Raising the bar
Teen weightlifter shattering records and stereotypes
It’s 6:30 a.m. and the Hayden High School parking lot is empty except for a lone gray Toyota truck parked outside the school’s north entrance.
Inside, AC/DC blares from a stereo in the weight room where 17-year-old Jesse Hayes is in the middle of her daily lifting routine.
Standing firmly, she holds an easy bar laden with 70 pounds of weights, slowly lifting it to her chest and lowering it back down to her waist. Her movements are controlled, not forced or shaky, and her face looks calmly determined, as if she will be satisfied for the rest of the day if she can push herself to complete a few more reps.
“She’s committed to doing it,” said Calvin Novacek, a family friend who encouraged Jesse to compete in her first power sport lifting competition in Loveland last April. “A lot of kids go to the weight room and screw around — it’s a big talking session. … She just gets in there and puts her nose to the grindstone.”
It’s that determination and keen attention to form that have made Jesse one of the top women power sport lifters in the world.
Hayes’ talent spurs talk
Confident yet somewhat shy, Jesse looks slightly amused as a photographer snaps pictures of her as she trains. She appears slightly uncomfortable with getting so much attention for something she enjoys.
But Hayden residents and others have been talking about Jesse’s talent ever since her performance at the Colorado State Championships, where she broke records and qualified for the 2004 World Cup competition.
“Since she did that first competition, a lot of people in the power lifting community have been talking big time,” Novacek said.
At a World Cup event in Oklahoma City in August, Jesse confirmed her abilities while breaking world records in her age and weight class for bench press, dead lift and strict curls. The records, which have yet to be broken, have spurred talk of more competition and maybe even the Olympics someday.
It sounds good, but Jesse hesitates when she weighs the constant training, traveling and competition against her comfortable life in Hayden, where she knows everybody and enjoys raising animals and riding four-wheelers and snowmobiles.
But as she talks about the “high” of outlifting competitors — both men and women — it seems her competitive spirit may just get the best of Jesse, who continues to work toward rigorous lifting goals while eying the No. 1 spot in the Natural Athletes Strength Association list of top female power sport lifters.
The results of her training in the next month likely will determine whether she pursues that spot or turns her attention to another love: bull riding.
The thrill of competition
Jesse, who has been involved in 4-H for eight years and has raised steers, started riding calves at the Routt County Fair about four years ago. She soon upgraded to 1,200- to 1,400-pound bulls, competing in several rodeos in Craig and Wyoming.
“It’s a pretty big adrenaline rush,” Jesse said. “Being able to hang with something that big is pretty cool.”
That adrenaline rush, however, proved risky when a bull stepped on the back of her neck and she spent a night in the hospital.
Jesse, who has lifted weights since she was little, said lifting helped build her strength and trained her body to heal faster after bull-riding injuries. Lifting played a more serious role, however, after a bull stepped on Jesse again in 2003, breaking her collarbone.
As Jesse lifted more to help with her recovery, Novacek saw that Jesse had the natural physique and willpower to take it to the next level.
She confirmed her talent at the Trapper Fitness Center in Craig, where Novacek, who has competed in power lifting competitions for about five years, helped Jesse train for the Loveland competition.
“When there’s full-grown men stopping and watching this girl, you got something,” he said.
Once in Loveland, Jesse, who was extremely nervous lifting in front of spectators, expected the worst. Instead, she beat the previous state record for high school girls in her weight class by benching 171 pounds, dead lifting 276 pounds and curling 88 pounds.
Novacek was a big part of her achievements at the competition, Jesse said.
“Having Calvin there was awesome,” she said. “He pushed me.”
Her scores not only beat her competition but also challenged boys her age, Novacek said.
“People just thought, ‘Oh, another girl,’ and then she got up there and started to spank some boys,” he said.
Breaking the mold, or not
With her sights set on Oklahoma City, Jesse trained with Novacek an hour and a half four days a week for about three months. As badly as she wanted to ride bulls, she didn’t want to risk injury and ruin her chances at the World Cup, her father, Clay Hayes, said.
Hosted by NASA, one of the nation’s two drug-free power lifting organizations, the World Cup was a two-day event featuring about 300 lifters. As soon as Jesse arrived at the event, members of the NASA Colorado chapter recruited her for a co-ed team that took first in the team competition, Novacek said.
“She’s just incredibly outstanding. … She impressed me,” team coach and state NASA chairman Jim McDermott said. “I just never met a girl that young that was that good.”
During the individual competition, Jesse hoped to bench 195 pounds, dead lift 315 pounds and curl 110 pounds.
Although she didn’t meet her individual goals, her performance — benching 187 pounds, dead lifting 297 pounds and curling 105 pounds in the 148-pound weight class for high school girls — was good enough to top the previous records set in June.
Currently, she is ranked No. 1 in NASA’s list of top high school women power sport lifters and fourth in the overall list of women power sport lifters.
Unlike power lifters, who may use supportive gear such as bench shirts, squat suits and knee and elbow wraps, power sport lifters use only 4-inch lifting belts, which makes Jesse’s abilities even more impressive, McDermott said.
“I’d rather just see what I can do without any kind of support equipment,” Jesse said.
In competition, lifters must have good form and control while lifting enough weight to beat records. Each step of the lift is done on the judge’s command.
“It’s a lot about form and doing things correctly on the platform. … It’s no easy deal getting lifts past (judges) at the World Cup,” said McDermott, who has coached the sport for 40 years and also is a referee.
In bench pressing, for example, lifters must keep their feet flat on the floor, bottoms on the bench and heads down while pushing the bar straight up.
“You have to moderate what you think you can do with perfect form,” Jesse said.
Like riding bulls, one of the best things about weight lifting is that an athlete relies only on herself, not a team, to do well.
“I like doing things independently,” she said.
Though weight lifting doesn’t have the same adrenaline rush as bull riding, it comes with its own competitive high, said Jesse, who keeps an eye on other lifters during warm-up.
Seeing someone lift within 5 to 10 pounds of what she is lifting is particularly motivating, as are overtly egotistical competitors.
“Those are the kind of people you love to beat,” she said.
To ride or to lift?
Inevitably, some people who see or hear of Jesse’s lifting accomplishments or bull riding say, “Wow, that’s pretty good for a girl.”
“I guess so,” she says.
“She doesn’t care what people think,” her mother, Tina Hayes, said. “She’s going to do what she wants no matter what.”
Although she’s excelled in activities typically dominated by men, Jesse and her parents don’t see her accomplishments as challenging any stereotypes because she’s played with the boys all along.
“She’s never been a prissy little girl, ever since she’s been tiny,” Clay Hayes said. “That hasn’t been Jesse.”
Starting with pee wee wrestling in kindergarten, Jesse wrestled through middle school, where she also played basketball and football.
At one point, a coach wanted to recruit Jesse for a Colorado women’s wrestling team, but she wasn’t interested in leaving the nest to train in Colorado Springs, Clay Hayes said.
Hayden residents have been behind Jesse during her endeavors. The town of Hayden and groups such as the American Legion helped send Jesse and her parents to Oklahoma City, she said.
“About everyone I know in this town has been really supportive. … I owe a lot to this community,” she said.
Still, some people will hang onto certain ideas about what girls should and shouldn’t do, and in that sense Jesse definitely is bucking the system, Novacek said.
But stereotypes only motivate Jesse, Clay Hayes said.
“The more they say she can’t do it, the more she wants to prove them wrong: No, she can do it — and better than the boys if she can possibly work it out that way.
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