Going strong: At the Naval Academy, record number of women take up powerlifting
By MIKE KLINGAMAN | The Capital | Published: November 21, 2019
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Pumping iron in a shabby gym at the U.S. Naval Academy, Jenny Chatwell feels a sense of relief, as if the weight of the world has been jacked from her shoulders. Gone are the everyday pressures faced by midshipmen; in their stead is a calmness marked by clanks, grunts and groans. Lifting, she says, lightens the load.
“There are a lot of stressors on campus, and the gym is one of the few places where I can relieve them,” says Chatwell, 19, a sophomore from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a member of Navy’s powerlifting team. “This is a safe place where nothing matters but the weights, the music we listen to and my teammates all yelling at me [to lift a personal best]. A bad day in the gym is a better day than if I didn’t lift at all.”
Powerlifting is a club activity at Navy, a rung below varsity sports. But it’s no less demanding for the 30 midshipmen who meet regularly in the basement of a former barracks to hoist dumbbells, share strategies and root each other on. Nine club members are women, about one-third of the club and the most ever at Navy for a rugged sport that has shed old stereotypes and gender bias. (Women account for 27% of the student body).
Last spring, competing against women from 42 other schools, senior Katie Salerni won her weight class (158 pounds) at the 2019 USA Powerlifting Collegiate Nationals in Columbus, Ohio — becoming the first female champion at Navy in the club’s 20 years.
Long a male bastion, powerlifting has attracted women athletes in recent years. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of competitive female lifters doubled to 6,038, roughly 27% of the 21,894 total, according to the USA Powerlifting Federation.
“We’ve gone past all that [sexist] stuff,” says Navy team captain Jordan Gonyea, a senior from Little Rock, Arkansas. “The only time we consider gender is in determining how many female hotel rooms we need to book for the team at a meet.”
Best of the lot is Alysia Santa Cruz-Cernik who, at 5-1 and 129 pounds, might pass as a jockey. She placed seventh at the nationals, hefting a combined 805 pounds for the three events: squat, bench press and deadlift.
“I can do better,” says the 21-year-old junior from Boise, Idaho. She lifts because “we go to a school that encourages strong athletic females,” but also for that cathartic release.
“It relieves some of the stress of military obligations,” she says. “Lifting makes you real happy. A lot of anger can be released just by getting the weight up.”
A physics major, Santa Cruz-Cernik concedes that science might help her lift more weight.
“I’m sure it would,” she says, “but I try not to think about school when I’m in the gym.”
Powerlifting differs from Olympic weightlifting in that none of its three events involve overhead carries. Weightlifting’s components (the snatch and clean-and-jerk) require more technique and speed, while powerlifting favors force and strength.
With no coach per se, Navy’s lifters mentor one another. Practice is an adventure, with muscles flexing and music blaring and everyone hollering for a weight-bearing colleague to “Get it up! Get it up! Get it up!”
“They do a great job of running the team themselves,” says Lt. Commander Tim Barry, the officer rep for the club. “They sling some steel, throw their weights around and develop leadership abilities. It’s not easy; it’s not like everyone can put 500 pounds on their backs and stand up with it.”
Workouts have their lighter moments.
“We’ll do silly stuff, like stopping in the middle of our sets to dance to something from ‘Five Finger Death Punch’. But we put our weights down first,” says Madi Tomoney, 23, of Jasper, Florida. “I love our raggedy underground gym and the personal closeness of the team. We’re our own little sub-culture. There are no ranks here; everyone is just trying to get better. And setting a new PR [personal record] is a beautiful thing, a real rush.”
Tutored last year by Salerni, Tomoney has improved her deadlift best by 100 pounds [to 305] since August. There are no Popeye forearms on the 5-5, 125-pound junior, who says the sport is mostly mental.
“Given that you are trying, you can train your mind to get through stuff that is out of your comfort zone,” she says. An Arabic major, Tomoney vows to stay with the sport after graduation, though she may see submarine duty. Is there room enough there to lift?
“Barely, but you can do it,” she says.
At 23, Samantha Haywood spent four years in the Navy before entering the Academy. Still, she says, powerlifting “got me through my plebe [first] year. There were afternoons when I’d had the worst day, and all I wanted was to go to my room, lay in bed and watch Netflix. Instead, I came here [to the gym], lifted and set personal records because the people around me pushed me to do more than I could hope. This place really is our dojo."
A sophomore majoring in quantitative economics, Haywood (138 pounds) placed 12th in the 2019 nationals and aims to move up.
“Last year, someone told me ‘You’re going to squat 225 pounds one day,’ and I laughed. Now, 225 is a warmup," says Haywood, of Meridian, Mississippi. At the nationals, she hit 303. Again, the lifter’s strength belies her looks. Could she beat a reporter in arm wrestling in, say, five seconds?
Nope, she said.