JUST HOW MUCH STRONGER ARE AMERICA'S STRONGEST LIFTERS?
By Peter Spence
Just a few years ago, raw powerlifting was an oddity. The sport of powerlifting as a whole revolved around the “geared” side of the sport, in which special equipment, including knee wraps and bench shirts are used to move huge loads.
In the past decade, raw lifting, which eschews many of those aids, has grown tremendously in the United States, both in participation, and in the amounts hoisted by the sport’s top athletes as competition has increased.
USA Powerlifting raw nationals has become the premier raw competition for drug-free lifters. When more than 1,100 competitors converge on Orlando, Florida this month, they are expected to push the bar even higher.
To give an idea of the sport's progression, at the first raw nationals contest in 2008, just 89 lifters took to the podium. Of those lifters, just 37 achieved a Wilks score of more than 400, and none hit the 475 mark. Now the standard of competition is much higher. Last year, more than 20 athletes put up a Wilks score of over 500 points.
To celebrate the 10th year of raw nationals, we want to take an in-depth look at just how far the sport has come, and to take a peak at the top athletes at this year’s massive competition.
HOW RAPID ARE THE USA'S GAINS?
Participation numbers and overall Wilks scores tell us something, but for a more detailed picture, it’s worth looking at how each class has developed.
We can’t go all the way back to 2008 to do this - the USAPL updated its weight classes to match new IPF standards in 2013. But even in the short period since, the weights lifted by the US’ strongest lifters have shot up.
Looking at the top three totals from each weight category over the past four nationals, the year-on-year gains are obvious. The average total is up by nearly 17%, with totals rising by more than 20% in six of the USAPL’s 15 classes.
The biggest gains on the men’s side have come from the 59kg, 74kg and 105kg classes, with an overall average gain of 11.4% across all categories.
But it is raw women’s powerlifting where the real explosion in strength has happened. No category has seen the average top three total rise by less than 11% since 2013, and in one category, the 47kg class, that number has risen by almost half.
Chiefly responsible for pushing the standards higher in that 47kg class is Heather Connor, who is expected to crush her raw nationals category with a qualifying total of 375.5kg. Heather pulled an easy deadlift to win the world championships in Belarus this year.
Lifting in the same session, Marisa Inda is the favorite for the 52kg category, after her nail-biting victory at worlds. Inda is famously balanced across the three lifts, meaning that she holds the international record in the total with 430kg, while not holding a record in any of the individual disciplines.
Another current world champion is expected to take the 57kg class at nationals, in the form of Jennifer Millican. A relative newcomer to the sport’s top competitions, Jennifer won the best women’s lifter award at worlds, with a Wilks score of over 540.
Based on past performances, Jennifer Thompson will sweep the 63kg class if she comes in on top form, given that she is the world record holder with a total of 486kg. In the event of an upset, Jennifer is chased by three women with the same 462.5kg qualifying total: Natalie Terrana, Samantha Calhoun and Kristen Dunsmore.
With last year’s champion out of the picture for nationals, Matthew Arremony is expected to storm the 59kg category, with a qualifying total of 527.5kg. He will be rivalled by Dalton Lacoe, who despite lifting in the junior-only 53kg category, is eligible to contest Matthew for the 59kg open title.
Three-time nationals champion Keith McHoney is a fairly safe bet for the 66kg class, with a 677.5kg qualifying total. However, he will be chased by equipped-lifter Charles Okpoko, who’s highest listed raw total of 640kg was made in 2015, since which he has made huge strides.
In the 74kg class, Taylor Atwood is likely to secure an early lead with a huge squat and bench press, in order to guarantee his third spot on the US world powerlifting team. His competition will come from Stephen “Blake” Lehew who appears to have narrowed the gap with Taylor, having improved his deadlift significantly.
Texas’ Russel Orhii should have a fairly clear run at the 83kg title, with the former nationals champion ineligible to compete. This will be Russel's first raw nationals, so inexperience may be a factor. However, his qualifying total of 792.5kg puts him 30kg ahead of the next highest seeded athlete.
Famous for her record-shattering deadlift, 72kg lifter Kimberly Walford will bring her intensity to the platform at raw nationals for what is set to be yet another dominant performance. With a 535.5kg qualifying total, Kimberly is well placed to qualify for 2018 worlds, at which she’ll have a shot at winning her seventh world championship title.
Junior 84kg category phenom Daniella Melo is likely to secure her first spot on the US world’s open team, as she brings her massive squat to the primetime raw nationals show. She will also be switching to a sumo deadlift stance for this meet, a first for Daniella in competition.
Having won not just her class in the world raw championships this year, but also the equipped world games, Bonica Lough is likely to walk away the superheavyweight category. She was the first ever woman to squat more than 600lbs in IPF competition.
The 93kg class is one of the most stacked this year, with world champion LS McClain looking to take complete his season with a raw nationals win. He will be pursued by David Ricks, who’s 830kg qualifying total is actually 2.5kg higher than LS's. David Woolson could be a dark horse in this race, with a very powerful deadlift which has a chance to upset the competition.
In what is sure to be one of the most watched showdowns of the competition, Bryce Lewis and Garrett Blevins will face off for the 105kg title. Bryce managed to best Garrett at both the last raw nationals and this year’s world championships, despite Blevins putting in a better result at the Arnold in March and holding the American record.
Looking at the chart at the top of the page, you will see a dip in the 120kg totals from 2015 to 2016. That fall can largely be attributed to one man: Dennis Cornelius. He competed as a superheavyweight lifter last year, in order to chase an all-time squat record. Dennis is widely expected to take his category as he returns, following on from world championship wins as a 120kg lifter in 2016 and 2017.
Ray Williams brings with him his world record 1105kg qualifying total, and the potential to break plenty of records. Well-recognised as the sport’s most dominant squatter, Ray will attract a huge crowd to the superheavyweight class, as he has another go at breaking his own records in the squat, deadlift and total.