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Vol. LXIII, No. 1
January 7, 2011

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NIH’s Sargent Competes in Olympic-Style Weightlifting
Dr. Jennifer Sargent competes in the Keystone State Games, an amateur athletic festival.

Dr. Jennifer Sargent competes in the Keystone State Games, an amateur athletic festival.

You would be hard pressed to find “Olympic weightlifter” on any NIH colleague’s curriculum vitae. Yet, for Dr. Jennifer Sargent, it’s one of her favorite hobbies. A visiting fellow in NIAMS’s Laboratory of Molecular Immunogenetics, she spends her days studying sphingolipid signaling and epigenetic regulation in mast cells. But in her spare time, she puts in countless hours of training for weightlifting competitions.

“I get a lot of puzzled looks when I tell people I do Olympic weightlifting. You couldn’t tell by looking at me. I am 5 feet tall and weigh 120 pounds,” she said.

Sargent recently won second place in the Keystone State Games, an amateur athletic festival held in York, Pa., where she competed in the master’s female powerlifting event. What is most impressive is that she had only been training for 3 months. She described the competition, her first, as friendly.

“Surprisingly, it seems to be a family sport. There were competitors from ages 6 to 70 there,” she said. “The most challenging part for me was to get on stage in front of all those people.” She didn’t let stage fright get to her and competed like a true professional.

Olympic weightlifting is a sport in which participants attempt a single maximum-weight lift of a barbell loaded with weight plates, testing explosive strength. The lifts must be executed quickly, with great mobility and require a great range of motion. Competitors are awarded based on the heaviest weight lifted in the clean and jerk and the snatch, as well as the two events combined.

The clean and jerk is a multi-movement lift in which the barbell is lifted to shoulder height and then jerked overhead. In the snatch, the lifter raises the weight in one uninterrupted motion from the floor to a position over the head. Sargent’s winning lift for the competition was 86 kilos (189 pounds) combined.

A graduate of Dartmouth Medical School in 2009, she got involved in the male-dominated sport through her favorite fitness program, CrossFit, a methodology that combines weightlifting, sprinting, gymnastics and heavy lifting techniques. This rigorous program is used by many police academies, tactical operations teams and military special operations units. Sargent has been doing the program since 2007.

“I learned that while I may not be particularly fast, I am strong for my size,” she related. Her boyfriend, who is a competitive CrossFit athlete, and her coach recognized her ability and motivated her to compete.

The 31-year-old novice athlete is eager to continue competing. The sport has helped her with goal-setting. “It taught me to work towards something,” she said. By staying organized, she is able to balance training with her role at NIAMS.

“I train two to three times a week and specifically train for Olympic lifts twice a week, for 2 hours,” she explained. She also follows a strict diet, doesn’t drink alcohol and makes sure she gets plenty of rest. This is in stark contrast with her lifestyle 9 years ago before she moved to the states from her native Australia. “I was never athletic. I was 35 pounds heavier and led an unhealthy lifestyle,” she remembered.

Sargent loves her new lifestyle. “It’s really empowering and requires great strength and mental coordination,” she said. She also acquired some life lessons. “I learned to check my ego at the door. Training for Olympic weightlifting takes a lot of work and patience. It can take years before you master the right combination of strength, speed and coordination,” she concluded.

She looks forward to perfecting her skills and adding more accomplishments to her list. NIHRecord Icon

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