SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. - Leanne McLaughlin was one of the 115 powerlifters that met their regional qualifying total in order to compete at the Eastern Canadian powerlifting and bench press championships at Credit Union Place over the weekend.
McLaughlin is strong and composed, blending in with all the other powerlifters who have come from across Atlantic Canada to compete. But, unlike them, something terrible happened when she reached her late teens that would change the course of her life.
“I developed scoliosis, so instead of a spine being straight my spine was in the shape of an ‘S.’ They call it, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ disease, because you are really crooked. This happened when I was 16, which is unusual because you normally get it as a child,” explained the 23-year old from Halifax, N.S.
“It got to a point where it was so bad that they had to fix it. I was almost 17 when I went in for my first surgery. They fused eight levels of my spine together and put in metal rods, and then I had surgery to remove these rods and fuse another part, and then surgery to remove that part.”
McLaughlin faced a lengthy recovery after each of her three major back operations.
“I was a gymnast and I was always very active in high school sports. I played volleyball, badminton, was on the track team, but after each of my surgeries I needed a six-month recovery time.
“It took more than a year to wait for my bones to fuse, and by then I was almost 20-years-old and couldn’t do much.”
Go to gym
She decided to go to the gym to get her life back on track, and that’s where she met Garrett Fancy.
“My boyfriend, Garrett, is a powerlifter and got me interested in the sport. I had to make modifications because I have hips and shoulders that are uneven from having scoliosis, but I found ways around it. I went from being told I would never be competitive in sports again, from coming second on the national level in powerlifting.”
At 125 pounds, McLaughlin has raised the bar above her head at a weight of 303 pounds.
“My mom, at first, was very nervous when I started powerlifting because she was there through the surgery and recovery. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom by myself, and was very dependent on her. Luckily, my mother is a nurse, so she helped me a lot.
“I transitioned from a little weak person that weighed 90 pounds to lifting almost three times my body weight at the gym. She saw it was improving my confidence, helping my muscles and posture, and my whole family flew out to Calgary for nationals to watch me compete,” she chimed.
The Summerside meet is a Canadian Powerlifting Union (CPU)-sanctioned regional championship, which is compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). It’s a stepping stone to qualify for the national championships.
“The lifters compete in the three disciplines, which are squat, bench press and deadlift. (Saturday) we have two, three-lift sessions,” said Justin Smith, International Powerlifting Federation referee.
McLaughlin went from not being able to feel her legs to competing in six powerlifting competitions in just over two years.
“You should never underestimate anyone,” she concluded.