Just a number: Pair of local lifters don’t let age get in way of competing

Photo by Gretel Daugherty—Janis McBee of Grand Junction does a clean jerk as she lifts weights at Ridgeline Fitness, 805 South Ave. The 71-year-old McBee will be competing in the Masters Nationals in Rego Park, N.Y.

Photo by Gretel Daugherty—Shirley Callaway of Grand Junction hefts 25 kilos as she performs a snatch at Ridgeline Fitness, 805 South Ave. The 56-year-old Callaway will be competing in the Masters Nationals in Rego Park, N.Y.

It’s hard to be told you can’t do something.

Nobody wants to hear they’re too short, too young or too slow.

Then there’s the phrase that’s hardest to take: you’re too old.

For local Olympic lifters Janis McBee, 71, and Shirley Callaway, 56, hearing they’re too old makes them snicker.

The pair, along with Adam Ford — their coach from Ridgeline Fitness, will compete April 9 in the National Masters Weightlifting Championships in Rego Park, N.Y. The masters division is for competitors 35 and older.

It’s the first national competition for both McBee and Callaway.

“There is real sense of accomplishment to go to a national meet,” Ford said. “They’ve been at it for a year doing competitions, and really working hard.”

Olympic weightlifting consists of two exercises: the snatch, where a barbell is lifted from the ground to overhead in one motion, as well as the clean and jerk, where the barbell is moved from the ground to the upper chest in one motion, then thrust over the head.

“Olympic-style weightlifting is something a lot more suitable for a recreational lifter,” Ford said. “It involves a lot of athleticism, and there’s low rates of injuries.”


The path to the national competition for both McBee and Callaway is similar. Callaway said she didn’t step foot into a gym until much later in life.

“I started in a gym when I was 40, and I haven’t been out of a gym ever since,” Callaway said. “It’s become a way of life for me.”

So when Ford started introducing Olympic-style lifting into the personal training he was doing, Callaway couldn’t help but be curious.

“It just seemed like the next step,” Callaway said. “It was about a year ago that Adam started bringing in kettlebells and Olympic weightlifting, and I was intrigued by it.”


McBee grew up in a generation that took pride in being active. Growing up, she was always outside playing touch football with the boys. As McBee got older, she didn’t lose her interest in fitness and exercise.

“I used to run for exercise, I did aerobic classes, then Crossroads (Fitness) opened up full time downtown, and I’ve gone there for the last 15 years,” McBee said. “But by the time I met Adam, I was starting to have problems with my back.”

A degenerative spine was causing her pain, but working with Ford helped her build up her core muscles. When she started getting stronger in her core and lower back, Ford suggested trying Olympic weightlifting.

“I thought he was kidding,” McBee said. “I started finding out more about the sport, and was listening to (National Public Radio) and there was a lady on there about my age who had a back injury, but was doing Olympic-style lifting.

“The more I thought about it, I knew it was going to be one of those things that despite my age, if I didn’t try it, I was going to be sorry.”


Both the snatch and clean and jerk are easy to underestimate. The Olympic lifts require good overall strength, but Ford said there are a couple of other athletic attributes that are important to have.

“Olympic-style lifting involves more athleticism than brute strength,” Ford said. “There’s a component of speed and agility.”

When done properly, most types of strength training help keep people healthy. Ford said Olympic-style lifting has other benefits.

“Strength training is good for bone density improvement, strengthening all the tissues and improving overall health, but Olympic lifting, with its speed and power component, does a little beyond that,” Ford said. “It works with balance and fall prevention, so that’s a new frontier of training people with the power-type movement.”

It’s important to be fluid in the motion to execute a successful snatch or clean and jerk. At first, both McBee and Callaway struggled to get the hang of properly accomplishing the lifts.

“It was difficult, challenging, and very technical,” Callaway said. “My biggest detriment was I had strength, but I wasn’t as flexible, so I really had to work on that.”

McBee’s early challenges had more to do with a lack of upper-body strength.

“It felt terrible, and I couldn’t do it because I had to do a lot of building of upper-body strength,” McBee said. “And there is a lot of technical parts and coordination to it that we had to get together.”


With hard work came progress, and after some time, McBee and Callaway signed up for their first competition. From the get-go, both said they felt a lot of encouragement from the other competitors. Callaway said competing in last summer’s Colorado State Games really motivated them.

“The state games were awesome because it was fun to see all those other people do it,” Callaway said. “I loved the adrenaline of walking out there and being on stage, and after that competition I was thinking, ‘I’m ready for nationals.’ “

Ford said between challenging themselves in their workouts at Ridgeline along with getting pushed by other competitors at the state competitions, all three knew it was time to enter the nationals.

“It was kind of progressive,” Ford said. “Everyone they talked to at the events encouraged them to pursue the Masters Nationals.”


The aspect of the national meet McBee and Callaway are both most excited for is getting to compete with so many lifters. The state meets can be small, so the Grand Junction trio is looking forward to lifting at nationals with a lot more competitors.

“I really don’t know what to expect,” Callaway said. “I thought I may never have this opportunity again, so I might as well do it.”

McBee and Callaway don’t have any specific goals. Ford said it’s about executing on a national stage the lifts they’ve been working on for the past year.

“This sounds a little like we’re talking about little league soccer, but the main goal for them is to go out and have fun,” Ford said. “The fact they’re out there doing this from where they started is the accomplishment.”


Both lifters said the thing they’re most surprised about their road to the nationals was that only one year ago, they didn’t even know what a snatch or clean and jerk was. The motivation of getting better at the lifts has helped their training by being a distraction from the effort they’re putting in.

“When you are training for fitness, it’s more interesting if you have a goal to train for,” Ford said. “I thought this would be fun and an interesting challenge, but it got the fire going in both of them.”

McBee said the thing that’s most gratifying for her is showing someone’s never too old to try something new.

“I think I can show that you don’t have to stop doing stuff like this when you get older,” McBee said. “I want to create awareness that despite of having age-related things happen to you, you can still do it.”


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