At 14 years old I walked into power training my freshman year of high school, not skinny so much as gangly, hands and feet too large for my body shooting upwards, as clumsy as a puppy. I was terrified, intimidated by the muscular men all around me, the girls who played softball and were built like small tanks, who wore a lot of makeup and judged me with eyes surrounded by thick black mascara and brightly colored eye shadow. Laing was showing a video of a strongman contest, one that he participated in, if my memory serves. I walked in late because I got lost on my way trying to find the gym. They were at the point of the video where he picks up giant boulders and sets them on podiums. Anxiety kicks in. What the hell am I doing here?
I learned the proper form to squat, how to do clean and jerks and snatches, how to do deadlift and bench presses. I worked my skinny limbs to their limit until I was so sore I could barely climb the stairs between classes. I sweated and stared myself in the eyes in the mirror in front of me while counting reps. I checked off each set on my sheet and I kept track of my maxes. Everything was methodical and the progression of things was set out straight in front of me. If I relaxed too much, if I didn’t work as hard as possible, Laing was there to ask me if I wanted to be a champion. “Don’t you want to be an Olympic figure skater?” he said. No one ever believed that there was a possibility of that for me. People so often believe that everything is out of their reach. Laing didn’t. He believed that if you pushed, really pushed, to your limit, anything was possible.
I’ll never forget the day that one of the strong girls, the ones who were half my height and twice my weight, was lifting light weights. When he asked her why, she told him “I’m getting bigger than all the guys.” He looked at her and replied, “I guess the guys need to work harder then,” and he walked away.
In power training I learned the meaning of hard work. I learned to set personal goals and I learned to reach them. I learned that if you want something badly enough and you work hard enough, you can do anything. I learned that excuses are just a waste of time. For 40 minutes every day I had clarity. The scent of metal, the feeling of chalk on my hands, the sound of AC/DC and Metallica, of screams of exertion, the callouses and the bruises and the sore muscles and the rust and sweat, it all soothed me. It was all a daily ritual, of repetitive motions, of progressions summarized in numbers and felt in both body and mind.
I remember the hardest moments of my young life. My first encounters with rejection and failure and all sorts of formative high school moments threatened to beat me down. I fought back in the gym.
After graduation I no longer had the incentive of straight A’s to keep me in the gym. I slacked. I decided I wanted my arms to be small and girly so I dieted instead of eating enough protein to build muscle. I stopped progressing in my workouts and started focusing on what I wanted to do with my life.
But shortly before my graduation from The American University of Rome, as I finished my thesis, took my last exams, bought groceries, cleaned house, pondered what school to attend for my Master. Stress reached previously unknown levels. I started going back to the gym. At 22 years old I realized what these skills really meant to me all along.
I saw the focus it had given me, the drive. I saw that it honed my dedication and taught me never to give up. It taught me to be grateful for every victory, no matter how small it seemed. Furthermore, in high school power training I gained self confidence previously unknown to me. I was given respect by a teacher who, unlike many members of the staff at Portage Northern, didn’t treat students like prisoners. We would accept the responsibilities of our actions as human beings. Now, back in Portage for the summer, I talk with my friends about our work-outs. We’re still using skills we learned in high school power training, skills most people never have even after paying for personal trainers in fancy private gyms.
In that class I grew from a lanky, self conscious girl, to someone in control of her body, her life. By my senior year I was teaching freshman proper form for the lifts, telling them to put their weight on their heels, drop below the bar with their body. I learned to trust myself to lift weight over my head that could crush every bone in my body without blinking an eye.