LIFE, UNEDITED: How Powerlifting Led to Self-Discovery

From bookish to athlete, there are many lessons to be learned along the way. Our fitness editor’s take on transforming to a powerlifter.

maggie with young girl

When it comes to working out, I would most aptly be classified as a late bloomer. I spent the first two decades of my life avoiding physical activity as much as possible — there was nothing more unappealing than getting sweaty, dirty, and out-of-breath. As a child, I would take a quiet corner and a good book over a track, field, or patch of grass, hands down, any day.

As I grew older, I watched my athletic peers with awe. But this admiration never translated to ambition, and I dismissed sports as the purview of those with innate talent and working out as nothing more than a method to lose weight and manipulate the body. Compete because you can win. Get sweaty to burn fat. I saw no in-between, no gray area, no correlation between being active and anything that related to fun and personal growth.

Then, in my late 20s, three things happened almost simultaneously that changed the course of my life:

  • In 2010, at 28 years old, my cousin Louisa asked if I’d like to run a half-marathon with her to celebrate her wellness journey and 50th birthday. Without hesitation, I said yes — despite the fact that I wasn’t confident I could run even a mile at that point. (It’s dangerously easy to convince me to do things.) That race was about six months out, which gave me plenty of time to gently build up my strength. Every time I completed a training run, I was shocked by the fact that I could do it. Every single time. I cried when I crossed the finish line at the half.
  • A year later, empowered by the realization that my body was good for something more than keeping me alive, I became interested in seeing what else it could do. I signed up for CrossFit and was introduced to strength training. I had never touched a barbell or kettlebell, and it blew my mind to think that these were tools at my disposal, that these were objects I could move with my body. Every day in the gym included learning something new, not just about fitness, but about myself. In a little warehouse in Washington, D.C., I fell in love with working out — not as a demonstration of athletic prowess or an effort to change what I looked like (though my body did change, and I did tap into a competitive streak I didn’t know I had), but as an act of curiosity and self-discovery.
  • In that same time period, I began volunteering for a nonprofit called Girls on the Run (GOTR), an after-school program for elementary and middle school girls. Using running as a vehicle, GOTR encourages kids to lead joyful, courageous lives. Through physical activity that isn’t tied to competition or aesthetic goals (there’s a theme here), I got to introduce young women to juicy life lessons around self-confidence, teamwork, goal-setting, and handling challenges with grace. The only rules are to show up, be nice, and keep moving forward — goals that sound easy, but actually require a fair bit of strength, inside and out. Sounds a lot like life, right? The more I reiterated these ideas to my team, the more I believed them myself — the more I believed in myself.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because in many ways it helps explain how I, once a daydreaming, sweat-averse kid from New Jersey, recently found myself competing in a powerlifting meet in Champlin, Minn.

Powerlifting, if you’re not familiar, is a strength sport comprised of the squat, bench press, and deadlift. It requires wearing a spandex onesie (called a singlet), stepping up onto a platform in front of an audience, and following very explicit instructions on how and when to pick up what I once would have considered an ungodly amount of weight.

But, the thing is, I found that that once I started feeling strong and capable in my body, my perspective on what “strong” and “capable” meant shifted.

I showed up at the February meet with two pretty simple goals: Have fun, and don’t get hurt. I succeeded with both — and even set a couple of PRs in my squat and bench, though now, two months later, I couldn’t tell you what I lifted without looking it up.

In that regard, I guess not much has changed since I was a kid. I still don’t want to try that hard, and I don’t care much about winning or losing, or looking a certain way (I mean, those singlets aren’t exactly known for being flattering). The same thing that drove me to getting lost in a storybook is the same unlikely impulse that helped me fall in love with exercise: curiosity.

Photo courtesy Maggie Fazeli Fard.

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