Written by Steph Irwin

When I think of my oldest daughter Emma, I think of a bird in flight.  From the moment she took her first steps, she’s been in constant motion, flitting from one thing to the next, not stopping for long.  “Slow down, Emma!!” was the most often repeated phrase in our house when she was little; she’s always been fast and fearless. 

So it’s no surprise that she’s an avid powerlifter.   I’ll take a little credit for her interest in the sport; I’ve been a gym rat for much of her life and became a personal trainer a couple years ago.  When she was in high school, she began lifting and taking boot camp classes with me.  We even ran a few 5k’s together, but her heart wasn’t really in it, despite her need for speed.

 Over the years, I had competed in a couple unsanctioned powerlifting meets sponsored by a local gym called the ICG (Iron Chamber Gym), and this past December, I talked Emma into signing up for a meet, as she had begun deadlifting on her own.  Our training for that meet wasn’t too serious.  She watched lots of female lifters on You Tube and started following some on social media (which is how she discovered GWPL).   She watched videos and studied form, and came up with her own unique, sumo stance style.  I follow a fairly regimented weight training schedule, so I simply added some heavier weights, worked on explosive movements, and pulled the bar, which isn’t something I regularly do. 

We had a great experience at that December meet, with successful lifts and meet PR’s.  So we decided to embark on a serious 12 week training regimen at the ICG to prepare for an April 2016 meet called The Battle of the Great Lakes, to be held in Tallmadge, OH.  Little did we know what we were in for when we began this journey that would ultimately bond us in a way I didn’t think possible.

I should note here that I was a little more uncertain than Emma about competing at a sanctioned meet.  I’d considered it before, but my reluctance always came down to 2 factors:  the squat, a lift I’ve always been somewhat afraid of, and that darned singlet, which also scared me (the wearing of it in public, that is, which is the subject of a future blog post!).  So at first, I was just going to tag along, make sure Emma was comfortable in the surroundings of an unfamiliar gym, and watch her do her thing.

But I was too intrigued with the process to just be a spectator, and my own love of lifting won out.  Training with us was a small team of mostly women, ranging in age from the teens to the 40’s, all with a common goal to train hard, get stronger, and compete well.  Leading us (and training with us), was Willis, a power-lifter with years of experience and loads of wisdom to dispense.  All this in a gym environment that was a little dirtier and grittier than I was used to.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this might be the only time I had a chance to train for a meet with my daughter, who would soon be moving into an apartment near her college campus.  It was time to put my fears aside, and grab an opportunity that might never be in front of me again.

And so we began 12 weeks of training that pushed us physically and mentally.  This was training like I’d never done before with bands, chains, and all kinds of bars I couldn’t even put a name to.  For the first time in a long time, I felt a little timidity in a gym, but Emma and I played to each other’s weaknesses.  I’m a confident bencher; she gets easily frustrated when she can’t press the weight.  She’s a confident squatter; I have always been anxious about that unwieldy bar on my shoulders.  Her pulls are fast and furious; mine are slow and cautious.   Along with our teammates and coach, who were powerful role models, we encouraged each other to keep going, even when numbers weren’t getting higher or a weight didn’t come off the floor.  There were lots of laughs, a few tears, and much celebrating along the way with every small victory (usually with donuts!).

What is most near and dear to my heart, though, was the simple fact that this experience gave Emma and I TIME together.  Added up, we had about 36 car rides to and from the gym 3 nights per week.  That’s a lot of talk time, and our conversations ranged from school and her future to training and food.  She vented frustrations and shared stories.  I vented a little too, and shared advice, but mostly I listened, because I was smart enough to realize this was time I would never get back.

Meet day came, and we were ready.  It was a day of highs and lows, and amazing feats of strength.  We watched women (and men) of all shapes, sizes, and ages step onto that platform and give it their all.  We watched our coach, teammate, and friend, Willis, put his disappointment aside after injuring his back during a warm-up squat.  He spent the entire day selflessly keeping us focused and encouraged, charting our lifts and numbers, despite his obvious discomfort.  Members of the ICG came to support the team, even if they weren’t competing.  It was truly a team effort.  What more could a mom want than for her daughter to be surrounded by people who support her goals and value her strength?

In the end, Emma and I both PR’d in all of our events, and our team garnered many 1st place medals. Emma didn’t get her goal pull of 350, but we both pulled a respectable 320.  Her proudest moment?  Ironically, the bench press, which had been her arch nemesis over the past 3 months.  She fought hard for her last press, and she got it (a state USPA record!).  One of the judges laughingly told her afterward that he left and went to the bathroom while she pressed it up.  My proudest moment?  Too many to name.  But all of them included watching my blond ponytailed girl chalk her hands, take that deep breath, and lift like her life depended on it.

Will we compete together again?  I hope so.  She’s not moving far away, but schedules and school will make it difficult for us to train together in the near future.   I know she’s got some even bigger numbers ahead, and I’m excited to see where life takes her, on the platform and off.  She’s a bird in flight…It’s time to let her fly.

1 comment

  • dean kahler: April 28, 2016

    Great story. You made me choke up. I am glad you had that precious time together. Both of you will remember that for the rest of your life. Congratulations to both of you, Steph, and Emma. Good job.

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