Nikiski powerlifter Billie Denison walks off the platform at the USA Powerlifting Open Nationals May 10, 2019, in Lombard, Illinois. (Photo courtesy 9for9 Media)

Nikiski powerlifter Billie Denison walks off the platform at the USA Powerlifting Open Nationals May 10, 2019, in Lombard, Illinois. (Photo courtesy 9for9 Media)

Nikiski powerlifter reaches new highs with Team USA invite

Three years ago, Nikiski’s Billie Denison dipped her toes into the sport of powerlifting as an avenue to self-improvement.

Now, the former Alaska state powerlifting champion is reaching a new pinnacle of her career, joining Team USA to compete on the North American level.

Denison was recently invited to lift for Team USA for the upcoming International Powerlifting Federation/North American Powerlifting Federation North American Regional championships in San Jose, Costa Rica, from Aug. 5 to 11, where she will lift in the equipped category.

“I didn’t expect it so soon,” Denison said in a recent interview. “It’s always been this huge, someday, kind of goal.”

From there, Denison will travel to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for the Bench Press Nationals to compete the last week of August. Denison will lift over two days, the first in the raw division and second in the equipped division.

Denison recently made the move from raw lifting to equipped lifting, which utilizes a squat suit, knee wraps, a bench shirt and a deadlift suit to help lift more weight compared to the raw category.

The Bench Press National meet is a qualifier for the IPF Bench Press Worlds in Pilsen, Czech Republic, but for now, Denison is focused on her August schedule.

Team USA granted Denison a spot on the team on the strength of two big competitions in the first half of 2019 — the Southern New England Open in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Jan. 19, and the USA Powerlifting Open Nationals in Lombard, Illinois, on May 10.

Denison’s performances there turned heads and put her name on the head coaches nomination roster, which was decided by a committee who believed Denison could represent the USA in all aspects of competition.

Denison’s current lifting coach, Zac Cooper, said her inclusion on the national team speaks volumes about the type of competitor and individual she is.

“It’s an honor anytime to be part of an international team,” Cooper said. “If you’re accepted, it demonstrates your ability and the organization believes in your integrity and ability to compete.

“The most integral part is you have the organization’s confidence that you’re drug free.”

Cooper is a national team coach and 21-year powerlifting veteran who owns his own company, Cooper Training Institute (CTI). The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, based company serves around 30 athletes from 17 states, providing one-on-one coaching via the internet.

Denison said the North American Regional championships are a huge next step in climbing the powerlifting ladder, while Bench Press Nationals are a qualifying meet to Bench Press Worlds.

Denison’s meteoric rise has taken her from a little-known prodigy trying to figure out her passion in life, to now one of the top positions in the state powerlifting order, Alaska State Chair, a position Denison took over in February.

In addition to her competitive appearances, Denison also rose from a state-certified powerlifting referee to a nationally certified position in just two years. She has since worked four national championship meets, including the nationally attended International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness Arnold Sports Festival.

Denison became co-Chair of Alaska Powerlifting last October with Ryan Carillo, who had been the Chair for about 18 months, and also works as a meet director. Denison ran her first state championship in May.

In working as a meet director and state chair, Denison said she has seen a side of powerlifting that has given her a new appreciation and passion for the sport.

“It’s fun,” she said. “I enjoy that more than I enjoy competing.”

The 2008 Nikiski grad, now a mother of two, began her journey into the sport in spring 2016. Having taken weightlifting classes in high school, Denison had a vague grasp on the competition side of it.

But she picked it up as a way to challenge herself, and it would be an understatement to say things have taken off. In November 2016, she won a weight class championship at the USA Power Lifting Northwest Regional meet in Spokane, Washington, and the next year walked off with the 2017 Alaska State Championship in the raw open 72-kilogram class, and was awarded Best Overall Female.

Denison also competed at 2017 Raw Nationals, her first big meet on a national stage. In all, the Nikiski lifter has competed in nine meets since picking up the sport.

The fast start to her promising career was put on hold, however, as Denison chose to take a hiatus from competition, a 14-month break from Oct. 2017 to Jan. 2019.

“I needed to learn,” she explained. “It definitely takes an emotional skill set to compete, and I always have had a lot of intensity but I didn’t know how to apply that on the platform. I had to learn how to reign it in and use it for positive gain, so it was just overwhelming.”

During her break, Denison continued lifting, but another hurdle presented itself. Denison was sidetracked with emergency gallbladder surgery last November, meaning she couldn’t lift for four weeks.

For someone accustomed to following a rigorous training schedule, and for someone who takes bountiful joy in pushing herself on a daily basis, the time off recovering was a frustrating experience.

It was around that time that Denison considered diving into Cooper’s program and letting him coach her back to full glory.

“I knew getting back on the platform was a big thing, and I needed it to be a good experience,” Denison said.

Denison had previously received coaching advice from Nikiski’s Jerem Feltman, a longtime powerlifting coach who owns Anvil of Crom Power and Strength, which is specifically suited for serious powerlifters. Denison also worked briefly with Wasilla coach Ross Leppala, who has since relocated down to the states.

She also said while Feltman has continued to be a constant source of support and mentorship, she wanted to try Cooper’s methods after seeing what she liked.

“I knew it would be for me,” she said.

Cooper and Denison’s paths had crossed several times at national meets, and she admired Cooper’s process for training and preparing for competition.

Cooper said Denison’s vision and motivation made her an easy candidate for his program, which is designed to pander to the individual, sending out personalized programs to set up the lifter for success in the sport.

“There’s a certain special quality we look for and Billie had it,” Cooper said.

Nine weeks after her gallbladder was removed, and just five weeks after she resumed her training schedule, Denison bought the plane ticket to fly to Connecticut for the Southern New England Open. Her lifts there were enough to qualify Denison for Open Nationals in May.

Cooper said the idea behind bringing Denison across the country to compete was based on an idea that he preaches to college students. As an adjunct professor at Massachusett’s Fitchburg State University, the kinesiology and exercise physiology grad teaches that the longer an athlete spends away from the game, the less likely they will return.

“Billie was doing a great job on the program, indicating that she was ready for a peak,” he said. “I told her, ‘You need to get back on the platform, you’ve been away for a long time.’

“We figured this will give us a great short-term target to show us she can do this and is ready, the program’s working, and she’s ready to get out there and set some personal records.”

Denison rose to the occasion in Connecticut, then went on to finish fourth in the 72-kilo open equipped class at Open Nationals in May in only her second time ever lifting in the equipped class.

Now Denison will set her sights on August, when she will step onto the lifting platform with Team USA colors, just three years after blossoming in Nikiski.

“Billie is a great example of what our sport is capable of,” Cooper said. “It’s transforming lives, and she’s faced some adversity in life on different levels, and she’s an example of what sport can do when she puts her mind to it and gives it her all.

“This is just a stop along the way for her.”

Nikiski powerlifter Billie Denison pushes through a squat lift at the USA Powerlifting Open Nationals May 10, 2019, in Lombard, Illinois. (Photo courtesy 9for9 Media)

Nikiski powerlifter Billie Denison pushes through a squat lift at the USA Powerlifting Open Nationals May 10, 2019, in Lombard, Illinois. (Photo courtesy 9for9 Media)

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