Spring Grove powerlifters in the weight room.  Front row: Zach Sanness and Mikal Guberud, Row 2 Matt Schleich, Caleb Happel, Heidi Buxengard, and Mac Hunter, Row 3 Larry Schulte, Row 4 Harrison Speltz and Nick Doely. Not pictured: Damon Cody PHOTO: CRAIG MOORHEAD/SPRING GROVE HERALD
Spring Grove powerlifters in the weight room. Front row: Zach Sanness and Mikal Guberud, Row 2 Matt Schleich, Caleb Happel, Heidi Buxengard, and Mac Hunter, Row 3 Larry Schulte, Row 4 Harrison Speltz and Nick Doely. Not pictured: Damon Cody PHOTO: CRAIG MOORHEAD/SPRING GROVE HERALD
The clank of free weights. Sweat. "Too much chit chat," someone says, "shut up and lift!" Laughter, followed by exhales as the weights rise again.

Just another afternoon in the Spring Grove High School weight room.

"You compete against yourself more than you compete against anybody else," Caleb Happel said. "You just want to lift the most weight you've ever lifted."

For Caleb, his senior year will be marked by yet another trip to the high school powerlifting nationals, held March 28-30 in Killeen, Texas. He's competed at the event twice before.

The USAPL nationals hosted approximately 450 competitors last year, "Mama Jean" Happel said. As an unpaid, volunteer trainer, she's helped to oversee the weight room for years.

"My brother powerlifted," Jean said. "I lifted with him for six or seven years. My daughter powerlifted. Now Caleb...."

"Caleb started in the weight room after his freshman year in football. I came up to help him. I took him to his first meet up in Galesville (WI)... I said, do you want to do this? He said 'That's where I want to be!' He was just head over heels in love with it."

Jean added that the Minnesota State High School League does not sponsor powerlifting events, so there is no Minnesota state championship and no official school powerlifting program at Spring Grove. However, the sport does have official meets in Wisconsin, and the group of Spring Grove lifters is allowed to compete at those (although not for Wisconsin state titles).

So the Spring Grove powerlifters resemble a sort of club, which is open to all. "We welcome anyone who wants to join us," Jean said.

Caleb has placed first in his age bracket and weight class at numerous meets. This year, he and Spring Grove freshman Damon Cody will both hit the trail for nationals.

"He (Damon) has been lifting with us for the past couple of years," Caleb said, "and he just decided to really get into it this season. He's done very well. To go to nationals, you have to hit a certain qualifying (weight) total. That depends on your weight class and age bracket. There are about 15 weight classes and two age brackets. The first is for 9th and 10th graders, the second is for 11th and 12th.

Powerlifters get three attempts at squat, bench press, and deadlift. The best poundage at each station goes into their meet total. "When I was a freshman, I think my best total was 950," Caleb said with a grin. "My PR (personal record) is now 1440."

"When you attend the nationals, it's really crazy. You get recognized for being one of the best in the nation.... It's just a huge rush. Every time you step on the platform, all eyes are on you. You don't feel anything. It's just adrenaline pumping through you."

"Last year there were kids there from about 20 different states.

"It's a sport that's positive in every way. You can be competing against somebody, and he's out there going for his personal best. You cheer for them, and they cheer for you.

Jean agreed. "When you have a kid who is going to lift to break a record or do something extraordinary, everyone stops to cheer on that kid, regardless of where they're from or who they are. To me, there's no other sport like that anywhere."

"When I'm here in the weight room, I don't have to push the kids at all. They want to be here. If anything, they push me to be here."

Two years ago Jean recruited Kyle Kampschroer to help oversee the weight room, which must be supervised by qualified personnel at all times. Also known as "Coach Kamp," he helps keep the weight room going, often from about 3:15 p.m. until 7 p.m. Although athletes from all sports use the facility, powerlifters usually train five days per week, two hours per day.

"Powerlifting events are more of an individual kind of thing," Kyle said. And Spring Grove does indeed have a team. Even without school sponsorship, the group has earned team trophies at meets."

"We all spend a lot of time here together," Jean and Kyle noted. "We have a lot of fun in here. We call this our dysfunctional family, but we love 'em."

Jean nodded towards the stacks of weights. "We had a record number of kids (powerlifting) this year," she said. "Nine guys and one young lady. It was very exciting for us.

"One thing that I hope is that we've given them something they can do for the rest of their lives, because you can lift at any age. I hope someday they'll be able to share that with others, to pay it forward."