Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
It is easy to find the First Pull Olympic Weightlifting team area when you go through the doors of the Lakewood Ranch branch of the Manatee YMCA.
Just follow the clanging of steel.
Like several other young athletes in the area, Lakewood Ranch High School sophomore Natasha Wanjohi found the program, which was started by Paul Harris five months ago. Wanjohi got her start in fitness sports by teaching herself CrossFit, then transitioned into the sport of weightlifting.
Although her maximum “clean and jerk” is 95 pounds, she expects to raise it to 150 pounds within six months, with Harris' guidance.
Harris was asked by Sean Allison, the CEO/President of the Manatee YMCA, to start the program. He has 25 years of competitive coaching experience and was a powerlifter himself. He has been able to convince his newest athletes that weightlifting involves mental conditioning as well as physical.
His athletes believe the weight is not the issue, since the body can handle it as long as they are progressing at a steady rate and not pushing themselves past their limits. The problem stems from not believing their body can handle the weight, when it can.
“You second guess yourself,” Wanjohi said. “When that happens, you don’t always get it (the lift).”
Harris believes in his athletes, and his goal is to get as many young adults scholarships in weightlifting as possible, to help make college more affordable.
Athletes such as Wanjohi are young and just getting started, but Harris already has some lifters who already are attracting attention from colleges.
Bayshore junior Nicole Citera is currently in the middle of that process. She was in JROTC her freshman year and participated in Raider competitions, but only the JROTC strength events. She soon discerned that her talents could best be put to use elsewhere, and started weightlifting. She has not played traditional sports.
Harris called Citera the most disciplined athlete he has ever coached. She has not missed or been late to a single practice since joining First Pull when it began five months ago. On Oct. 8, Citera competed at the Tampa Bay Area Classic and qualified for the 2016 USA Weightlifting American Open Championship in Orlando on Dec. 8-11.
Citera lifts because it makes her feel good, and she likes being strong. She also likes that, despite having teammates, weightlifting is mainly an individual sport.
“All of my progress is happening through me,” Citera said.
Citera’s teammate, Bayshore junior Alyssa Page, started lifting for a different reason, to relieve stress. She was a victim of bullying in middle school. Around the same time, her parents separated. All of Page’s pent-up aggression needed an outlet, so she decided to try weightlifting. It turned out to be the perfect channel. Lifting has helped Page feel OK about herself, she said.
Page said she views herself as an underdog and that makes her willing to learn the technique and put in the mental reps required to be great at her new sport. She has struggled a bit to perform in practice because it doesn't involve the adrenaline rush always present at competitions. Page said she is getting better in practice, but noted it's tough to recreate the feeling of an event.
“I’m like a squirrel on coffee after a meet,” Page said.
Harris said both Page and Citera are good enough to get scholarships, Harris said. Unfortunately, their options are limited. Only seven universities in the United States have Olympic-style weightlifting programs. Lindenwood University, in Missouri, is one that intrigues the pair. Lindenwood’s coach, Ma Jianping, won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles and coached the Seychelles (Africa) National Team from 1992-1994.
Wherever these athletes end up, it’s impressive to watch them in their element. I’ve never been much of a weightlifter, even when I was playing sports. The sheer power on display, both of the body and of the mind, is incredible, and I was captivated watching the First Pull team crush its lifts again and again.
All these athletes are in First Pull’s advanced group, but if you think weightlifting is something you would like to try, there is also a beginning group that meets Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 5 p.m., and Saturdays at 10 a.m. Anyone 12 and up is eligible and the cost is $25 a month for YMCA members and $35 for nonmembers.