I was sitting in a folding chair in the basement of the YMCA in Niles, Illinois. 23 at the time, I’d been powerlifting alongside my football career. Strength played a major role in my life and it was now a competitive sport for me. I trained hard for this moment, knowing I had a shot at a state championship.
Feet up, nursing a green Gatorade, I waited as the organization tallied the scores. Finally, they called my name. I had won my division, set a state record total, and was named Lifter of the Meet. A huge accomplishment that I’m proud of – but as I approached the awards table, the few quick claps subsided… then, nothing.
I shook some hands, posed for a picture, and that was it.
Don’t get me wrong, the accomplishment was meaningful, and I had worked hard for it, but it felt somehow hollow. As a football player, the wins and the losses, the exhilaration and the setbacks, vision, reflection, happiness, and disappointment…were shared. I recognized quickly that what was missing from my powerlifting experience was someone, some people, to share the experience with. It was missing the team element.
All of the other components of football were alive in my powerlifting experience: hard work, resilience, goal-directed behavior, etc. – the team component, the community, was missing. What was very present, however, it was a unique atmosphere within sport. People were supporting each other over the course of the day. Between attempts, they were giving each other pointers and talking shop. It never felt like lifters were against each other, but competing against a shared opponent: gravity, the barbell.
And there was a great empathy in the room. everyone seemed to know the hard work it took to get to that point. Countless hours of training, plenty of soreness, and a unique dedication to nutrition, depending on the weight class.
Fast forward a few years down the road and it was clear that the “good“ of the sport as it currently existed was really meaningful, but it was also clear that there were great opportunities to improve it. So with optimism, humility, and a dedication to go Beyond Strength and maximize the potential of Powerlifting, we created the Illinois High School Powerlifting Association.
The IHSPLA is a team-based, coed powerlifting organization wherein lifters must compete together on behalf of their schools. Four pillars uphold up the standards of the organization: character, culture, equity, and service. They are alive in every meet, and every decision made behind the scenes.
What has been built on those pillars is unique. Powerlifting is the fastest growing sport in the state of Illinois. Currently, five regional events funnel into a state championship meet, which has become one of the largest Powerlifting Meets in the nation. Each year, more than athletes participate in invite-only competition where more than 200 of the states most dedicated athletes put their hard work on display.
On Highway 57, driving from Chicago to Herscher, Illinois, visibility worsened as snow blew sideways, in from the covered fields. The Harley Davidson sign at the Manteno Crossing let me know I was on the right path.
Four strong teams of squared off today: Herscher (the host) Kankakee, Dwight, and Oak Park River Forest. Knocking on the door of 60 participants, this is the smallest regional of the year – which is wild to say. When I was lifting on my own, I never went to a meet with more than 30 lifters. IHSPLA meets have a different feel to them, due in part to the large crowds.
It’s not just the size of the groups that makes these events unique, it’s the quality. And the quality was on full display. David Payne, Meet Director and Head Coach of the Herscher Tigers, hosted a great event. All details were considered and athletes, coaches, and spectators, felt well taken care of.
The U.S. Air Force was also on hand (thanks to Coach Payne). Many thanks for all their service, and for their support as spotters and judges for the day’s event.
Squats were up first. The room echoed with dozens of PR attempts and notable performances. Mary Lou Koerner (Oak Park River Forest) impressed in her first meet, posting an early 130lb in the F105 division. Ajiya Casarrubias (Herscher) and Samya McIntosh (Kankakee) each crushed 260 lb squats in the F148 division. Ajiya eventually won the division, narrowly edging out Samya’s total in a 740 to 720 battle. Jerika Harris and Guadalupe Valdez (each from Kankakee) tied for the top squat of the Female Division with an impressive 315 lbs.
On the guys’ side, Adam Nagel (Hersher) was the first to break 300 lbs and impressive numbers continued to fall. Theo Welch (Kankakee) had a gutsy performance to break the 400 mark (405 lbs), Parker Miner (Dwight) made 470 lbs look easy, and even though he was holding back, Steven Young’s 500 lb squat was good for top mark of the day.
But the most notable performance was that of the group – the cheers and support for the lifters was unreal. “That kind of energy gets the most out of these kids for sure” said a proud parent from Dwight High School.
Benchpress was similar, with PRs, cheers, and standout performances from many athletes. Estefany Mendez (Kankakee) was the first female to break the 100 lb mark, followed quickly by Casarrubias and McIntosh (145 lbs each), with Jerika Harris posting the top female mark at 165 lbs.
Adam Nagel (Herscher) impressed with a 265 lb press in the M148 division. As the weight classes advanced, Thomas Dochterman (Dwight) hit 250, Parker Miner hit 280, and Kankakee’s Steven Young – who dropped to the 275lb weight class, after trimming down to prepare for a career in college football – casually set a new record for the weightclass, hitting a controlled 360 lbs.
By the time we got to the third attempt of deadlifts, I was surprised anyone had voice left to shout, but this group dug deep, and once again, our ears were ringing with enthusiasm, pulling every bit of effort out of these athletes. Estefany Mendez was the first female to pull over 200 (225 lbs), Jerika Harris hit 305, McIntosh and Cat Niches (Oak Park River Forest) each hit 315, Casarrubias has a wildly impressive 335 lb pull, and Guadalupe Valdez had the day’s top mark with a 350 lb deadlift.
Zach Schmidt (Herscher) pulled an impressive 275 lbs in the M123 division. Aron Flores (Kankakee) pulled 375 in M132, Nagel in the M148 division was the first to lift 405 lbs, Faris Dispensa pulled 435, Theo Welch pulled 475, and big Steven Young again set the mark for the day with an easy 550 lbs!
Abram Ramos, Keegan Elliot, Parker Miner, Faris Dispensa, Theo Welch, Isai Brito, Nathan Sheets, and Steven Young all totaled more than 1000 lbs on the day!
Top 2 Results per division below.
nd from a team perspective, Kankakee came home with 1st Place in both the Male and Female team divisions. Congrats to the Kays!
We rounded out the day with a public discussion of what matters most. We revisited our values, we talked about character, and we committed to taking care of one another in the weight room and beyond. Another great day in the IHSPLA.
If you are a coach, hoping to get your team involved, please don’t hesitate to reach out!