KILLEEN, Texas - The clank of iron mixed with wild cheers and applause this weekend as Fort Hood’s Phantom Warrior Powerlifting Team hosted 282 athletes from around the country at the Collegiate National Powerlifting Championships.
Teams and their fans from colleges across the U.S., including the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy and The Air Force Academy, filled a cavernous conference room at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel for the three-day event, creating a scene that might not be the image most people see when they hear the word “powerlifting."
Instead of ripped, tanned, buttered-down bodies a’ la Arnold Schwarzenegger, the grounds of the competition were filled with a surprising spectrum of body types – from svelte and petite women to hulking barrel-chested men.
“It’s not bodybuilding,” said U.S. Army Military Academy Cadet Zack Newman, a member of the West Point Powerlifting Team, who competes at 116 pounds. “You’re probably going to be stronger than a bodybuilder, but you’re not going to look like that. It’s functional fitness.”
“It’s the strongest sport in the world,” said meet director Johnny Graham, a retired first sergeant, eight-time world powerlifting champion and mentor to the Phantom Warrior Powerlifting Team for 21 years.
“This sport is a strength sport, but it will enhance the other sports too,” said David Goodwin, the technical controller for the meet who competed with Graham when they were both still in the Army. “It’s not a one-dimensional thing. It will improve their performance in any sport they’re in.”
“It’s very mental,” said Molly Dunker, a thin 105-pound competitor for the University of Texas, San Antonio, who looks like she’d be more at home in a yoga studio than a powerlifting competition. “I’ve won six national meets and I’ve been on the world team twice, hoping for a third. One of the biggest fears, especially for females, is that they’ll get buffed and manly, but that’s not the case. Look at me.”
“It’s just you against the weight,” said Graham. “You’d be surprised at how much thought goes into a lift.”
To compete, every contestant has three chances to put up as much as they can in three different events: the squat, the bench press, and the dead lift. The winners are those who achieve the highest accumulated score.
The people who got the most exercise over the three-day event were the soldiers from the Phantom Warrior Powerlifting Team and several different units stationed at Fort Hood who volunteered to be spotters. Plates had to be moved back and forth from the racks to the bars between every competitor, keeping them in near constant motion with weight in their hands.
The spotters also had to be right there to catch the weight for competitors who bit off more than they could chew and experienced muscle failure. This often meant catching bars loaded with more than 600, 700, and even 800 pounds of plates.
For the 22 members of the Phantom Warrior Powerlifting Team, all the hard work was worth it in more ways than one.
“This is our way of raising money for the team so we can go compete around the nation too,” said Graham. “This is the largest collegiate nationals ever held, so we’re blessed to have it.”
Graham added that soldiers can strengthen more than just their muscles by getting into the sport. It also builds confidence and the ability to focus on a single task.
“When you get that heavy weight on you, and you’re stressed out, you have to learn to put everything aside,” said Newman. “Nothing matters but that one specific task you have to get done.”