The atmosphere at the Minnesota High School Weightlifting State Championships contrasts what most prep sports fans in the state are accustomed to seeing. There are no pep bands playing music and no raucous student sections. There are fans, but they seem to cheer for every athlete.
Even kids from opposing schools.
"Culture-wise [weightlifting] is different," Burnsville junior Noah Bachmeier said. "Even different teams, you want everybody to do well because you're all fighting against gravity. You're all competing against each other, but gravity is the biggest enemy."
Olympic weightlifting, a club sport, is not sponsored by the Minnesota State High School League. But Minnesota is home to one of the top youth weightlifting programs in the country due to a team of highly qualified coaches and athletes looking for strength training to help them improve in other sports.
"I like how it's an individual sport, but you also get to lift as a team," Bachmeier said. "It's a tight-knit group as a team and a weightlifting community."
As the sport expands in the Twin Cities area and statewide, south metro schools have dominated at state championships for the past decade. The championships held March 12 at Lakeville South High School were no different, with Burnsville winning the varsity meet for the third consecutive year. Before then, Northfield had won nine consecutive times. Lakeville South and Rosemount also carried a large number of athletes into the competition.
Northfield and Burnsville's dominance can be traced to coach Scott Sahli, who led Northfield to prominence before moving to Burnsville in 2011. Sahli said leadership from the Minnesota weightlifting community has met with the high school league three times but couldn't find a way to reach a partnership.
So the group governs itself.
"We set all the meets, we run all the meets. Everybody shares and helps one another,'' Sahli said. "It's working so well here that it's a model for the rest of the United States. USA Weightlifting is copying our model."
Beyond the south metro, Armstrong finished second at state championships this year. The north metro had a few athletes compete throughout the season, Sahli said, but less so at the state championships. Cannon Falls has a strong team, and the sport is taking shape in Rochester.
Mia Erickson, a 2011 and 2012 national champion in Olympic weightlifting, started a team in Rochester that combines the Mayo, Century and John Marshall High Schools. Erickson said most of her athletes are football players looking for offseason strength training.
"Some football players only do football and track, so they're looking for that outlet during winter so that they can still be active," Erickson said.
Quentin Chatman, a sophomore at Mayo, plays football, wrestles and is on the track and field team. He has only been weightlifting for about a month but already qualified for the state meet by quickly adapting to the sport's two lifts: clean-and-jerk and the snatch.
"When you're first learning the technique it feels really, really, really awkward. But then once you start getting the technique down, it improves your lift about 40 more pounds," Chatman said.
Burnsville's Bachmeier is another football player who hopes to reap weightlifting's benefits on the field. In his first meet three years ago, he failed to lift 26 kilograms (about 57 pounds). He earned an individual state title this year and can lift more than 80 kilograms (176 pounds).
Alicia Vogel, a Lakeville South sophomore, started weightlifting to train for the shot put in track and field.
"You need to be strong to throw," Vogel said. "I think lifting almost helps in all sports."
Vogel, one of many girls to participate in the sport, set a state record at this year's championship by lifting 96 kilograms (about 211 pounds) in the clean-and-jerk.
"I've always been kind of a tomboy. I played football with the guys. I throw in track. They're not necessarily the most girlie sports," she said.
Every year, a number of the state's best lifters forms Team Minnesota. The group travels to national championships, which it won in both the women and men's divisions in 2015 and 2016.
With athletes like Vogel, Bachmeier and Chatman eager to get stronger for other sports, weightlifting has slowly gained staying power in Minnesota. Thanks to Sahli, Erickson and others, those athletes are learning from highly qualified coaches while also enjoying the sport's tight-knit support system.
"Everyone in the stands is going to cheer for everybody because everybody knows what it feels like to be standing on that platform getting ready to pull," Erickson said. "You have a lot of coaches here that are passionate about Olympic lifting. … That's the main reason why we're successful."