Francisca Benitez

Debbie Brow is a 61-year-old powerlifter. She holds two state records and two weeks ago she broke a national record. But she’s far from slowing down — in fact, she’s really just getting started.

Brow began competing in powerlifting only two years ago, and she has ambitions to continue to national and even international competitions.

Brow is originally from Eugene but has lived in La Grande for 40 years and has run a day care business for 35. She explained she joined Mountain Valley Fitness when it opened in La Grande in 2012. At the time, she was going only because she felt the need to stay healthy. After about a year, she started working with personal trainer Derek Harmon and continued training with him for a couple years.

Harmon said Brow was not especially excited to come into the gym at the time.

“I was trying to find something she was passionate about and enjoyed and she was really good at, and I kind of stumbled upon the fact that she was really strong for her age,” he said.

He recalled challenging Brow to flip over a 350-pound tire in the outdoor area of Mountain Valley Fitness.

“She goes out there and lifts up this big heavy tire. She struggles but she lifts it up and flips it and really surprised herself — surprised me a little bit too. I think that’s when it really clicked for her that she was a lot stronger than she was giving herself credit for,” he said.

Brow said Harmon’s challenge motivated her to start lifting weights, and that was when she realized she truly loves lifting and getting stronger. Now she can’t wait to go to the gym, and she even describes herself as being “addicted” to working out.

“I never would have thought two years ago that I would be saying I am addicted to going to the gym,” she said.

She lifts weights three times a week and also does five to six hours of cardio a week. She said everyone at Mountain Valley is exceptionally supportive, from fellow gym-goers to trainers and management too, and that isn’t the only perk.

“I love how I feel,” she said, adding she is motivated by the women who are much older than she is and are still going to the gym. “I want to be that person. I don’t want to be in a walker. I want to be able to play with my grandkids and have fun.”

Brow attended her first powerlifting competition in 2017, accompanied by Harmon.

“I was extremely nervous and I don’t think I would have gone if he hadn’t gone with me,” Brow said.

She said that Harmon helped her get past her nervousness, but Harmon said he was feeling nervous as well. He described walking into the dark “old-school” gym filled with lots of very muscular people. The majority were men and younger than Brow as well.

“I remember asking one of the other women lifters, ‘When do you start breathing?’” Brow said. “You’re on such an adrenaline rush the whole time. I don’t think I really took a breath until the end.”

It didn’t take long, however, for Harmon and Brow to relax.

“I think we were expecting this very edgy, competitive, everyone focusing on themselves, no one talking to each other kind of thing but it really was the complete opposite of that. Everyone was really welcoming and supporting and encouraging,” Harmon said.

Brow said the other women lifters were extremely friendly to her and the others who were there at a competition for the first time.

“They just embraced all of us and cheered us on, and they were out there rooting for us to do our best,” she said.

She described going up on the platform in front of the audience and the other competitors to do her lifts.

There are three judges that will turn on a white or red light to indicate whether they have determined that a competitor was successful in his or her lift. She recalled the feeling of doing her lift and seeing three white lights. The feeling is especially exciting when a competitor knows they have broken a record, either a personal best or a state or national record.

“You’re very excited, and you come off the platform and everybody is high-fiving you or hugging you,” she said.

Brow has gone to seven competitions now and has another one coming up on May 18 in Clackamas. Even though Harmon has since moved to Hermiston with his family and isn’t Brow’s personal trainer anymore, Brow has her family, her gym family and her lifting community to cheer her on. She said that her husband, her son and her brother and his wife and are all extremely supportive of her lifting, from cheering on her training efforts to coming to her competitions to support her.

See complete story in Friday's Observer