“Our little bodybuilder is waking up,” I heard the nurse say through my haze of anesthesia and morphine. I struggled to sit up and a nauseating wave of pain slung me back onto the hospital bed. “I’m not a bodybuilder,” I muttered. “I’m a powerlifter.”
I was in the hospital because I was a powerlifter, actually, the result of an injury sustained through relentless overtraining. I asked the nurse for dose after dose of morphine for the pain exploding in my back where the scalpel had just slashed through skin, muscle and tendons to allow the surgeon to remove the portion of a herniated disc that was pressing on a nerve. I’d been in pain for months, but in new, undreamt-of realms of pain for four weeks leading to the surgery. Inexorable, horrendous pain that left me screaming and sobbing, unable to dress myself or sleep, the prescription meds only able to take the barest edge off.
The procedure had blessedly eradicated that pain, but nobody told me how much the operation itself would hurt! I kept mumbling in a thick voice to the recovery room nurse. “Are you sure you’re giving me enough?” I asked. “I know I don’t weigh much but it’s a lot of muscle so I probably need more than you think I do.” Even fresh from the operating room all I could talk about was lifting and muscle.
Powerlifting had become my passion in the last year or so, an all-consuming obsession that transformed my life. I was inconsolable that it was over, that I’d never stand up, roaring, with a 200-lb barbell on my backagain. The damage to my spine was too severe to ever load it again. My abilities are permanently limited. But when a co-worker, on seeing a photo on my bulletin board at work of a particularly impressive deadlift, asked why I would want to keep reminders around of such a bad experience, I was flummoxed. Why wouldn’t I want reminders of the biggest thing to ever happen to me? He evidently wasn’t alone in thinking this way. When I returned to my job after a month and a half absence, the photo on my office door of my defining moment in powerlifting, that 200lb squat, was gone. No note, no explanation, just gone.
But taking down photos doesn’t remove the pain of losing the sport I loved. I want to remember it! Becoming a powerlifter, and a pretty good one at that, after a sedentary life as a booksmart, petite, physically helpless woman taught me how strong I am. Not just physically (which came as a tremendous surprise!). But mentally, too. I learned things about myself I’d have never known if I didn’t get under a bar. I found I could be fearless when I needed to be. That I had the heart to keep going when things were so hard as to seem impossible. That I had power I’d never known was there. To discover I was an athlete after all was almost secondary. I discovered what I was made of, and not everyone gets that chance.
I still mourn the loss of my sport. Five months after my last powerlifting workout I am still prone to tear up when I see someone else deadlifting — every fiber of my being wants to rip that weight off the floor and it kills my soul that I can’t.
But the gifts my sport gave me didn’t vanish when I hung up my weight belt for the last time. The confidence, the belief that I can do anything I decide to throw myself at, the audacity to dream big is priceless. And I wouldn’t dream of wishing that away.
Photos: Dana McMahan