Jeni and I figured we’d be best friends were we to live near each other. We had been supporting each other’s lifting journey on IG when we met in person for the first time at Battle of the Bay VIII in 2022. I was hunkered down behind the warm-up squat racks near others from my gym, but I appeared alone. She laughed as she approached me, we hugged. She said, “You know you can come sit with us.” I was where I liked to be, tucked away from people like some weirdo, eating hand-rolled turkey slices. She understood.
For the SOI interview, and because we’d been meaning to anyway, we met up halfway between our homes at a gym called Beast Barbell in Deland, Florida. We trained together and ate together. Over the course of the day, I learned that Jeni Gallion is probably the funniest person to ever step foot onto a powerlifting platform … at least in the greater state of Florida. Between her oversized jug of smelling salts and the funny comments slid inside of moments too palpable, too serious—Jeni Gallion is an absolute treasure.
Thank you, Jeni, for pushing through the awkwardness of interview. And thank you, Sisters of Iron, for hosting these stories, these powerhouse women: the first project of its kind in the strength world.
To know Jeni is to know the people closest to her. The prominence of the people in Jeni’s life casts her in a different image than most other athletes I’ve encountered. She actually didn’t think she was interesting enough to be interviewed. Unbelievable. She listens to good music and she powerlifts and helps people become stronger, she runs dye through people’s bodies so that images may be shot to determine cancer growth, all while juggling momming and wifing, cooking generations-old Italian recipes, making the time to dress up like Dahmer for this year’s gym Halloween party. She has tattooed eye liner on her eyes. How bizarre. She actually mentioned to a friend in front of one of her kids, “I’m worried I’m just not that interesting.” Her daughter Bella, age 11, said, “Of course you’re interesting. You’re a mom. You’re a nuclear medicine technologist. And you’re a powerlifter with like 50 national records.” Jeni laughed telling me this, “The last part isn’t true.”
As though we didn’t know that too much fat after a workout would hinder recovery, Jeni and I ate fried chicken. Our meeting felt celebratory though, and food can be part of that. “I’m only going eight,” she said, referring to chicken nuggets. “I’m a weird meat eater, you know. You know how sometimes you get a little thing—I would refer to it as a gleckler—in your chicken and then you’re like eww and that’s that. So I don’t overdo it. You might get one on your first bite and then we’re done. Guess I’m just eating fries.” Of course I knew.
Getting to know Jeni, I learned that she had to work around some of the injuries from a car accident years ago. I asked her about this, thinking that this material could lend to a comeback narrative. She said, “I compressed six vertebrae, so now I’m a straight sitter. My posture has been beautiful ever since. Put that in the article. Jeni Gallion and her beautiful posture.” I hid the phone recorder off to the side so it didn’t deter our natural conversation, but that didn’t matter. She told me how being recorded changes everything about the moment. She told me of the photographer who shoots at her gym, how whenever he’s around she can’t get over the strangeness of being recorded. “There’s a reason I didn’t end up in modeling,” she said, eating another nugget. “I mean there might be some other reasons too.”
From Extreme Sports to Powerlifting
Jeni has been powerlifting for two years. She came to it at the age of 40 after a lifetime of playing extreme sports: skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, roller derby. “My derby name was Pussy Slayer; write that down.” Like many other women, she went the general fitness route, then CrossFit. “I feel like I wish that I knew that I was strong earlier on. I feel like I didn’t know. After I had all the kids, I went to the gym to exercise and to lose weight and I had a personal trainer. He told me I was strong. And that was the first time I thought maybe I am … I stayed there for a while doing bodybuilding stuff. And then I lost my dad and so I had to get away from everyone that I knew.” She laughed about this, and I laughed because, well, I know. She said, “My coach had always said I should try CrossFit, so I left from there so I didn’t have to talk to anyone about my dad. I wanted to go where nobody knows that I have a dead dad so I can be not a sad person. So I started at CrossFit.”
Jeni learned that her strength in one gym was not a one-off. “You know how when you start to come into your own and you’re like, ‘I’m strong even here and I’m at another gym?’ So now I feel like with powerlifting—I found this thing that I’m fucking good at. I am fucking good at it. Even on a bad day, I’m fucking good at it.” Laughing, “Not that I’ve ever been good at anything in my life, I’ve just been okay at stuff and this is something where I’m like, ‘Wow, I can pursue this and be really good at it.’”
Jeni has 26 state records across two weight classes in tested and nontested divisions, masters and open categories, along with four national masters records. Jeni has squatted 353 lbs, benched 176 lbs, and deadlifted 380 lbs. She won Best Masters Lifter at her last meet. She credits these wins to the people in her circle at Recruit Strength. She has been working with Michael DeStefano, who took her from her first push-pull competition, where she was hooked, to where she is now. “I competed three times this year. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Her coach works around previous injuries, so Jeni has been able to train and recover. Jeni is also a coach at Recruit Strength, so she has a deeper understanding of how to train and live for recovery.
“I’m lucky to be at my gym—the women I work out with are ridiculous,” she said. “They are so strong. It’s like a friendly competitive environment. Trying to keep up with them is crazy. And they’re half my age—but I hold my own okay. It’s definitely makes you better to be surrounded by people that are really fucking good. It makes you strive to be better—not being surrounded by mediocre people. I’m fortunate to be located where I am. ‘Cause you don’t want to be the big fish.”
Nuclear Medicine and Motherhood
Jeni manages to balance training and coaching with her full-time job as a nuclear medicine technician. “It’s a form of diagnostic imaging. I describe it as a backwards X-ray. An X-ray has a beam and the beam shoots through you and makes a picture of your structure, right? Well, in nuclear medicine, we inject you and you are the beam, you emit rays out and it takes a picture.” Jeni is often the one who has to pass on the information to the doctors about patients who may not know yet that they are dying. “I work in PET-CT and that’s just for cancer so that’s definitely like … when someone comes in with a random lung nodule and they’re trying to figure out whether it’s cancerous or not ….”
When asked if she has to keep that information to herself, she said, “Um hmm. I did a mobile PET, drove around in a truck and gave PET scans there. I worked at All Children's Hospital and that was probably the worst ever. I had some cases there where … I’ll never forget them, that’s all. You know? Some little kids. 14-year-old riddled in cancer. Terrible. I would not want to work in pediatrics again. Not for me. It takes someone really strong to do that. It’s not easy having someone younger come in. I’m somewhat desensitized to seeing people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, you know what I mean? But every once in a while, I get someone my age coming in—like a 21-year-old—and I’m like, oh my God, that’s terrible.”
We talked about motherhood—how becoming a mother reveals a connection of understanding. In simple terms, being a mother is to know the greatest fear. And joy outside of words’ capture, canyon-depth. And we talked about mom guilt. Those who train in competitive powerlifting know it takes great deal of time. When I spoke of my own guilt, Jeni cast it as something more benign. About 2-3-hour workouts, she said, “You have mom guilt. Every mom ever has it. I said it to my husband last night. I said I feel guilty that I spend so much time training. Am I taking that away from the family?” They talked it through and she said, “This is the amount of time I need to stay in a good mental space so that I can be better for the family. I think you always have that. If you were a stay-at-home mom you’d still be like, ‘What am I not doing right? I’m traumatizing these children every day.’ The scary part of giving into being just a mom and nothing else is that you will most likely get older and resent that role. Is that better?” Jeni is normalizing the image of what a mother can be.
“Jeni’s drunk and making poor decisions again”
About her family life, she and her husband have been married for a long time. “I met him just drinking at a house party. We meet in 2007. Got married in 2008. We dated for three weeks before we got engaged. And then we just got married six months after that. Everyone was like, ‘Jeni’s drunk and she’s making poor decisions again,’ and they were like, ‘They’ll be divorced in no time,’ but we’ve been married for 15 years. So we’re riding it out. We beat almost all those friends who were like, ‘You’re not gonna make it.’
“We were long distance while we were married, for a long time,” Jeni said. “He was in AIT (Army training) for a long time, different schools before they sent him to Belgium. Our first duty station was Belgium. And I remember feeling kind of nervous because we hadn’t lived together in so long and I wasn’t sure how it would be anymore. You know what I mean? It’s like moving in with a stranger.” She laughed. “So I was like, ‘Are we gonna get along? Are we gonna hate each other?’ ‘cause we barely knew each other when we got married, so …. We were just winging it. We were playing chicken. We were playing a game of chicken and it’s going 15 years now.
Of course, they have made it. “I’m very stubborn. I think I’m right all the time. Not with the general population, but I come from a long line of people who’ve been right their whole fucking lives. Honestly I’ve never been in a room with so many right people as my family in particular.” But she explains that her husband is easy going. He defuses. They balance each other out.
“Now he works at the Space Center—he’s an electrical mechanic for a contracting company out of Alaska. He’s actually from Alaska. That’s something interesting about him. He’s an Alaskan. Put that in there.”
“Take a Flintstones vitamin and pray”
Jeni is daring in so many ways that I was interested to hear about her anxiety. “I hate flying,” she said. “I fucking hate it. Ever since (I had) the kids ‘cause I’m like if I plummet, they’ll have no mother. Or if they’re with me, worse yet, I put them on the plane. The flight of their death. So I can’t like …. I don’t like planes. I don’t like space. And I don’t like the deep sea.
“All those things give me massive anxiety. I probably powerlift to exhaust myself so my anxiety can be calm, you know? I’m just raw-dogging life. And I’m just raw-dogging my anxiety. I don’t take anything for it. I just live. I take a Flintstones vitamin and I just pray that I’ll have a calm day.”
It gets worse as she gets older. She told me about her new unfounded anxiety of being trapped beneath an overpass. “I’m trying to not pull under it and the car behind me is like, ‘What the fuck is this lady doin’?’ but I’m like, ‘Well, we can stay out here, guy. The light’s red, anyway.’
She told me how she had to fly back to the US from Belgium to get her daughter medical treatment. She flew pregnant and after the first leg of the trip, she had intended on renting a car to travel the rest of the way, but her parents said, “Just get on the plane, just get on the plane! You’ll be here in two frickin’ hours.” She did. And though she flew and told herself she’d never do it again, she did do it again for her friends when they needed her. “I took two Xanax and drank a margarita and I was awake the whole flight.”
The flight where she traveled with her children, Jeni was returning to the US for her oldest daughter to receive medical treatment. Her daughter was born with velopharyngeal insufficiency which caused problems with her speech. After they came back to the US, Jeni stayed here with the children while her husband was still overseas. Her daughter, once getting the surgery, had very little rehab to work through. A lot of children who have been unable to communicate “properly” become frustrated, closed off; they deal with self-esteem issues. Her daughter eased into speaking right after the surgery without any emotional delays. “I could always understand what she said,” Jeni said, so her daughter didn’t experience what other children often do.
Her second daughter was a healthy baby, but her third child, her son, was born with pancreatic insufficiency. His pancreas doesn’t make enzymes to break down nutrients. Usually, this issue is attached to a larger disease, so for a while, Jeni was terrified. “I thought I was going to lose my baby.” Eventually she discovered that the medical problem is a standalone issue and not as a result of disease. Her son is able to gain weight now without medication. All of her children are thriving.
I didn’t know if Jeni works out some of these things in the weight room as other lifters might. Searching for the narrative about using pain to build, etc., Jeni returned to other people. Others who have been there for her in the community. She told me about her training partner Kaleigh, how they both won best lifter at their last meet. She told me about Jen Hazzard reaching out to support her through an injury. She spoke about other people and, in doing the telling, told much more about who she is as a person, as a friend, a fellow lifter.
“The community in powerlifting is great,” Jeni said. “People have gone out of their way to help me, to be nice. It’s a nice community to be in. I love that at my gym, there are always people there. The Full Send Initiative is based out of there. Thanks to The Barbell Viking, Kyle O'Leary, we’re all professional spotters so we all help each other out.” Like other lifters who have helped her find her way, she wants to pass on the idea that all women have the ability to be strong. “I mean, I didn’t start until the age of 40.”
But, of course, there are challenges. During her last prep, she had been pulling 352 lb singles easily, then the next week, “when I pulled 358 lbs I was pissing myself.” That rocked her confidence for a little while, but she ended up pulling 374 lbs in June at the Miami Fit Expo. “I can’t say I’ve ever left a meet not feeling like I did it all. I leave every meet and I feel like I did so great. Every time I get into the car, I’m like, ‘Wow this is a great feeling. I did all I could do.’”
About whether or not she’s ever cried after a lift, she said, “At last year’s Battle of the Bay, that squat, I victory cried. I was so happy the squats were done. My whole peak they felt terrible. Every week I felt weaker and weaker. I was thrilled when they were done. Thank God that it’s over.”
About her most proud moment, she said, “I had a 13-second, 391-lb pull. I didn’t lock it out. I was so close. You can see me look at the judges like, ‘Am I far enough?’ Hips were an inch away. And I should have been sad about that—but I was like, ‘That’s dedication.’
“The first time you figure out how to grind it out—it’s huge. When I figured out I can do that—that was a cool moment.
“I figured out I am this person.
“Even on a miss, holy shit. Then you got your video, you watch it 40 times like the sad narcissist you are. Who can I show this video to? Because 75% of the people interested in this aren’t interested in this at all.”
“I’ve found my thing”
Others do take notice and interest. Jeni was taken on as a sponsored athlete for Sisters of Iron. Susie Aranda, the founder, had reached out to her because she had been impressed with Jeni’s positive support shown to so many other lifters.
I asked Jeni what powerlifting means to her. “I’ve come into my own. I’ve found my thing. My sport. Something I am legitimately happy about. Not overanalyzing myself anymore—be thinner. Every sport before this I could never be thin enough. Every sport before this that was what I was focused on instead of how much can I squat.” She went further, “And I looked way older being lean in CrossFit. Now that I’ve fattened up, I’ve filled up my face. I look so youthful. I look like a submaster at best.”
When Jeni spoke about her life, I could not help but see it through the lens of being a mother who powerlifts. To have experienced so many things and take them as part and parcel with the responsibilities of motherhood, or any person who comes to the weights, to not wear these things as martyrdom or ego-boosting, to speak so easy about them as though they didn’t burden her showed me more about Jeni’s hardness than any heartbreak tale that seeks pity without earning it. She doesn’t want pity. And she doesn’t believe that she is doing anything special—and that’s exactly why she is so very special. Jeni’s hard as fuck. Jeni, the Italian Gallion, straight-sitter, the beam through which others cast their highest selves.
Jeni's goals by the age of 45 are to hit a 391-lb wrapped squat, a 192-lb bench, and a 402-lb deadlift. She will be competing at Battle of the Bay in February 2023.