Discovering life beyond the barbell / by Dana McMahan

The writer who became the champion(!) power lifter

Squatting 180! Photos by Melissa DonaldWhen Ben and I first started talking about trying to break the APA national squat record in the 105 weight class it seemed like a giddy dream of a possibility. I think I just didn’t know enough to know that a 25-pound leap was a big jump for someone my size. But Ben encouraged me, and said — probably just in passing — in one email, “If you do this, it’ll be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen – a writer who becomes a record holder.” But words are my life, and I remembered those words, holding onto them when workouts were hard, when I hurt, when I wondered if I was crazy for thinking I could do such a thing.  I held on to those words and I fixated on one moment — the moment at the APA meet when I would approach the bar loaded with 180 pounds, go under it, and stand up with that weight.

The meet began for me Friday afternoon when we weighed in.  Being way too careful trying not to accidentally go over the 105 limit, I instead went the other direction, and cutting out dairy, starch and sodium, came dangerously close to the bottom of the class, weighing in at 99 pounds. I plowed through probably the most food I’d ever had in one sitting immediately after, in the capable hands of chef Jayson Lewellyn at 732 Social. A triathlete with a great interest in sports nutrition, chef Jayson piled my table with five courses of food engineered to fuel me for the next day. I ate till I thought my ribs would crack.

Saturday morning I woke up early excited, nervous, and raring to go.  By now I knew I was going to do this. I’d gained enough confidence in my strength, in my training and in Ben’s coaching to know that there was no doubt I’d get it. I smiled hugely all morning picturing the moment when I’d stand up with the weight.  I had to disperse some of the nervous energy so on the drive to the gym in a thunderstorm I blasted AC/DC Thunderstruck as loud as my speakers would go and yelled along like a madwoman, till I was fairly hoarse.

I couldn’t wait to just do it, tapping my feet as I blasted my iPod while I waited. First I had to do 165. I knew I had to focus on it, but really, it was just the step I had to take to get to goal of the day. I sunk it and stood up, immensely relieved to have the first lift over. My heart could stop hammering just a bit now. I couldn’t get settled while waiting for all the men to complete their lifts — I sat, I laid down, I paced, I drank chocolate milk, I listened to my music, and finally it was time to do it. “This is why you got out of bed this morning,” Ben said. “This is why I get out of bed every morning,” I thought.

I eyed the bar, said some stuff to it, and gripped it, then swung my eyes to a spot I’d picked earlier on the ceiling across the room. I don’t think there was anything in my head at that moment – not the people in the gym, not the judges, not my spotters. It was me with this weight. I unracked it, stepped back, and got the command: squat. Down I went, a little slowly, trying to stay steady. I hit depth, and dug in to push back up. And up I came. Once out of the bottom though my knees were wobbling I knew I had it and began to roar, grinning hugely at this most amazing feeling. I stood up, as elated and triumphant as if I’d summited Mt. Everest, and on the rack command nearly lost my balance and tipped the bar so excited and giddy I was. I slapped Ben’s hands, Dave’s, who was refereeing in front, the other spotter and I think even the head judge before heading for hugs with my DCCF girls. That moment made everything I’ve done for the last four months worth it a million times over. The record may not stand forever but I’ll never forget that triumph — the coolest thing ever when the writer became a champion.  In a million years I’d have never thought I could do something like this when I walked into DCCF last fall.

The meet went on of course — the world doesn’t stop just because the most incredible thing I’ve ever done happens. I tried a 190 squat and made it to depth. I was determined to get low even if I couldn’t stand up with it, and I made it down, but didn’t make it up. Even having the balls to try 190 made me happy though. I lost my swagger later though when missing commands on my first bench got me red-lighted and my attempt at a PR of 95 failed. I had to drag my mind off my 180 and give everything I had to make 95 on my third lift, or bomb out of the meet — a possibility that had never occurred to me. I just decided I would push that bar until it was up, no matter what happened. And somehow, between digging my heels in like my life depended on it and the huge cheers from the crowd and Ben standing above me urging me on I got that 95 pounds back up and stayed in the meet.

My trials weren’t over yet though. Having not deadlifted in two weeks because of an injury I started at what I thought was a safe 170, five pounds below a weight I had done easily a month ago, and 10 pounds below a weight I did with some efforts two weeks ago. To my absolute astonishment I pulled it to just below my knees and there it stayed. I dropped it at last when I realized I couldn’t just will it up, and looked at Ben in bewilderment. “Get Brown!” he said, and I ran to find Ryan, who showed me how I’d set up wrong. Ben came over then, asked what I’d had to eat and sent me to the back of the gym for the bottle of honey in his cabinet. I had a serious talk with myself back there as I poured honey down my throat and blasted Eye of the Tiger — my emergency song. I would NOT bomb out, not after all this. Susan grabbed me and urged me on — “It’s one pull, that’s all you have to do to make this, to keep your highest number.” I had the highest Schwartz/Malone number on the board, a fact that blew me away when I’d realized it earlier.

There was no way I’d let myself lose now. Though tears had immediately sprung to my eyes when I missed the first lift, I wasn’t going to make that squat,  and grind through that bench to fail now.  I approached the bar. “Give me what you gave me on that bench,”  Ben said.  I bent over, grabbed the bar, and simply lifted it off the floor, fairly furious at how easy it was when I hadn’t botched my set-up. I tried 180 for my third attempt, but still flustered didn’t even come close to setting up right so it didn’t come far. It was a disappointing end to the day but my spirits were restored when I won best female lifter. Greedy for prizes, I’d hoped there would be an award for the highest Schwartz Malone too– mine being the only one over 1, but I reminded myself the real reason I was there was for something much bigger, which I had done.

And I can’t wait to start training to meet my next goals.

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One response

  1. Congratulations! I’ve immensely enjoyed reading along with you as you’ve worked toward your goal. Way to go!

    June 19, 2011 at 3:33 pm

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