From Average Health to Becoming Powerlifting Champs

Keith Cunningham was catching his breath on an incline in downtown Seattle a decade and a half ago when a white-haired woman twice his age marched past him. "This isn’t that steep a climb," he thought to himself. "This is getting ridiculous."

Becky Moore had a similar experience on the very same hill.

“I was having a hard time going up the hill from 2nd to 3rd Avenue,” Moore recalled. “I’d have to catch my breath. I needed help lifting boxes and I said, “This has got to change.’”

That’s one of several curious parallels in stories the two Starbucks partners (employees) tell about their transformations from out-of-shape office workers to world-class athletes. Cunningham, who is a paralegal, and Moore, a project manager, are both supported by the Starbucks Elite Athlete Program, which provides funding and scheduling flexibility for training and travel to amateur competitors who participate at a world-class level.

Both came to the same sport of powerlifting late in the game: Cunningham in his mid-30s, Moore in her early 40s (both are now in their early 50s). Neither were working for Starbucks at the time, but found success with the same coach. And they returned from the World Association of Bench Press and Dead Lift Championships (WABDL) last week in Las Vegas with first-place medals to add to already impressive collections.

A First-Place Finish the First Time Around

A self-described “yearbook/French Club guy” in high school, the Detroit-born Cunningham was satisfied with an occasional stroll on the treadmill until a bad back got the best of him. He tried to address his pain with over-the-counter medicine, but his doctor warned him he risked long-term damage to his kidneys if he didn’t cut back on his dosage. A physical therapist told Cunningham to work on strengthening his core and stretching his hamstrings, which eventually brought him to a Seattle health and fitness club where the gym’s founder, Joe Head, put him on a core-strengthening cardio and stretching routine that provided immediate back relief. Cunningham began showing up daily.

“I noticed there were other people in the gym doing other things,” he said. “There were people doing bodybuilding and people in the back doing powerlifting, which was squats, bench and deadlift. My coach one day said, ‘Why don’t you go over there and pick up that bar?’ I went over and picked it up and put it down again and he said, ‘Wow! Have you ever heard of powerlifting?’ and I said, ‘No.’”

Head began teaching Cunningham the nuances of lifting and his new pupil found he enjoyed the sport – in large part because his back felt terrific and he could now stride straight up those hills that once left him out of breath. In 2004, when he was only a few months into the program, Head told Cunningham he’d entered him in a tournament in Aberdeen, Washington.

“I’m competing against lifters from Washington state who have been lifting for a number of years,” said Cunningham, whose competition weight is around 165 pounds. “They all knew each other and they looked at me like, ‘Who are you?’ I was naïve. I was like, ‘Oh, I just started this.’ I deadlifted 465 pounds and won. Second place was 400 pounds. I qualified for the World Championships in Las Vegas and I won. Which was crazy! That started me on the road and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

He continued his winning streak at this year’s WABDL Championships. Cunningham won his age/weight class in the bench press and deadlift. He now has 11 deadlift and five bench press World Championships to his name.

A Concealed Competitive Streak

After some initial success at the same gym Cunningham went to, Moore stopped going and instead competed in some triathlons in an effort to keep fit. But after breaking her foot, she put on pounds she’d worked hard to lose, and then some. She returned to the gym believing Head could put together a program to get her back in shape.

“I was working out and getting to a better weight,” recalled Moore. “I’d seen people lifting. I saw Keith do it. Then Joe asked if I wanted to get it a try and I said, ‘Sure.’”

She entered her first competition in 2008 and experienced immediate success, earning first- and second-place finishes.

“It turns out I have a little competitive streak in me,” she explained. “I got intrigued by the idea that you’re always lifting against yourself. If you’d have told me 10 years ago I’d be competing – that I’d be able to lift over 250 pounds – I would have been amazed. Now I’m going for a goal of 300 pounds on the deadlift and I’m working to get to 200 pounds on the bench press.”

Moore left the recent WABDL Championship in Las Vegas with two first-place deadlift and two first-place bench press finishes, as well as a world record and a Best Lifter Award. She now claims 19 World Championships.

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