At York Barbell, powerlifter shows you can dominate at any age

George Christman tightened his black-and-yellow leg wraps as lifting partner Bill Harris massaged his shoulders and prepared him for a 300-pound squat lift.

At 85, Christman was the oldest competitor at the International Powerlifting Association National Powerlifting Championships on Saturday, Nov. 23, at York Barbell Co. in Manchester Township.

“Most of the people I compete with are gone,” he said. “They’re in a big gym in the sky.”

Over 16 weeks, the Pittsburgh man progressively added more weight to his routine — which he completes in his own basement gymnasium — and it’s worked for him so far. He deadlifted 470 pounds in his 50s.

"There's young people that can't do that," said Harris, 57, who grew up in Pittsburgh and knew Christman as a legend long before he trained with him. 

Christman won the masters in the U.S. Powerlifting Association tournament in Cleveland in April, and he has no plans to slow down.

“Just happened 50-some years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.

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Christman joins the many who have competed at York Barbell over the years. The IPA championships are held annually at the gym, and IPA CEO Mark Chailett said the two have a symbiotic relationship.

“We’re the biggest and one of the oldest,” he said of York-based IPA, created in 1993, which in partnering with York Barbell follows a legacy that has been in place since 1932.

York Barbell was a pioneer on many fronts, including some of the first exercise equipment and the first energy bar, and York County became a hub for lifting.

The first powerlifting national open tournament was held in York, with 38 competitors across seven bodyweight classes in 1964, and York Barbell helped organize the first meets after the Amateur Athletic Union accepted powerlifting officially in 1965.

The National Powerlifting Championships held at York Barbell in Manchester Township, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The first World Powerlifting Championships also were held at York County, in 1971.

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Over the years, powerlifting has evolved, especially with opportunities for women. The first Women’s Senior National Powerlifting Championships were held in 1978.

Henri Skiba, a special education teacher who also runs Women of Power, a women's empowerment program in New Jersey, said powerlifting is extremely beneficial to the psyche.

“Once they learn they can control their destiny, I don’t care if it’s lifting or personal achievement, it can change their lives," Skiba said.

Donna Opuszynski, of Harrisburg, competes in the National Powerlifting Championships held at York Barbell in Manchester Township, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

A testament to that is Donna Opuszynski, 59, who on Saturday beat two world records in squats for her 165-pound bodyweight class with 200-pound and 210-pound lifts.

Though she only started competing five years ago, lifting has been a part of her life since age 19. She started with longevity in mind — so she wouldn’t have to use a walker when she got older, she joked.

Now it’s been about 40 years, and Opuszynski still loves powerlifting.

“I think it’s a desire to compete,” she said. “You find that drive to be an athlete.”

What’s distinctive about powerlifting is it’s all about the strength, so anyone can do it at any age, Chaillet said.

He said there are more women in powerlifting than in Olympic weightlifting, which relies on speed and timing, or as Chaillet calls it, “a clean jerk and snatch.” It doesn’t build strength like powerlifting does.

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Strength training is something helpful to any athlete looking to be the best, he said.

“Look at what it’s done for me, right?” Christman said, noting that he still works every day as a contractor and feels great.

Harris said each contestant on Saturday had three attempts for each lift — a squat, a bench press and a dead lift — but if you got zero in each attempt on one lift, you'd be out.

Some judges might give tips after the first attempt, but they are not biased in favor of any contestants —  and they also don't "feel sorry for you," Harris said.

No matter if you're 12, 18 or 85, you have to have the highest lift total fair and square.

But the great thing about it is it's more about beating your personal best, Harris said. Everyone knows what they can do, and powerlifting together becomes a brotherhood.