Heavy mettle

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on Aug. 28th, 2013
Subject: Winifred Pristell

At 74, Winifred Pristell holds world records in powerlifting. And she’s just getting started

Third Place, Sports Reporting, 2013
Society of Professional Journalists, Western Washington Chapter

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Numbers mean a lot to Winifred Pristell. But even so, she can’t always remember the important ones.

She can pinpoint her age with no trouble: She’s 74, and in four months she’ll turn 75. And she can’t forget she has two kids, two grandkids and three great-grandkids.

But when she tries to remember how many world, state and national records she holds in the bench press and deadlift, her memory gets a little fuzzy.

“Twenty, maybe,” Winifred said, her eyebrows raised above her Versace bifocals. “I don’t know.”

As she waited to compete in the 17th Annual Alki Beach Classic, a small powerlifting competition that drew several dozen competitors to a small, grassy park near a sunlit boardwalk, the septuagenarian with a small, salt-and-pepper Afro kept two important numbers in her mind.

The first number was two: That’s how many weeks Winifred had trained before she showed up at Alki Beach, which made her nervous, since she likes to train eight or nine weeks before a competition.

The second number was less precise, but hovered near 260: That was how many pounds Winifred hoped to pull in the deadlift, a powerlifting event where she reaches down to a loaded barbell near her feet and hoists the dead weight to her thighs. She figured she could probably do it, since she liked to tell people the Heavenly Father had given her the strength of Samson.

Of course, Samson’s source of strength, his hair, proved also to be his weakness. And God had given Winifred a weakness, too: arthritis, in her feet, knees, hips, spine, shoulders and hands. Building her muscles through weight training had taught her that by confronting her weakness she could find her strength.

But on Aug. 17, the day of the Alki Beach Classic, she found it hard to ignore the pain in her joints.

“This arthritis is kicking my butt,” she said as she sat in the shade, her hands trembling on her lap.

She knew people had come to see her, including her son, Roosevelt. For the past two years, Roosevelt has traveled with Winifred to all her competitions, a decision he made when he first saw his mother compete. He was terrified, he said, sure she would hurt herself — until she deadlifted more than the other women, even though they were all years her junior. It inspired him to become a deadlifter, and now he enters the same competitions as his mom.

Seeing Winifred train one day, he hit upon a nickname: “I call her ‘Heavy Metal.’”

Roosevelt said whenever his mother competes, she wins in at least one category. Except for the few trophies she’s given away, he keeps her collection in his apartment: “She’s got 30, 40 of them.”

That’s because Winifred, who lives in Lake City, is part of a rare subset of powerlifters: women aged 69 to 74, an official age division as defined by the United States Powerlifting Association. At competitions, her subset becomes rarer still because she falls in a weight class of women who weigh between 181.5 pounds to 198 pounds. Winifred weighs in at 194.

When she competes, she often comes out on top. In 2009, Winifred set a world record with the World Association of Benchers and Deadlifters (WABDL) when she deadlifted 278 pounds. In another WABDL deadlift competition last year, she pulled 270 pounds, a Washington state record for her category. And last month, in Las Vegas, she set a world record in the deadlift with the American Athletic Union, when she lifted 267 pounds. And those are just the records she can remember.

“I’m the strongest woman in the world,” Winifred said. “For my age and weight, it’s a proven fact.”

Not that she’s trying to boast, because that, she knew, would be a sin. Instead, she said she feels pride. Like other powerlifters, she said there is always a heavier lift to accomplish, there is always another goal — and when she sets a goal, she reaches it. Every time.

She said that if she stopped lifting, arthritis would get the better of her, and she’d probably wind up in a wheelchair. Besides, she likes to win. With no one else in her combined age division and weight class at the Alki Beach Classic, she knew she would come in first.

So while the 100 or so spectators were there to cheer on friends and loved ones as they attempted the bench press, many in the crowd knew the name Winifred Pristell. They planned to stick around most of the afternoon, to see Heavy Metal show everyone how much mettle she really possessed.

Power play

Winifred didn’t know it at the time, but when she was 9, she took her first steps to becoming a powerlifter.

She was born in Baton Rouge, La., and when she was in kindergarten, her family moved to a small town in California. By the second grade, the family headed to Seattle, following an aunt’s invitation to come to the Northwest. Winifred, her mother, her step-father and a sister lived on Maynard Avenue near Jackson Street, sharing a cramped one-bedroom.

A small apartment didn’t provide a lot of space to move around, which was tough for Winifred because she hated being still. She discovered an outlet in the fourth grade when the family moved to Georgetown, and she started shooting hoops on an outside court. She realized she had a knack for basketball, a talent that translated to softball. She thought volleyball was a breeze. Then she set her sights on the 50-yard dash. In almost every sport she attempted in school, she excelled. “Except playing croquet,” Winifred said.

Her teenage prowess brought attention, and with attention came harassment: “They called me ‘Freak.’ ‘Dyke.’ I didn’t know what it meant.” But she knew the names hurt. So at 15, she quit every team.

She graduated, got married, had two kids. The children grew up. Winifred became more sedentary. She stayed away from sports.

Exercise had kept Winifred fit, but by the time she was in her late 40s, all she did was eat, drink and sleep. She was overweight and had high blood pressure. “I couldn’t walk a block,” she said.

Winifred’s daughter Audwin Cynthia tried to coax Winifred into a gym, and finally, Winifred agreed to give it a try. At the gym, she saw a woman roughly her age who looked buff and fit. Winifred wanted to look like that, so she started a fitness regimen. Holding her daughter’s hands, Winifred struggled to walk from one end of a block to the other. She increased her walking to cover four blocks. Then six. At the end of a year, she was walking three miles a day, five days a week.

Winifred joined another gym and became stronger. She found a trainer in 2006, a man named Andrew “Bull” Stewart, who crafted a workout routine that took into account her arthritic joints. Even though he taught her the proper use of bodybuilding machines, Winifred said she still can’t remember the names of the equipment. It didn’t matter. With Stewart, her training as a powerlifter got serious.

As a competitive sport, powerlifting comprises three events: the squat, where a lifter standing with a weight-loaded barbell on his shoulders bends his knees to squat, then stands erect again while still bearing the weight; the bench press, where a lifter lying on his back on a bench holds aloft a weighted barbell, which he lowers to his chest before pressing all the weight back into the air; and the deadlift. Winifred trained with Stewart to master the bench press and deadlift. She started bringing home trophies. She was 67.

She followed Stewart from a gym in Everett to one in South Seattle, Columbia City Fitness Center. She shows up there Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:30 a.m., even though the gym opens half an hour later. After her workout, she said she walks to Tutta Bella to drink espresso and socialize, then returns to the gym for more social time. “It’s like home,” she said.

Every powerlifter knows that competitions cost money, and earlier this summer, Winifred sat at a table in front of the gym with a small pail, hoping people would drop in a few dollars. She wanted to go to Las Vegas with her son Roosevelt to compete for American Athletic Union (AAU) titles. She said somehow, she raised enough money to pay the entry fee and hotel accommodations for herself and Roosevelt, plus travel costs for Stewart. In mid-July they all flew to Las Vegas.

There, at the Quad Resort and Casino, Winifred performed eight deadlifts. Each successive lift set a new AAU world record in her age division and weight class. Powerlifting organizations only count a lifter’s heaviest weight, however, so Winifred flew back with a single deadlift record: 267 pounds.

But Vegas isn’t Alki. At the Alki Beach Classic, a free event Stewart founded in 1996, competitors only get three lifts. Since Winifred would have fewer chances to reach 260-something pounds, she had to pace herself. So after a power lunch of fish and chips, she wrapped herself up in a woven blanket and went into her pre-competition zone.

“I know I can do it,” she said.

Easy weight

For more than three hours, Winifred sat in her chair and watched competitors who displayed a wide range of physiques: There were men with action-figure bodies, complete with thin, compact waists and hulking, veined biceps; there was a thin woman whose face turned raspberry red when she almost fell over trying to lift a weighted barbell; there was a man who, after holding his arms before him like a cinematic Moses parting the Red Sea, deadlifted 661 pounds; and there was a silver-haired man who bench pressed more than 200 pounds, his black baseball cap matching the black plastic of his prosthetic leg.

A competitor knows her time has come when an announcer calls her name out of a lineup of eight. At around 3:15 p.m., an announcer told the crowd Winifred was would soon lift. And so would her son, Roosevelt.

Winifred removed her blanket, her weight belt in her hand. She wore a red singlet — a one-piece, sleeveless athletic uniform that covers the torso and upper thighs — over a white T-shirt. She cinched the weight belt around her waist, and as she sucked in her gut, her trainer Stewart gave the belt’s tongue a quick tug, to tighten it another notch. She grabbed a squeeze bottle of powdered chalk and sprayed a white line down the front of each thigh, rubbing the chalk across her skin.

Then Winifred was up.

A weighted barbell rested on a wooden platform, and she stepped to the bar. It held 236 pounds. Seated to the right, left and front of the platform were three judges. Winifred steadied her right foot behind the barbell, then her left. She leaned over and grabbed the barbell with her right hand using an underhand grip. Her left hand secured the bar with an overhand grip. She squatted.

“You got it, you got it,” someone yelled.

With her shins protected by white socks pulled to the knees, Winifred stood up, heaving the bar to her chalked thighs. She locked her knees, elbows, hips and shoulders, then leaned back. She remained motionless for a second, then dropped the bar.

When Winifred finished her lift, each judge held up a white sheet of paper. Three whites: a successful lift.

Winfred returned to her chair and wrapped herself in the blanket. When Roosevelt stood at the platform and lifted more than 350 pounds, she nodded.

For her second lift, Winifred stuck to the same routine: tightened belt, chalk, platform, right foot, left, underhand right, overhand left. She stood above a barbell with 245 pounds.

A fellow powerlifter clapped his encouragement. The judge in front of her raised her arm. Winifred lifted the dead weight off the ground.

“Come on, get it,” a spectator shouted.

Winifred got it, then dropped the bar with a clang. Nearly everyone applauded. Three white sheets. Another success.

Instead of returning to her chair, she stood to watch Roosevelt attempt 385 pounds. As he struggled, someone screamed, “Easy weight, easy weight,” before he locked his knees. Winifred smiled.

Then came time for Winifred’s third lift.

“Don’t let this weight beat you,” a man yelled. “Come on, ma,” a woman said.

Winifred placed her right foot near the bar, then her left. An underhand grip and an overhand. The judge raised her arm. Winifred’s hands tensed.

She squatted, and with her eyes staring above the bridge of her glasses, she hoisted the weight to her thighs. Her joints locked. She paused. The judge dropped her arm. Winifred dropped the weight.

The crowd roared. “Beautiful,” a woman screamed.

As Winifred walked away from the platform, Stewart bear-hugged her, pulling her tight to his barrel chest. Then Roosevelt embraced her. People walked up to her and shook her hand. Someone asked if she would pose with him for a picture.

Winifred had lifted 262 pounds.

Since each powerlifting organization maintains separate record books, Winifred’s weight at the Alki Beach Classic should have qualified as an American record — but there weren’t enough approved U.S.A. Powerlifting judges. She had to settle for an unofficial American record.

It didn’t bother her trainer. “That was the best pull she had,” Stewart said.

He said as long as he’s seen her compete, Winifred has never failed to achieve her desired weight. If she had gone for more than the 267 pounds she’d lifted in Las Vegas and missed— Stewart shook his head. “Then she would fear it,” he said.

But Winifred voiced no fear of the future. She said she plans to return to Las Vegas in October, to set another world record. Beyond that, her dreams revolve around two numbers.

The first is 103: That is how many years she hopes to live.

The second is more ambitious: “Well, I guess my goal is to lift 300 pounds,” Winifred said. “After that, everything else is peaches and cream.”

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