Even the coaches were caught off guard by this performance.
When coaches Alex Campbell and Chad Salyer took a group of seven Elizabethton High School weight lifters to New Orleans to compete in the APF High School National Power Lifting Championships, they thought three of them might have a shot at winning a national championship.
Imagine their surprise when six of the seven ended up with first-place awards.
“I thought we might have three national champions, but I didn’t think we would have that many,” Campbell said. “Some things worked out for us. We have a great group of kids, but the main reason for our success is the consistency. Most of them, this is their third year and they keep working hard every week, getting better and improving all the time.”
Elisa Bird in the 97-pound varsity girls’ class led the way.
Competing in her third national championship meet, she not only won her division, but set national records in the squat, bench press and total amount lifted.
It served as an inspiration for others as all five of the females won national championships.
Hannah Oliver improved from an eighth-place finish in 2012 to win the 105-pound junior varsity division. Arian Scott was first in the 165 junior varsity and Courtnee Odom finished first in 198 junior varsity.
In the varsity ranks, Cerri Bradley took top honors in the 123-pound class after finishing fourth the previous two years.
“Last year and the year before, I got fourth place,” she said. “I never would have imagined I would win. I wanted to get third so I would do better than the year before, but I ended up being stronger on my second lift and won by about 90 pounds.”
She held a 10-pound lead after the first lift with the squat, but up next was the bench press, usually her worst event. Instead of losing her advantage, however, she emerged with a 20-pound lead heading into the deadlift.
From there, it was smooth sailing.
“I was really nervous the other girls would catch up with me, but I ended up still ahead,” she said. “When I got to the opening deadlift, I had the girl in second place beat by 80 pounds.”
It showed remarkable progress for a girl who had trouble bench pressing the 45-pound bar when she first started. Now she’s pushing more than her body weight, posting 125 pounds for the national competition.
“It’s been a goal of mine for a long time to be able to bench my body weight,” she said. “I’m really proud of that, but I’m not going to settle with that.”
Lifting has become a big part of her life, that even the choice of where she attends college depends in part if the school offers a lifting program.
On the boys’ side, Nikolai Simpson took first place in the Super Heavyweight Class and saved his best for last with a 600-pound deadlift. He attempted a high school record 645-pound deadlift at the end of the meet, but barely missed it.
By hitting the 600-mark, his coach mentioned him alongside Bob Peoples, who set the world record for the deadlift in 1949.
“That 600-pound deadlift, he’s done it three times,” Campbell said about Simpson. “He did it at the high school meet, at the state meet and 600 at the nationals. There is only one other person in the history of Carter County to do that, and that was Bob Peoples 70 years ago. For a high school kid to do that, that was impressive. He’s come a long way.”
Jacob Slagle was the only non-champion of the group, recording a strong fifth-place finish in the 165-pound varsity class. It was quite a feat considering he only started power lifting after his senior season of football.
He still managed a 485-pound deadlift which ranked among the nation’s best.
Two other lifters — Luke Blanton and Tori Cruz — also qualified for the national meet, but were unable to compete due to injury.
Campbell said his team’s experience helped at the national meet.
“Experience is important because they’re usually nervous the first time,” he said. “When they compete, they’re on the platform all by themselves. If they haven’t worked hard or they mess up, everybody sees it. Sometimes in team sports, someone might not notice if you mess up. When you’re out there by yourself with three judges, you can’t hide anything.”
Experience has also made the coaches better.
It was the eighth national meet for Campbell and the fourth time at the nationals for Salyer. They’ve refined training methods over the years, now using the Reactive Training Systems program developed by world record power lifter Mike Tuchscherer.
There is plenty of reason to believe the team will have several threats to win at nationals again next year. They only lose two seniors, Simpson and Slagle, from the group which competed at this year’s meet.
They will probably set goals to break a number of national records, something they really didn’t plan on last week.
“We didn’t really have it as a goal for anybody to set any records,” Campbell said. “Once the meet got going, we saw some kids had a shot at a few. We thought we might as well go for it.”