When Academy at the Lakes began its girls weightlifting program, there was just one girl on the team.
That was in 2014, and the sole lifter was senior Kennedy Van Zandt Lachiotte.
Since then, the program has grown steadily.
Participation (and expectations) is up under second-year coach Marla Oliver, who took over in 2015 after John Castelmare’s retirement.
And, despite the exit of three graduating seniors — Maggie Hult, Natalie Davis, Grace Faith — the weightlifting coach has managed to increase from seven a year ago to 12 for the 2016-2017 roster.
How does the coach do it?
It starts with an open invitation, followed by encouragement.
“Either they like it and want to stay with it,” Oliver said, “or, it’s not for them, and it’s no pressure at all. I always tell them that.”
However, she added: “Most of the girls end up liking it.”
That includes the school’s senior basketball sensation Imani Thomas, to whom Oliver one day suggested that she give weightlifting a chance.
Thomas — who according to Oliver possesses “natural strength”— fell in love with the sport, instantly.
“I’m…drawn to weightlifting,” Thomas said. “The environment, the intensity that people have around you — it’s pretty nice.”
She, too, enjoys the camaraderie aspect of weightlifting.
“We have this team that will cheer you on no matter what,” Thomas said, “even if you’re struggling.”
Another positive: it’s boosted her performance on the hardwood.
“I’ve gotten a little bit more stronger in the paint,” said Thomas, who’s averaging 10.1 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.
Other lifters, like sophomore Victoria Yanez, are bullish to the sport because of its obvious health benefits.
“I was really into personal fitness and being really healthy,” Yanez said, “and I wasn’t really feeling like I was getting that out of collective sports like volleyball or softball. We tried (weightlifting) in one of our gym classes in the weight room, and it was so invigorating and so much fun.”
Yanez, like Thomas, appreciates the sport’s “supportive community” often apparent at meets.
“We’re there cheering on other teams that might be our biggest competitor,” Yanez said, “because you see these girls and you see how hard they’re working, and you know how hard they’re working…because you go through that.”
That mindset often trickles to coaches from opposing schools, she added.
“Their coaches will help you and they give you pointers because they want real competition,” Yanez explained. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, let’s let them slip away and win.’”
Being a smaller private school, winning meets against larger public schools is a substantial hurdle, however.
So, too, is fitting in workouts for girls like Thomas, who have other sports and extracurricular obligations.
“It’s about trying to get them in the weight room with so much going on,” Oliver said. “There’s everything from auditions for a play, to girls in cheerleading…”
To compensate, the Wildcats coach schedules intensive full-body workouts, striving to master each lifter’s technique for the bench press and clean-and-jerk.
“With the time that we have,” Oliver said, “we can’t really do a leg day, or an arm day.”
That’s fine for Yanez, who’s just looking to improve her lifting fundamentals as the season progresses.
“I look at technique specifically,” Yanez said, “because that’s one thing that definitely helps you. It’s not about pure grit and throwing up weights; it’s about how you go about doing it.”
The Wildcats coach, meanwhile, believes as many as five Wildcats can qualify for regionals, based on past invitational and district results. A few — like Thomas— even have potential to reach states someday.
“I’m just happy right now that we are putting up points,” Oliver said, “and, the girls are increasing their numbers.”
As she continues to elevate the program, Oliver feels the sport’s popularity, especially among the girls at Academy at the Lakes, lies in weightlifting’s ability to serve as a “confidence boost.”
“You can go from being this meek, timid person to being someone who grows confidence,” Yanez said, “because (girls) are like, ‘I can do this and I can accomplish so much more if I set my mind to it.’”
Academy at the Lakes girls weightlifting
Haven Blinder-8th grade
Brooke Blankenship-8th grade
Rori Gerstner-8th grade
Published December 21, 2016