Roya Sabri | Hawaii 24/7 Reporter
Denise Lindsey, head coach of the West Hawaii Powerlifting team, shares more than time and energy with her athletes.
“I’m sharing something that I know,” she said. “Whether you call it a gift or just knowledge, if you can offer that to somebody, why not? It’s free.”
Lindsey gives with an aloha spirit. With Lindsey’s gift to her athletes, the organization keeps running.
Despite the organization’s activity in the community, Lindsey said the public still has misconceptions about the Special Olympics. For example, she said people often ask her when Special Olympics starts.
“It is year-round; we never stop,” she said. “I tell them that we do something every month.”
She hopes the more the community is aware of what the Special Olympics does, the more the community will be involved.
“The community loves to see us out there. Whether it’s competing statewide, regionally, practicing or fundraising. Each and every one of those athletes brings smiles, brings love, brings joy. And I think that everybody feeds off of that.”
Those smiles often help turn the athletes into their own best advertisements.
“If I had an athlete and I didn’t know them and they came to my door, I wouldn’t refuse them. I would say, ‘Of course I’m going to help you. What do you want me to do? I’ll buy your cookies. I’ll buy you shoes,’” she said. “It’s a worthy organization and a great organization.”
The heart of the organization, however, is the partnership between athletes and people like Lindsey.
When Lindsey coaches her athletes, her eyes are her most powerful tools. As she focuses on one athlete, her peripheral vision catches the lifts of other team members as they practice. And if she sees improper form, she immediately corrects the technique.
To the pedestrian viewer, it may seem as though Lindsey has a sixth sense. But her intuition has grown with years of training.
Lindsey started powerlifting competitively in 1986. At her first Hawaii state meet, she won her weight division and overall lifter.
She held the Hawaii women’s record for 15 years and she is currently the state women’s record holder in the Masters Division.
“My experience of 27 years is what brings depth and knowledge and brings results to the athletes. I’ve been there and I’ve lived it.” Lindsey said that powerlifting is “a fun and gratifying sport. You’re always looking to increase your numbers, but also to be safe. No. 1 is safety.”
Still, making sure every athlete practices and competes safely can be a challenge.
“Safety comes first because every body is different. If I lift one weight, it doesn’t mean that the next guy is going to be able to lift the same weight. So, what’s good for me is not necessarily good for you,” Lindsey said.
“And that’s the beauty of Special Olympics. All bodies are different. There are disabilities with arms and handicaps with backs and legs and hips,” she said. “So, you’re just trying to adjust and find that right tune for the athlete. And it’s good that I can sit back and observe that. It’s a good match.”
She cares about the success of each of her athletes — those of any size, shape, and talent. She believes that, “every one [of her athletes] deserves to go” to the World Games. She wants to “see Kona on the map again.”
The last time the team was on the map was in 2007, when Lindsey was chosen to be the assistant coach for the Team USA World Games in Shanghai, China.
She joined her West Hawaii powerlifter Ray Donager and Leanne Ngai, a lifter from Oahu. Donager won three gold medals and one bronze and Ngai won four gold medals. However, even then, the media didn’t sufficiently cover their success. The Ironman World Triathlon Championship overshadowed the news from Shanghai.
There’s no question that Lindsey can achieve her goals with the team. She has been dedicated to her athletes from the start. She first heard of Special Olympics at the Keauhou Canoe Club. While paddling, a fellow member told her that there was a special paddling event that involved children and people with developmental disabilities of all ages.
She talked to the director of Special Olympics — at that time, Cheryl Livingston — to learn more. When Livingston mentioned powerlifting, Lindsey said, “That’s my sport!”
Lindsey has been recognized for much of her work with the Special Olympics. She was named the Hawaii Coach of the year in 2000. She was the area director for West Hawaii for two years and for East Hawaii for one year. In 2006, she was chosen to represent Hawaii at the National Games in Ames, Iowa. There, she was earned the “Eminent Award” and the coaches from Team USA named her their “Favorite Coach.”
She has also used her public relations skills from her experience in radio, print and television to get athletes involved in community triathlons and local 5 and 10 k runs.
Lindsey was a mentor with the Global Messengers program, which pairs a trained public speaker with an athlete to work on communication skills. The program no longer exists in West Hawaii, but Lindsey argues it plays a major role in the success of the Special Olympics and its athletes.
Lindsey described why a program that focuses on communication is important to a sports-oriented organization: “It focuses on them. We ask them, ‘What do you want? What do you want to do? What is your need?’ In Special Olympics, it’s their program. It’s not ours. It’s all theirs. So, we want to make sure that they communicate: We want more dances. We want longer practices. We need more practices. Or we don’t like that coach. It’s their voice to speak out.”
She would like to see Global Messengers revived in West Hawaii.
“I think that’s part of the Special Olympics. If you have something to offer, great. If not, don’t worry about it because they’ll teach you how to do it.”
Those who get involved in the Special Olympics don’t only teach and share. They learn from the athletes. There are two main qualities Lindsey said she has learned from her years involved with her athletes: unconditional love and patience.
Along with the benefits, Lindsey said working with special athletes has proven easier than working with others. She said most of her athletes arrive with basically no knowledge about powerlifting. Whereas, others are more likely to have tried powerlifting and may come to their coach saying, “Yeah, I know how to do this!”
Lindsey’s athletes treat her with respect. They listen and learn. They want to grow.
“When I’m with special athletes, it’s easy, because I can come in and show them since they’ve never had it before,” she said. “So, to me, it’s just a dream.”
At the recent 45th annual Hawaii State Summer games on Oahu, the West Hawaii powerlifters dominated in their events. They brought home the most gold and over-all medals.
Competing with approximately two dozens other athletes from across the state, the eight West Hawaii athletes brought home 16 gold, six silver, four bronze, and four fourth-place medals.
Lindsey said, “I know that’s the most out of any delegation.”
Lindsey pointed out that Isaiah Wong proved his “world contention” strength on Oahu.
“He’s able to shatter records globally. I hope that he gets chosen one day to be at World Games,” she said. “His numbers are so impressive. He pulled a 460-lb. deadlift. And that was the biggest lift of the day. And he had more to give.”
She has been able to nurture athletes with competitive numbers. But Lindsey does not measure her athletes’ success by the way they compare to others. What she calls important are the changes her athletes make in their bodies and in their confidence.
Lindsey’s optimism and careful coaching are not all that attracts her athletes to her team. Lindsey said her assistant coaches and support team at The Club in Kona make the difference in molding her athletes into a winning team, as well as encouragement from The Club’s other clients.
“It’s always been an open-door policy (at The Club). And that helps me,” Lindsey said. “I always get comments of, ‘We love to see your athletes in here because it makes us feel good.’ And that always puts a smile on my face.”
Lindsey’s dedication to her athletes and sport isn’t left at the gym door. She decided to join her athletes at the Summer Games instead of staying in Kona for her father’s 75th birthday party.
“Once you give, you have got to go all the way. To me, it was a no-brainer,” she said. “I just have to make it up to my dad now.”
Lindsey said her dad understood her decision and agreed the gold, silver, and bronze that the team brought home was a great gift.
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