Birchman Pereira spots lifter Alison MacNearney as Monica Johnston right spots the end of the bar and at left

Birchman Pereira spots lifter Alison MacNearney as Monica Johnston right spots the end of the bar and at left

Getting strong

They range in age from their mid-20s to their mid-60s. They are business owners, massage therapists and church ministry assistants. But they all share a single passion: Getting strong. And amid the clanging cacophony of Red Deer’s Peak Fitness gym, that is exactly what they were doing on a recent afternoon, under the watchful eye of local powerlifting guru, 67-year-old Birchmans Pereira. Sarah Jo Buffalo calls it a “total fluke” that she got involved in the sport three years ago.

They range in age from their mid-20s to their mid-60s. They are business owners, massage therapists and church ministry assistants.

But they all share a single passion: Getting strong.

And amid the clanging cacophony of Red Deer’s Peak Fitness gym, that is exactly what they were doing on a recent afternoon, under the watchful eye of local powerlifting guru, 67-year-old Birchmans Pereira.

Sarah Jo Buffalo calls it a “total fluke” that she got involved in the sport three years ago. A friend who was helping her work out introduced her to his “team.” That’s when she met the inspirational Pereira and within a year she was in her first powerlifting competition.

The experience provided eye-opening insight into her own capabilities, says the 28-year-old registered massage therapist.

“I had absolutely no idea I’d be able to do what I’m doing now. When you consider your size, and then you’re lifting weights that just seems impossible.

“Friends look at me and say, ‘No way,’ ” she adds with a chuckle.

Last year, she set a deadlift record for her weight class at 282 pounds and has already set a personal goal of 300. The five-foot-four, 140-pounder’s personal best squat is 230 pounds.

Buffalo says her new strength has helped her in other sports such as volleyball, where it has improved her jumping, and in fastball, where her batting has improved.

Pereira’s team all practise raw powerlifting, which means no supportive equipment, such as special bench press shirts that can improve lifts by as much as 100 pounds, or wrist and knee wraps are used, and they are 100 per cent drug-free.

Alison MacNearney, 51, fell into powerlifting through her daughter, Jessica, who began weightlifting about two years ago with Pereira. Like any watchful mother, she was a little curious about her daughter’s new weightlifting crowd.

“Birchmans said (to Jessica) you should bring your mother here to see that we’re all not weirdos and freaks,” she says with a laugh.

“So I came on a Friday and met them, and I joined the gym on a Monday afternoon and started working out with them.”

She admits that the din of banging weight plates and prospect of hoisting heavy iron was intimidating at first.

But she stuck with it and MacNearney, who also has three teenage sons, will make her powerlifting competition debut this weekend in the masters class for women at the Canadian National Powerlifting Championships in Calgary.

MacNearney, who trained as a computer scientist and is a stay-at-home mom, says weight training would help many people her age.

“We give up on ourselves when we get older. You start thinking, ‘I’m sore now or I don’t need to do this anymore.’ ”

“Actually, the opposite is true. You don’t want to let yourself get weak.

“It makes a big difference to your health, just to have that extra muscle mass.”

Dallas Smith, 26, was encouraged by Pereira to take up powerlifting only six weeks ago. She went to get some pointers on squats and he was surprised by her strength.

“It was absolutely encouraging, especially since I had been working so hard personally,” says Smith, who has been working out regularly for the past three years.

She and the others work out with Pereira three times a week, but he’s usually around to ask questions outside of their regular sessions.

Working towards a single maximum repetition has been different than her usual workouts of multiple repetitions.

Muscle has grown and weight has come off quicker than the ministry assistant at CrossRoads Church has ever experienced.

That doesn’t meant it’s been easy.

“It takes a lot of dedication. It’s not something you can go and mess around with.

“Powerlifting is definitely something that I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life in my workout career.

“It’s cool to be that strong.”

Monica Johnston’s foray into powerlifting followed an unwelcome wakeup call from the doctor.

“On my 60th birthday, when I had my bone density tests, they told me that my bone density had gone down so much in the 10 years that they’ve been monitoring me and I was now at a high risk to break a hip if I was to fall.

“I was a little shocked, because I’ve always been an athlete.”

Her two youngest children had been working with Pereira and convinced her to join their group.

“I have loved it. From Day 1, when I first came here and started working with the weights, I loved it.

“And of course it’s made my knees stronger, and the best news for all us older women out there, my bone density has plateaued and actually gone up a bit.”

Johnston says it hasn’t been a quick fix. In the three years she has been training, she wishes her bone density was higher still, but it is improving and she is satisfied with that.

“The knee replacement they told me I needed, I don’t need it anymore.

“I’m walking around, I’m squatting, and deadlifting and benching with all of the rest of them.”

“To me, it was a thrill.”

There is no room for shortcuts in their training regimes, she adds.

“We do everything raw. What you have to understand about our group is there’s no steroids, there isn’t any of that kind of stuff.

“This is real muscle and I put it on myself.”

She now works out with three of her four children and a 16-year-old grandson and world record holder Devon Langelaar at Peak Fitness.

The owner of a janitorial business already has the world competition in Argentina next year on her bucket list.

“Right now, I hold world records for three of my lifts.”

But she adds she can’t call herself a world champion until she competes at a worlds.

Johnston’s daughter, Courtney — a world record holder herself — is among a group of six women who have trained with Pereira, including 66-year-old Margaret Ann Estabrooks.

The women speak highly of Pereira’s enthusiasm and bottomless knowledge about powerlifting and his ability to spot subtle mistakes in technique.

That ability comes from a half century of athletics and weight training for Pereira, who has been lifting weights since he was 13 years old and started competing at 16. He has been involved in track and field, judo, karate, boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling and bodybuilding.

A Red Deer resident since 1978, Pereira only took up powerlifting in 2000, but has already set numerous world records for his age and weight classes. He is off to worlds in Budapest later this year and hopes to set some new world standards.

Pereira’s son, Travis, and grandson, Brandon, have both followed him into powerlifting, making it three generations of winners.

He has trained many, but this is the first time he’s overseen such a large group of women and spanning such a large age range.

His training methods have not changed, though, he says. It’s all about control.

“We don’t curse. We don’t swear. We don’t get angry.

“If we fail, we do better next time.”

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com