22-year-old overcame depression after injury through new sport

In the depths of SAIT Polytechnic, down several flights of stairs, is Peak Power Sport Development. Here, 22-year-old powerlifter Breann Thiessen trains for the sport that gave her a second chance.

The 4-11 athlete moves through the gym with a perpetual smile on her face, joking with teammates and preparing to start a brand new program. Considering the serious lifting done here, the atmosphere is light and positive, which can’t help but be partially attributed to Thiessen’s demeanor.

With chalk on her hands, she grips the bar at her feet, the smile momentarily fading. It’s time to go to work.

In May of 2013, the shock of a brutal concussion ended Breann Thiessen’s career as a collegiate wrestler with the University of Calgary Dinos. As an eight-year veteran to the sport, and being scouted out of high school, Thiessen had so much of her life dedicated to a sport she could no longer compete in. This loss threw her into a six-month battle with depression.

“When the one thing that is so important to you gets pulled away you don’t really know what to do,” Thiessen said.

Although she still had work and school, after her concussion she found herself sleeping more and more without the motivation that sports brought to her life.

Her mother, Charlotte Thiessen, said that it was a rough time for the then 21-year-old Breann. Although she was taking sociology in gender work and family with a minor in business, up until that point in her life she had defined herself as a wrestler. With the injury she lost that part of herself.

“As a parent that was scary, she suffered from chronic depression,” Charlotte said. “I’m just really happy she’s found something else. I think she found another sport and I think she found herself.”Breann Thiessen’s bubbly personality lights up SAIT’s Peak Power Sport Development training centre. Despite workouts that take about two hours, Thiessen maintains a smile.

Photo by Evan Manconi

Powerlifting happened to be the sport that brought Breann out of her depression. It is a strength-based sport where the athlete competes in three lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift. While these are popular lifts in any gym, powerlifters compete with three attempts in each discipline to lift as much as they can. The best lift from each discipline is added together and the best total determines the winner.

It was in fact Breann’s Dino’s wrestling coach Mitch Ostberg that introduced her to the world of powerlifting.

“Honestly I was sad that she couldn’t find a way to continue in the sport, that the concussion limited her opportunity. She was a very dedicated athlete and she was working hard and improving in her short time she was with us,” Ostberg said.

“We just sort of talked it over, I don’t think I gave her any grand plan but I just said, ‘You know maybe you’d like to try weightlifting.’”

Breann describes part of her motivation to pursue powerlifting in regards to her faith. From her injury she found it sparked a lot of conversations for her about religion and many of the people that stepped in to support her were devout Christians.

“I always look at it as God gave me a second chance at sport,” Breann said. “I didn’t have to be an athlete and I didn’t have to be this strong but I feel like I’ve been created to be this strong and why not take advantage of it. Most people think it’s kooky but that’s okay.”

Her second chance came in late 2013 when she joined the powerlifting team halfway through the season. Through discipline, great coaches and a diet that she refers to as a lifestyle, Breann has since found tremendous success after only two seasons in powerlifting.

Barry Antoniow, Breann’s coach and project manager of Peak Power Sport Development, said that Breann found a natural progression from wrestling to powerlifting. Both are individual sports that require dedication, which is abundant in Breann. While some athletes join for a few years but ultimately move on, he said Breann is different.

“Her intensity, her drive and in the powerlifting community we call it being bit by the iron bug,” Antoniow said.

Breann competes in the 52-kilogram division and her best lifts in competition are 137.5kg squat, 67.5kg bench press and 143kg deadlift. She has won a gold medal at the Canadian Powerlifting Union National Championships in her weight class and was ranked the best junior female lifter.

Her success at nationals led Breann to compete this past June at the International Powerlifting Federation World Classic Championship in South Africa. The journey wasn’t an easy one for Breann, but the most challenging aspect came from the weight cut right before the competition.

She arrived at the first weigh-in and she was 57 kilograms, five over her weight class. Determined to compete she needed to lose weight and fast. On the first day she chugged 10 litres of water to flush out her system and lose as much weight as possible.

The deadlift is one of the three core powerlifting competition lifts. The deadlift involves lifting the loaded bar from the floor to the hips and then back down.

Photo by Evan Manconi“It was terrible. I was like 10 litres of water isn’t so bad until you’ve done it, and you’re laying on the bed, and your stomach hurts and your electrolytes are out so you’re dizzy.”

With the water she was able to lose three kilograms and the day before the competition she was two kilograms over. By being active and not eating very much she was able to float off a kilogram and by the end of the day she was only one kilogram over. Bundled up and hugging a hot water bottle she went to bed hoping to lose that final kilogram and make the required weight limit. In the morning she hadn’t lost a thing.

“I was freaking out, my mom was freaking out. We worked so hard to come this far and all of a sudden you don’t make weight,” Breann said. “I flew 21 hours and if I don’t get to compete I’ll be devastated.”

“I remember being so upset at that moment and then all of a sudden realizing there was nothing else I could do but be there. I think of it as a blessing because I could have went completely crazy.”

She shut out all the blaming voices that swirled in her head, and said she realized that in that moment she had done all she could and either she’d make it or she wouldn’t.

“I stepped on the scale exactly at 8:30 a.m., which was the cut-off, and my coach had scissors ready to cut my hair and I made 52.00kg.”

Stepping on the platform for her country and not just herself was nerve-racking but exciting. Breann would walk away from the World Championship with bronze in her weight class.

Just as powerlifting has helped Breann, she has sought to help others through inspiring them to pursue sports.

“I always look at it as a different avenue to go out and show love to people.”

Through talks at schools and promotional tours to her hometown in Grand Prairie, Alta., Breann has brought awareness to powerlifting. “I like to tell people about this sport because it has done so much for me and I’ve found a lot of confidence through sport in general but also through powerlifting.”

Breann also said that she wants to inspire more girls to go into sport, regardless of what others may think of them. Growing up in a small town with a different build than most girls she had faced some discrimination.

“As a female wrestler they always assumed there was a connection to my sexuality or a connection to my mindset. They’d think I’m more masculine because I do this sport.”Of the three powerlifting competition lifts, Breann Thiessen’s favorite is the squat. In June she won the second place world medal in the squat lift.

Photo by Evan Manconi

Instead Breann said she believed in what she calls equalism. Where people are just people and gender doesn’t need to define how someone lives their life. Although more girls have been entering powerlifting, Breann still said she found herself in the minority as a female powerlifter. For Breann this doesn’t mean she’s any more masculine because of it.

“I’ve explained to my coach crying, ‘I’ve just squatted 300lbs and I’m still sensitive, I don’t know why this is so weird for everyone.’”

Antoniow added that in the last few years there has been a huge surge in females joining the sport. “When people get over the concept that to be a powerlifter you need to be this huge behemoth, no it’s about getting stronger.”

“I had three rookie girls and I had Breann coming in,” Antoniow said. “When they saw this little girl lifting more than they are lifting and they’re bigger girls, it inspired them to go ‘Wow I don’t have to be huge to be strong.’”

Through her determination in powerlifting and her effort to break the stereotypes that people hold about female athletes, Breann is inspiring other girls to pursue their dreams that might not align with how most people define female athletics.

“I really want to empower young woman. I think what inspires me the most is to be a really good role model for young girls who are being bombarded by the media or stereotypes.”

emanconi@cjournal.ca