Students Learn Weightlifting Skills from Pros

Students Learn Weightlifting Skills from Pros

By: Phil Arvia, The Tinley Junction
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The way cosmic tumblers sometimes click into place is an amazing thing. For instance, if an ex-college volleyball player hadn’t started running marathons, Tinley Park High School wouldn’t have a weight training program that recently raised the eyebrows of a USA Weightlifting-affiliated coach.

“I think it’s amazing, actually,” said Dave Ester, associate head coach of the Forza Weightlifting Club. “You don’t see high schools, for the most part, setting up such a well-developed weightlifting program and curriculum.”

And if Titans hurdler Desiree Lyttle ends up going to the Olympics someday as a weightlifter, credit physical education teacher Cassie Gaines — with an assist to Tinley Park principal Theresa Nolan. There go those tumblers again.

“My principal has given me the freedom to pursue this,” Gaines, an Oak Forest native in her 10th year at Tinley Park, said. “On the days we have staff development, she allowed us to pick anything within our realm to develop and explore. I really wanted to know how to improve athletes in the weight room, in and out of season.”

Now, a typical day finds Gaines cultivating 15 or so personalized workouts for Tinley athletes based on sport, whether that sport is in or out of season, gender and more. In January, Gaines and Hillcrest teacher Stacey Lane were certified as USA Weightlifting Level 1 Sports Performance Coaches along with 21 other participants from across four states in a 15-hour training course at Tinley. Last month, 15 students each from Hillcrest and Tinley  — Lyttle included — were instructed in two of three Olympic-style lifts (the snatch and the clean — the clean and jerk got cut for time) in a seminar led by Team USA coaches, Gaines, Lane, and Chicago Bears assistant strength coach Pierre Ngo.

“She popped out to me,” Ester said of Lyttle, a state qualifier last year in the 300 hurdles. “She’s a sprinter, extremely athletic, very explosive, great natural flexibility. She could do well as a weightlifter.”

For her part, Lyttle is planning to venture out to Forza’s Grayslake location in the summer to test the waters. Now, though, her concern using the weight room to give her a boost on the track.

“It’s helping me become way faster,” she said. “Last year, I wasn’t lifting at all. I just didn’t like the weight room.

“Now, I see the explosiveness I get. It’s harder to go fast when you don’t have muscle in your legs. Last year indoors, I was running like 9.10 (seconds) in the 55-meter dash. Now my PR is 8.5.”

Ironically, Lyttle’s speed-making muscles are a roundabout byproduct of Gaines’ marathon-induced case of becoming “skinny fat.”

The former Cassie Fouts, a four-year varsity volleyball player at Oak Forest, was looking for a way to compete after her career ended with her 2008 graduation from Millikin University.

“I ran the Chicago Marathon and the St. Louis Marathon,” she said. “I kind of got skinny fat from that. I had no muscle. I wanted to do something in the weight room — so I dove into that.”

Done with marathoning in 2011, Gaines started body building. In 2014, she said, “I did a couple of competitions — I didn’t do well in them — and then I got pregnant.”

The weight training program she has helped develop at Tinley Park is vastly different from the way she used to pump iron.

“What I was doing was isolating each muscle group to make them big, so they showed well physique-wise,” Gaines said. “Now, with my athletes, I’m trying to develop power, strength and speed so it transfers onto their playing field.

“The kids who are in-season, I don’t want to tire the muscle out. I want them doing super-low weight. I want them to be alert and have fibers ready to move when they need them.

“On the other hand, I had an out-of-season football player in my weight room. In this phase we’re trying to build his body, to put on muscle, so he’s lifting 85 percent of his max rep. In the season, he’ll be able to grab all that strength we’ve given him.”

Meanwhile, the whole school could get stronger as Gaines’ young disciples spread the word. Besides Lyttle, Titans to participate at the March seminar were: Jalen Harris, Carolina Padilla, Christian Hack, Jojairo Gallegos, Jules Gomez, Johnny Gonsalves, Ezekiel Childs, Davion Dudek-Brown, Grace Piotrowski, Matt Doyle, Gabriela Guerra, Pete McMahon, Sam Okewole and Joe Mackessy.

“I asked recommendations of my athletic director [Mike Mongan] and some varsity coaches,” Gaines said. “I wanted hard-working kids who have really good character and are ready to be coached. We want to invest in these 15 kids to learn these three Olympic lifts — and let them bring it to their peers.”