News Column

Weightlifting Has Taken Local Athlete Around the World, and Now London Paralympic

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Mary Stack -- a disabled athlete from Ann Arbor whose sport is powerlifting -- is poised to peak.

And that could mean her winning a medal at the Paralympic Games, which open today in London with 4,200 athletes from around the world who have disabilities. Thirteen of those competing have ties to Michigan.

Stack, 38, goes into the games ranked fourth in the world; she will compete on Sept. 5 against other powerlifters who weigh 182 pounds or more and hail from countries such as Nigeria, Egypt and Mexico.

To medal, she'll have to do what she never has done before: Lift 320 pounds or so. Her personal best is 302 pounds.

"Showing my strength is more than just about me lifting weights. It's about what's inside and how I use that strength that has taken me places in life," says Stack, who will participate in her fourth -- and last -- Paralympics. "Every day I show the people around me what is possible with dedication and determination.

"It means the world to me to be able to represent the USA on the largest sporting stage in the world and to be able to stand proud knowing that I have trained hard and am ready to do my best," says Stack, who was born with a disorder that has shortened her bones, rounded her face and predisposed her to obesity.

The Paralympics are growing in stature. London organizers predict record crowds for the games. The NBC Sports Network has several days worth of coverage scheduled. And Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee and sprinter who made history by participating in the London games is also due to compete in the Paralympics with his blade prosthetics.

On her competition day, Stack will pack a new pair of gym shoes -- New Balance size 1 in boys -- and a one-piece singlet or weightlifter's leotard with an American flag emblazoned on it. She gets three lifts, so she'll start with a weight she knows she can easily handle. In practice, she does lifts ranging from about 135 pounds to 275 pounds.

"Next is something that's a little bit of a struggle," says Stack. "My last lift will be something that I've never done before."

In powerlifting, Stack competes based solely on weight.

"I'm not competing against somebody with my own disability. I'm competing against somebody in the same weight class," said Stack, so that means she may compete against a lifter whose disability is blindness, or is an amputee.

At a recent practice at U-M, Stack is steadying herself to lift, strapping on orange wristbands. As she's lying on a bench, two spotters help position the barbell above her and offer encouragement.

In a clean lift, the spotter places the barbell in Stack's hands as it rests on her chest. When he lets go, she begins to press the weight up. The lift needs to be smooth, hands synchronized as they press the weight up. Elbows are locked in place, holding the weight steady for a second against the force of gravity before it comes down to her chest.

She does this about 10 to 15 times each training session, starting at about 135 pounds and on this day, working her way up to 275 pounds.

In between lifts, she keeps up a steady banter, joking that "I only stop talking when the weight goes up."

Sport defines much of who Stack is. She coordinates sporting activities for the disabled at Ann Arbor's Center for Independent Living. After London, she plans to transition into coaching.

Stack was born with Pseudohypoparathyroidism, a disorder which affects how the body processes hormones released from the parathyroid gland. Her condition has shortened bones in her hands and feet, and contributed to her short stature. It gives her a round face. It has caused developmental disabilities. She struggles with attention deficit disorder and a reading impairment. She tires easily and is prone to illness.

She uses a motorized chair and a walker to get around outside of her home. She drives a van with hand controls.

Her health condition requires a myriad of medications. But the rules for powerlifting competition prevent her from sometimes taking them.

She has developed psoriasis, but she can't use steroid cream to clear it up. She had to switch blood pressure medication to avoid diuretics. She restricts drugs she takes for ADHD because of a possible stimulant effect and because her illness slows down her digestive system, making it harder to clear prescribed drugs from her system.

She goes without because competition has "meant more than sports."

"It's helped my self-confidence, finding out that I'm good at things," says Stack.

Stack grew up as the eldest of Mike and Peggy Stack's four kids in Royal Oak. When she saw her young siblings competing in sports, she also longed to.

But, says her long-ago gym teacher Dave Potter, "she hated gym."

To complete her physical education requirement at Royal Oak Kimball High School, Stack was assigned to be a student assistant in Potter's adaptive gym for disabled students. Potter exposed her to track and field, swimming, bowling, table tennis and powerlifting.

Stack says she liked it, in part, because she could compete against able-bodied powerlifters.

Potter took her to her first powerlifting meet for disabled people in Grand Rapids -- and she won, hoisting 65 pounds. He has accompanied her many other meets since. But he's never watched her at the Paralympics, though. He plans to leave for London on Sunday.

"Her self-confidence was so low years ago. Sports have done a tremendous thing for her. She's seen the world because of her athletic ability," Potter says.

Stack has competed in Korea, Dubai, Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, China, Greece and Mexico and across the U.S.

"He got me started. He encouraged me to continue. He supported me through and helped train me during off times when I didn't have a coach to train me," Stack says of Potter. "Most people don't stick with a student from 20 years ago. He's been a friend, a coach and a teacher."

Now, Stack is also coached by Bo Sandoval, U-M's head strength and conditioning coach who previously worked with Paralympic athletes at the U.S. Olympic Committee's training facility in Colorado Springs. Sandoval says Stack's training has prepared her to lift more than ever before. He will not be in London, but will await her e-mails and YouTube competition feed for results.

In London, Stack will be coached by Mary Hodge, who works with United Cerebral Palsy in New York City and who coaches U.S. Paralympic powerlifting. Hodge and Stack started working together in 1998, when Stack competed in Dubai at the first international powerlifting meet for women. They've been to three world championships and now four Olympics together.

"She didn't know the level of ability she had," recounts Hodge about first meeting Stack. "If you look from then to now, you can't compare it. There was a realization that she could really do this with the disability she had."

Stack says she'll be "in my groove" on competition day.

"I close my eyes and I'm just benching," says Stack. "Whether I'm here or at an international meet, I'm in the same place."

Stack knows her power now.