'Beauty within': M-S female athletes train together, gain self-confidence

High school athletics are much more than what they used to be. From clubs to weight lifting, the training and preparation never stops. Add more than one sport to a student's agenda, and the athlete's responsibility becomes overwhelming.

"What I've noticed over the school year and over the summer is many of our kids play multiple sports or clubs and I was starting to see lots of girls becoming burnt out," Mahomet-Seymour head volleyball coach Stacey Buzicky said.

This spring both Buzicky and the varsity girls' basketball coach, Nathan Seal, sat down to discuss how to lighten the load for students who wanted to play multiple sports.

They decided to rally all female athletes together in the high school's weight room this summer to do just that.

"A couple of us coaches got together and figured out how we could get more girls in the weight room with the idea that girls in multiple sports would benefit, so they wouldn't have to pick between a basketball workout versus a volleyball workout," Seal said. "Any sport could come together and benefit all of the girls."

When searching for the right person to create a mainstream workout to fit all female athletes, Buzicky and Seal looked no further than the new varsity girls' cross-country coach, Kristin Allen.

The four-year Mahomet-Seymour physical education teacher's background as a former Champaign County sheriff's deputy and athletic trainer for Carle Sports Medicine are what prepared her to create the camaraderie the coaches sought in the weight room.

"I feel like I'm where I should be now," Allen said of her past experiences.

"I'm a motivator," she added. "That's the PE teacher in me and the athletic trainer so it's a perfect fit."

Prior to overseeing female athletes of Mahomet-Seymour's summer workout program, Allen assisted with the girls' cross-country team and then was elevated to the head coaching position.

Last year, when the teammates trained together they completed an obstacle course. After doing so, a student approached Allen and said, "This is strong. You have to be strong."

Those words struck a chord with Allen.

"We came up with (the saying) 'strong is beautiful,'" she said.

She wanted to show her athletes just how strong and beautiful they were, so she contacted photographer Heather Wanninger of Sweet Lemonade Photography and asked her to capture the runners.

"She met us for a morning run and took a silhouette picture with the girls and they were holding weights out at the Lake of the Woods course," Allen said. "It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it."

The photo hangs in Allen's locker room, where dozens of student-athletes pass by it each day.

"Students will think it's a poster and I say, 'No, that's the girls' cross-country team,'" Allen said. "So when we were doing this program (the all-female athlete workout), she's the first person I thought of and I asked her to just take a shot of the weight room."

When Wanninger came to capture the essence of the female athletes, Buzicky reminded her squad members to look strong and confident when they were lifting.

"An athlete looked over and said, 'So be like myself?'" Allen said. "I high-fived her. That fun, playful confidence, that's what I want for all of them."

More than strength training, Allen hopes each one of the more than 40 female athletes who arrive each Tuesday and Thursday will leave the high school weight room with self-confidence.

"I have been an athletic trainer. I've been a member of multiple gyms and it's always the same," she said. "I've noticed the low confidence. You walk into a gym not knowing what to do or not being confident enough to go work out so then you pay multiple dollars for a trainer to do this. So I thought I'm teaching high school kids, boys and girls, and so now maybe I can make a difference."

Though low confidence is something Allen's used to seeing in a gym, it's also something she encountered every day as a Champaign County sheriff's deputy.

"Just seeing a lot of situations, the negative situations that people get into that probably stem from not having that self-confidence in the beginning," Allen said.

She saw it all. From bad relationships to unfortunate domestic battery situations.

"The victim, it's never their fault," Allen said. "But just seeing ... man, if they just had some more self-confidence in themselves.

"As a cop, there wasn't much that I could do," she added. "I got into teaching and I almost feel like it's all coming together — my experience with being a police officer with the police training institute and dealing with people."

Now Allen makes every opportunity count and has made it her life's purpose to teach self-confidence.

In the weight room, those lessons are paying off substantially.

"They're still young and there's still hope for 'em," Allen said. "I feel like I can make more of a difference, even if it's one or two (athletes)."

Buzicky said her volleyball players are no longer "scared" to walk into the weight room and are even attempting pullups, pushups and much more.

"It empowers them to feel comfortable with themselves and others in the weight room," she said.

For Seal, the visible difference is the bonding and mentoring occurring between his players as he watches them encourage and instruct one another.

"It's a way to get the girls together off the court and it's bigger than that," Seal said. "It's female athletes in general and I think anytime you have that, you build the chemistry so hopefully when the seasons come around, each of these girls are more willing to support each other."

Bigger than the 2018-19 season, the summer workout program instills a sense of self-worth far greater in value than any desired championship.

"It's not just physical beauty, it's beauty within and knowing that you can do this," Allen said. "It starts with a little weight. People joke but once you see it, it's very small and it transfers in life and it's great. We talk a little bit about that in the weight room. They've already started to walk in the weight room with more confidence."

Though confidence is key, Allen had to get the student-athletes to look beyond the stereotypes that often come with women who lift.

"I've had conversations with a few students going, 'I don't want to get big,'" Allen said. "I make the joke, 'Well, you have to try to get big. That just doesn't happen. Those athletes that are those body builders their entire life is surrounded by getting big so I think you're going to be OK.'"

Allen's also no stranger to the preconceived notions that those who lift could seriously injure themselves. To get past the fear, Allen continuously shows the athletes proper form even going as far as to make them do a lift incorrectly so that they know what it feels like to do it wrong.

"I explain to them that when we lift we take our time," she said. "Like with a squat, you have to squat with no weight (at first) and I looked at each form and I'm like this is what you need to do to help with that. Then I told them where they need to feel it and where they shouldn't feel it."

Her efforts pay off tenfold as students no longer hesitate to ask her questions about their forms or even feel comfortable enough to say when something feels abnormal.

As for the future of the program, the coaches agree that it can only get better from here.

"I think it's going to be a good contagious," Allen said.

For Seal's program, it may be too early to tell the benefits of the united workouts, but if one thing is for sure, he knows his athletes are connecting and making memories that they will carry with them long past their high school careers.

"I think there's lots of moments between the girls of things that happen or conversations that they have when getting up early and picking each other up to drive in," he said. "Hopefully they're getting physically stronger but they're also getting those memories they'll have forever."

One of those cherished moments happened just last Thursday in the weight room when the players and the coaches had a chant of encouragement before completing the workout.

"The girls' coaches would say 'we are' and the girls would say 'strong.' We said 'we are' and they said 'smart.' We said 'we are' and they said 'beautiful,'" Buzicky said. "They're going to feel better and walk in confidence and they can carry this on in their adult life and keep this going with other female athletes and they can stay healthy, mentally and physically."

The workouts have even acquired an acronym, Bulldogs United in Strength (BUS). The number of female athletes in attendance at each workout continues to grow, primarily from word of mouth as each athlete catches word.

Far beyond the primary sports, Allen said all high school female athletes are welcome to attend the hourlong practice at 6:30 a.m. in the weight room every Tuesday and Thursday through the remainder of the summer, including cheer and dance athletes.

"These girls are strong to begin with but some of them haven't realized it," Allen said. "I think so far we're getting a lot of good support."

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