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Girls weightlifting comes on strong

Participation numbers are high in the sixth-year sport, and it is popular with fans.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002

Katelyn Wojciek is not a hulk.

Her muscles, though solid, do not burst through her clothes. Her veins are hidden beneath her skin and you never will catch her downing a protein shake. When you look at Wojciek, you think cheerleader -- not weightlifter.

Actually, she is both.

The Land O'Lakes junior, 4 feet 8 and 118 pounds, is a member of her school's girls weightlifting team. She routinely bench presses 115 pounds.

"I (lift weights) to stay in shape," Wojciek said. "They needed girls, and I liked it."

Wojciek is not alone.

Although girls weightlifting has been a high school sport on the North Suncoast for only six years and does not have an official state championship, it is ultra-popular where offered. Participation numbers are high, and stands often are full. Operating costs are low because schools have the equipment, travel is minimal and uniforms -- T-shirts -- are inexpensive.

"It's just exploded," said Lecanto athletic director Dick Slack, who coaches football and girls weightlifting. "The girls love it."

Citrus, one of the region's top teams, has 48 competitors. Land O'Lakes has 40. At Lecanto, the team has more participants (43-29) than the football squad.

"It's definitely one of those social events," said Lecanto lifter Jill Bandhauer, a Times All-Suncoast catcher in softball.

Lecanto principal Kelly Tyler was instrumental in bringing the sport to Citrus County.

Six years ago, when Tyler was county athletic director, he spearheaded an effort to help the school district comply with Title IX, which requires schools to offer girls an equal number of opportunities as boys.

"We really tried to recruit as many female athletes as we could in the sports we already had, but we still weren't able to bring the number of female athletes up to where it needed to be," Tyler said. "We all thought we needed another sport."

Students were surveyed to see what sports interested them, and girls weightlifting drew a positive response. Because the schools had the equipment and start-up costs were reasonable, the county added it.

"The timing was right," Tyler said. "At that time, there were a lot of people, adults and students, going to gyms and working out. The whole thing was really popular."

* * *

Women's weightlifting has been conducted at the World Championships level since 1987 and was introduced as an Olympic sport in 2000. But how safe is it for a 15-year-old girl to be lifting weights?

"There's no risk that I can see," said Dr. John Gelin, a family practitioner and Citrus' team physician for 30 years.

Gelin's daughter, Whitney, lifts for the Hurricanes.

Dr. Thomas Bendowski, an orthopaedic surgeon in Crystal River who specializes in sports medicine, said prep girls are no more at risk than boys the same age.

"Once (girls) get past 13 or so, the growth plates start to mature and they're less likely to develop injuries (from lifting)," Bendowski said. "Long-term, I wouldn't expect to see any problems."

Competitors include a cross section of students. Many participate in other sports and use weightlifting to stay in shape and build endurance. For others, it is their only sport.

"It's becoming quite popular," Springstead coach Chris Mock said. "You really get girls from all walks of life. I've got cheerleaders, and I've got multi-sport athletes. I've got it all."

Citrus' Julie Shott is like many competitors in that she participates in other sports: cross country and track. When Shott began lifting three years ago at the urging of her mother, she bench-pressed 65 pounds. Now the 118-pound junior lifts 120.

"It's my favorite sport," Shott said. "At first, I didn't know if I wanted to go out, but I was glad I got into it. I enjoy working out. There's pain, but it's a different kind of pain. It's hard to explain.

"I just get in there and don't think about many other things. You can put music on and just work out. And after you're done, you feel healthy."

The athletes compete in 10 weight classes. They perform the bench press and the clean.

"Some of these girls are as committed to this as any athletes I've coached in anything else," Citrus' Doug Patton said.

"They come in early in the morning, and they're still there until I chase them out in the afternoon. They're in there all the time, and they work hard at it."

Even the guys have taken notice.

"Some of them are impressed that we lift so much," Wojciek said.

"They think it's cool," Shott said.

Whitney Gelin, a multisport standout at Citrus, began lifting before she got to high school.

The junior, who bench-pressed 155 pounds and cleaned 155 in a meet last week, hopes her efforts will help produce scholarship opportunities in softball -- a sport in which she has earned all-area recognition as a catcher.

"Lifting definitely gives me an advantage," Gelin said.

"It helps your endurance, and it's also going to build muscle so that you're stronger in other sports."

* * *

More than 100 schools statewide offer girls weightlifting, including all schools in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties. Hillsborough and Pinellas public schools do not offer the sport. Neither county has boys weightlifting either.

Because the budget is tight, Hillsborough athletic director Vernon Korhn said his county is unlikely to add a sport in the near future. Pinellas added girls flag football four years ago.

"We get excellent numbers," Pinellas athletic director Bob Hosack said.

Because girls weightlifting is designated as a club sport by the Florida High School Activities Association, there is no official state championship. Instead, schools compete in one of two seasons -- one in the winter, the other in the spring -- and each has its own final. The winter season's championship is Saturday in Belleview.

The sport's next step is to gain "recognized" status by the FHSAA.

For this to happen in time for the 2002-03 school year, 32 letters of petition must be received by the association by May. As of Jan. 18, 29 had been received.

After a sport becomes recognized, it takes two years for it to become sanctioned. Only then can it have an official state championship. Some in the sport attempted to gain recognized status last year, but not enough petitions were returned.

"If they want to have it, they're going to have to show some initiative to get it done," said Jack Watford, FHSAA director of communications.

The lack of FHSAA recognition has not hurt participation. Female competitors have flocked to the sport once dominated by males.

"It's a sport that all the girls can compete in," Gelin said.

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