No Speedos, no body oil, no Schwarzenegger arms.
And no age limit.
When more than 200 weightlifters from age 35 to 83 compete in the upcoming Pan Am Masters at Variety Village, they will all lift something other than weights and barbells: myths about their sport.
“Even when I was 23, I thought it was too late,” says Mylène Bourget, catching her breath at a recent training session. “But it’s never too late.”
Now 35, Bourget is among the youngest athletes to qualify for the Pan Am Masters, and one of three who calls Variety Village her home gym.
Bourget was 13 when a coach from Gros Bill, a Montreal weightlifting club, urged her to give it a try.
She declined, too shy then to lift in front of people.
Ten years later, Bourget was a competitive dragon boat racer. Feeling strained by the one-sided paddling, she finally joined Gros Bill for a more balanced workout.
She found a new favourite sport.
“You can never be bored,” said Bourget. “There’s never a perfect lift.”
Olympic-style weightlifting only has two lifts – the snatch and the clean and jerk – but Bourget said both are so technical that competing is a largely mental exercise.
“If your mind is not there, you won’t lift even close to your potential,” she said. “Most people don’t think about that.”
Eric Savva, another Pan Am competitor who trains at Variety Village, agrees technique is huge.
Unlike powerlifting, a “brute force sport” that includes bench press, squats, and deadlifts, he said Olympic weightlifting is not for Incredible Hulks.
“It starts with leg movement,” said Savva. “Big, muscle-bound upper bodies don’t do well here.”
Savva started weightlifting five years ago with his son Allan, when he was 40 and Allan was eight. Savva’s nine year-old son Gabriel joined them this year.
Like their dad, who enjoys trail running, Allan and Gabriel said weightlifting gives them a boost in other sports. Both do track and Taekwondo.
“I think it actually does help my high jump,” said Allan, noting how weightlifting works his legs and adds flexibility.
Asked about growing older in the sport, Savva said with all the squats it requires, training for a weightlifting championship builds muscles you use every day.
“When you get older, you’re not going to care how much you can bench press,” he said. “You’re going to care whether you can get off the toilet seat. You’re going to care whether you can go up the stairs.”
At 66, Raymond St. Jean will be one of the new kids at the Pan Am Masters – he lifted his first 20 kg barbell, with no weights, just three years ago.
“My arms were shaking,” he said, laughing.
At the time, St. Jean’s wife had signed them up for Variety’s Active Aging Club, despite his protests that he was fit enough already. That’s where St. Jean met Abdallah Alsebaii, the Variety Village weightlifting coach who does double duty at the Aging Club.
Climbing stairs and lifting bare barbells are now the least of St. Jean’s worries, ever since he agreed to Alsebaii’s challenge to try competing once he lifted 40 kg.
“He didn’t ask me to do anything he didn’t think I was capable of doing,” St. Jean said, noting how Alsebaii broke each lift down into smaller moves.
St. Jean said he also learned a lot just by training beside Variety’s top junior weightlifters – Aaron Rose, Taylor Findlay, Khalil and Ayesha Sabayle – and trying to copy their quick, smooth moves.
And while most of the two dozen weightlifters who train at Variety are half his age or younger, St. Jean said they have long stopped calling him “sir,” and switched to “Ray” instead.
As he goes into the Pan Am Masters on June 21 and 22, St. Jean needs all the support he can get.
He has only just started, and it will be nearly 20 years before he catches Don Buchanan, Canada’s most experienced weightlifter, who is competing at the very strong age of 83.