Columbia grandmother powerlifts her way to international recognition

Caryn Daniel on her way to compete in the Czech Republic

September 18, 2014|By Kit Waskom Pollard | For The Baltimore Sun

Every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, around 6 in the evening, eight adults gather in a garage in the Allview Estates neighborhood in Columbia. The garage, which has been converted to a gym, serves as the training ground for this small group of serious athletes — powerlifters who spend two hours squatting, bench-pressing and dead-lifting their way to better health.

One of those lifters — and the owner of the house — is Caryn Daniel. At 51, Daniel is a fundraiser for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, the mother and stepmother of four children ages 14 to 28, and grandmother of a 3-year-old. And she is also the United States Powerlifting Championships' winner in her age and weight class.

Starting Sunday, Daniel will compete internationally for the first time, in the World Masters Powerlifting Championships. The competition, which takes place through Sept. 27 in Pilsen, Czech Republic, is a prestigious one in the powerlifting world.

Powerlifting is practiced by people of all ages, and Daniel believes it is an especially good fit for older women.

"Our bones tend to get more brittle, and we don't do as much strength training as we should," says Daniel, who didn't take up the sport until she was in her 40s.

"I was always an athletic kid growing up, and after I got married and had kids, it kind of took a back seat," she says. "When I got remarried around the age of 40, I was experiencing a lot of back and hip issues — just not feeling so great. My husband, Mark, convinced me that powerlifting would help me."

Her husband has been powerlifting for about 30 years and is a passionate ambassador for the sport. He's also the Maryland chairman for United States Powerlifting. Shortly after he persuaded his wife to train with him, she also became an enthusiast.

"After about three months, I noticed a difference in how I felt when I sat and walked, and I had more energy, so I kept with it," she says. But even then, Daniel didn't picture herself competing.

It was only after several years of training that Daniel decided to try competition. "It was fun," she recalls. "I caught the bug and have been doing it ever since."

A slender and soft-spoken woman, Daniel defies the stereotype of the aggressive, huge, muscle-bound powerlifter. But underneath her sweet exterior, she is steely, strong and determined.

"I feel like I could go out and run five miles, or dig ditches. I feel strong enough to do about anything — and 10 years ago, I didn't," she says. "I'm very strong, but to look at me, you wouldn't notice there's a muscle in my body."

Mark Daniel corroborates his wife's description of her body. "She's very delicate, very tall and slender," he says. For that reason, she was initially concerned that powerlifting would exacerbate her ailments, rather than help.

While her mild-mannered nature is not necessarily what people think of when they picture powerlifters, she insists she's more the norm than the public believes.

"I don't think people realize it's a lot of people like me," she says. "Moms, dads, grandmas — people doing it for the health benefits, who aren't big, muscle-y, crazy people going into in the gym, like 'Aaaargh!' " she says with a laugh.

Though sometimes confused with weightlifting in general, the sport of powerlifting is specific and distinct. It includes three lifts: the squat, the bench press and the dead lift. Competitions may include one, two or three of the lifts; powerlifters are grouped by age and body weight, and the winner is the person who lifts the most weight.

Powerlifting has gained popularity over the past few years, says Steve Denison, president of the International Powerlifting League and United States Powerlifting Association. Denison says the sport's growth is a result of powerlifters sharing their stories on social media, and spillover growth with the immensely popular CrossFit training approach. Powerlifting is "a nice change of pace," for CrossFitters, Denison says.

In Maryland, there are about 190 registered powerlifters, according to Mark Daniel. That number has grown from about 80 when he first became an officer of the U.S. powerlifting group 20 years ago.

Both Caryn and Mark note that her success as a powerlifter is driven by her focus, and that inspires the people she trains with, as well.

"She's dedicated to doing what's necessary to be a good powerlifter," says Marsha Serre, a Laurel resident and longtime powerlifter who trains with the couple. "We have a schedule, she follows it, and that's what makes her good — consistency, determination. It's not an easy thing."

Serre says Daniel carries those qualities over into the rest of her life. "She has a number of children and has provided a rock to them to hold on to during their difficulties. That's the kind of person who is consistent and who has a human quality."

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