Like many college students, Sophie Simmons found herself feeling a bit restless during a break from school.
But instead of channel-surfing or sleeping in, she got involved in a new sport. And not long after that she set a world record in it.
Simmons, a senior exercise science major at WIU, recently brought home the record for her age division and weight class at the American Drug Free Powerlifting Federation (ADFPF) World Championships held in Castleblayney, Ireland. Simmons was among 300 competitors from 20 nations competing to lift the most total weight over a set of three lifts, a squat, a bench press, and a “dead lift.” The 21-year-old in the 58.5-kilos (or 123-129-pound) weight class lifted a total of 656 lbs.
“It was incredible,” she said of the experience. And as if that weren’t stunning enough, the Macomb native dropped this tidbit of information: “I’ve only been doing the sport for a little under a year.”
Find out how she got into the sport—(more after the photos)—below.
While Simmons may have mastered the art of power lifting in record time, she has been competing in athletic endeavors since childhood, starting with gymnastics at age seven, which would lead her to winning national titles in power tumbling.
“I’ve done track and pole vaulting, I love dance, cycling, swimming…I like to do everything,” she said.
Still, she had never heard of power lifting until last fall, when she was looking for motivation and happened to visit the workout room at the Salvation Army Community Center in Macomb as part of a kinesiology class. There, she met two retired WIU physical education professors, Judy Gedney and Roger Gedney, who introduced her to the sport. Judy is not only a WIU Athletic Hall of Fame coach, but also has competed in power lifting for 40 years.
“I had been doing triathlons, but triathlon season ends when it gets cold, so I started working out there,” Simmons explained. “I was like, I need something to do, something to compete in.
I’m just really competitive by nature. I love working out, but I need a goal, something to look forward to.”
Aside from her experience with weight training as an athlete, and seeing weight-lifting competitions on TV during the Olympics, she only knew the stereotype of the bulging-muscled female body builders in tiny bikinis. With her slight frame, Simmons acknowledges, “I don’t look like a power lifter. I look like a runner.”
But Roger Gedney recognized something in her, she said.
“I was a gymnast for about 10 years, and so were Roger and Judy back in the day. Gymnasts just have a natural base strength, and the movements are similar in power lifting, so I caught on to the form on my first lift. I was like, ‘I think I can do this.'”
Judy Gedney taught Simmons each of the three lifts and explained other elements of competition, including the one-rep maximum lifts in three attempts and how the totals are added up. The organization is one of the only federations that’s explicitly drug-free and determined by drug testing, she said. At their encouragement, she began training for competition in November 2009, working out at the Salvation Army center for two hours a day, three days a week from December through April. (That’s in addition to her student-worker position at Western’s Spencer Student Recreation Center as a personal trainer and group fitness teacher.) She found satisfaction in the process as her strength began to build.
“It’s a process where you can visibly see your results as you improve along the way,” she said. “I have a notebook filled with every workout I’ve done since the first day I was in there, and you can see, as your weights go up, the strength you’re attaining. It’s rewarding to see your progress.”
She stepped up to five days a week for the summer, and “this summer was the strongest I’ve ever felt,” she said.
And it wasn’t just a feeling. In June, Simmons competed in nationals held in Columbia, Mo., where she set qualifying totals to compete on the international level. Once she knew she was going to the world championships, she said, “my only goal was to do the dead lift, 140 kilos. That’s 309 pounds.”
A shoulder injury set back her training. But she kept at it.
“Roger definitely had the biggest influence on me to stick with it and keep it going,” she said. “They’re 70 and 75 years old (respectively) and they’re still both in incredible shape,” she added. “It’s inspiring.”
And at the international meet, she lifted 92.5 kilos (or 203 pounds) for the squat; 65 kilos (or 143 pounds) in the bench press; and 140 kilos (309 pounds) for the dead lift.
Despite this show of physical strength, Simmons says one of the things she’s most proud of actually happened after the competition: she traveled around Ireland on her own.
“It was the first time I’d traveled out of the country,” she said. “It was really humbling going to a different country, realizing how much I didn’t know about the world. At the meet, I had to make an effort to meet people and go out of my way to talk to the other athletes, who were from places like Ireland, England, Italy, Sweden, Poland, and Germany—I’m friends with some of them on Facebook now. I also got to spend a day in Dublin, which was so exciting. I really was proud and surprised at myself.”
So, now that she’s conquered the world (or at least the world championships in her sport), what’s next?
“For the next semester, I just want to concentrate on figuring out where I’m going to graduate school!” she laughed.
For now she is concentrating on readying her application materials for Arizona State, where she hopes to study exercise and wellness programming. She hopes to prepare for a career in corporate/workplace health and wellness teams.
“I want to work with people and make a difference by coming up with practical ways to incorporate fitness into peoples’ lives,” she said. “I’m enthusiastic about it because fitness and exercise is my life.”
And despite her success, Simmons says she won’t be returning to power lifting training right away.
“I’m proud and happy about it, but honestly…it’s a sport you can do your whole life. I might pick it back up, but not for awhile. I do still weight-train, but I’m not sure what my next endeavor will be. If you’d told me five years ago ‘you’re going be a world champion at power lifting,’ I’d be like ‘no way.’ So who knows where I’ll be in five years.
“I like challenges,” she continued. “Everything I do is 110 percent. I don’t go halfway into something.”