As a high school cross-country runner, trekking 50-plus miles, Ayla Thurstan says she was focused on improving her agility and staying trim. After starting powerlifting two years ago, she says she redefined her goals.
Thurstan says training as a body lifter presented new challenges, some of which stemmed from issues with her body image, an insecurity she feels she shared with many other women.
“[When] a lot of young girls grow up, they want to be what the media portrays them as, this thin, delicate figure,” says Thurstan, a freshman, exercise science major with a focus in pre-human performance.
“That’s what I grew up thinking I wanted to look like. Then immediately with the strength training I was doing and the change in diet, I put on about 20 pounds. That sounds really scary, but it was a lot of muscle. I thought that I would hate it but all of a sudden my shift went from, ‘I want to be smaller, I want my legs to be smaller, I want to be able to fit my hands around my arms,’ to, ‘I want my legs to be bigger, I want to have bigger shoulders, I want to be able to press this much, I want to be able to squat this much.’ That shift just sparked this whole new motivation in me for weight lifting.”
Later, Thurstan’s shift would eventually go from body lifting to powerlifting, saying body lifting is about “vanity,” lifting to sculpt muscle, while powerlifting is about pushing limits and lifting more.
Powerlifting can be scary, says Thurstan, as it can hurt, but part of the process is being conditioned to accept this pain to become better. She added that training instilled a sense of dedication in her and bolstered her work-ethic, definitely giving her an edge inside the gym and out.
Starting out, Thurstan says she was self-taught, exploring the world powerlifting on her own. Over the past year, she entered herself into numerous competitions, saying that getting experience was essential—in July 2017, she participated in a practice meet at Gleason Performance gym in Derby. Here she was able to enter her name into the database for the federation. She would then enter into a few more practice meets before participating in Regionals in Massachusetts, where she received “Best Team Lifter.”
“When I was training myself, I entered my first competition five months ago and came in first in my age, weight class and I was second in all women,” says Thurstan. “That is when I fell in love with [powerlifting] because I realized what a reward it is to see all your hard work go into that one day and you lift, you go all out and you feel like you got hit with a train afterward but it’s awesome because you have a trophy or you have a Connecticut state record.”
In October 2017, Thurstan says she met a new friend who told her how vital it was to have a coach. Thurstan agreed, saying a coach could design a program for her, help her understand her current level and guide her to where she wants to be, to assess goals and create a plan.
“I decided, it is going to be expensive, but I’m committed to this and that is when I started working with Ryan Gleason, [Gleason Performance Training gym owner],” says Thurstan. “I started working with him after my second meet. I really wanted him to help me get stronger so I would feel prepared going into nationals.”
Thurstan’s biggest accomplishment thus far was getting second in Nationals in October 2017, saying to place after such a short span from her first competition was “huge.”
“Going from my first-ever competition then five months later competing in a national competition that was during school and I got second place, which was really awesome,” says Thurstan. “It was a humbling experience but it’s motivated me going forward to try and possibly qualifying for Worlds next year.”
Thurstan says if she could hit the numbers she wants to, she can qualify for fourth in the junior division of USA Powerlifting. She also wants to qualify for Worlds next year, saying it is a global competition and the “equivalent” to the Olympics of powerlifting.
Thurstan says she will be competing much less, focusing on healing herself, becoming healthier and stronger, while “working [her] way up.” To do this she will train at Gleason Performance Training gym for five to six hours a day, six days a week.
Thurstan says she chose her major because she always had an interest in athletics and she enjoys helping others in the gym.
“I want to be able to help other people. Not only [to] help myself, but use what I’ve learned to apply it to other situations and other athletes,” says Thurstan. “I’ve done a lot of that already. I get a lot of people asking me for advice and it’s really been fun helping them.”
Thurstan went on to say if her presence in competitions and in the gym has any effect, she would hope one would be to encourage more women to take the plunge and start powerlifting.
She says while powerlifting has gained more attention on social media, she feels as though it is still an obscure sport and ultimately wants other women to hear about it, get involved and reap the benefits.
“I think more women should try powerlifting. I think if women start powerlifting and they see how it changes their body image,” says Thurstan. “It helps so much—to make you feel stronger and turn your focus from vanity and feeling insecure about your body to just wanting to get stronger. I know it’s helped me a lot, it’s helped a lot of people that I know with shifting their mindset and it’s really therapeutic. I think it’ll help a lot of women that way.”
By Melissa Nunez