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Last month at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City, a souvenir T-shirt booth was set up in a carpeted banquet room. Available designs for sale ranged from the slogan “Stronger Than Yesterday” to “I Could Dead Lift You” to “Girls Pump Iron Too” and the ever-popular, “I Got 99 Problems and a Bench Ain’t One.” Next door, in a room smelling of sweat, chalk and rubber, the floor shook as young weightlifters in a rainbow of spandex unitards warmed up, hoisting bars stacked with massive weights before dropping them down again to the ground.
Welcome to the 2015 USA Weightlifting Junior Nationals.
Backstage in the main room, Savannah Braud, a senior from Timber Creek High in Orlando, readied for her second of three snatch attempts. She had already easily lifted 52 kilograms (114.4 pounds) as her opener. She took a deep breath, her coach clapped his hand on her back, whispered “Go for it” in her ear and she clambered up the steps in her cobalt blue singlet to the brightly lit stage. She slapped chalk onto her callused hands, shook out her arms and approached the bar. Two spotlights shone in her face as three judges in red blazers sat a table directly in front of her. Spectators filled the chairs in the otherwise darkened convention hall room behind them.
“Go Sav, you got it!” her teammates yelled from the crowd. “You want this!” “Come on!” “Big pull!”
She regarded the bar, two weights stacked on either end for a total of 55 kilos (121 pounds)—exactly one pound more than she had weighed in at that morning, measuring in as the lightest entrant in the 58-kilo weight class. “I can do this,” she told herself as she does before every competition lift. She walked up to the bar and repeated the affirmation to herself once more.
Savannah blinked, inhaled, bent over the weight and wrapped her hands around the bar. Her hot pink fingernails—freshly painted that morning—were a stark contrast to the silver-gray metal and her long ponytail hung over the bar as she set her feet. As she flipped her hair over her shoulder, her back straight as she stared directly ahead, the buzzer sounded—she had 30 seconds on the clock to complete her lift. Savannah let her mind go blank, exhaled and exploded upwards. She popped the bar up overhead as it reached her pelvis and then sunk down into a low squat before straightening out to her full 5’ 4” height, holding the weight overhead, like a prize fighter holding up a championship belt. With a clang, Savannah dropped it back down as she turned on her heel and exited the platform, her ponytail swishing behind her.
In a world where girls are constantly told what they can’t do; where women are reminded to “lean in” and to mind the “confidence gap”; where cyber-bullying and eating disorders are prevalent issues; and where the #LikeAGirl hashtag seems to trend on Twitter every other week, Savannah Braud is a refreshingly self-assured, unself-conscious teenager who knows there’s nothing girls can’t do. Being able to routinely lift your entire body weight over your head will do that for you.
A tiny but powerful dynamo of a girl—a size zero with trapezius muscles to rival a Cirque du Soleil acrobat—Savannah defies expectations of what a typical weightlifter looks like. But she’s a fitting ambassador for a sport that defies expectations. Weightlifting, one of the original Olympic sports, has only been open to women since the 2000 Sydney games. As women’s weightlifting grows and girls of all shapes and sizes compete in the traditionally masculine sport, they have shown that lifting like a girl is nothing to scoff at.
Savannah, a former cheerleader turned youth national champion weightlifter, returned from a back injury this season that sidelined her for six weeks to win districts and qualify for states, where she hit personal records in the snatch and clean and jerk before traveling to Oklahoma City for her fifth national competition. There she went four for six in her snatch and clean and jerk attempts and met her goal to beat her personal record lifts at last year’s competition.
“I’m not the best but I work hard and I do see results—and that’s made me feel like I’m the best for myself,” she says.
If it weren’t for Hurricane Katrina, Savannah may have never found weightlifting. The storm that displaced so many families landed the Braud clan—father Cade, mom Mary, Savannah, and her younger sister, Delaney—in Orlando after Cade’s engineering firm’s office in flooded downtown New Orleans was badly damaged.
Just nine years old, Savannah focused on school. “Because she was taken out of her comfort zone completely she turned to her studies to compensate for that,” says her mom, Mary. Savannah went through elementary school and junior high without ever getting a B—a trend that continued until she encountered BC Calculus in high school earlier this year. With an un-weighted GPA of 3.98, she is now in the top 4% of her class of about 750 students and will attend the University of Central Florida, where she plans to study industrial engineering and focus on competitive CrossFit. “Savannah is determined, focused and very competitive with herself,” Mary says.
It just so happened that the devastating storm displaced the family to a state that, two years earlier, officially recognized girls’ weightlifting as a new interscholastic sport under Title IX laws. The transplanted Braud family couldn’t have known it then, but their new home state would quickly become the hotbed of girls’ lifting in the U.S. (of the 9,277 girls who participated in high school weightlifting in eight states last year, more than half of them came from Florida, one of just three states that offer state championships in the sport) and the little girl hunched over her schoolbooks when she wasn’t practicing cheerleading routines would not only grow up to be one of Florida’s current 5,148 female lifters, but she also would one day go on to win a youth national title to stamp a ticket to youth worlds in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
“If someone were to have told me 18 years ago when she was born that she would grow up to be a weightlifter and travel from Denver to Missouri to Oklahoma City all the way to Uzbekistan I would have thought that they were probably certifiably insane,” Mary says.
Savannah first discovered weight lifting in middle school when her current high school and Olympic-style weightlifting coach, Tyrone Harvey Jr., ran a strength and conditioning program for local Pop Warner football players and cheerleaders. A flier on her cheerleading team—the girl who gets launched into the air like a projectile out of a catapult—Savannah quickly saw her tumbling become more explosive and her strength improve after adding weight training to her regimen. Soon she was competing in Olympic-style weightlifting under Harvey with Team Florida Orlando, a USA Weightlifting team based out of his Orlando gym, CrossFit High Performance. By eighth grade, she placed third at youth nationals. In ninth grade, she placed second and a year later, she won first in the 53-kg weight class, earning a trip to youth worlds.
Savannah had obvious early talent for the sport, says Harvey, a former high school weightlifter and college football linebacker, who has developed 14 national champions and five Team USA world members through his Timber Creek squad and Team Florida Orlando, including Savannah. “She was very dedicated to it and never missed any practices,” he said.
When she got to high school, Savannah joined the Timber Creek girls’ weightlifting team coached by Harvey and also kept up with cheerleading, juggling both sports before deciding to concentrate solely on weightlifting last year.
“I adore cheerleading, I coach cheerleading—but I think cheerleading can be a very individual sport in a team perspective,” says Savannah’s mom. “You’re always trying to be just a little bit better than your teammates because you want that front and center spot for your jumps. You want to be the premier tumbler, you want to be the strongest base or the best flier. And there’s always internal competition. With weightlifting it really is about being the best you can be.”
There’s a photo that Cade and Mary each have framed on their desks at work. At states in 2013, Savannah attempted a weight she’d never reached before. After hitting the lift to set a new personal record, she immediately dropped the bar, ran to her assistant coach Hannah Crowe and jumped into her arms. Luckily someone caught it on camera. “It’s that daily inspiration to me that if you do try your hardest, and you work hard you will achieve your goals,” Cade says.
“You can’t even see Savannah’s face but you can just see the joy and the energy in the photo that just radiates ‘success,’” Mary says. “I love that photo.”
In a world where women and girls are still often told what they can’t do, being able to compete in and excel in a sport that is traditionally dominated by men is especially empowering. Girls’ weightlifting, after all, is literally girl power.
"I actually have girls in the gym who are stronger than many high school boys—they can lift higher amounts than what the average boy walking into the gym can do at their size and weight,” Harvey says.
Getting them in the gym is the biggest hurdle but once girls are given the chance to prove their mettle, any timidity melts away and their outward demeanor visibly improves.
“The amount of confidence the girls have when they’re really good at something just goes through the roof,” Harvey says. “They’re not walking around like these little frail objects that will fall apart when they bump into a wall. They walk around with their shoulders back and their heads up.”
Timber Creek alum and four-year Seahawks offensive lineman, Lemuel Jeanpierre, uses his alma mater’s weight room in the offseason and often finds himself surrounded by teenaged girls.
“I gotta get out of their way, simply put,” says the 6’ 3”, 301-pound Jeanpierre. “I come in here to get work done but once the school bell rings, they’re ready to get in here and attack the weights. One thing about the girls and how they come in here and compete, they come in with a different attitude. They see me and they’re not intimidated. The guys sometimes walk by like I’m not there—kinda shy to talk.”
Savannah stands out for her self-possessed demeanor. “She’s impressive because you see that when it comes to her sport, she definitely owns it,” Jeanpierre says. “She doesn’t back down, she can talk to you about all the workouts, it’s great. She needs to teach me how to snatch because one of my weak areas is definitely snatch.”
Tyrone Harvey gets a kick out of watching his lifters chat with strangers in airports who can’t help but ask the troop of friendly, obviously athletic girls what kind of team they’re on. Guesses range from soccer to volleyball to basketball. “When we say weightlifters, that completely sparks a conversation,” he says. “(The girls) start talking to them about what they can do like, ‘Oh, I was on the U.S. youth world team’ as Savannah was, or ‘I went to the junior Pan Am championships,’ and people are just astonished that the small girl next to them in the airport is a weightlifter.”
The biggest misconception they encounter is that weightlifting is akin to bodybuilding—but the sport isn’t about adding bulk, it’s about building strength in the frame that you already have.
“When I tell people my daughter is an Olympic-style weightlifter they ask, ‘How can you buy clothes that fit well? Isn’t she like large through the legs and shoulder?’” Mary says. “And honestly I think it blows people away to see that someone so small could be so powerful in that kind of package simply because of technique and training. So it really has dispelled stereotypes that don’t need to exist out there.”
“Everyone thinks weightlifting is such a manly sport and that if you weightlift, you’re going to get strong and manly and bulky but that’s not it at all,” Savannah says. “Weightlifting has made me so much more confident in my body. I really think a lot more girls should do it because of just how much better it makes you feel about yourself.”
The Braud family is particularly sensitive to body image issues.
“For probably as long as I can remember I had been pretty severely overweight,” Mary says. “Moving here after Katrina was a wake up call because I started developing arthritis in my ankles and I went to my doctor asking what can I do? And the doctor told me something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘There’s a good chance if you continue along this line, you may not be dancing at your daughter’s wedding.’”
Mary, who had never exercised in her life, began to work out and watch what she ate. The Braud’s subbed out frozen meals and takeout for lean home-cooked meals like turkey breasts with green beans. Mary soon lost 75 pounds. “(Savannah) was at that impressionable age,” she says. “Seeing me eat healthy, seeing me make good choices, it was a good change for her to see.”
Savannah, now a role model in her own right, was inspired by her mom. “That’s really when I started eating healthier and caring about what I put in my body because its not just about how it tastes but how it’s going to affect my body and how healthy it is,” she says. “It is kind of weird for a person my age because I see my friends go to McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, and I’m like, ‘you know what I’m good, because I’m training tomorrow.’”
Which is not to say she doesn’t have a sizeable appetite. A few hours before Savannah straightened her hair, put on makeup, painted her nails and stepped onto the platform at junior nationals last month, she stripped down to her underwear in front of competition judges for weigh-ins. She clocked in at 7.6 pounds under the limit—right in line with her natural weight of 120-123 pounds—and then hit the hotel’s breakfast buffet line.
At the omelet station she pointed to the array of spinach, tomato, peppers, cheese and other filling options and asked the chef, “Can I have all that?” He obliged. “And can I add bacon?” Then she plopped a waffle on her plate.
“A lot of girls my age are like, ‘I’m so fat, I don’t want to eat this, I don’t want to eat that, I don’t want to eat breakfast.’ And I’m like, “I’ll eat breakfast. And lunch and dinner. I know what’s good for my body and it’s given me the knowledge of how to fuel your body and eat right and you get results through your training.”
Six weeks before sub-districts this year, Savannah went on a training hiatus in an effort to heal up a back injury she sustained in the middle of the season.
“That made me really worried because I thought that states was just out of the question but a lot of people in my life said a lot of encouraging things and told me to just push through it.”
So instead of her usual regimen of squats and clean and jerks, Savannah focused on what she could do—bench press and arm strength—and worked around her injury while going to physical therapy twice a week.
“You have to be strong to lift the weight but you also have to mentally know you can,” Savannah says. “Because if you walk up to that bar and you don’t think you can, then you’re not.”
So Savannah, feeling less than confident in her physical abilities, placed her faith in all the lifts she knew she’d accomplished in the past. In her first meet back, she won sub-districts and then districts, earning her the trip to states she didn’t think she’d get.
There, the hours of sweat and hard work that she had put in building up a career’s worth of self confidence through weightlifting—a sport which teaches you to trust in yourself when you’re not sure you’re up to the task, a sport in which every extra pound placed on the bar by your coach is a vote of confidence saying I believe in you, a sport in which every ounce you’ve ever lifted is like an insurance policy down payment for a rainy day when you’re feeling weak, a sport which teaches you that you’re literally stronger than you think—truly came through for her that day. After more than a month of not even touching weights near what she knew she could lift, Savannah surpassed even her previous bests and achieved personal records at states with a bench press of 145 pounds and a clean and jerk of 160 pounds.
“It was so awesome to push past what I thought I wouldn’t be able to do,” she says. “This sport has made me never want to give up—just in life in general, there’s so many hard things you’re going to go through and it’s all in how you think about it. I really think that your mind controls how events affect your life. I love weightlifting for giving me the confidence and the positivity to know that hard work will get me places.”
And with that, she dropped the bar and walked away, her ponytail swishing behind.