Interest, participation in powerlifting continue to increase

Kyle Nelson, a North High School sophomore, successfully squatted 335 lbs at a powerlifting meet at North High School on Saturday December 19, 2009.

Jocelyn Petersen swims in the fall and plays soccer in the spring at Eau Claire North. She didn't consider adding a winter sport until she took a biology class a few years ago.

Her teacher happened to be Joel Hornby, the coach of the school's powerlifting club.

"At that point in time, I was getting ready for soccer season," Petersen said. "I pretty much did it for that. And now I love it."

Petersen and dozens of other high school powerlifters took over North's east gymnasium Saturday. They were lifting for a spot in the upcoming state championships, which are becoming increasingly competitive as interest and participation the sport continue to grow.

"The stereotype of powerlifting was that you have to be really strong," said Eric Hestekin, a senior on the North powerlifting team. "But more and more kids that are just in it to get stronger - not necessarily because they're already strong - are starting to do it."

Starting small

Hornby started the powerlifting team at North in 2006 as a way to keep football players motivated in the offseason. The school's first team had eight lifters, and the number has grown every year since.

Four years later, the North program has nearly 30 lifters who train four days a week in preparation for the postseason.

"There's instant feedback," Hornby said. "I mean, when they do a lift, they get critiqued."

Like Petersen and Hestekin, most of the lifters at North compete in other varsity sports.

"I'd have more gains competing for something than just kind of lifting to get stronger," said Hestekin, who plays football at North and lifts through the spring.

Hestekin said he has become stronger, quicker and more muscular in three years on the powerlifting team. Like many of the other lifters, he translates those gains into his other sports.

"I've got only a few that are just pure powerlifters," Hornby said. "Most of them are involved in other athletic events. That's one of the reasons they're out, is to get ready for other sports."

Hornby, who runs a strength and conditioning program at North during the summer, hasn't done much campaigning for his program. Instead, he lets his athletes do it.

"I haven't done a ton of selling since I've been here," he said. "I started with a small group because I knew that was all I could handle to begin with.

"It just kind of grew from there. I think the kids sold it more than anything."

At Whitehall, coach John Kleinhans has seen similar growth. His club, which has been around for six years, had six lifters in its first season. Now it has 30 competing at a school with an enrollment of 249.

"Every year we've got a couple more into it," Kleinhans said. "It kind of snowballs. In the six years I've been participating, it's gotten really big."

In addition to North and Whitehall, schools like Altoona, Fall Creek, River Falls and Independence had lifters at Saturday's regional meet at the Doghouse. There were 390 lifters representing 90 schools at last year's state meet.

"Wisconsin has become a leader in the nation for powerlifting," Kleinhans said. "Wisconsin powerlifting is really starting to raise the bar across the nation."

How it works

Unlike most of the mainstream prep sports in the state, powerlifting is not sanctioned by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. Instead, the lifters at North on Saturday were competing as part of the Wisconsin High School Powerlifting Association, which operates under the rules of the International Powerlifting Federation.

At the meets, athletes compete in three different lifts: the bench press, squat and dead lift. The heaviest lift in each of those events is combined to give each participant a total weight. That number then is used in qualifying for the state and national championships.

Saturday's meet at North was one of several regionals in which athletes could qualify for the state meet, scheduled for March 12-13 in Seymour. To qualify for state, lifters in each of the 12 boys and girls weight classes must reach a predetermined weight total based on their three best lifts combined.

"They can qualify here today," Hornby said.

Lifters who didn't qualify while competing at North can do so at one of the other regionals, usually scheduled for Saturdays leading up to the state meet. The national meet is scheduled to take place March 26-28 in Wisconsin Dells.

The organization and competition in the WHSPA allow lifters to accomplish more than traditional weight lifting programs, Kleinhans said.

"You'll only push yourself so hard if it's just a lifting program in the weight room," he said. "When you come here, you lift a lot more than you ever think you can. Kids really push themselves a lot harder when they're competing at it."

Not just for boys

As participation in high school powerlifting programs increases, the number of girls joining the competition is growing along with it.

When the North team was founded in 2006, there were less than a handful of girls on the team. Now the Huskies have eight - more than any other year.

At Whitehall, there are actually more girls on the team than boys.

"At first, girls are probably like, 'Well, it's powerlifting. Why do I want to do that?'" Petersen said. "We try and try to get more girls to do it. We say it helps you with other sports. That's what we start with."

The future?

Kleinhans, who serves on the WHSPA board of directors along with Hornby, 14 other coaches and two judges, doesn't expect powerlifting to become a WIAA sport in the near future.

The main issues, he said, are financial constraints and drug testing. The budgets at most schools couldn't support the introduction of another varsity sport right now, he said.

"If we went to our administrators and said, 'Hey, we want to bring another sport in,' with our budget cuts, it's really hard," he said.

Additionally, the WHSPA drug tests about 10 percent of the lifters at its state meet - including weight class winners and others randomly selected.

"The WIAA really kind of wants to stay away from that can of worms," Kleinhans said. "I don't foresee it going to WIAA anytime soon."