BIGLER, Pa. - Eight-year-old Victoria Vasquez can do something few boys her age can do. Few boys of any age, for that matter.
The third-grader from Edgewood can bench-press most of her own weight.
On a recent Sunday in an antiquated gym in this mining town, Victoria demonstrated her strength at the annual Coal Country Classic championships. She dipped her hands in powdered chalk, just like an old pro, lay down on a padded bench and pressed an iron bar with all her might.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's editions about an 8-year-old powerlifter incorrectly stated that a similar sport, weightlifting, does not have preadolescent competitors. At last year's Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics, many children competed in an 11-and-under division of weightlifting. Also in the story, a quotation from the girl's father, Bernard Vasquez, about a girl being injured while playing basketball did not refer to his daughter. Vasquez was referring to another girl at a powerlifting competition in Bigler, Pa.
The Sun regrets the errors.
An article in Saturday's editions about an 8-year-old powerlifter incorrectly paraphrased a remark by the girl's father, Bernard Vasquez. The article said that Vasquez believes his daughter's weightlifting is no riskier than head-smacking soccer balls or jumping somersaults off a balance beam. He actually said that there are risks in other sports, just as there are in powerlifting, but did not specify any others.
The Sun regrets the errors.
When it was over, all of three seconds later, the little girl had hoisted 65 pounds off her chest. And it won't be long before the world's youngest powerlifting champion muscles her way past that benchmark.
Victoria, who has been lifting weights competitively for a year, is already a veteran in the emerging arena of pee-wee powerlifting, a sport that shows how far women's athletics has come since only a decade ago, when the sight of rippled physiques of female bodybuilders still had the power to shock.
The sport has its skeptics. The American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, says children should not lift weights competitively until they reach skeletal maturity, typically after puberty. Most gyms ban children; two of the three major national powerlifting organizations allow only adults to compete.
But some see the trend as a healthy development.
"Up until 10 years ago, it was mainly an adult sport," said Judy Wood, youth director for AAU powerlifting in Richmond, Va. But with the nation's growing obesity crisis, "More kids are being made aware of fitness. They're being made aware by parents and coaches that they need to work out."
As young as 5
The Amateur Athletic Union began allowing children to compete a decade ago, but only in the past six years has anyone under 14 competed in its meets. The AAU, which requires parents to sign waivers, said no child has been injured during a powerlifting meet. The youngest athletes competing in AAU meets are often girls, as young as 5, Wood said.
At last year's AAU Junior Olympics in Des Moines, Iowa, 60 boys and 14 girls competed, most of them under 14 (Victoria was the youngest). That was almost twice the number who competed the previous year.
Victoria, who weighs 92 pounds, wears a ponytail and glasses and likes Nancy Drew novels, is one of the youngest girls to powerlift. At 7, she became the youngest female in AAU history to bench-press 60 pounds, squat 80 pounds and deadlift 100 pounds.
As Victoria practiced between lifts at the Coal Country Classic, her father frequently stopped her when she deviated from the proper form, to keep her from getting injured.
If there was any pressure on her, Vasquez appeared unfazed. A shy girl, she said she likes lifting weights. And she showed the braggadocio of a champion: After deadlifting 125 pounds, she ran to her mother and said giddily, "It felt like a 60!"
Victoria's father, trainer and motivator, Bernard P. Vasquez, says lifting weights competitively is no riskier for his daughter than head-smacking soccer balls or jumping somersaults off a balance beam, an opinion echoed by a growing cadre of trainers and medical professionals.
"There was a time when people thought the world was flat," said Vasquez, a veteran powerlifter. "There's a lot of myth and fear of the unknown. She hurt herself playing basketball, but she's never hurt herself lifting weights."
The concern for youth injury is prevalent in other sports. Little League Baseball, for example, bans curveballs and limits how many innings a pitcher can play over consecutive days, for fear of arm overuse.
Avery Faigenbaum, a professor of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, has extensively studied youth powerlifting and concluded the sport is no riskier than other athletic activities. He said children push their bodies to the limits all the time - by pulling a rope in tug-of-war or doing a chin-up, for example.
The real problem is parents who buy into myths, he said: "You think about the Olympics and those great Russian weightlifters the size of refrigerators, lifting incredible amounts of weight. You think, `There's no way my kid is doing that.' But that's a very narrow-minded view of weight lifting."
Children can avoid injury and the muscle-bound look as long as they are supervised and follow a light training regimen emphasizing a variety of muscles, not just "beach muscles," he said. In a word: moderation.
Vasquez introduced Victoria to weights to improve her swimming. Lying on a bench with wooden blocks supporting her feet, the girl would press a 15-pound aluminum bar designed for beginners. She was a natural at learning the form, and soon she wanted to compete, her father said.
90 minutes a week
Victoria now trains and stretches no more than 90 minutes a week in their home, always under her father's supervision, Vasquez said: