Sandra was there during my first competition, which happened to be held at California Strength. She was in my same weight class and I thought she was absolutely crazy. Mad woman. Bonkers. A Coo Coo bird. She was screaming and talking to herself, slapping her own legs. Christ, just let me lift and get away from this lady. Later I learned that the 49 year-old mom of four really is equal parts crazy and awesome and has great hair. She was one of the first female weightlifters to ever represent California Strength and the first to take home a National medal. I believe she was a pioneer in California Strength history and worked pretty damn hard to earn that right. She now has her eyes on Master World Records... WORLD... RECORDS. We sat down to dive into her athletic background and how she has made her way into California Strength history.
Can you tell me about your athletic background?
My athletic background really started in weightlifting. Weird but true. Before that I sang most of my life growing up, from opera to guest singing frequently in a band during college. This question always makes me laugh a little because I never participated in organized sport before weightlifting. So immersing myself in such an individual sport was a little daunting at first, but it was love at first sight.
How, why, and when did you get started in Olympic weightlifting?
I remember the exact day. I was reading a Sports Illustrated magazine that focused on female athletes that would be competing in the 2008 Olympics. I read an article describing Melanie Roach's journey and was intrigued. The next day I went into the gym (Clubsport, which was basically a glorified 24 Hour Fitness) and tried to figure out the lifts with one of their old squat bars. To say the bar wasn't meant for lifting would be an understatement. There were a handful of powerlifting weights in one of the employee closets that I fished out and the rest is history.
When you came to California Strength and asked to train, how did that transaction go?
That was hilarious...and didn't go well. Women just weren't thought of as weightlifters back then. Women had only been accepted into the 2000 Olympics and it was a heavily male dominated sport. A friend who was also a personal trainer came with me to Cal Strength, which was located down the street from its current location in a much smaller gym than everyone is familiar with today. It was empty except for three large men. I walked up to one and said I would like to hire a weightlifting coach and was flatly rejected. I was told, "We don't train women" and was sent away. I came in again a week later, and was told the same. At that time, there was literally no where else to go.
Did you meet with Dave?
After being turned away twice, I searched the web for the name of the owner of California Strength; back then there was no such website, but I finally did track down Dave (owner of California Strength). Now remember, there were very few clubs and CrossFit was very very new so finding a place to lift was rare. With reservation, he agreed to watch me lift. He said while I was strong I had no technique (an understatement) and with further reservation agreed to take me on a give it a try.
Who was your first coach?
Max Aita, coincidentally he was one of the three large men I met that first day, and the person who flat out told me, "We don't train women." As you probably know, Max trains plenty of competitive women now.
How did you first hear about California Strength? What was your first impression?
I heard about California Strength at first by total luck. The gym was next to a large indoor soccer facility and it was pretty small and there was no one but for those three big men squatting in the back of the gym. However, I knew right away this was where I wanted to be, a no frills gym with platform after platform, bars and kilo weights. Those three men were Max Aita, Donny Shankle and Martin Pashov.
What was your first day at California Strength like? Your first month?
The first day is a funny story. Like I said, Dave agreed to watch me lift but made no promises that he would train me. He and Max sat directly in front of me while I completed lift after lift, no comments, while quietly assessing me. I think I lifted for about an hour like that until Dave finally agreed to let Max coach me. From there, the first month was some of the hardest and most rewarding work of my life. Six days a week, two a days on three of those training days. I would literally crawl out of Cal Strength some days.
How did you convince Dave to allow a female to compete for them?
I really didn't have to do anything except not go away. I think they all figured I would last about a month and then quit. When I didn't I think they still figured I would. When I qualified for American Open, it was either be unattached or represent California Strength and I sort of felt attached to California Strength. I think they figure now I will never go away.
Describe your first competition representing California Strength?
Remember, the sport was still new and I think at my first competition it was just Donny, Martin and me that competed for Cal Strength. I remember being very thankful for my coach because all I had to do was listen and do exactly what he said, he knew what weight to take and when to take it. One thing that sticks in my mind is how nice people were. It didn't matter what weight was on the bar, people cheered for you, people I didn't even know, even the loaders. That stuck with me and I try to maintain that when I see new lifters today because I know what it meant to me.
How did you bring home California Strength Women's first National medal?
Nationals was a quiet little giant of a sport back in 2010. John North had just started lifting for California Strength and I was the only Cal Strength athlete at that time that had qualified for Nationals. I don't even know if anyone realized that we had left until John called Max and asked him where he was. Max was my coach and Butch Curry helped in the back. What a fantastic and amazing experience! I took bronze in Snatch, Clean and Jerk and Total as a 48kg lifter. I hadn't heard of Suzy Sanchez and she came out of nowhere and took Silver. That feeling of being on the podium stayed with me for weeks.
Describe some obstacles you had to overcome being one of few female lifters at the time, and also a masters lifter. How did you overcome them?
Being taken seriously in the sport, with four small children, while owning a company was challenging. The training was mostly Bulgarian style and geared toward men. That took a toll on my body. There was no such thing as a women's program, really no such thing as a program. You lifted heavy and you squatted heavy and we did this 9 times a week. As a female master lifter this not only wore on me but became painful. I remember saying to my coach one day that I just wanted to be able to bend over to tie my kids' shoes. Looking back, I don't know how I trained like that. Not quitting and coming in every day is the only thing I knew I could do.
Who are your biggest role models in weightlifting?
I would say Melanie Roach was my first role model as both a mother and an Olympian. While Morghan King came later to the sport in my career, I would say she is my biggest role model when it comes to sport itself. She is a fireball, full of ability and strength. I love that we have an icon like this for the sport, someone with a take no prisoners attitude, while still being funny as hell. If she wants it, she does it.
Favorite female lifter?
All of them. That we have such a contingent of great female lifters now, makes me proud to be in the sport.
Favorite California Strength lifter, past or present?
Oooh, that is tough. I have been here for 8 years and watched so many come through the gym. In the past I used to watch the most heroic battles between Martin and Donny. The way Martin psychologically battled his competition was so great to watch. To get caught up in Donny's enthusiasm was like none other. I have watched friends come and go and miss my fellow masters' lifters who move on and miss them. I am grateful for the Friday nights with Nicole because she would encourage me to make big jumps and take maximum lifts just sharing a bar with her. I just wanted to do more when we lifted together and as a result, lifted most consistently back then. I am grateful for Rob Blackwell who has coached me and who instinctively knows when I can make a lift. Even when I don't think I can, he tells me to try one more time, so I do. Finally, I love to lift with my bff Jenny Werba. She is an example of concentrated, educated form and is supportive at every point of my journey. Looking back I would say I am pretty lucky.
What do you think of the California Strength Women's programming?
I like it. When we were first demoing it the load was tough, but I feel like both my body and the program has dialed in nicely and I am with a program that doesn't leave me beat up. I especially like the accessory exercises. They seem to target in on what I need.
What's a typical training day like?
Yoga has been a big part of my stretching and recovery since becoming a yoga teacher a couple of years ago. Before I leave for the gym I stretch, get upside down and do my personal practice at the house. I hit the gym in the morning with the women's program at Cal Strength. I do an additional warm up there as well; I feel the stretching keeps me free of injury and pain. The rest of the day is devoted to training others and getting my four kids to the myriad of sports they participate in.
What are your accomplishments?
I medaled bronze at my first National competition. I have broken several Master's American Records in a few age groups. I have also received best lifter at Master's Nationals and Pan Ams. I have earned Best Master Female Lifter in the PWA, and broken Masters' PWA records. Two years ago I completed my 200 hour RYT (yoga training) so that I could work with athletes as a yoga teacher focusing on their mobility, stability and flexibility.
Favorite California Strength moment.
I can remember early on the first couple of months, lifting next to Donny Shankle and Martin Pashov while Max Aita lifted and coached me and one of the first Friday nights Donny yelled, "Yes, we're a team!" I don't know if he was talking to me or the wall, but I was elated to be a part of this all male group without a thought. I felt lucky. Those Friday nights in the early days were the best. Lifters from all over would come and we would all go to maximum cheering each other on.
Being one of our oldest lifters, can you give us a description of how California Strength has changed and evolved?
A lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same. I have enjoyed a number of lifters come and go, from the days of Donny Shankle, through Glenn Pendlay, Caleb Ward, John North and today with some great lifters like Rob Blackwell and Wes Kitts. Dave has gotten married and had three kids since I have been with the gym and he has successfully put together some quality programming with the Cal Strength Elite, Cal Strength Club and Women's program. When we started, we just lifted, and lifted, and lifted. Watching the evolution of programming and competence of quality of lifting has been fascinating to watch.
Favorite weightlifting exercise and why?
Box Squats. Lots of weight and great for building strength.
Give me three things you would say to a female that is beginning weightlifting?
1. Be independent but don't be afraid to ask for help. 2. Make a goal and stick to it. Working toward a goal will make you better one step at a time. 3. Trust in the programming. You will feel beaten up at time; you will want to quit. Trust that you will come out the other side better and stronger. Oh, and finally and most importantly, have fun. Why do it if you aren't having fun?
What does California Strength women mean to you now?
When I first started there was no such thing as California Strength women. Now I look around and see women in the gym every day, going toe to toe with the boys. I am proud of all these women and proud to be a part of their past and present.
Why do you think women's weightlifting is growing exponentially?
I think the CrossFit community has helped weightlifting enormously. Many athletes come to weightlifting after being a part of CrossFit. You get the fever with the snatches and cleans and want to take it further. When they cross over is when they really start to learn and work the lifts and that's when they get hooked.
What do you coach now?
I am lucky to have a second purpose with weightlifting in coaching yoga with an emphasis on strengthening for mobility, stability and flexibility. In the winter I program and work with the NFL Combine athletes for their stretch program. Throughout the year I work with athletes of all ages and abilities, from high school volleyball players to masters' athletes staying healthy for CrossFit and weightlifting. Because I am an athlete in weightlifting, I understand why and where the body tends to break down and because of my yoga training I am able to transfer that to successfully help to restore and increase mobility and stability where it can get lost from hard training. I absolutely love what I do!
What do your kids think of your weightlifting?
The have always been supportive and have been doing it since they were babies. I think it would confuse them if I stopped. When I used to more actively compete, my daughter would expect me to come home with a medal and then wear it for the rest of the weekend. If I didn't come home with a medal, I was sure to hear about it.
If you could be one animal, which and why?
A dog, hopefully someone's gym dog.
One thing about you that most people don't know?
I am a pluviofile. I absolutely love the rain.