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PETALUMA — They were young girls, there was no mistaking it. Their arms were young girl arms. Their legs were young girl legs. Their giggles were young girl giggles. The four of them Tuesday acted and spoke and blushed like young girls and you wanted to find out more, you had to find out more, once you learned they were weightlifters. National champion weightlifters.

"They just shatter the stereotype," said Freddie Myles, owner of a Petaluma weightlifting gym and coach of the Myles Ahead Weightlifting team.

That would be the weightlifting image of huge biceps that hang like boulders from shoulders — boulders that hang from male shoulders.

Oh, and by the way, how many weightlifters do you know who spray their coach with silver glitter? The girls did that after they won the Under-13 USA National Youth Team Championship in St. Joseph, Mo., the last week in June.

Like I said, and please do remember, these are young girls, a thought that from time to time may become impossible to imagine when words like "Olympic style weightlifting" and "clean and jerk" and "barbells" are uttered.

And there was this story told by Mia Zechowy, 11, about being in the fifth grade last year at Hidden Valley Elementary School in Santa Rosa.

"We had to do sit-ups in a physical education class and this boy did 50 of them and everyone was saying how awesome he was," Zechowy said.

"Then I did a hundred of them. I tried hard not to rub it in Brendan's face but I'm not sure if I did a good job of it."

In other words, testosterone is a joy to be shared and appreciated by all.

Zechowy was at the Myles Ahead workout facility along with Athena Schrijver, McKenzie Barnes and Chloe Tacata.

Zechowy, Schrijver and Barnes were part of the five-member Myles team that won the U-13 national title; the other team members, Rachel Nykamp and Julia McKairnes, were out of town. Santa Rosa's McKairnes was the national champion in U-13 35-kilogram weight class.

Tacata from Santa Rosa was the national champion in the 14-15 44-kilogram weight class.

Never once did the girls mention stereotypes, or that they were too girlie for the sport or that they simply were of the wrong gender to participate.

"Women were allowed for the first time in 2000 to weightlift in the Olympics," Myles said. "These girls were born after that so all they know is the freedom to do it.

"They don't know they are not supposed to do what they did. It's a measure of our society that we have advanced past that stereotype."

Free to be themselves — what kid doesn't want to find a place like that in a youth sport? Free to be different, and to be comfortable with it, weightlifting is that cocoon for the girls. It may be a sport less traveled but it has one thing in common with all sports.

"I like to hang out with my friends," said Zechowy, who will be going to Rincon Valley Christian in the fall.

Nothing works in youth sports without your buddies, for no one turns professional in anything at 11. Myles finds fun to be the glue that unites all his lifters. A certified USA Weightlifting coach, Myles also shatters another lifting stereotype — that weightlifting is about as much fun as pushing a '63 Buick with a flat tire up a hill.

"I start off with the lightest weight possible," Myles said. "I work on form, technique. I don't add weight until their movements become automatic, flawless.

"In competition, even if they have won and only have one lift yet, I increase their weight by only one kilogram."

So when Tacata, all 92 pounds of her, cleaned and jerked 112 pounds as she did in Missouri, she did it safely. The idea of lifting 20 more pounds than she weighs, that appeals to Tacata. That's unique to the sport, as is the learning curve

"You go at your own pace," Zechowy said. Unlike soccer, you don't have to run to keep up.

Instead, one day Zechowy stared at her gold medal and mused: "You start not knowing anything and then one day you win a national award."

And then you go out and celebrate, leaving the healthy eating behind.

"We had barbecue and hamburgers and ice cream and chocolate," said Schrijver of the meal they had in Missouri after winning. "We couldn't move."

Yes, to the victors go the cheeseburgers and bragging rights. It was not a modest achievement, what they did. They beat a team from Missouri and one from Georgia that has sent lifters onto the Olympics, Myles said. Those teams, he said, have been around for 40 years. Myles opened his gym in 2005.

The parents of his kids, they love him because he got their girls to eat healthy for a while. The girls worked out twice or three times weekly for the last five months while staying away from food that would clog arteries of Superman. Myles instilled in his troops that humility and respect were important work habits.

"In gymnastics," said Schrijver (several of the girls participate in that sport), "we have what we call 'clinkers.' Some girls win medals and then wear them wherever they go. That would look so rude in our gym. We hate that look."

Their national championship medals don't hang around their necks but, rather, a perspective does. It's a perspective so mature, so beyond their years, one many adult athletes don't have, I had to tell Schrijver it was remarkable after she said it.

"It's a medal and I'm glad I have it," said Schrijver, 12. "But it's a medal. It doesn't change who we are."

And that would be glitter fiends.

The girls prefer silver when they spray it on Myles, but they like red and blue when they spray it on their shoes. After all, a girl has standards, you know.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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