As Ashley Savigne practices her deadlft form without plates, her fellow weightlifting teammates Kelsey Cavanaugh, Marisol Androcle and Madison Durfee cheer her on.

Weightlifting offers strength of body, mind, self

SARASOTA | Ashley Savigne looked intently at the barbell for her deadlift.

The 45-pound bar had 10-pound plates on each side. The high school sophomore took a deep breath and, with a look of determination, bent in the squat position. Her hips were slightly higher than her knees, as they should be. She picked up the barbell with her arms straight and extended.

Holding it steady, she was ready for the next step — lifting it over her head. To do so, form again was critical. But at some point, she realized she made an error in form, and instead of continuing the motion incorrectly, she abandoned the lift and put bar back down on the mat.

Loudly. And with a bit of force. So much so that she lost her balance and fell on her rear.

A little embarrassed, she started laughing at herself. But her coach, Scott Ruane, was right there to offer honest encouragement.

“Ashley you were so close. You almost got it,” the Cardinal Mooney weightlifting coach said. “And if you’re going to fail, fail like that.”

After Ruane identified flaws in her technique, Ashley went right back to task. With fellow weightlifting teammates cheering her on, Ashley lifted the weight, her posture and technique perfect. The cheers filled the room and Ashley ended her deadlift with a nod to herself and a smile.

“The girls respect each other for lifting weights. It empowers them as females,” Ruane said. “It gives them confidence and a powerful experience.”

This is the first year Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota offered girls’ weightlifting. The germ of the idea sprouted over the summer when Ruane offered a weightlifting clinic. In 2002, school had offered a program for girls, although not a separate team; they trained with boys. Meets were done on an informal basis because the Florida High School Athletic Association did not recognize it as a sport.

But that is not the case now, as other high schools have teams and there are formal meets for girls’ weightlifting. Seeing a renewed interest in the summer clinic and the opportunity to perform at meets, Ruane, who also helps with football, took a chance and drew a little more than a dozen girls, many of whom participate in other sports.

While Ruane speculated some of the initial interest in the team might have been curiosity and another outlet to socialize as a female athlete, he noticed it took no time before team members took to sport seriously. From investing in shoes and gloves professional lifters would use to embracing the total body workout offered at practices. Weightlifting is not just about lifting weights; it also involves all body exercises — from squats to lunges, pull ups to cardio training — and learning form and technique to avoid injury. Although this is Ruane’s first foray in teaching a sport exclusively with girls, he noticed the difference between female and male athletes.

“Girls are more meticulous in the best way possible,” Ruane said. “They do exactly as you say and the biggest thing about that is they develop good habits for what they are doing. They believe in learning step by step.” He added that the girls on the team don’t try to one up each other, which might happen with guys in the weight room.

But Alice Smithers, assistant coach for the team, was quick to say that doesn’t mean the girls aren’t competitive. In a way, they drive each other, with one teammate’s success fueling the others. “Most of these girls play other sports, but a lot of them never even touched a bar before,” the former swim coach said, who has been a fixture at Cardinal Mooney for two decades. Since November, the team had competed in four meets with local schools that also offer weightlifting programs. “They like to see each other succeed, and that’s one way that makes this sport addictive. And the atmosphere at meets are just electric. The excitement and hearing everyone cheer everyone else on, whether they’re on your team or not, is wonderful.”

Grace agreed weightlifting is an addictive sport. Although the team is new, she is not new to the sport. She has competed in weightlifting for about two years. “I enjoy it because of the balance between technique and power. Also, for building strength and being a part of a team,” said the high school senior who also plans to pursue track.

A CrossFit athlete, Grace was one of the students who came to training with appropriate shoes from the get-go. She’s glad that others have joined the team, especially since there is that nagging perception that weightlifting is for guys, which might make females reluctant to join. “When I went to my first meet, I realized there are a lot of females that do weightlifting,” Grace said. “I do think that (sexist) mentality is changing though and it is becoming more common for females to do weightlifting.”

Next year, Grace will attend the University of Pittsburgh to study exercise science. While she doesn’t plan on play any college sports, she said she will continue to work out and weightlift through clubs because it’s what she loves to do.

“Having weightlifting at school is empowering because of all the support and encouragement from our team and school,” she said.

One volunteer with the team is Grace’s theology teacher, Sarah Gates. An athlete in her own right and an alumni of Cardinal Mooney (see story, Page B7), Gates can be seen at practices demonstrating how to perform exercises, including suspended push-ups, without a spotter, on a dip stand. A CrossFit athlete and a runner, Gates loves how the girls have embraced weightlifting as a sport.

“When I was an athlete in high school, we weren’t in the weight room at all. Everything was running, running, running. No ab work and no upper body,” Gates said. “For some girls, they might have competed as cheerleaders, or did cross country or volleyball, but this is a new challenge. And these girls look like they belong here. It really is this girl power atmosphere, and it makes me feel so proud.”