Sarah Wood was bored and kind of depressed when the pandemic hit two years ago. Always an athlete, she was on the Riverside-Brookfield High School lacrosse team and had done taekwondo for more than a decade, but with everything shut down she couldn’t do much of anything.
Her dad, Tracy Wood, had always lifted weights, so he encouraged Sarah to work out with him in their Riverside backyard. She loved it.
Sarah entered her first competition last August and wasn’t immediately successful, but once she deadlifted 300 pounds — raising the barbell off the ground and straightening your back — for the first time, she was hooked.
“I think that was the moment when it clicked for me, and I loved the feeling of hitting new weights that I’ve never hit before,” Wood said.
In February at the Illinois state powerlifting championships, Wood set a state deadlift record for girls in her weight and age class — 336 pounds — nearly three times her 126-pound, 5-foot-7 frame.
“I fell in love with just lifting heavy things,” said Wood, who is 18 and a senior at RBHS. “I just really like feeling strong, I guess.”
Last week, Wood competed in the USA Powerlifting Teen National championships at the Westin Hotel in Lombard. She was the only lifter in her age and weight class and was coming off a bad cold. She didn’t make her goal of a 350-pound deadlift, but she deadlifted nearly 320 pounds, bench pressed 126.7 pounds and squatted 193 pounds.
But she’s still a little shocked at how successful she has become a little more than six months into her competitive powerlifting career.
“I’m still a little new to the sport,” Wood said.
Wood, who describes herself as a “loud person” loves the atmosphere at weightlifting competitions.
“The entire sport revolves around cheering other people on, and there’s nobody there who is praying on someone else’s downfall,” Wood said. “It’s like one big family.”
Weightlifters are known to grunt and scream as they struggle to lift heavy weights and Wood is no exception.
“I try my best not to, especially when I’m working out at [at her health club gym] or at school. But, OK I can’t lie, at competitions I do kind let it out and there’s usually a lot yelling and grunting and screaming from me, especially when I’m hitting a new PR. I usually have a little victory yell,” Wood said.
Wood currently ranks second in the state in overall powerlifting in Illinois in her age and weight class, 60 kilograms.
“I mean, it’s really cool and I’m really grateful I can have this experience, because I never thought in a million years I’d ever see my name on the database or much less standing on a podium at a national competition,” Wood said.
She typically lifts weights six days a week, most of the time with her dad, at the Loyola Center for Fitness although she sometimes lifts at school.
“I’ve been in Advanced Strength and Conditioning at RB for two years, so I do lift with a lot of the football players and, I don’t want to sound like a bragging, I do have a few of them beat in deadlift, and especially if you take our weights into account.” Wood said.
She said that football players, and boys at RBHS in general, have been encouraging and supportive of her lifting.
“I’m very fortunate that they’ve all been so nice,” Wood said.
A few other girls at RBHS have become interested in weight lifting and this year started a Girls Who Lift Club, but Wood is currently the only competitive powerlifter, boy or girl, at the school.
Wood, who is a co-captain and a starting midfielder on the girls lacrosse team this spring, says she now pays a lot more attention to her diet and has lost about 30 pounds since starting to lift weights.
“Once I realized that if I wanted to get stronger it was not only working out, it was also eating well,” Wood said. “I just clearly changed my diet.”
She also says weightlifting makes her feel better and has helped her mental health.
“I think it has made me happier as a person,” Wood said. “It’s definitely made me more confident and it’s definitely made me view myself better.”
While most of the guys who lift at Loyola have been supportive, Wood says she has heard a few negative comments from those who think a girl should not be powerlifting. She’s accustomed to often being the only female in the free-weight room.
“The girls that are there aren’t lifting like I am,” Wood said. “For the most part I’m the only girl powerlifter there.”
An honor roll student, Wood hopes to continue lifting and competing in college. She’s leaning towards Michigan State but hasn’t made a final decision. Powerlifting is not a NCAA sports, but she hopes that it will become one.