When Gig Harbor High School sophomore Tatum Benson started doing strength training to supplement swimming and water polo, she didn’t think much of it at first.
But then something happened: Benson loved lifting weights. And she got pretty darn good at it, too.
After only about a year of weight lifting, Benson recently qualified for USA Weightlifting Youth Nationals in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting, which will take place in Atlanta in June.
“I loved it immediately,” Benson said.
Benson is one of about 20 teenagers who does strength training with Aaron Huston, a 38-year-old Purdy resident who is the head coach of the recently-formed Narrows Swim Club. He runs Team Highlander, a youth Olympic weightlifting club, out of a large garage on his property in Purdy, just past the Purdy Bridge.
He started doing strength training for some of the teens about five years ago.
“I was coaching swimming and there was a need for some of the swimmers to have much better strength training,” Huston said. “I had done some in the past. So I was giving some of the elite swimmers extra sessions here.”
The gym quickly expanded. Then, about two years ago, Huston added Olympic weightlifting to the strength training. Benson gravitated toward it from the start.
“Tatum kind of drove the whole thing,” Huston said. “Olympic weightlifting is great for flexibility and balance. All of the sudden, she just really liked it. We ended up doing more and more of them, and then pretty soon I took an extra class, took some coaching education. All the sudden, we were doing Olympic weightlifting.”
In Olympic weightlifting, participants compete in two lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk. Both movements start with the bar on the ground. The snatch is one movement, where the lifter pops the bar over their head. The clean and jerk is a two-part movement, where the lifter lifts the bar as high as possible, drops into a squat, then propels the bar upward over their shoulders.
It requires — more than brute strength — speed, agility and balance.
“A lot of people, when they think of Olympic weight lifting, they think of big, huge dudes,” Huston said.
But Team Highlander is mostly girls, which may come as a bit of a surprise to some people.
“It helps with my swimming and water polo,” Benson said. “I just feel so much stronger. It’s great being able to be strong and just in swimming, polo and daily life. I love it.”
Benson has been competing in Olympic weight lifting for less than a year. With her performance at the Capitol City Championships earlier this month in Olympia, Benson qualified for youth nationals. She lifted 60 kilograms in the snatch and 65 kg in the clean and jerk.
When Benson first started lifting, she could only lift 30 kg in the snatch. In a year, she has managed to double the weight.
She works really hard. That’s not usual for someone her age. She has an insanely good work ethic. She is very consistent. She’s really committed. She’s just kind of a natural for weight lifting. She’s really aggressive and she enjoys it.
Aaron Huston, Team Highlander weightlifting coach
“She works really hard,” Huston said. “That’s not usual for someone her age. She has an insanely good work ethic. She is very consistent. She’s really committed. She’s just kind of a natural for weight lifting. She’s really aggressive and she enjoys it.”
For Benson, weightlifting has become a big part of her life and her identity.
“It’s a challenge, it’s something you get to overcome,” Benson said. “Every time you come to practice, you get to do something and you feel like you’ve accomplished something every time you leave. Whether it’s just getting better at a technique or lifting heavier weights.”
Benson has a fun way of measuring her progress: By colors, instead of by weight.
The plates for Olympic weightlifting come in a variety of colors — green, yellow, blue and red. Another color combination on the rack means Benson has reached a new goal.
“The plates are really pretty,” Benson said with a laugh. “The numbers are cool, but the colors are even cooler.”
The team, which is a passion project for Huston more than anything, has continued to grow. He’d like to see it keep growing, but wants to keep it confined to athletes with the right approach.
“We keep it to athletes who are wanting to train at a really high level,” Huston said. “I don’t have any desire to grow it so there’s athletes here who are not wanting to train hard. All the athletes here work hard. It’s not a big money making venture. I enjoy coaching these guys because they work so hard. That inspires me.”