GOODING — On Feb. 26, the Idaho Raptor Barbell Club traveled to Meridian to compete in the United States Powerlifting Association’s drug-tested Idaho State Powerlifting Championships.
The team, made up of students from the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind, had never competed before.
They had only trained for seven weeks.
At the end of the day, all seven competitors would emerge as new state champions.
“When they received their medals and stood there with this sense of pride for the work they had done, I was moved,” said ISDB director Janna Hasko. “I’m so proud of them.”
The team may have formed in November, but its true beginning dates back a few years.
When the pandemic hit, Hasko worried about the well-being of her students. Many are already struggling with a sense of isolation due to communication barriers with the public, and social distancing isn’t helping.
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She needed something that could help improve her physical and mental health. That’s when Professor Brian Floyd recommended updating the weight room.
“The principal wanted something he could do that builds confidence and I immediately thought of lifting,” Floyd said.
As a powerlifter himself, Floyd knew the ins and outs of the sport.
“This sport is accessible to everyone and it is one of the fairest sports,” he said.
The reason for this evaluation is simple: in powerlifting, you are competing against yourself. Unlike other sports that measure more ability or genetics, powerlifting is about personal progress.
“Every meet you attend is individualized by your age and individualized by your weight class,” Floyd said. “It depends on who worked the hardest.”
Updating the weight room and building the team was the first hurdle, but it wasn’t the last. Floyd had to figure out how to teach a sport to students who were visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing.
Although he has been teaching at the ISDB for three years now, Floyd is still learning American Sign Language. He was not fluent when he started teaching at school.
“I’m actually better in the weight room because in ASL there aren’t a lot of weightlifting signs,” he said. “We are inventing them as we go along.”
The next challenge was equipment. Powerlifting requires specific safety gear, from knee pads to wrists and belts to competition singlets. Because his athletes weren’t lifting huge amounts of weight, they were able to train without equipment.
But they would need it if they wanted to compete.
That’s when the United States Powerlifting Association stepped in and donated $4,000 worth of equipment to the team.
“Receiving everything that was donated by the USPA was really flattering,” Floyd said.
The equipment was delivered to the team overnight and arrived at their hotel the day before the championships.
The final hurdle was the actual competition. Powerlifting has a specific set of rules based on verbal commands from judges. Lifters must be extremely precise in their movements or risk a “no lift”, the equivalent of a “no score” for this attempt.
If they fail all three attempts, they are disqualified from the competition.
For a team of deaf and hard of hearing athletes, verbal commands are a problem.
“The bench press was the hardest for them,” Floyd said.
With the deadlift and squat, athletes can at least see the judges in order to follow commands. But for the bench press, they lie on their back and look up.
That’s when the judges stepped in and agreed to work with Floyd on implementing new rules for the competition.
“We had new signs that the USPA sat down with us on so they could judge,” he said. “We changed the way they do it a bit and they said that’s how they’re going to judge the deaf and hard of hearing now across the federation.”
The judges weren’t the only ones pushing for inclusion at the event.
Principal Hasko remembers that one of the competitors came and signed with the students.
“Those moments, for these kids, don’t happen,” Hasko said. “When they meet someone who can communicate with them in their preferred mode of communication, that’s huge.”
But Hasko’s support didn’t stop there.
“She taught the crowd how to cheer us on,” Floyd said with a smile.
“For a whole crowd to learn to clap in American Sign Language, that says a lot about the community of weightlifters competing that day,” Hasko said.
Of the seven students competing, one broke a permanent state record. The other six set new records for their age and weight categories. Each student walked away with state records in the deadlift, squat, bench press and total score.
“I’m very proud of what they were able to do,” Floyd said. “Standing on this platform commands respect.”
Even though many of his students have set new records, their scores are still competitive and impressive. Floyd compared his students’ scores to national records to see how they measured up.
“We have a daughter who is really close,” he said. “She’s only lost 70 pounds and she’s been lifting for seven weeks.
“If she keeps working on it, she could break that national record.”