Powerlifter Mona Overstreet prepares to break several world records
By Adam Ross
JULY 12, 1999: It's half past 9 on a Sunday morning, the Lord's day of rest, but at the World Gym, Mona Overstreet, powerlifter, is hard at work. Instead of an organ, Axl Rose belts "Sweet Child of Mine" over the stereo. Instead of a robed choir, there are men in muscle tees, a sort of G-string for the torso. Instead of stained glass, there are mirrors everywhere. Yet in spite of this seeming sacrilege, in spite of all the neon and narcissism, there is a sense of serious work being done here. You don't get pecs or calves like this without commitment.
Overstreet opened the place. At 9 o'clock sharp, right behind the attendant who unlocked the door, she was the first person in the building. But by now, at just half past, the gym is already filling up--the fit, fitter, and positively enormous all flocking in to pump iron. There's a man in camouflage pants and army boots on the incline press. There's a well-known TV anchor on the bench who looks much bigger in person. Another guy in a tank top rolls his daughter in on a stroller, parks her by the dumbbells, and starts to stretch. The child sucks on a cracker happily; besides Mona, she's the only female on the floor.
Presently, Overstreet is about to do her final set of squats. The bar is loaded with 385 pounds: three 45-pound plates and one 35-pound plate per side. The bar itself weighs 45 pounds. There is something absurd about seeing this much weight set on a rack 4-and-a-half feet above the ground. It looks like an accident about to happen. Pick up that much weight and, like a scene out of a cartoon, there will be a frozen moment before gravity takes hold. Then the weight will drop and crash through the floor; the arms will follow, with head, torso, and legs in succession, and the poor soul clutching the bar will fall through the world to China, leaving nothing behind but a dumbbell outline.
The sport of powerlifting consists of three events: the squat, in which the competitor takes the weight on her shoulders and squats with it; the bench press, in which the competitor lies on a flat bench and brings the bar down to her chest with her arms, then presses the weight up; and the dead lift, in which the competitor bends down and lifts a bar at her feet until she stands fully erect with it. In each event, participants are moving weights anywhere from two to four times heavier than their own bodies. Along with exceptional strength, exact technique is required to manage so much weight safely. Miscalculations can be positively dangerous.
"When I went to the world championships in '95," Overstreet says, "one woman came down in a squat with the weight out of balance. Her arm just snapped at the elbow."
Not surprisingly, she goes through a great deal of preparation before each set. First she wraps her wrists in elastic for additional support. Then, in a quick maneuver, she wraps both knees so tightly in ace bandages that her skin bulges out at the calf and thigh. She wears a purple "squat suit" cut like a wrestler's singlet and made of synthetic canvas. "It's designed to snap back at maximum tension," she says.
Bill Dillard, one of Overstreet's spotters, has taken his place at one side of the bar, and Myron Granderson, another spotter, takes his place at the other. Mona dips her head underneath the bar, grips it with both arms bent, and presses her back up to it, so that it rests across her shoulders. She sets her feet out wide like a sumo wrestler.
Then she lifts the bar. As soon as she is straight and balanced, she walks in stiff backward steps to clear the rack. With each step, she makes a crazy exhalation, an explosion of air that sounds like a bus kneeling. Her legs wobble with the weight. The iron plates knock together, making a dull gong like a gigantic wind chime. She stops, sets her feet.
Then she squats down with the bar, lowering herself to a precarious angle. The sport of powerlifting has strict requirements when it comes to demonstrating control of weight. For a squat to be considered legal in competition, the knee joint must break parallel with the hip. Firmly in control at this depth, Mona presses up the bar. "Geeyap!" she says, standing up straight.
Then she goes down again.
Three reps later, she racks the bar unassisted.
Watching someone move this much weight is so awesome as to restore the original meaning of the word: It inspires amazement and dread at the same time. But Overstreet inspires even greater awe. She is a five-time women's national champion powerlifter and three-time women's world champion. She has been involved in the sport for over 16 years. In short, she is possessed of the single-minded devotion of a true athlete. Hers is a story of unflagging effort, a pursuit of victory to the exclusion of all those things that we less gifted or determined believe make up a normal life.
On this particular day, though, Overstreet is well off her personal best in the squat: 407 pounds. "I've been tapering off before nationals," she explains. When she goes to the senior nationals competition in Daytona next week, she'll attempt 424. By November, if she gets sponsorship to go to Calgary for the world championships, she will attempt to break the world record in her division in the squat: 462 pounds. Not only that--at 232 pounds, she is a mere 10 pounds away from the world record in the bench press; and at 435 pounds, she's within striking distance of the world record in the dead lift as well.
You'd think that this quest to break several world records means Overstreet can't give herself over to much of anything besides the sport. But for 18 years, she has been working with disabled children as a residential administrator and recreational therapist at the Tennessee Rehabilitation Center in Smyrna. She is that rare individual who has struck a balance between personal achievement and service to those less fortunate, and these two aspects of her life inform each other in truly inspirational ways.
A typical day for Overstreet goes something like this: She's up at 6 in the morning and off to the gym, where her workouts last anywhere from two to two-and-a-half hours, except during periods when she's tapering off before meets. Afterward, she helps with "kinderkarate" class as an assistant teacher at Bill Taylor's Bushido School of Karate three times a week, taking class herself anywhere from three to five days a week for aerobic fitness and mental conditioning.
Hour by hour, Overstreet must take in the maximum amount of protein her body will allow in order to regenerate and build muscle at peak efficiency. Along with strict dietary requirements for carbohydrate and fat intake, she constantly drinks orange juice combined with protein powder, a brackish, thick concoction that looks like liquid sand. She goes into work from 2:30 in the afternoon until 11 o'clock at night. She keeps cans of tuna in her office drawer to eat every few hours. Then she goes home and starts all over again.
It is a monkish, relentlessly scheduled existence. At 41 years old, she has no significant partner and no children. But for her, no other life could be more fulfilling.
Mona Overstreet was born in Nashville on April 24, 1958, and grew up in the Berry Hill area. Her father, Doug Overstreet, a native as well, served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946 on the USS Tennessee, participating in the bombardments of the Marshall Islands and Guam. He met his wife, Jean Hatcher, a native of West Virginia, in 1951. After the war, he worked as a welder, contracting in spurts for Justice & Cooper and Structural Steel until he took a job with Nashville Gas in 1959. He kept the job with Nashville Gas until retirement. A career woman herself, Jean Overstreet displayed the same kind of commitment to her own job. She started as a file clerk with National Life Insurance in 1951, working her way up to mortgage officer by the time the company became American General in the '80s. It was, of course, a relatively rare thing for a woman to be working full-time in that era. But work, she asserts, "never hurt anybody."
To help Jean maintain a full-time career and raise a child, her mother, Opal, came down from West Virginia to live with the family. "I was blessed," Mona says of her upbringing. "I had two strong women as role models. To be honest, it was like I had two mothers instead of one."
Hearing about Mona's parents, it's easy to understand where her dedication comes from. As for her athletic lineage, her mother and father were both avid bowlers, Doug quite accomplished, posting high scores of 288 twice and 287 twice. The Overstreets bowled in the night league during the week and every Sunday after church. As a young woman, however, Mona demonstrated neither the same prowess in sport, nor the single-mindedness of her parents.
"She was a dabbler," her father recalls. "She was a decent bowler, but dropped it after a while."
In her years at Glencliff High, she was utterly undistinguished as an athlete. "All my life," she recalls, "I've always loved athletics. I love to compete with myself, love competition in general. I was always looking for something I could play well. But I was never really any good at any particular sport. In high school, I played basketball and softball. I gave 100 percent every day of each season, and I was still the best bench warmer at Glencliff they ever saw."
After she enrolled at MTSU, Overstreet continued to play various intramurals, but never for a moment entertained the idea of participating at varsity level. She majored in social work and, upon graduating, took an entry-level position at Tennessee Rehabilitation Center in Smyrna. She wanted to go into recreational therapy, but the department was full. Undaunted, she took an entry-level job as a dormitory supervisor.
"I was an only child," she says. "I had the luxury of three people to love me and teach me. They raised me with the strong belief that you do what's right by others. All my life, I've watched them help other people. I've never seen them turn anyone down if they needed something. Corny as it sounds, I think that's one of the reasons I chose the profession I did--as a sign of respect to them and as a way of giving back."
As an outlet for her competitive urges, Overstreet began running middle distances competitively. She had some success, winning trophies here and there in area races. "I was doing all right," she says. "But I was a pretty slight thing at the time, and I wanted to get stronger. So I went to Troy's Gym in Murfreesboro. And Troy was one of the most impressive people I'd ever met."
Troy Hicks was a Golden Gloves boxer. He was also a world-class powerlifter. He won two world championships in 1993 and 1996. When Overstreet met him in 1980, he had already set three world records in the dead lift. That same year, he made the Guinness Book of World Records for dead-lifting 645 pounds. He weighed 148.
It was after the two began to train together that they made a discovery.
"We discovered," Overstreet says, "that I was very, very strong."
Powerlifting was born in the early '60s, when what are now known as body-building competitions were called physique contests. Basically, they were displays of form, but with a little content thrown in. Along with poses, contestants performed two arm curls and maybe a bench press or military press to demonstrate strength. The governing body over these events was the Amateur Athletics Union, and its champions, you can be sure, never appeared on a Wheaties box.
By the late '60s, physique contests had splintered into three distinct sports: body building, Olympic weightlifting, and powerlifting. Besides its non-Olympic status, what distinguishes powerlifting from$Olympic weightlifting are its three events: the squat, the bench press, and the dead lift. In each event, three judges are present to determine whether the competitor has executed a legal lift.
To prevent competitors from gaining an advantage over the weight, the judges talk the competitor through each stage of the lift. In the bench press, for instance, once the competitor has the bar off the rack, she brings the weight to rest on her chest and holds it there. She then waits for the judge to call "press," at which time she must press the bar up and hold it, demonstrating control of the weight, until the judge calls "rack."
Each competitor is given three attempts per event to complete a successful lift. If the competitor misses all three attempts in an event, she "bombs out" and can no longer compete in the other events. Competitors are divided into weight classes, and, unless the event is open, into age groups. The winner of a powerlifting competition has the greatest cumulative total weight in all three events. Mona Overstreet competes in both open competitions and master competitions (40-44 years of age) in the 198-pound class.
Powerlifting is a strength sport. Given that competitors are managing weights up to four times greater than their bodies, it is a sport of precise technique, psychological determination, and punishing, long-term training. It is also a sport of calculation. Event by event, a competitor must know how much weight to move to bring up her totals past the competition. If there is high drama in this sport, it comes at moments of convergence, when a competitor exceeds her personal best in an event and overtakes the competition at the same time.
But what separates powerlifting from other sports is this: There is no luck involved. No check-swing bloop that drops in for a single; no net court dribbler or last-second heave to swish the basket; no engine blow-out with one lap to go; no Hail Mary pass. Just the self against herself and her limits--and her willingness to go beyond them when necessary. In this way, powerlifting is at once totally unforgiving of and rewarding to its participants. It is an individual sport par excellence.
"Troy and I started out setting goals we thought were reasonable. Really, he was looking to see how dedicated I was gonna be to it. Because people walk into the gym every day and have big aspirations as to what they're going to do. And then they're gone within a month when it gets tough. Me, I just kept working and working and working."
From 1980 to 1993, she enjoyed intermittent successes, but mostly, those first 13 years were a time of learning and building up strength. The more time you spend around powerlifters, the more you realize it is not a sport for the quick or impatient: It is a sport of incremental gains.
"The reason it took me as long as it did to compete at the national level," Overstreet says, "is because it took that long to get the weight to numbers where I could be competitive. It takes years to get your body to be able to handle that much weight in the first place."
In 1994, she broke through. She won both the national championship in the sub-master division, as well as her first world championship in the open division. At the time, she was competing in the super-heavyweight class: 199 pounds and above.
That same year, she and Hicks made another discovery. The more weight she gained, the more weight she was able to put up. When she started powerlifting, she weighed 119 pounds. By the time she began to win national and world championships, she weighed as much as 242.
It was also in 1994, after Overstreet turned 35, that she and Hicks set long-term goals. In five years, she would be competing in the master's division. World records in all three events were achievable. "Around then," Hicks recalls, "Mona was coming up on those records rapidly--at least relative to the sport. World records aren't broken every day. We felt like we had the time to do it."
In spite of Overstreet's added strength, however, she was becoming uncomfortable with her additional weight. Her technique in all three events was starting to suffer, even though she was winning nationally and internationally. In 1997, the situation became critical. "I began to have serious problems with my squats," she remembers. It was taking her all three attempts to make legal lifts, even at weights well below her personal bests.
It was that same year, at the Nationals in Daytona, that Overstreet met Krista Ford, a former bodybuilder who was also a champion powerlifter. Ford sensed that she was in trouble.
"I had seen Mona win at the Nationals in 1996," Ford recalls. "But I noticed that she squatted high. It's the easiest way to end a meet early."
Squatting high in powerlifting is an effect of poor technique. It occurs when the upper torso folds forward from poor control of the weight. When a powerlifter's torso folds forward, it puts more pressure on the quadriceps and forces the butt up in the air. Consequently, the competitor has difficulty bringing the knee joint below parallel with the hip.
"Mona was having success," Ford recalls. "But she was also on the verge of bombing out every time she squatted. There's a lot of camaraderie in our sport, and we vets will approach people with great potential who are still missing that one ingredient. So, in '97, I came up to Mona, and told her I thought she was struggling."
With the help of Ford, the first thing Overstreet did was drop down from the super-heavyweight class to the 198-pound class. More significantly, she changed her stance in the squat from narrow to wide.
"When you're competing in the heavier weight classes," Ford explains, "a narrow stance--with your feet set evenly with your shoulders--can give the illusion that your knee joint doesn't break parallel with your hip. It also puts more pressure on the torso. When you squat wide--or sumo style--it shifts the weight off the torso to the legs. And Mona has incredibly powerful legs. Plus, when you go out wider, there's no question of breaking the plane. But it's a difficult technique to master."
Losing 50 pounds and changing her stance was a drastic alteration for Overstreet. At the 1998 Worlds, her first meet in both the master's division and the 198-pound class, it took all three of her attempts in the squat to hit a mere 340. But once she adjusted to the technique, everything changed for her. She hit a new personal best of 407 and hasn't missed a single squat in competition since. More significantly, the technical adjustments raised the ceiling for her. This year, the world record of 462 is within her grasp.
"It's just a matter of continuing to master a new technique," Overstreet says. "Because 407 doesn't even feel like the edge of the envelope yet. It doesn't even feel heavy."
The center is primarily a vocational training program for people with disabilities that range from brain injuries to visual and learning impairments. Attendees stay anywhere from two weeks to 18 months and leave with vocational skills in areas such as food service, electronics, or child care.
It's a Tuesday night, and even though most of the students are out on a field trip, the dormitory is abuzz. Kids mill around wearing Walkmans, gather in groups on couches. There's an enormous, spiraling ramp system that comes down from the third floor, and as Overstreet gives a tour of the center, a couple of students come racing down on their wheelchairs. She warns them to slow down.
Overstreet explains her work in recreational therapy. "What we do," she says, "is educate the kids in both vocational and basic life skills through fun modalities. We can use anything from softball to checkers."
When asked how checkers can be used to teach either, she is quick to answer. "Think about it. How many times do you make decisions--good decisions or bad ones--playing checkers? We can take lessons learned from that situation, and teach these kids how their decisions are actions, and their actions have direct results."
It doesn't take long to figure out that the kids here love and admire Overstreet. As she walks through the center, she radiates positivity. Patrick Sanders, one of the students, approaches in a wheelchair. He wears padded weightlifting gloves and a UT football shirt. He has a thin mustache that he's clearly been working on for some time.
"Mr. Sanders, why don't you introduce yourself?"
After he introduces himself, Overstreet takes the lanyard around his neck and holds it up. It has Sanders' identification as well as a number of inscribed ribbons.
"What's this one?" she asks. Sanders smiles, clearly enjoying being put on the spot. She smiles back at him.
"That's safety awareness," he says.
"What's that mean?"
"It means be careful when you're performing a task. Take care not to cut your hand when you're using any of the tools."
Overstreet flips to the next ribbon. "What about this one? 'Following instructions.' "
"That's like listening to what the instructor has to say and following it to a tee."
"Like a boss, right?"
Later, we pass a student at the pool table who rushes from shot to shot.
"Why don't you take your time?" Overstreet says. "You might sink a few more that way."
She moves through the whole facility in this manner, constantly instructing, constantly stressing small improvements. She is indefatigable around the kids, drawing off their energy. Her work here is just like the training she does for her sport, but in a different context: training through repetition; slow but continued progress by careful, measured improvements. Not surprisingly, Overstreet sees her dual devotion to recreational therapy and powerlifting as integrally related.
"You see a kid come in whose life has been drastically altered--especially kids who were able-bodied as you or I. They've been through an accident, and suddenly everything's different. They're struggling to adjust. What you do is get the opportunity to help them process that. You have to be patient and supportive because a lot of them just give up. And you can't allow that. There are things they have to overcome just like I did. Who would think that a 41-year-old woman could walk into a gym like I can and move weight? It doesn't happen overnight."
David Holmes, the assistant superintendent of the center, believes that Overstreet's impact goes far beyond her example. "Mona implemented a program here called 'Power to Make a Difference.' The basic idea is simply dedication to what you're doing. To be responsible for yourself and your behaviors. It also means that regardless of what has happened to you, regardless of your limitations, you have the power to make a difference in your life. I took this concept of hers to the National Conference of Rehabilitation Centers, and they wanted to emulate it. Because it's a message Mona delivers with such conviction, it speaks to the soul of the student."
Later, in Overstreet's office, she shows me a collage on her wall of events at the center over the years, powerlifting medals, pictures of kids who have come through. The screensaver on her computer reads, "Yes, I can." After being around her for an extended period of time, it's difficult not to think that you could make more of an effort in everything--that giving up simply isn't an option.
Veronica, another student, peeks her head into the office. Overstreet asks her to explain what she's been doing at the center. Veronica tells us that she's planning to stay for additional training so she might have the opportunity to go into child care.
"That's if I get to move up," she says. "I'm hoping so."
Overstreet is quick to comment after she leaves. "Take Veronica for a second, and imagine the impact she could have. Someone who started out with limitations becoming a force in her community. We keep moving in that direction, and things are gonna get a little better."
Yet the idea persists in all of us that we each have something at which we excel. We simply haven't found it yet. But what if we found that talent? How far would we be willing to go to nurture it? What would we be willing to sacrifice?
The fact is that most of us have to work very hard to be good at anything, and Mona Overstreet has not only had to work very hard, she has sacrificed a great deal. On the one hand, she seems to have neatly integrated her goals in sport and her career at the rehabilitation center. The solipsism'of powerlifting is relieved by the company of these young people, and vice versa. It's an arrangement made with achievement, but it can also be a hard bargain.
"I think at times what Mona gives is draining," Holmes says. "She has to be up all the time--for the kids and for her sport--so occasionally she has to fight from being pulled down. Because she gives and gives, and sometimes she needs to recharge her battery. And there are a lot of things she struggles with. Age is a factor. How much longer can she compete at this level? Will she get the records in time? Plus the constant pain of stretching yourself beyond your limits. Mona has to fight not just to go beyond her limits, but to stay where she is."
But Overstreet is not just a powerlifter, after all; she's a woman powerlifter. When asked if she ever gets lonely, if she longs for a companion or for children of her own, Mona rubs her eyes and considers this for a minute.
"Sometimes I miss not having kids of my own. But think about it. You stop to have them, and in my sport, you're out. There's the time away from the gym to have the child, the time away from the gym to recoup, and then you've lost so much ground. So you make decisions.
"Powerlifting is very important to me. The titles. The records. And all of that I'd have to put on the back burner otherwise. It would be nice to share it with someone special. But it would take someone really strong to be able to come into my lifestyle and be able to understand it, and put up with it. That person hasn't come along yet. But that's all right. We just keep moving. We just keep moving weight."
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