Powerlifting isn’t sanctioned the by IHSA, but that isn’t stopping powerlifters from preparing for state meet

Maine West junior Adam Salinas pictured himself competing with some of Illinois’ best high school powerlifters.

But a year ago, all he could do was take pictures at the Illinois High School Powerlifting Association (IHSPLA) state meet because he had just had surgery on his lower abdomen. Seeing hundreds of athletes gathered together in a show of strength at Stagg High School drove Salinas to make a serious push in the weight room when he was finally healthy last summer.

“It was really exciting being there,” Salinas said, “but I’m definitely excited to officially be a part of it and be able to prove myself.”

Salinas will be among the roughly 250 boys and girls competing in the IHSPLA state meet next Saturday at New Trier. But in many ways that competition is internal, and unlike football, basketball and other sports, you will see numerous scenes with groups of kids from different schools cheering for someone attempting a record-setting lift.

“It’s truly about doing the best you can do and we’re going to celebrate you,” said John Beerbower, the McHenry strength and conditioning coach and member of the IHSPLA Board of Directors. “To have these kids who have worked so hard in the weight room be able to demonstrate that in an environment where their teammates and parents are cheering them on, it’s one of the unique things that can happen.”

A competitive outlet

About 15 years ago, New Trier strength and conditioning coach Jim Davis thought it would be fun to incentivize those in training with some competition. A trip to a meet in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where it was the only high school competing, gave Davis the idea of starting something on his own.

The idea took off from his first meet in 2010 of three teams with Stagg and Elk Grove, whose football program was led then by current New Trier head coach Brian Doll.

“We want this to fulfill all the things we teach in schools and teach our athletes,” said Davis, the founding director of IHSPLA. “We want this experience to really mirror that. You can only compete on behalf of a team and it’s coed to make sure it’s as inclusive as humanly possible.”

The IHSPLA powerlifting competition is an extension of three lifts — deadlift, bench press and squat — that are a big daily part of high school strength training programs. There are regional meets to qualify for the state meet. And there are service elements that have included diaper drives for needy families and donations to the Special Olympics.

Powerlifting competitors range from football players training for their upcoming season to kids who just love to work out.

“If you weigh 120 pounds, you probably can’t play defensive line in football, but if you’re a workhorse in the weight room and love to train you can find a place,” Davis said. “People are getting medals in a sport they may not have known existed as freshmen. You can find your wings, and in some cases it’s life-changing.”

That’s what Beerbower discovered after McHenry competed at state for the first time in 2017.

“I remember driving back on the bus and the kids were saying, ‘That was awesome, we’ve gotta do this again,’” Beerbower said.

Last year's IHSPLA state meet took place at Stagg High School in Palos Hills. Photo by Marty Maciaszek

Maine West’s workout warriors

Maine West coach Romar Paul Harayo played some basketball and ran track at his alma mater. The 2018 graduate didn’t know much about powerlifting until he followed some friends into it his junior year.

“What really hooked me is it allowed me to visualize and quantify my progress and growth,” said Harayo, who still competes internationally. “It’s all about the numbers and getting stronger. It’s very different from typical team sports like football and basketball. It comes down to you and the weight.”

Harayo took over as Maine West’s coach in January 2022, and his boys and girls teams are competing in this year’s state meet. There are football players such as junior Jake Cruz and senior Mady Schlopp, who played in the girls flag program this year.

“A lot of people think it’s competitive, but it’s really friendly and you can build a lot of bonds with other people and other schools,” Cruz said.

“One of the guys on the team came up to me (last year) and asked if I would be interested in powerlifting,” Schlopp said. “I thought it would be really fun to compete. It’s definitely helped me physically and mentally and I’ve made so many friends.”

Salinas said he had never participated in an official sport but has “found something I can completely focus on” with powerlifting. Senior Olivia Chitan, who started competing last year, captained the marching band’s drum line this year.

“I like that you get to train on your own and at your own pace and see progress,” Chitan said. “The environment when you are in competition, everyone is there rooting for each other. It’s all positive energy and I really like that part of it.”

Said Harayo: “The camaraderie is another aspect that’s so great about it. I competed at every single level and every single time you never looked down on an opponent. You’re always trying to uplift them and always supportive.”

Last year's IHSPLA state meet took place at Stagg High School in Palos Hills. Photo by Marty Maciaszek

Positive prospects

Brad Jenisch doesn’t have much down time as a first-year teacher at Prospect who also coaches football, wrestling and boys track. Jenisch, who graduated from Jacobs and played football at Illinois Wesleyan, approached associate principal Frank Mirandola about starting a powerlifting club a couple of months after arriving from Hampshire.

“He was all for it from the get-go,” Jenisch said. “I really appreciated that because I’m the new guy and he put full faith in me to do it. It’s a small club with about 10 to 15 kids but it’s 10 to 15 who weren’t doing it last year and that’s a step in the right direction.”

Jenisch said he’s been fortunate to have the support of Mirandola and athletic director Scott McDermott. Jenisch also started the strength and conditioning program at Hampshire and added the competitive aspect with the mentorship of Beerbower.

Jenisch is ecstatic to see the Hampshire program continue with two of the state’s top lifters in Cynthia Lieu and Esteban Mallory. He said the only other Mid-Suburban League school competing in the IHSPLA is Conant, which is led by his close friend and head girls track coach Aaron Essex.

What Jenisch started at Prospect falls in line with its “Every Knight” program.

“It’s about building that character and culture with equity and service,” Jenisch said. “What other state meet does that? We can serve our communities. Why wouldn’t we want to be a part of this?”

Powerlifting’s growing gains

For the first time this year, the IHSPLA state meet will be broken into two classes with separate morning and afternoon sessions because of the number of competitors. Beerbower has worked to grow the sport in the Fox Valley, and McHenry hosts a “Flex Valley” meet that includes Hampshire and the growing program at Crystal Lake South.

The Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico high school state associations sanction powerlifting competition, and Florida has sanctioned “Olympic-style” weightlifting. Beerbower and Harayo are among those who would love to see powerlifting become an IHSA sport, but no one wants to see some of the elements stressed by the IHSPLA get left behind.

“I think there would be some merit in that and enough support to make that happen,” Jenisch said. “The uniqueness of what IHSPLA does is very important. If it does become a sport in the IHSA I’d love to see those things come with it. I would want to see equity, culture and service come with it. Those pieces are huge and what makes it a great community.”

Davis calls it almost a “zen-like” answer when he’s asked about powerlifting potentially becoming an IHSA sport.

“If that’s the way it goes, great, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily what we’re aiming for,” Davis said. “It would be nice to have a final stamp of approval that powerlifting has arrived at the state level. What we are after is community … developing life lessons through strength training, and we’re doing that. The thing that’s so cool for us is our mission has been pretty clear from the start.”

Maine West’s Mady Schlopp is an example of mission accomplished.

“I definitely want to continue doing it after high school,” she said. “I’ve worked so hard I definitely don’t want to stop.”

Last year's IHSPLA state meet took place at Stagg High School in Palos Hills. Photo by Marty Maciaszek
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