So you’ve never arm curled a dumbbell, bench pressed the bar or squat-lifted your body weight? It doesn’t matter. You don’t need to be a gym rat to appreciate the power, the intensity and the fun that is Sanford’s own Heather Connor.
The 2009 graduate of Southern Lee High School was a global star in the powerlifting world before March 3. Her record-setting deadlift on that date launched her into a new stratosphere.
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And the deadlift to secure my 558 wilks and 4.1Xs the BW deadlift 😭😭 I ended up peeing myself. To be fair, it could have easily been avoided as I had been holding it since warmups but everything was going so fast and i didn’t want to be rushed into my attempts. So out it came. That’s fine 😂 glad I could have fun with the fact it happened 🧚🏼♀️🧚🏼♀️🧚🏼♀️🧚🏼♀️ . . @sbd.usa @sbdapparel @theipf @usapowerlifting
Connor became the first female International Powerlifting Federation athlete to deadlift four-times her body weight in a competition. The 27-year-old former Tramway Elementary School teacher — who weighed in at 97.2 pounds at the Arnold (as in Schwarzenegger) Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio — set a world record in her weight class with a 402.3-pound lift.
Let that sink in. Connor is 4-feet, 10-inches tall. She deadlifted 402.3 pounds.
Here’s a quick list of things that are 400 pounds: A full drum of oil. A small piano. A motorcycle. A gorilla. A freaking lion.
Connor — who’s also a star on social media with an Instagram following (stayfit_with_heather) of more than 33,200 and growing — took time from her busy St. Patrick’s Day on Saturday to talk to The Rant (who, combined, can deadlift about a buck-fifty) about her feat, the response she’s gotten in the past three weeks and about her Olympic dreams in 2020:
Columbus wasn’t the first time Connor hit 400 pounds in a gym. She says the gym, however, isn’t where it counts.
She anticipated making the lift at a competition last October, but about a week and a half out, Connor was taken to the emergency room with an intestinal infection. The illness caused her to lose weight, and despite recovering from the infection, she said her body wasn’t ready to train and compete. She said the decision to drop out caused a rift in her relationship with her coach at the time, so by December, Connor was training with a new coach.
With a new workout regimen and a new diet, Connor eyed The Arnold in early March. It was there, she said, she would attempt lifting four times her body weight.
“It was something I’d been chasing for so long and something that had been taken away from me so many times,” she said. “I refused to allow it to be taken away again. I knew my strength was where it needed to be. I knew I was ready to go for it.”
Athletes are given three attempts in powerlifting competitions like The Arnold. Connor went light — at least her definition of “light” — for her first lift in Columbus, knowing she needed everything for her next two lifts. (“A lot of athletes open heavier than they need to,” she said. “They think they need that big first lift, and it hurts them later on.”)
More than 6,700 miles away, Connor’s fiance, Kevin, was stationed in Korea and watching a livestream of her lift with his fellow soldiers at 1 a.m. Korea time. After Connor’s second lift, which was good enough to win the competition in her weight class, she received a text from Kevin saying, “You’ve got this. Just go do it. I’ll watch you make history right here in Korea.”
With her fiance by her side in spirit, Connor approached the mat for her third lift with dozens of cameras rolling and a few thousand screaming fans in front of her. She encouraged more noise before taking her position at the bar. From there, she said, the crowd disappeared
“I got tunnel vision,” she said. “I no longer heard the announcer. I didn’t hear the crowd. I just saw the weight and told myself I was going to get this weight.”
Watching the video, the lift itself takes a few seconds. To Connor, however, it was an eternity. First, it wasn’t as fast as the first two attempts. She said she hit a point in the record-breaking lift where she wasn’t sure it was going to happen. Any hesitation, she said, would have ended the lift.
“It’s a point where many people give up,” she said. “It’s a point where you can tell yourself to let go, because it’s not moving, or you be patient and keep going. I chose to be patient, and the bar started moving. I gave it every bit of strength I had. When I got it to my knees, I just knew.”
In the deadlift, athletes are required to hold the bar at the knees with locked shoulders and wait for the judge to give them the down command — usually about two seconds when the lift is complete.
When Connor got the down command, she said everything came into perspective. She saw the crowd. She heard the judges and the commentators.
“I knew I’d just made history for U.S.A. powerlifting,” she said. “The first woman to pull four times her body weight in a raw competition.”
Soon after, Connor learned she made more history. She learned that her Wilks score — the formula used to compare the strength of a powerlifter against others despite their difference in weight class — was the highest score for any woman in the U.S. Even later, she was told it was the highest in the world, topping a woman who Connor has idolized since getting into the sport, Wei-Ling Chen (bronze medalist in the 2008 Olympics).
“It just threw me back,” she said upon hearing the news. “There are so many strong women in this sport I’ve looked up to for so long, and knowing I’d topped them on the charts … I was just in shock.”
CONTROLLED, NOT CURED
On May 16, 2017, Connor wrote a very personal blog for BPI Sports, “How Powerlifting Saved Me From Myself.” In it, Connor revealed that she suffered from severe anxiety, which she has battled for 10 years now.
The anxiety — the result of a traumatic experience when she was 17 — caused Connor to lose weight, lose sleep and become afraid to enjoy “everyday life because of crippling fear and uncertainty.” Doctors prescribed medicine, new diets and new hobbies. One of those new hobbies Connor discovered after her diagnosis was weightlifting.
I began powerlifting in 2015, and in the time that I have been doing it, I have found my haven. I found a place that allows me to escape everyday life and focus solely on me. It’s in training where all my stress disappears and whatever may have previously upset me is no longer relevant.
Nearly a year after writing the post, Connor said she’s still battling anxiety. The slogan she’s shared with her followers on social media is “controlled, not cured.”
“When people see me on social media, they see Happy Heather,” she said. “They don’t see me outside of social media. A lot of people ask me how I got past my anxiety, and I tell them I haven’t. I just control it better. Being in the gym is a big stress reliever for me.”
She was hesitant to share her battle when BPI asked her to write a column. Today, she’s glad she did it.
“It turned out to be a very relatable article for a lot of athletes,” she said. “So many people emailed me saying they were glad somebody spoke out about it. People today are more open to talking about mental health and mental illnesses. I tell others who also suffer from this that if they need to talk to somebody, I’m here, because I don’t want anybody to feel like they’re alone.
“Anxiety is scary. Being alone is scary. If I can help one person, it’s been worth opening up about it.”
EYES ON TOKYO
Weightlifting is undergoing several changes heading into the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. First, the IOC is adding new weight classes for women (and taking away a weight class for men) to even the field in the sport. Second, the sport is looking to adopt a new qualification system based on individual performance rather than a national teams’ total efforts at major championships.
Heather Connor has been powerlifting for only three years. Her recent success has her thinking seriously about Tokyo — something she never would have dreamed of in 2015 when she started the sport “as a hobby.”
“I’ve lifted on international stages, competed against people all over the world,” she said. “But when the Olympics are attached to it, that would be life changing. I mean, I’d go after it with the same attitude I have at every competition, and that’s to come out on top.”