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By SPENCER GLEASON
Daily News Sports Editor
Caleb Cross never thought he’d pull another deadlift. A back injury put a halt to power lifting after he participated in a couple meets in high school.
“I didn’t lift much after that,” he said. “I never thought I’d lift heavy again (and) deadlift because it was so bad for my back.”
But life works in mysterious ways sometimes, as it weaves through twists and turns.
The injury set his life on a course for a career in physical therapy — a career that moved him from Northeast Texas to Ketchikan. And it ultimately led him to a gym on a mountainside, doing things he hadn’t done since he was a 17 year old.
The work before the reward
For 10 weeks, leading up to Ketchikan’s 18th Annual Winter Power Lifting meet at Body Mechanics Gym on Saturday, Kevin Manabat had been training seven people for the event. Normally a CrossFit trainer, Manabat had the group take a break from their regular programs and switch gears, focusing on three events — squat, bench press and deadlift.
“(We’ve been) just specializing in the events here,”Manabat said. “We spent the last 10 days kind of tapering off, so a lot of them are feeling good.”
Of the 15 participants on Saturday, Manabat coached Will Levin, Kenda Conley, Edward Freysinger, Jaredval Cagiuat, Terri Whyte, Jill Larna and Cross.
“Over the last 10 days, most of them have been on a taper — not beating them up so much,”Manabat said. “(They were) still hitting the lifts and still moving. But not so much tearing their nervous system down. It was time to build it back up and let them recover a little more.”
The nervous system takes a beating during lifting exercises.
“Coming from being a physical therapist, we learn a lot about your nervous system,” Cross said. “And you are gassing your nervous system every lift — every single lift. And a lot of strength is what we call neuro-muscular control.
“So neuro — like you brain — down to the muscle,” he continued. “It’s that communication. It’s muscle recruitment. Some of these guys have more muscle than others, but some guys learn how to recruit more. Or it’s just technique, too.”
And the nervous system in on full throttle for nine adrenaline jumps—three squats, three bench presses and three deadlifts. But little by little, the group’s confidence in each event began to grow.
“(The mentality) is huge,” Manabat said. “I’m not much of a powerlifter, but I’ve trained them; I’ve watched them. And you can hear some of them talk when they get under it — ‘Man, this is heavy. I don’t know if I’m going to make this.’ And then you hear the other person under it — ‘Alright, I got this. I can do this.’
“So you’re right whatever you decide you’re going to do,” he continued. “You kind of set yourself up for that, regardless. So the idea is to never really talk in that negative tone. You always want to keep optimistic about what you’re going to be doing.”
That’s why Manabat started training his group in September for a meet in December.
“You can start building that confidence,” he said. “And for most of them — on game day — it’s just a reminder, ‘You’ve done this before.’”
A new state record
Larna had never competed in a power lifting event before. A four-year veteran in the CrossFit scene, Larna was trying something new.
“We lift in (CrossFit), but it’s a little bit different,” she said. “We do a lot of Olympic lifts — so snatches, cleans (and) jerks.”
But competitive squats, bench presses and deadlifts had her on edge.
“It was nerve-wracking and harder than I thought it would be,” she said after the meet. “I’m an anxious person. So it was just the atmosphere.”
But Manabat’s message of ‘You’ve done this before’ helped.
“One of the biggest things I told them was, ‘Act you’ve done this before — because you have,’” Manabat said. “’You’ve done it in training; you’ve lifted.’ (I was) really trying to keep them level-headed, where they can keep going into the next lift, still with confidence, still with energy.”
Despite the nerves, Larna was able to zero in on each round. And although she didn’t hit any of her personal bests, she excelled during the bench press.
Larna set a new state record in her 138-pound weight class, bench pressing 145 pounds, proving that it doesn’t take the best all-around day to make history — just heart and tenacity in a given moment.
“My legs were kind of shaky,” she said. “The bench you can lay down, so that made a big difference. But the other two (squats and deadlifts), you’re standing on shaky feet.”
Larna’s personal bench press best is 152.5 pounds.
“I think we did awesome (overall),” Body Mechanic Gym owner David McLavey said after the meet. “I think there should be at least a half a dozen to a dozen state records broken. For this town, it actually is (typical). We at least send home a half dozen to a dozen, if not more, state records every time we have a competition.”
Saturday’s meet was sanctioned by United States Alaska Power Lifting Federation. In addition to the seven competitors that trained with Manabat, Daniel Ledoux, Michael Young, Iwona Edwards, Patrick McLavey, David McLavey, Gale Lindemann, Vanessa Head and Myra Sprague also competed.
“It was a pretty good turnout,” David McLavey said. “There were a bunch of new faces, so that’s always good to see. I think it’s amazing that people try it. You never know until you try it, right?”
Larna was glad she stepped out of her comfort zone.
“It was good to try something new,” she said. “It’s a great group of people. So it was fun.”
The camaraderie and intrapersonal competition is what has kept the sport thriving in Ketchikan for nearly two decades.
“It’s a fun, competitive sport,” David McLavey said. “It’s not ‘I’m competing against you.’ It’s ‘I’m competing against myself to better myself every time.’”
And like Larna, Cross was looking to personally take that next step.
Cross had just picked up 355 pounds in his second round of deadlifts during the meet. It was a max weight that he hadn’t hit since high school. The rehab-minded and accessory workouts he had done with Manabat for 10 weeks had paid off.
And Cross was feeling good on Saturday — really good — better than he’s ever felt before. And he still had one final round of deadlifts to go.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever lifted pain free,” Cross said with a smile. “Like no pain.”
Cross and Manabat, eyed each other after the 31-year-old’s second turn. And they each knew what the other was thinking.
“He told me what his goal was for the deadlift,” Manabat said. “And I said, ‘Do it, Caleb. I know you want to do it. By all means go for it.’”
That was all Cross needed to hear.
“I didn’t say a number, and Caleb said, ‘405, right?’” Manabat said of the brief conversation. “‘Perfect. That’s what you wanted.’”
Even in high school, Cross hadn’t deadlifted more than 400 pounds. And he hadn’t come close to it in practice.
“It was kind of like a dream,” Cross said. “I was like, ‘Well, what if?’”
So on his third go-around of deadlifts — the final lift of the day — without any back pain Cross let out a yell as he hoisted 405 pounds in the air.
It was a new personal record.
“That one was for Caleb,” Manabat said. “He did 405, and he crushed it. Man, he looked great.”