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From Powerlifting to the Podium

Going for gold at the Special Olympics.

Each Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 17 burly young men meet at Pro-Fit Deer Park Gym & Fitness Center on Long Island, New York, to hit the weights. Although Pro-Fit is spacious by gym standards, even it would have a tough time housing so large a cadre of lifters, if it weren’t for this particular group’s cohesiveness, discipline, and focus. While you might expect most gatherings of 20-something gym rats to be a raucous, unruly affair, these guys are a study in quiet strength, punctuated at times only by hoots of encouragement and back slaps after successful lifts.

The guys are members of a lifting group that has been existence some 20 years—a group of young men intent on qualifying for the Special Olympics powerlifting team. Coaches Joseph Levy, Jim Corsitto, Wayne Gombino, and Vinny Mandese volunteer their time to train, guide, and support the athletes in their journey not just to potential Olympics glory, but to physical strength, improved self-confidence, and the unbridled joy that can only come from accomplishing once-daunting tasks.

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Lest you think the young men in the program should be judged on a sliding scale, consider Corsitto's son Joseph, who, at 150 pounds himself, can deadlift 425 and bench 235 pounds, with a pause at the bottom nonetheless. Or one of Corsitto's other prodigies, who at 145 pounds, deadlifts more than twice his weight – clocking in at 310 pounds. In fact, each and every one of Corsitto’s athletes deadlifts at least 300.

With stats like those, it’s easy to see why at this year’s Special Olympics New York Summer Games, Corsitto’s team of 12 young powerlifters cleaned up in the standings; out of eight weight classes - from 145 pounds to super heavy weight – the Long Island lads took first place in seven of them, while five lifters placed second. Pretty impressive for a group that on average, only trains for 2.5 hours a week.

How can they train for so few hours yet perform so impressively? Corsitto says it’s all in the technique. “I use a method called tendon strength training.”  He explains, “Instead of a having a lifter attempt a 225 pound bench for the first time through full range of motion, I have him drop the bar only a couple of inches from starting position. Once he perfects that depth, I drop the bar another inch, then another inch, until he can control the weight all the way down to his chest.” The approach is sane and sensible. Not only does it physically prepare the tendons to safely handle progressively heavier weights, but psychologically, each time the boys take the bar another notch deeper, their confidence levels jump higher. 

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And as Corsitto sees it, their accomplishments are as much due to their newfound confidence as to how heavy they can actually pull. “Powerlifting builds their self esteem. Some of the kids walk into the gym for the first time with no self-esteem. Once they see how successful they are in the gym, they want to try new sports like track or swimming.” 

That inspiration is not limited to the athletes either. It boomerangs right back onto Corsitto. When asked what he likes most about coaching these kids, his answer comes quick and easy. “It’s watching their faces after they lift. You can’t imagine how excited they are.”  

So what’s next for Corsitto? I want to take them on the road, to New Jersey, to Connecticut, to Pennsylvania,” he beams proudly. “I want to see who’s the best team not only in New York, but in the region. And then, it’s all the way to Nationals.”

No doubt. They’ll make it. These guys are driven, determined and thankful for everything their coaches do. But as Corsitto adds, “I tell them, if you really want to thank me, get up on that podium and give me the gold!” As if to reinforce his point, he concludes by sharing his team’s roaring chant, “What do we smell? We smell gold!”

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