Natalie Hanson, a former Bethel resident, is in Europe to compete in the World Powerlifting Championships, which start Friday. Hanson is an Olympic level athlete who got her Powerlifting start in in a tiny gym in South Anchorage called “Southside Strength and Fitness.” That’s where she was working out last week, just days before flying off to Pilsen, in the Czech Republic, to compete against the top athletes in the world.
Natalie Hanson’s path to the international stage began right here in a room full of powerlifters at this small local gym. This is where she first started lifting heavy weights and training. She’s here four days a week, working out in a corner alcove watched over by a picture of Priscilla Ribic, Hanson’s inspiration.
“She’s the greatest powerlifter of all time,“ says Hanson in between warm-up reps. “She’s a 16-time world champion; we train with her here. She’s on the team with me as well and she’s been powerlifting since 1997, or something like that, and is still wining. She’s still on top in her weight class.”
The photograph shows a lovely hourglass-shaped woman holding up weights that could crush a person, with a slight look of surprise on her face. Natalie Hanson in her workout gear is no less beautiful, though a bit heavier. The two lift similar weights but Priscilla Ribic, who is in a lighter weight class, outlifts Hanson in the deadlift.
“In competition she has a 550 pound deadlift,” says Hanson, who’s top deadlift is 474 pounds. “So Priscilla is an incredible deadlifter,” explains Hanson.
Watching Hanson as she hefts weights is impressive. She warms up by lifting 150 pounds and quickly begins adding more. Soon, she’s lifting 429 pounds dressed in her lift suit and supported with a belt.
The young Bethel woman has come a long way since starting the sport five years ago, but it’s extracted a cost. Women powerlifters don’t attract major sponsorship in the United States. She says that she gets sponsors for her gear and supplements, but not for her. How much does it cost? A lot. The airfare to the Czech Republic for the World competition is a couple of thousand dollars, and that’s just the beginning of the costs.
“We pay hotel for a week,” she itemizes. “All of the preparation leading into Worlds is our own entire expense, and also you’re missing work for a week or more. So it’s several thousand dollars for one competition and I do three, sometimes four a year, and it’s all self-financed.”
The U.S. does not support its amateur athletes the way other countries do. Just making the National Team comes with a bill, explains Hanson.
“You win Nationals and you pay $375 - a team fee that covers the drug tests and things like that to the National office… it’s the reality.”
In the gym her thoughts are far away from the expenses as she focuses totally on her workout, moving deliberately to add more weight to the bar. Hanson’s main event is the squat lift. She holds a U.S. record in the event and is aiming at the official World record. The sport is something that Hanson loves.
“I enjoy things that I’m good at,” she laughs.
She wants to encourage women to excel and not worry about what their muscular bodies look like while they do it. Here at the gym she is among fellow amateurs who do what they can to help out. Today, Matt Kiley is helping her put on her lifting suit and spotting her on the bench. The two have known each other for a while; Hanson remembers a competition in which she lifted more weight than Matt did.
“I did think it was fun,” she giggles.
“She out-totaled me in a meet and I had to eat an onion,” Matt Kiley explains their bet, adding “It’s not happening again.”
He may have lost that bet, but Kiley has no hard feelings. He and others will be rooting for Hanson when she competes at the World Competition this week. Her goal? To do her best, break another record, and inspire other women to do the same. Finishing her last lift, she unhooks her belt to move on.