The freckle-faced Wonder Kid moves through a gym packed with powerlifters, gliding past the grunting, straining, muscle-bound adults.
In his middle school hallway outside of Baltimore, Jake Schellenschlager blends in with other eighth-graders, but here at the York Barbell Competition in York, Pa., the 14-year-old with a shock of red hair and toothy grin is a star. The Wonder Kid can lift more than twice his weight — a feat that impresses powerlifting aficionados and worries pediatricians who believe the sport poses risks to developing bodies.
On this day, Jake is hoping to set world or personal records.
Jake admits he is nervous as he waits for the announcer to call his name. The competition will pit Jake against himself. Although powerlifting is attracting increasing numbers of teens, there are no other competitors on this Saturday morning in his category — 14- to 15-year-olds at a weight class of 123 pounds.
Jake had been hoping to compete in the 114-pound category and spent the evening before at the gym, running on a treadmill, trying to drop water weight. In the morning, though, the scale in the bathroom of his Pasadena home in Anne Arundel County (Maryland) was stuck at 118.
He was hoping he’d somehow drop the rest on the drive with his mother and sisters to York. But when he steps onto a big digital scale, the attendant announces, “One nineteen.”
Jake’s eyes flash disappointment. “I was thinking if I would weigh in at 114, I could break records. Records are harder for the 123 class.”
His mother assures him: “That’s okay, Jake.”
After the weigh-in, Jake straddles a bench to warm up on chest press. His trainer guides him as he lifts 155 pounds. Other powerlifters pass by and encourage him. Powerlifters share camaraderie, unlike bodybuilders, who compete in a world that is more about vanity and beauty. Powerlifters admire pure strength.
Jake can deadlift 300 pounds. “Three hundred pounds is obviously double his body weight,” says his trainer, Mike Sarni. His physical strength is matched by his mental toughness. “He doesn’t feel he can be defeated. It is that inner strength that tells him, ‘I can do this.’ Usually, you only get that in older, more mature people.”
Jake is one of thousands of teens who compete across the country, according to USA Powerlifting, an organization responsible for sanctioning local and regional powerlifting events. Christy Cardella, a state chairman for the organization, said the youngest competitive powerlifters are 14, and there are several high school powerlifting associations across the country with several thousand members. But there are also youth programs, where children start as young as 8 to lift for fun.
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics supports strength training for teenage athletes, it cautions against teens who powerlift while their bodies are still growing.
“Powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting sports are different because they usually are involving maximum lifts — the squat, bench press and the dead lift,” said Paul Stricker, a youth sports medicine specialist at the Scripps Health Clinic in San Diego and fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“There is high risk to heavy maximal lifts or explosive lifts during their rapid growth phrase,” said Stricker, one of eight physicians who worked with the U.S. Olympic team in Sydney. “That is our biggest caution. We just don’t recommend they do maximal lifts or explosive lifts until they have finished the majority of their growth spurt,” especially if they aren’t being properly supervised.
Jake’s father, Chris Schellenschlager, said he understands the risks and makes sure that Jake works out under the supervision of Sarni, owner of World Gym in Glen Burnie, Md.
“You want to make sure they are doing proper form and not lifting too heavy,” said Schellenschlager, 42, a maintenance tech. “I know it’s bad on the joints with him still growing. Some don’t believe it is good to have kids weight lifting too early. But Jake never complains about pain or hurting, and he gets regular check-ups.”
Jake’s mother, Brandy Schellenschlager, 39, said initially she worried about Jake competing, but eventually began to feel that it was a good activity for a teenage boy.
“Lifting is a sport just like baseball,” she said. “That’s how we view it.”
Jake started going to the gym with his father when he was 12, after his parents split up. Then one day, he met Sarni and began training in a more serious way.
His father encouraged Jake to pursue powerlifting: “You don’t want your kid to be sitting on a couch and playing video games.”
On a Saturday in York, Jake is scheduled to compete in three categories — squat, bench press and dead lift. He squats 225, breaking his personal record.
There are 11 adults ahead of Jake in the bench press competition. Finally, it’s his turn. The bar is set at 205 pounds. Jake’s trainer wraps and unwraps Jake’s wrists and chalks his shoulders. Just before walking onstage, Jake glances at his father, sitting in the bleachers. His father nods in encouragement.
“My dad, because he is super strong,” Jake says later, “when I see him it gives me motivation.”
The announcer tells the crowd, “This kid weighs only 119.”
Jake straddles the bench. He arches his back. His trainer lowers the bar into Jake’s hands. He controls the weight, bringing the bar slowly to his chest. The weight hesitates. Seconds. The crowd encourages Jake with an echo of “Come on! You can do it!”
Jake pushes the bar up with a final blast as three green lights flash on. “Good lift!” the announcer exclaims.
Jake retreats to the gym and begins to warm up for the deadlift. He will go for 300 pounds, another personal record.
He watches as a woman in pink shoes takes the stage for her deadlift. “Go Patty,” people scream.
Jake waits for his turn until he finally hears the announcer call, “Jake, you are the lifter.” The eighth-grader lifts the bar like a toothpick. The weight climbs to 255, then 270. Each powerlifter climbs on stage and goes through his or her ritual. The roll of the shoulders. The back bends. The grunts.
The audience cheers them through each personal record attempt. The weight climbs to 300.
“Jake you are on deck,” the announcer warns.
Jake’s mother goes to the front of the stage to record his performance with her cellphone.
“Come on, Jake,” spectators yell.
Jake bends and lifts 300 pounds. The crowd explodes. The Wonder Kid flashes a grin.