by Ellen Bittner
The picture on left was taken of me in 2003, when I was still a sedentary, lethargic woman; and before I became an avid swimmer and national powerlifting champion. As I was preparing to retire, I began to look for ways to become healthier & more physically fit. I knew that swimming was a good form of exercise, but prior experience in water aerobics classes brought back a fear of water that I had developed when I was 7 years old. I would begin the class in the shallow end of the pool where the water was barely above my waist. As the class progressed, I would inevitably be pulled further away from the shallow end and begin to panic. Before long, my fear of water would take over and I would get out of the pool and leave the class.
So, when I saw an article about Jeff Krieger’s SOAP program for people with water phobias in my local newspaper I called Jeff. Jeff listened to my story – how I developed my fear and how it had impacted my life. Although he was very caring and understanding, when the day arrived for the first class, my fear once again took over, and I “bailed”. While I had already given up before I started, Jeff did not give up on me. He called me that night and made me promise I would come to the next session. Jeff’s caring and understanding continued throughout the duration of the SOAP program; and throughout the next program where he taught me how to swim. His enthusiasm, encouragement, and support led me to believe in myself and my physical abilities. For the first time in my life I had succeeded at a sport! Jeff taught me that I was capable, and armed with the right skills I could do anything. His mantra – “Setbacks, no matter how large are only temporary, progress no matter how small lasts forever” – continues to motivate me.
Now that I had become more comfortable with physical activity I decided to try other forms of exercise. However, my feelings of uneasiness, embarrassment, and awkwardness with earlier attempts at exercising in gyms and fitness clubs still haunted me. Jeff propelled me on a journey that would change my life…forever; so I reasoned that a personal trainer might provide the individualized attention that would help me get over my discomfort in a gym. After interviewing several personal trainers I chose Vadim Vilensky. Vadim’s studio consisted of a rectangular shaped exercise room that provided enough space for one-on-one training sessions. This room contained exercise bands, stability and weighted balls, hand weights, exercise mats, barbells, and a slide board. The outer area held a table that was used for after-training stretching and massages. I also liked that Vadim had experience working with older people & cardiac rehab patients; and his philosophy, “Fitness for the Real World”, resonated with me.
My private sessions with Vadim focused on improving my strength, balance, and flexibility. I used a variety of equipment including exercise bands, the stability ball, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and steps. I also began wearing a pedometer and kept track of the number of steps I walked in a day – setting a goal of 10,000 steps. After a few months of training with Vadim, I saw that my body was changing- I had lost fat & gained muscle. I also felt stronger and was able to do routine activities like walking upstairs, and getting out of a car more easily. Working one-to-one with Vadim in the privacy of his Fitness Studio, I was able to focus on form and technique without feeling the pressure of keeping up with others. If I had difficulty with balance, resistance, or weight only Vadim and I knew. After working with Vadim for a few years my strength, stamina, and balance improved and I began to feel more confident in my physical abilities.
In the meantime Vadim moved his studio to a new and larger space. This new space included two exercise areas and three rooms that could be used for stretching, physical therapy, and massage therapy. This additional space made it possible for a physical therapist and an additional trainer to work with clients while I was working out. I felt stronger and more physically fit, and was no longer working out in isolation, but since I had no basis for comparison, I didn’t appreciate how much progress I had made. So, when Vadim expanded his offerings to include a small group “boot camp” I decided to give it a try. These “boot camps” consisted of groups of 3-4 people and the circuits included 5-6 timed exercises that I could complete at my own pace. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with my fellow “soldiers”. So, the first time I walked into “boot camp” I was very nervous.
When I arrived, there were three other women, and Vadim had set up six different stations around the room. We were paired off so that we would go through each of the exercises in the circuit in teams of two. The gauntlet of activities required strength, stamina, and balance. And as Vadim promised, I was able to work at my own pace and use weights that were appropriate for me. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only was I able to keep up; but while there were exercises that were more challenging for me, there were those that I was able to do with relative ease. I also found that I enjoyed the friendly camaraderie of my fellow “soldiers” in the “boot camp” and when another group class was started (a mixed martial arts self-defense class) I became one of its charter members.
My boot camp buddies were fun and encouraging; and because they were also considerably younger than me, they dubbed me “The Cougar.” Working out with these “fitness fanatics” made me look at exercise in a new way, and challenged me to do things I hadn’t done before. This positive experience helped me overcome my shyness of exercising “in public.” The twice weekly boot camps gave me a fast-paced cardio workout, but since I still wanted the benefits that my one-on-one sessions with Vadim provided, I continued with personal training once a week. It was during one of these private sessions a little over two years ago that Vadim shared his recent experience at the Albany Strength Powerlifting Meet. He was so excited; I thought there must be something pretty special about a powerlifting competition, so I began asking a lot of questions. There was another powerlifting competition coming up so Vadim suggested I go and see for myself.
A few weeks later I drove to Pine Bush, NY and watched Vadim compete in all three powerlifting events (squat, bench press, and deadlift) at the Orange County Powerlifting Championship. While I was there I met several women who were competing and spoke with a few of them. They willingly shared their own powerlifting experiences with me, helped me understand what was going on at this particular event, and gave me much-needed guidance on powerlifting clothing and gear. Their enthusiasm and encouragement, and the realization that I had more to gain than to lose, motivated me to train for the next powerlifting event a few months later. And, so another transformation began. At 62 years of age, I decided to compete at the 2010 New Jersey State Championships in Princeton, NJ. Since this was my first competition, I focused on one lift – the bench press. For the next few months Vadim and I worked to get me ready. Vadim worked to improve my bench press and prepare me for the technical aspects of the competition, and I worked on finding the required gear.
The NJ State Championships took place in the ballroom of a major hotel. The space was divided into two parts. The exhibition consisted of platforms with equipment for the powerlifters, which faced the seating for the audience. The other part was a warm-up area with equipment and seating for the athletes. Several hundred athletes and coaches, ranging in age from teenage high school students up through lifters in their 70s, were participating in this event. I was very happy to see some of the athletes that I met at the Orange County Powerlifting Championship; and just as before, they were very supportive of me.
When it was time for those who were involved in the bench press to compete, I was fourth in the rotation of women bench pressing, based on the weight of my first attempt. I stepped onto the platform, settled myself in position on the bench, and followed the commands just as Vadim had trained me. I made my first attempt! The awards ceremony didn’t take place until the women’s deadlift and all three of the men’s lifts were completed, so I spent the rest of the afternoon watching these other competitions. And so it wasn’t until the evening that I learned that I won a GOLD MEDAL!
I was now on the path of being a competitive powerlifter and began preparing for my next competition four months later – the Stars & Stripes Push-Pull in Clarks Summit, PA – competing in both the bench press and deadlift. All three of my attempts in both the bench press and deadlift were successful– and I won two gold medals this time, one for each event.
Although, I had won a gold medal for each of my first three competitions, becoming a powerlifter was not an easy task. In order to compete in a full powerlifting competition, which includes the squat, bench press, and deadlift, I would have to master the squat. Completing a “good” squat required that I squat until my butt was below parallel to the thighs. Accomplishing this action eluded me for quite some time, and required the intervention of a physical therapist. She worked with me to get my hips in alignment and gave me exercises to increase the flexibility in my hip joints. It took several months, but I was finally able to “break parallel” and perform a proper squat. Being able to execute all three lifts qualified me to compete in a full powerlifting competition at the New Jersey State Powerlifting Championships in Atlantic City. I won a bronze medal this time, and qualified to participate in the USA Powerlifting Raw Nationals in Scranton, PA. This would be my first competition that had prerequisites in order for an athlete to compete.
Performing at the Raw Nationals in August of 2011 put me back on the “golden path.” However this time, I not only won a gold medal, I also set a national record for each of my lifts. This accomplishment led to my being invited to compete as part of the United States team at a World competition. And so, in April 2012, less than two years after my first powerlifting competition, I competed at the World Masters Bench Press Championships!
Although there were many frustrations and plateaus along the way, I was motivated by the knowledge that I was healthier and more physically fit than I was when I began. I’ve learned you’re never too old to try something new. These athletic accomplishments also encouraged me to take on challenges in other aspects of my life. If I can do it, so can you!