Erie Powerlifting’s fantastic journey

Eight years ago, Erie’s Powerlifting program was dormant. Special Olympics Pennsylvania athletes and coaches in Erie City and Erie County (which have since combined to form one program) had come and go, but for one reason or another it didn’t stick.

That’s where John Leonard comes in. John, a Special Education teacher at Erie High School, first heard about Special Olympics through other educators and administrators at the school. He and his wife, Nicole, were instantly drawn to the organization.

Erie powerlifting athlete Brandon Olson (left) and coach John Leonard (right) at the team’s annual banquet

And if you took one look at John, you’d know he was drawn to powerlifting as well. All of his muscles are seemingly four times that of the average person and his head is shaved bald — an unspoken prerequisite in the powerlifting community. John doesn’t just look the part. He competes regularly and is a tested United States Powerlifting Association lifter.

“I really wanted to get a powerlifting team started in Erie,” said Leonard, 35, who’s been lifting since he was a teenager. “Powerlifting’s my thing and what I’ve done for years. I decided once we started the program, that I was going to continue it regardless of what I had going on in my personal life. I didn’t want it to get to a point where it had no coach.”

John, Nicole and the Erie powerlifters (all photos courtesy of John Leonard)

So John gathered interested athletes and began training at the nearest-available space — the weight room at his high school. And, like 99 percent of high school weight rooms, the conditions weren’t ideal. It was dingy. Equipment was rusting. And, perhaps worst of all, there was no visibility to help the program grow. Five seasons came and went and, while the program was gaining traction and athletes were getting stronger, it still hadn’t taken that next step.

Then John started a conversation with Jeff Gibbens, the owner of CrossFit FBO/212 Degrees of Fitness (the gym where John trains), about his work with Special Olympics.

“Right away he offered his facility for us to train at. And once the athletes started practicing there, Jeff fell in love with it,” Leonard said.

Jeff (far left), John & Nicole (far right) with their powerlifting team.

Soon after Erie’s team began holding practices at CrossFit FBO, Jeff asked to join the team as an assistant coach. From there, he’s helped secure sponsorships for the team and been integral in fundraising and travel planning.

“The big thing that made a huge difference was Jeff and his gym opening their doors and being nothing but supportive. There was never a conversation about money or what they get out of it. From the beginning, he was all in,” Leonard said.

“My athletes feel like they’re a part of something instead of just putting us in the basement of an old weight room. Everyone in the gym embraces us. They stop what they’re doing and come over and watch practice or see if they can help out in any way.”

Since moving into the new space, not only has John added Jeff, 50, to his coaching staff, but he’s acquired two additional assistant coaches. This year, CrossFit FBO created a fundraising team for the Erie Polar Plunge and took a frigid dip into Lake Erie. Together, the team raised $1,924 to support Special Olympics Pennsylvania. Since connecting with CrossFit FBO, the team has raised funds for things like new warmup uniforms and sweatshirts.

The CrossFit FBO team at the 2019 Erie Polar Plunge

The outpouring of support from the gym community has been so strong that John’s had to turn some people away since all of the coaching spots on the roster are currently occupied. Take look at CrossFit FBO’s Facebook posts from early November and you’ll see exactly what Erie’s team means to this powerlifting family — especially the posts from this year’s Fall Festival at Villanova University, where Jeff shared videos of all of the athletes’ lifts.

Erie’s current roster is comprised of: Jayden Gorring, Reshema Henderson, Ryan Kelly, Brandon Olson, Stephen Schwab and Cody Sedziak.

“I think we have a really good mix [of personalities]. We have some athletes that are very serious and strictly business. And then we have some guys that are real silly,” Leonard said. “Two of our athletes are engaged and so they push each other and support each other.”

In addition to having a facility that is so inclusive, Erie’s team has a head coach with an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. In tandem with his assistant coaches and his wife Nicole — who is also very active in Special Olympics and helps John with all the necessary paperwork and clearances — they’ve elevated the expectations for what it means to be a member of Erie’s powerlifting team.

“It gives me a really unique perspective,” Leonard said. “I feel like I’m able to challenge my athletes and, based on my experience, I know what’s going to come up next for them.

“It can sometimes be hard, mentally, for any powerlifter. So I can prepare them for the peaks and valleys of the sport. I think that keeps them interested and motivated and wanting to come back year after year.”

One of the cooler things about being on a powerlifting team — and there are many — is that the athletes are held to the same standard during competition as any lifter competing outside of Special Olympics would be. Where in some Special Olympics sports there may be minor rules adjustments here and there, that isn’t so with lifting.

Jeff (far left) and John (far right) with their powerlifting team.

“I think it gives our athletes a lot of credibility within the powerlifting community,” Leonard said. “Some people might have this perception that it’s not competitive or not a real sport, but we’re coaching our athletes to compete at a high level. If I wanted to take any of my athletes to a meet outside of Special Olympics, they would be successful at that meet.”

As the program continues to grow, John, Jeff, Nicole and the rest of the team are hopeful they’ve set an unbreakable foundation in place for years to come.

“I hope to continue to get more athletes. It’d be nice to have one of the bigger delegations,” he said. “I hope to be in the position, one day, where I’m an old man and I’m still doing this. That would be cool.”

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Special Olympics Pennsylvania

The mission of Special Olympics Pennsylvania is to provide year-round sports training and competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes, and the community.

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