still be feminine. She can be whatever and whoever she wants to be.
Powerlifting has shown me that I am stronger than I thought. Not only can I lift great amounts of weight off the floor, but I can also make it as a single parent. I can run a successful business on my own. I can teach my daughter to be independent and strong. I can coach my clients to reach their health goals. I can. I would. I did.
This sense of empowerment is addicting. The energy at a meet is intoxicating. Although it is an individual sport, where you compete for a medal for yourself, there is a camaraderie among the athletes that is unmatched. You stand to the side of the platform and cheer for your competition. When she pulls that deadlift PR, you’re happy for her, you’re excited to see her get those three white lights of approval from the judges. This year, I found even more encouragement and support by joining the Ruthless Body Powerlifting Team. We are a team of women who compete with each other but still act as a sisterhood—training together, giving each other tips and a good spot, being there for each other through the good and the bad. When my teammates win, I feel like I win.
I could not be more proud than to label myself as a powerlifter, and I get excited seeing more and more women enter the sport daily. Women should not be afraid of lifting heavy. Forget the labels, forget the criticizers. The only label I put on myself is strong. I am a strong lifter. I am a strong woman. I am a strong mom.
Sarah has competed in the USPA California State Powerlifting Championships on March 18, 2016 and took second place in the 60kg raw women’s division with a total of 678lb. Her daughter, Savannah is now 3yrs old and deadlifting 10lbs. The next generation of women lifters is looking bright.