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Powerful art

KCSD art teacher is record-setting powerlifter

Posted: February 19, 2013 5:10 p.m.
Updated: February 20, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Faith, strength, endurance and 122 pounds.

That’s what it took for Wateree and Bethune elementary school art teacher Renee Robinson to set the South Carolina state record for female bench press last fall.

Last September, Robinson competed in her first raw “full-power” powerlifting competition in Rock Hill to benefit special needs children. Robinson set the state and national records for her 122-pound bench-press for both the American Powerlifting Federation and the Amateur American Powerlifting Federation at that event. A full-power competition requires squats, bench press and deadlift for a total score. Robinson, 35, broke state and national records as champion and record holder last month in the Southern Powerlifting Federation’s Raw Powerlifting and Bench Press Pro/AM competition in North Myrtle Beach. Robinson moved up a weight class and bench-pressed 135 pounds for the women sub-masters 132. “Raw” competitions require that competitors wear only singlets (a type of body suit) and shoes; wrist wraps, a belt and knee wraps can be worn if desired. Competitions are broken into weight and age.

Before Robinson was transferred to Wateree Elementary School (WES) as a full time art teacher three years ago, she was teaching at Bethune Elementary School (BES), as well as Mt. Pisgah and Midway elementary schools, and didn’t have access to a gym, she said. Robinson was BES’ 2010-2011 Teacher of the Year. “Getting fit was the goal” for Robinson until she started working out at Carolina Fitness in Camden.

Last summer, Robinson decided that she wanted to train with Carolina Fitness owner and current Kershaw County Board of School Trustees member Ron Blackmon. Blackmon noticed that Robinson was already strong and asked if she wanted to compete in power lifting competitions. The two looked up the state record, which was previously 105 lbs, and began training immediately.

“I’m a pretty competitive person -- when I found out it was so low I like ‘wow,’” said Robinson, who is from the Abney community in the town of Kershaw and graduated from North Central High School. “I don’t like to lose so I got into the right mindset and trained to beat 105. I trained over -- at 122. (During the competition,) I was nervous because you have to hold on command. They will red-light you for not obeying.”

Blackmon said he’s seen people come and go, and Robinson has worked hard. A lot of people say that they want to compete, Blackmon said, but there is “a lot of sweat and a lot of hurt,” in powerlifting competitions. He saw that Robinson was “very committed, strong willed and didn’t like to lose.” Robinson is a strong competitor and very coachable, he said. He and Robinson work on technique, but the strength is “all on her.” He is amazed at what Robinson has been able to accomplish, he said.

Robinson didn’t expect to transition into a fitness competitor at all, let alone so quickly, because her transition from physical inactivity to working out consistently had been slow.

That’s because from 1988 to 2010, Robinson was limited in mobility and was not physically active at all.

In 1988, while in fifth-grade, Robinson, daughter of John and Donna Green, was the sole survivor of a fatal car accident near Mt. Pisgah Elementary School. A driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, she said, and hit the car she and her two older brothers were traveling in, leaving three dead. A once-active child, Robinson was no longer able to play sports or even participate in her high school gym class. She was, however, “influenced” and “encouraged” to pursue art by her high school art teacher Jeanne Scronce. Robinson said her artistic abilities run in the family.

In 1992, Robinson had a hip fusion while she was attending Winthrop University, but it severely limited her postures as she could only sit and walk in certain ways. After living in “terrible” conditions for several years, Robinson was “determined” to find a doctor who could perform a hip replacement. Several doctors told her they would not perform a hip replacement because of her youth. In 2001, however, a Midlands doctor performed a “total hip replacement,” finally giving Robinson the ability to move her hip. Robinson is currently part of a study to see how long the metal-on-metal hip will last.

“I had a terrible limp, people identified me as a handicap person, so it’s mind-boggling that I’ve been successful in this,” she said.

Not only did the car accident leave her physically limited, it left her “very depressed,” Robinson said. To combat her sadness, Robinson relied on the Bible.

“Everything was taken away in that accident, but I still wanted to participate,” she said. “My faith is what got me through those rough times. Being a child that wanted to do physical activities, who wanted to play sports, I had no outlet; to be able to do it now is … it’s a blessing. I feel like it’s happening later in life, I’m in my 30s, but I feel good about myself and I feel like I’ve accomplished something I wasn’t able to before.

I’ve pretty much gone from cripple to an athlete. I feel like I got a piece of my life back.”

Robinson said her experience transitioning into regular workouts in 2010 was typical of a woman: she didn’t know how to use any of the machines, but wanted to get stronger. Because of her commitment to her family, her husband, Kyle, and her two children Rhett and Cole, Robinson is only in the gym three days a week for about an hour to an hour and a half. On Mondays, she does a series of bench presses; on Wednesdays, she squats; and on Fridays, she deadlifts. Each day, she performs those activities in addition to a series of exercises that will make that area of her body stronger. She always works her abs and back, she said, because “a strong core is important.” When she is training, she intensifies her workout and stretches them to about two hours, three days a week. She begins training for competitions six to eight weeks before each competition and eats lots of protein during her training period to build muscle.

Robinson moved up a weight level between September and January; she plans to stay in the 132-pound class because there is more competition. The “only bad thing” about women’s competitions is that there aren’t very many competitors, she said.

Competitions have given Robinson a confidence she’s never known before. It’s a self-esteem booster, and she plans to keep competing locally. Her next competition is a raw full-power competition in Greenville in April, hosted by International Powerlifting Association.

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