Powerlifter Katelyn O'Donnell transformed her body, using her size as an advantage to dominate what most people consider a man's sport
Katelyn O'Donnell is living proof that strong is the new skinny.
Haven't heard of her? This 25-year old New York native is on her way to becoming the next big name in powerlifting. And, at a current weight that fluctuates between 198-205 pounds, she's using her size to her advantage in a sport that for so long has been dominated by men. O'Donnell's current PRs include an insanely impressive 400-pound squat, 280-pound bench press, and 450-pound deadlift—but she wasn't always the picture of health and fitness.
"As a very young kid, I was far from athletic," says O'Donnell. "I was more of an honor roll kid who was teased, which was hurtful. Once I hit middle school, I was fed up with being picked on and always being chosen last for sports teams." At 12 years old, weighing 220 pounds, O'Donnell started waking up early before school to watch Denise Austin workout videos and curl five-pound dumbbells. (Get started yourself with this 4-Week Weight Training Plan for Women.)
Little did she know that lifting those five-pound weights would ignite her love for exercise, helping her to build the confidence to join her first gym at the age of 14. O'Donnell would ride her bike 10 miles each way every Saturday and Sunday just to strength train. "At the gym, I would do leg presses and biceps curls, not really knowing exactly what I was doing," recalls O'Donnell, "but I knew I loved the feeling of being strong and being able to keep up with the guys at the gym."
As she spent more and more time in the gym, O'Donnell grew increasingly eager to reach out to other likeminded people that she respected and admired, and to learn from them. "I grew curious about powerlifting after high school—I had been so focused on putting on muscle, and as I grew stronger I wanted to see what the sport was all about," says O'Donnell. While spectating at a local powerlifting event when she was 19, she met her current coach, Chris Taylor, who encouraged her to train and compete. Four years later, O'Donnell finally decided to take his advice and kicked off her powerlifting career in 2013. (Amp Up Your Weight Training Workouts with these three tips.) "As a spectator, I had gained such a respect for the dedication the competitors displayed on the platform. I thought, this is something I could do."
In just two short years, O'Donnell has risen to #2 in the current National Female 198 Raw Open Powerlifting rankings—in her weight class of 198 pounds, she competes without the use of any suits, support, or knee wraps, except for a weightlifting belt. She is also currently #7 in the Powerlifting Watch Best of the Best American Lifter rankings. To maintain her status, she weight trains four days a week, and works on cardio and mobility three days a week.
O'Donnell trains regularly year-round, and competes at least twice per year. "Competitions are a huge adrenaline rush," she says. "There are three weight attempts for each one of the lifts (squat, deadlift and bench press), and each competitor goes into the meet with their 'opening attempt.' You must pass this lift [performing the complete movement with control and technical accuracy] to be able to then take a second and third attempt in each lift."
While her physical strength is awe-inspiring, O'Donnell says powerlifting has done more than just transform her body. "In this sport, I've learned that my mind is my most powerful tool on the platform," she says. "Powerlifting has allowed me to attain a newfound sense of self-worth and confidence, which to me is the most rewarding aspect."
But such a grueling sport is not without its challenges. "The most challenging aspect for me is making nutrition a priority," says O'Donnell. "It can be very easy to want to reward myself after a PR at the gym with a burrito rather than a grilled chicken breast." O'Donnell has begun adding two days a week of high-intensity interval training to her training regimen, which includes conditioning drills such as sled pulls, and started carb cycling (or alternating days of higher carbohydrate intake with days of lower carbohydrate intake) to burn fat, build lean muscle, and ensure adequate recovery. (Find out What to Eat Before and After a Workout.) "My ultimate goal is to earn an Elite total in all three of the weight classes in which I've competed," says O'Donnell. In layman's terms, O'Donnell is trying to reach a combined weight lifting total—between the squat, deadlift, and bench press—of 1053 total pounds for the 181 weight class; 1130 total pounds for the 198 weight class; and 1190 for the 198+ weight class. At her last meet (in which O'Donnell competed at 200 pounds), O'Donnell lifted a combined total of 1130 pounds—clearly, she's well on her way to reaching Elite status.
But, of course, there are the haters: Many people have misconceptions about her being a female athlete in what so many view a man's sport, offering opinions on everything from her weight to her physique, and questioning why such a pretty young woman would want to train so intensely in a sport that is all about physical strength. "I've learned that there will always be people with something to say, whether positive or negative," she says. "What's most important is focus on yourself and your goals at hand and to appreciate the positive people who support you."
O'Donnell says most comments she gets about her physique are positive, in which her muscles and power are appreciated and celebrated. "Many people say I'm strong like an ox," she says. "I have a body that is built with a great purpose—which is to be strong—and while some people understand and accept that, others just can't. For those people who don't like the look of women with muscles who are strong both physically and mentally, that's just fine."
Thankfully, O'Donnell is surrounded by positive support during her competitions and outside of the gym. "I usually don't notice until I'm out of competition mode just what a blessing it is to have such encouragement," she says. "But during a meet in September, I had three spectators approach me after I competed to shake my hand and congratulate me. It's very flattering and nice to know people enjoy watching you do something you absolutely love to do."
Love for the sport aside, O'Donnell is also passionate about spreading a body positive message, something she is excited to see as a growing movement on social media. "I wish as a kid I could have had an outlet and source of motivation that encourages women's strength—not only physically but mentally, which is so crucial in today's society," she says. Now, O'Donnell has found herself as a part of that movement—and she's honored to show women what the human body is capable of, no matter what your size. (Meet more Strong Women Changing the Face of Girl Power As We Know It.)
O'Donnell has clearly hit her stride, but she's still committed to climbing the ranks in her sport and inspiring countless women in the process. "At 200 pounds, I'm stronger than I've ever been before," she says. "My goal is to be my strongest at whatever weight I am, and to help other women accept and love their bodies for the strength and athletic capabilities they hold."