My First Powerlifting Meet Confirmed It’s a Sport for Misfits Like Me

All day the day before my first powerlifting meet, I ate an atrocious amount of protein and carbohydrates and as much sodium as I could possibly cram in: eggs cooked over easy, sausage links, home fries, chocolate chip pancakes the size of a dinner plate, Publix fried chicken, an full-size bag of cheddar Sun Chips, probably about five or six string cheese sticks, a couple of mini ice cream sandwiches, and a personal size barbeque chicken pizza.

The night before the meet, I put out everything I needed so I didn’t have to think about it at all. I laid out my underwear, socks, t-shirt, and competition singlet, and I packed my gym bag with my wrist wraps, deadlift socks, extra clothes and shoes to change into after the meet, and some other miscellaneous things like deodorant and additional hair ties.

I put out the cooler bag I’d use to carry three bottles of Body Armor Flash IV and two of my favorite energy drinks out on the kitchen table and put my intra-meet snack — an entire, full-size Bauducco chocolate chip Panettone — next to it so I wouldn’t forget anything.

I prepared a small breakfast of a couple of hard boiled eggs, some cold brew with a scoop of protein powder in it, and some instant oatmeal to eat as soon as I was showered and dressed.

And right before I went to bed, I realized I hadn’t packed the brand new bottle of strawberry-flavored glucose tablets I was advised would come in handy between events, so I got up to put those in my bag also.

When I woke up at 6 a.m. the next day, I didn’t feel anxious or stressed out. I just got up and showered, ate my breakfast, and put on my competition singlet for the first time since it was delivered to my house a few weeks before. My partner and I got in the car and made the 45 minute drive over to the venue. She was a little concerned about my lack of emotions about the whole thing, but I just didn’t really have any. In the weeks leading up to the meet, I mostly worried about my place in the powerlifting community and if it was appropriate for me to take up this kind of space as an amateur. And eventually, I finally moved to a place where I just felt like the whole thing was “just for fun” and a way for me to get a baseline of where my strength truly is currently. I didn’t feel any performance anxiety or think about how I might fail. I’d been powerlifting for over a year, and I’d performed these lifts four times a week for the majority of that time. There was always the chance I might not hit my third and final try at the maximum weight we’d choose but even if it happened, I knew I’d have a supportive group of people around me to remind me that I still kicked ass. Nothing was enough to make me jittery.

Then I got to the meet. If you’ve never been a participant in a powerlifting meet before, there’s not a lot that can prepare you for what’s happening in the hour or so before the meet backstage when all the other competitors arrive.

My strength coach, Vinny, definitely tried to warn me. He said there’d not only be other competitors but also their coaches and possibly some friends and a ton of gear and water bottles and snacks lying around everywhere. There’d be people stretching and trying to hype each other up. He said there’d be mostly “good vibes” but like any sporting event, people would also be getting ready to do what they came there to do.

As soon as I walked in, I found the rest of the crew from my strength gym and put my stuff down to get settled. Even with the warning, I quickly got overwhelmed. Vinny was also helping with the event, and the other coach from the gym who’d be helping me out for the day wasn’t there yet. The representatives from the U.S. Powerlifting Association (USPA) did their quick rules briefing, and after that, my nerves kind of took over.

It all of a sudden seemed like a lot to remember: Make sure your form is correct, keep track of where you are in line to lift, warm up backstage but be judicious about when you do that, make sure you’re 100% platform ready when you’re next in line to lift, make sure your wrist wraps are not too high on the palms of your hands when it’s time to bench, you can celebrate your wins on the platform but not too hard, don’t use profanity at all (this is a family event)…the list seemed to go on and on. On top of that, the first lift of powerlifting meets is always the squat, which I wasn’t competing in this time around, so I’d have a lot of time to sit around and think about all this shit.

For a few moments, I just stood by the little space we all claimed for our strength gym team members and stared out into space. I don’t fully remember what was going on in my head, but I don’t think it was much. It was just a mess of swirling thoughts, of not knowing how to move forward. When I felt a friend from my strength gym, Mari, put her hand on my back, my uneasiness had me almost on the verge of tears. But her checking in on me and reassuring me in that way still wasn’t enough to fully bring me back down.

Brendan, my close friend who got me into this whole mess in the first place, saw me and said with a slight laugh in his voice and a funny look on his face, “Hey brother, you all right? You’re just kind of…sitting there.” I laughed immediately and started feeling like I was back: “No man, I’m not but we’re here. We’re gonna do this.”

Right as I said that, the coach who would be helping Brendan and me out throughout the meet, our friend who is also named Brendan, came running up to us shouting “Are we ready, guys? Are we ready to crush it?” That’s when the nerves actually started to dissipate. Things were suddenly less chaotic and more ordered. I could feel my whole body getting more acclimated to the space, to the people around me, and to the tasks at hand — the same tasks I’d done a hundred times over. The first event finally began, and since I wasn’t competing in it, I went out to watch my friends from the gym and the other competitors take their turns squatting.

I always think about how distinct powerlifting and strength sports are from other kinds of sports in general and other kinds of singleton sports like tennis or swimming or gymnastics in particular. There is a competitive edge to some degree. People do want to break state and national records, they want to earn “Best Lifter” medals at meets, and they want titles.

But the competition against others, the fact of winning in the way that you’d win a baseball game or tennis match or swim meet, is not what really draws people to strength sports to begin with. What draws most of the people I know, most of the people I’ve read about, and myself even is the mentality that you’re just trying to get the best of yourself. You’re trying to beat your own numbers, perfect the movements, and overcome stagnation.

It’s an interesting dynamic compared to how we grow up thinking about the competitive nature of sports. In some ways, sports definitely do have positive effects on how we grow physically and emotionally. Some athletes are great at taking the wins with the losses, and most, if not all, are in it for the love of the game. But on the other hand, there is an enormous amount of value placed on winning that sometimes sours what seems to be the overall purpose of competing in sports. I don’t know how athletes in more competitive sports balance these disparate feelings because I’ve never been a serious-ish athlete until now, but I imagine it’s difficult, and I imagine that kindness and compassion between players is often hard to maintain.

In my experiences in strength sports so far, I’ve seen nothing but kindness and compassion and enthusiasm for fellow competitors. For a while, I thought it was just that I lucked out on having someone like Brendan in my life who could introduce me to Vinny and the rest of the community at my strength gym. I thought I was lucky for falling into that community so quickly and seamlessly. And I still do think I am.

But watching how other athletes treated each other at the meet, how they’d perform their lifts and then try to find the best view of the platform to watch other people lift and cheer them on as they did it, made me realize it’s a culture thing. If you’re always trying to get the best of yourself, then it tracks that you’d want the same for the other members of your sports community. That divestment, whether it’s conscious or subconscious, from our traditional view of what it means to win makes it so much easier to just have fun, do your best, and enjoy the show. Watching this happen throughout each and every one of the squat flights (or sections) of the meet made me feel so enthusiastic and honored to not only do my lifts but to share the platform with all of the other competitors there. Eventually, I totally forgot I was overwhelmed in the first place.

The rest of the meet — save for one momentary hiccup with my deadlift socks that actually turned out to be totally fine — felt simultaneously long as hell and super quick. After the squat flights, it was time for all of us to bench press and time for my lifting to get started. When I was waiting to do my first bench press attempt on the platform (a very easy 120 pounds), I looked out and noticed my partner managed to grab the last seat left in the front row, and my dad and stepmom, who had also come out to support me, weren’t too far behind here. Flanking the outskirts of the crowd was Brendan, his partner, and some of our friends who’d come to see us, too. That first bench press attempt was my first experience in an athletic competition as an adult, and so many people I love were there to see me crush it. So I had to.

I flew through that 120 pounds as expected, then with Vinny and other Brendan’s guidance, I set my sights on 132. I’d never done more than 130 pounds in the gym before, so that would be the first of hopefully multiple personal records for me that day. I waited my turn and came back to the platform to push 132 for the first time. Smooth as hell, barely any resistance from my body. After 132 moved so fast, we decided to go to 137 and a half (the weight in competition is done in kilograms, so sometimes there are fractions). This one moved a little slower than the first two, but I’d done much rougher lifts throughout the course of my 15 months practicing the sport.

the author Stef Rubino holding a sports drink and a panettone

As the bench press flights concluded, I was, naturally, feeling confident as hell. I’d completed all three attempts with perfect scores, denoted by three white lights on a screen at the end of each attempt, for my form. Backstage, we were all making jokes and talking shit, eating our snacks (yes, we — but mostly I — managed to eat about 3/4ths of that Panettone by the time the meet ended) and rehydrating. Nearly everyone there was attempting the biggest lifts of their lives that day, but the pressure to perform, to win, was absent in every interaction I was part of or witnessed. It was just a bunch of people fucking around and lifting heavy ass stuff in front of an audience — no big deal.

Or at least, that’s how it felt. Before the deadlift flights even began, I was already sure this was one of the funnest days of my life regardless of the slightly rocky beginning. Not because I was succeeding in what I’d been training to do or because I knew for sure there was space for me in the realms of both strength sports and athletics in general, but because it confirmed everything I believed about the community before the meet happened: Powerlifting and strength sports might have some true prestige in our society at large eventually, but they’ll never fully break away from their “freak show” beginnings. And they’ll never get rid of the misfits who take them on.

Everyone started getting ready to line up for the deadlift flight. We set my first attempt at 220.5 pounds — easy breezy, I’d done that for reps in the gym many times. My goal for deadlifts that day was to hit 250 pounds because I’d failed that weight in the gym about three weeks before. Vinny and I chalked it up to a bad day, but it made us think maybe we should save it for the meet. After my first attempt, we went up to 237 pounds, another safe weight for me. It was time to make a decision — do we only go up a little bit or do we potentially blow it out and go for 259? Vinny, other Brendan, and I decided to go for 259 even though I was lifting without a powerlifting belt. Generally, a powerlifting belt is helpful in accomplishing big lifts and hitting maxes, but up to that point, I’d never trained with one, and we just decided to do the meet without it.

I waited for the nerves to come back again, but they never did. I went backstage to wait my turn, ate a couple of glucose tablets to make sure my energy level didn’t fail me, and drank a bunch. Before I knew it, I was back out on the platform doing my little pre-deadlift set up. For some reason, I closed my eyes in the middle of the lift, but I didn’t struggle…it just floated up slowly and much smoother than any max lift/weight I’d hit in the gym. The lift was good. I’d hit all three attempts again. Vinny came running up to me to hug me as I was walking away from the platform, and I could hear my partner, my parents, and my friends still screaming for me.

In retrospect, Vinny, other Brendan, and I agree we played my third attempts at both bench press and deadlift a little too safe, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I surpassed my goals, I set three new personal records, and most importantly, I saw what dedication and commitment to something I’d never even thought about doing before last year could do. Weightlifting has made me physically stronger than I’ve ever been, and it has also shown me how that kind of commitment — the kind that is outside of the realms of things that come easy to me — can transform the way I understand myself and my abilities entirely. It’s shown me that doing something hard and something that doesn’t really come naturally to you will make you feel capable of doing almost anything.

the author Stef Rubino wearing a gold medal at a powerlifting meet

At the end of every meet, there’s an awards presentation where people are given USPA medals for their performances in their age, weight, and event divisions. Brendan and I joked a lot about getting medals in the weeks leading up to the meet, but I don’t think either of us really expected to get any. Just like most of the day, though, the opposite turned out to be true, and we both received gold medals in our divisions and subdivisions. I also learned my stats will soon be on Open Powerlifting along with the stats of famous (in the powerlifting world) athletes I’ve come to revere over the last year and change and, of course, my brothers Vinny and Brendan, many of the members of my community at the strength gym, and all of the wonderful strangers and acquaintances I competed with the weekend before last.

At least once a day for the past year, I’ve thought about how unexpected and utterly strange it is that the twists and turns of my life led me here. But I don’t think it’s so strange anymore. Sometimes we just need to do something so out of leftfield from who we’ve become to bring us back to some of the things that matter most to us. For me, some of those are endless curiosity and eternal learning, community and brotherhood and love, passion, and the ability to connect with a diverse group of people through some shared experiences and values. Weightlifting has been bringing me there for the last 15 months, even on the days I’m convinced I don’t have it in me to make it to the gym. Now I don’t envision a future where it’s not part of my life.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 94 articles for us.

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