Ava Oteri is no 39-kilogram weakling.
The 12-year old Hickory Ridge Middle School rising seventh-grader didn’t know what to expect when she joined an Olympic weightlifting club last fall. Oteri is surprised that she turned into one of the top female weightlifters for her age in the country.
Oteri is a member of the Harrisburg Weightlifting Club, an upstart collection of a half dozen teens who work out at 4F Sports Performance Gym in Harrisburg. They train in the lifts called “clean and jerk” and “snatch” which make up Olympic weightlifting.
Four club members – Oteri, Dakota Christie, Caitlin Lippert and Lara Mullis – qualified for the USA Weightlifting National Youth Championships in Minnesota in late June.
Oteri and Lippert both finished fifth in their age groups and weight classes and Christie placed eighth. Mullis did not make the trip because she was participating in a pageant at the same time as the competition.
A fifth Cabarrus County resident, Chasey Richardson, also competed at the National Youth Championships, finishing in sixth place. She trains under her father’s direction at CrossFit Harrisburg.
“I wasn’t sure what I’d be doing (with weightlifting),” said Oteri. “I thought it would be a totally different experience, but it was a lot better. I thought it was going to be these really big guys doing presses. I know some of the other girls and it’s not like that. It really boosted my confidence.”
All of the Harrisburg Weightlifting Club members are new to the sport. They learned about weightlifting at 4F Sports Performance and trainer Dan Rose.
Rose is a former competitive weightlifter. He founded the club as an extension of the weight training he provided to some of his sports performance clients.
Oteri, who stands at 4 feet, 11 inches and weighs about 86 pounds, putting her in the 39-kilogram competitive weight class, plays soccer for the Harrisburg Youth Association. Lippert, Mullis, and Richardson have a background in gymnastics or cheerleading or both.
Christie plays softball and helped Hickory Ridge High’s team to the South Piedmont 3A Conference tournament championship this spring. In less than a year of weightlifting, Christie says her speed on the base paths and the velocity of her throws has increased, which is important for someone who plays on the left side of the infield.
Christie, 16, says she enjoys weightlifting every bit as much as softball, a sport she’s played since she was 8. She feels she has more potential in softball because she recognizes weightlifting as a sport in which the top competitors have to be totally committed.
“With weightlifting, that’s all they do,” said Christie. “But I have softball and school that I share time with. I like getting stronger. My teammates are really fun. I really like them. Coach Rose will help me through anything and make me stronger.”
Christie and Oteri both won weightlifting state championships in January. In addition to qualifying for Youth Nationals (for ages 17-under), Christie also advanced to the USA Weightlifting Junior Nationals (for ages 20-under).
The young weightlifters credit Rose for their early success. He and his wife Yashi opened their gym “on a whim, not knowing really what to expect” in July, 2013.
In addition to the youth national competitors, Rose has trained a weightlifter who advanced to Senior Nationals and three that competed at the University World Championships.
“It’s always been my goal to produce national competitors,” said Rose, 39. “I really didn’t see it materializing that quickly. I just wanted to grow the sport and for it to become successful. We really didn’t expect the kids to become as good as they are.”
Rose says “speed, strength, explosive power, and athleticism are all necessary skills to be effective weightlifters. He added that sports such as gymnastics and cheerleading lend themselves to the weightlifting skill set.
Weightlifting is not powerlifting, which Rose is quick to point out. Olympic weightlifting involves raising the weight from the floor. Powerlifting refers to the bench press, deadlift and squat lifts.
Either way, most of the female weightlifters thought of the sport as being taboo for women, which is the same reputation they now fight against. Mullis, the reigning Ms. Concord Outstanding Teen, says weightlifting has helped her be stronger in the fitness component of her pageants.
“I think it benefits you emotionally,” she says. “It gives you a big confidence booster, knowing that you can lift that much. And it doesn’t make you look like a boy, so that’s always a plus.”
Joe Habina is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.