DEADWOOD — Whether in sports or in other pursuits, stars are rarely born overnight. Kayla Lester may be an exception, having literally burst onto the national powerlifting scene with a record-setting performance at her first full competitive meet.
“I feel like wherever I think I can go, I can go — I don’t have any boundaries,” said Lester, an affable, quietly confident, 17-year-old senior at Lead-Deadwood High School. “(Powerlifting) is a competition, but the thing that surprised me the most is how supportive everyone is. All the competitors that you are competing against are part of your supportive group. It was a really fun and easy-going atmosphere. Yeah, I’ve definitely found my place in lifting.”
Kayla surpassed her own expectations, and likely those of her fellow competitors, at the Colorado State Powerlifting and Bench Press Championships on Dec. 4 by lifting her way to three divisional gold medals. As the meet’s top unequipped (non-supportive attired) woman lifter, she set four South Dakota records and an American record for her age group in qualifying for the USA Powerlifting Women’s Nationals.
“It was really an awesome experience for me,” Kayla beamed. “(Those records) are not my limits, but it was motivation when I broke those records. I was like, ‘I can go so much farther now.’ There is a little line in your head that you think is your limit. Once you pass it, it’s pretty ridiculous how far you may go.”
Competing in the 90-plus kilogram weight class in both the Female Raw Teen II and the Female Raw Open divisions, Kayla set state records with a squat of 112 kilograms (330.6 pounds), a bench press of 80 kg (176.32 lbs), a deadlift of 150 kg (396.72 lbs) and a resulting combined powerlift of 410 kg (903.64 lbs). The deadlift set an American record — a mark she had already set on a prior lift before concluding the meet with an even better effort.
Part of Kayla’s rise may be in pedigree — father and coach Rob Lester is an accomplished and decorated powerlifter — though that only partially explains her sudden success.
“I always knew that she would be good at it, but I didn’t want to pressure her,” Rob said. “I just said, ‘When you are ready, if you want to compete, I’ll make you a champion.’ It just came so natural for her; she’s such a great competitor. She is already a better lifter than I was.
“Of course, there is the father’s pride, but she put the numbers up,” he continued. “I had national and world judges say, ‘That girl is going to be amazing — she already is amazing. You’ve got to get her to bigger, national meets.’ I always told her that she would be great at it. But it’s not me that’s going to (be) the deciding factor.”
As the defending South Dakota Class A shot put and discus state champion, weight training complementary to those events has encouraged Kayla’s entrance into powerlifting.
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“I started throwing for track, and I really liked just lifting (for training),” she explained. “One of the times I was down here with my dad (an 18-year veteran of the Deadwood police department) and Kelly (Fuller), the police chief, (they) were talking about how good of a lifter I would be. So, I asked them to show me the lifts. Last year, I started lifting again and it really helped my throwing. So, this year I told my dad, ‘I want to lift. I want to lift like you did. I want to compete like you did.’ It was a decision I was really glad I made.”
An honor student, Kayla’s goals are shaped around educational options. Already accepted at the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University remains in play, along with a growing list of other schools expressing interest in her talents.
“To go to the Olympics, that’s my long-term goal right now,” said Kayla, the oldest of four siblings. “I’m not really sure if want to go for shot put and weight throw, or if I want to go for lifting — if I could go for both, it would be awesome. I kind of want to see where college takes me.”
Immediate competitive plans include the South Dakota State Powerlifting and Bench Press Championships in Rapid City on March 9 and 10. Common of USA Powerlifting sanctioned meets, that event is conducted under the organization’s prohibition on performance-enhancing drugs and other doping substances.
“I don’t even let her take (dietary) supplements — just ibuprofen for healing,” Rob explained, noting diet and proper rest are key to proper training. “We’re beginning to get her to understand that sleep is the second half to lifting weights, because that’s where all your recuperation comes from.”
In the Lesters’ case, father and daughter share a special bond, fostering both a realistic approach and lofty dreams.
“What is so exciting is that she is so young,” Rob said. “When I was lifting, I probably added a couple hundred pounds to each of my lifts as I progressed. If you put those numbers to her (from) where she is just starting out, she doesn’t have any idea what she is capable of. I have a pretty good idea ... she will surprise a whole lot more people and they will start believing she is as good as she is.”
“He makes my head pretty big,” Kayla added with a laugh.