ST. ALBANS — Walk into the Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center’s weight room, and you may just see the only 79-year-old female national weightlifting competitor in the country getting in a good workout.
Elsa Dahl, who lives in Montpelier, has been traveling to St. Albans since 2000 to hone her weightlifting technique, strength and skills with longtime coach and weightlifter Jackie Brown.
Dahl was originally looking to learn “explosive power” as a Senior Olympics competitor in the track and field throwing events, but it wasn’t too long before Brown had Dahl were preparing not for throwing the shot put, discus, or javelin, but for doing the snatch and the clean and jerk lifts.
“I said yes without knowing what I was getting into,” Dahl said Wednesday during a break in her workout. “If it hadn’t been for Jackie, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
Brown, who opened the Collins Perley weight room in 1987, when it was no more than a closet, spoke about Dahl as someone who was motivated and unique to coach.
“To coach somebody of this age, it’s very unusual,” Brown said yesterday. “It’s been a wonderful challenge.”
Dahl attributes Brown’s encouraging but sensitive coaching to her improvement and ability to continue lifting 14 years later. “She has never once pushed me beyond [the limit],” Dahl said.
The women work together once a week in St. Albans on Dahl’s competitive lifts, and Dahl does one strength workout a week in Montpelier to prepare for the next competitive lift session.
Brown explained that Dahl needs more recovery time because of her age, making two workouts a week plenty.
Dahl had a recent shoulder surgery, and she still is working to get back to where she was physically. At age 77, right before her surgery, Dahl completed her best lifts: in the lower 60-pound range for the snatch lift, and in the lower 70-pound range for the clean and jerk lift.
Dahl competes an average of three times a year, with her most recent competition last month and her next coming up in September. She does several regional competitions, and one or two national senior-level events. “I try at least one of those a year,” Dahl said.
Dahl’s sister Eleanor, 84, drives with Dahl to each competition, and in order to not be tired from the trip, Dahl said she and Eleanor always arrive a few days early, and use competitions as an excuse for mini-vacations.
As of now, Dahl is the only American woman doing what she’s doing, and she holds numerous New England records. “I’ve been the oldest active lifter on the national level in this county,” she said. Dahl wants to continue her streak and compete at 80 years old next year.
“To my knowledge, I’ll be the first to do that on the national level,” Dahl said.
Dahl also wants to continue lifting because she says it keeps her healthy. “That’s why I keep doing it. I know it’s good for me,” she said. “It’s actually good for old people. It keeps your joints moving. You start aching, but you finish without pain.”
Dahl has found support for her continuing participation not only in Brown and her sister, but in friends and in her fellow church members, who told Dahl they prayed especially for her during her last competition in April.
“Everybody in the church knew that I was lifting,” Dahl said. “My church is a very important part of my life.”
Dahl added that her fellow competitors are a source of encouragement as well. “One of the things I like about this sport, particularly on the senior level,” she said, “is that everyone’s supportive.”
Dahl certainly returns the favor, inspiring others to keep going regardless of what age would dictate. “She’s highly motivating not only to myself but to other ladies,” Brown said. Brown added that a lot of people go up to Dahl to request a photo with her at competitions.
It is perhaps Dahl’s philosophy on aging that makes her able to do what she does, and what makes her an inspirational figure for others.
“You accept the changes and you make adjustments to do what you want to do. That’s my philosophy on aging,” Dahl said. “You make the adjustments you need to make and you keep going.”