The year it all began was 1985, when five Jim Thorpe High School students jumped into John McGowan’s van before he drove them for miles to weight lifting competition meets.
On Feb. 28 of this year, coach McGowan and his team of 24 lifters were transported by school bus to Parkland High School, where the Olympians placed second in the Small School Division at the 2022 Pennsylvania State Teenage Powerlifting Championships.
Leading the Olympian lifters was Sal Capria, who placed first in the 165-pound weight class in the 16-17-year-old age bracket. Capria set a new meet record by squatting 430 pounds, benching 260, and deadlifting 470 for a total of 1,160 pounds.
“Sal was also presented the Jack Moyer Champion’s Award, which goes to the lifter who not only wins a title with all clean lifts, but also displays superior sportsmanship throughout the meet,” said McGowan.
Nine other JT lifters finished among the top three in their divisions, six from the varsity level and three at the junior high level.
Justin Lombardo took first at the 132-pound weight class. Meanwhile, Justin Fronheiser, Nathan Lopez, and Paul Rutledge were all third-place finishers in their respective weight classes.
“Avery Scott was voted Outstanding Female Lifter from a group of 20 girls,” said McGowan. “In the 123-pound weight class, she finished second overall, and first in the deadlift.”
McGowan became interested in weight training at an early age in Paul and Claire Yaich’s home basement, affectionately known by the locals as Yaich’s Gym. As an athlete, McGowan won MVP awards for both football and wrestling at Jim Thorpe High School.
He’s been the Jim Thorpe strength coach for over 40 years. His powerlifting club is not sanctioned by the PIAA; therefore, it is not officially considered a high school varsity sport.
“We would need more schools to participate,” he said. “We normally compete against Abington Heights, Parkland, and Pittston right now, and we used to have Glen Mills. But the sport is growing. At the State Championship Meet, we had about 15 schools there.”
At the recent Abington Heights Weightlifting Meet, the JT powerlifters took first place.
Capria took first in his weight class, as did Scott, who was selected as the Outstanding Lightweight Female Lifter. Fronheiser also finished first in the 145-pound weight class, and was selected as Outstanding Lightweight Lifter.
As powerlifting becomes more popular, McGowan feels the general public will take more of an interest in the rules of the sport during competition.
Throughout the attempt of a lift, white lights and red lights are flashed by an official. White means good while red would not be. Two red lights would result in no points scored by the lifter. The officials are often former weightlifters who come back to volunteer.
“Points are given for the squat, the bench and the dead,” said McGowan. “Depth is judged at the lowest point of the squat. Footwork counts, too. In the squat and in the deadlift, officials are looking for the amount of time the weight is held at the completion of the lift. A completely clean lift with no errors scores 10 points for the team. Fewer points are given depending upon the quality of the lift.”
From his 24 lifters who attend and compete in the meets, McGowan must choose 10 who will compete for points. He also helps determine how much more weight can be added for a lift based upon his knowledge of the lifter’s potential and capability.
As much as he enjoys watching his lifters win, McGowan has a pitch in his voice when he thinks about the smiles on the faces of two autistic lifters he had coached, and the big smile from a junior high school lifter who is winning his battle against cancer.
“This is not about me,” he said. “It’s about the kids. It’s always about the kids.”
The team holds fundraisers from which money is earned by pledging an amount toward how many pounds a lifter will lift successfully. Profits help replace weight training equipment, which can be quite expensive, according to McGowan.
“We also received a wonderful contribution from Paul Yaich’s family. Paul died on New Year’s Day and instead of flowers, donations were given to the Jim Thorpe Powerlifting Club,” said McGowan. “When we buy a new bench, we’re going to put a plate on the bench with his name on it.”
McGowan’s assistant coaches are Dave Everett, Dan Heaney and Wes Hurley. McGowan’s wife, Dorothy, helps out with cleaning uniforms and packing lunches for athletes and coaches.
The next meet for the Jim Thorpe team is scheduled for April 30 at Parkland High School.
Jim Thorpe first-place finishers at the recent Abinton Heights Weight Lifting Meet were, from left, Avery Scott, Salvatore Capria and Justin Fronheiser. Capria also captured first place in the Pennsylvania State Teenage Powerlifting Championships, where he was presented the Jack Moyer Champion’s Award. THOMAS LESISKO/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS