I loved talking with Jen. As she described what she had to do to compete in powerlifting back when she first started, I recalled how I was often one of only a handful of women in the gym myself. Times were different. If you wanted to know what a word meant, you had to find and open up a dictionary; you took risks looking for places you’ve never been by following a map. When Jen discovered powerlifting in 1998, it was during a time when if she wanted to compete, she had to put in the extra work to even find a meet, train for it, and then hope it wasn’t canceled or changed by the time she’d show up. Seeking and faith were part of the experience.
Thank you, Jen, for sharing your story. Thank you, Sisters of Iron, for being a home to this archive, these stories of powerhouse women.
Jen Thompson saw her first bench press competition when she was on her honeymoon at Venice Beach 25 years ago. Inspired, she started to kick around the idea of competing. She had felt confident since her lifts had surpassed some of the men’s lifts—the guys with whom she’d been training—college roommates and friends who’d convinced her to join them when she was mostly a runner and not a lifter. She ended up marrying one of those guys. “I fell into it,” she said, referring to how she got into powerlifting. I was struck by her language used here, similar to how one might describe something fated. Right after that bench press competition, she and her husband, who would go on to become her coach for over the last 25 years, instantly looked for the next powerlifting competition out of magazines.
The powerlifting competitions Jen Thompson fell into in 1998 was so different than it is now. “It came from where we were lifting in an airport ballroom hotel, and there were like 10 people in there. We couldn't even fill up a weight class of women.” There wasn’t a lifting community through social media showing examples of other women lifting—normalizing this idea that women are in the weight rooms throwing around serious weight. There weren’t videos of women screaming in front of crowds to amp up the energy before squatting a weight that could kill them. Popular culture’s representation of assertive, aggressive women was inseparable from sexiness back then. In 1998, Gwen Stefani raged in lyrics, exposed midriff skin flashing, kicking at the screen. Demi Moore had, the year prior, given us the one-armed push-up, the shaved head, her strong body made seductive in shots of GI Jane. TV and movies didn’t show faces screwed, eyes bulging, veins popping. They certainly didn’t showcase women standing on the bench, screaming in front of a group of onlookers. Without these precedents set before her, Jen was navigating a new trajectory. Powerlifting then and powerlifting now have a lot to do with Jen’s magnitude in the sport.
Jen’s husband began coaching her. A physician, he understood body mechanics and anatomy and physiology in ways that most coaches may not. And they had a closeness not offered by most coach-athlete relationships. “Through trial and error, we were able to figure out a program that worked really well for us. We're just constantly tweaking it. I think we're on version 21 of our program that we create 20 years ago. We just keep kind of alternating and trying new things and adding in different exercises.” Through their partnership and persistence, they have run program after program until they reached the nth degree of understanding about the biomechanics of the Big Three, the mood, the programming, the timing, the stress—all of it. They have explored this vector through lengths not attainable to the same extent in other strength teams.
When I asked how Jen manages her work with her training, she didn’t answer as though the time she spent at work was separate from the sphere she occupied as a lifter. She explained, “I taught math for 20 years, and then the last seven, eight years, I've done a weight training class and nutrition, and then, of course, I have a power lifting club I host after school.” Lifting follows her, whatever shift in direction she takes. “At our school we had a weight-training class, and we had people doing it, but they didn't understand weight training. They were doing like CrossFit and plyometrics, stuff like that. Weightlifting wasn’t really their thing. So they approached me about taking it over. I'm like, yeah, let's go. You know this sounds amazing.”
Jen’s mentorship doesn’t end there. She and her husband coach the Midland University athletes at Nationals each year. I asked if her two sons train with her too. “Periodically, because they're in high school now. They have their own lives, and they have their own cars.” Her sons are proud of her, of course, and their friends are excited about Jen’s powerlifting. They like to tell everyone about it. She said her sons recognize her accomplishments when they are traveling for meets and people approach her for her autograph. “They find that to be a little weird.”
I asked her what it’s like being one of the strongest women in the world.
“I don't think about it a whole lot to be honest with you,” Jen said, “and it is funny because before social media, for breaking records and winning world championships, you'd get a little blurb in Powerlifting U.S.A. magazine. It wasn't so broadcasted as it is now, and so, I don't know. I guess I just don't think about that so much. I'm just enjoying honestly the growth of the sport and the community that we've created.”
Social media has impacted the sport so much. Community bonds and support. Representation of all types of people doing a sport so many love to do. But when I asked her about her mentors, Jen said, “We didn't have access to each other like you do now. When I first started, Bettina Altizer was the number one female powerlifter. And, so, I guess I did look up to her, even though she was my direct competitor. I really liked her because she was just very in your face and was always pushing herself and didn't take crap from anybody. I remember one year when we were weighing in at Bench Worlds, and I can't remember where we were, somewhere in Europe, and they said they couldn't find a female IPF referee to weigh us in. They had a man weigh in the women, which was really uncomfortable. He stood behind us and looked at the scale, but we still had to get naked in front of a strange man. So, the next day when they weighed in the men, she walked right in there and said, ‘I'm doing weigh-ins.’ I just love her because she was very much about equality for women, and there really wasn't a whole lot of it, especially at the international level. It was definitely a man's sport. I looked up to her.” Jen has seen so much change in women’s powerlifting over the course of her time in the sport.
She went on to share some of the strange things that she experienced overseas.
“I was in Hungary,” Jen said. “I want to say it was in 2006, and they wanted the women to do a lingerie walk in between our lifting, and they would judge us on our bikini walk through the venue, and I was like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’”
She phoned the US reps, they stepped in, and that was that. She went on to explain that most of her international competitions were positive experiences. “But there is definitely a distinction, as far as the men were definitely considered the highlight of the competitions, and we were sort of secondary. I feel like in the US, we are always treated more like equals, especially now.”
The distance that powerlifting has grown, especially for women, is because of Jen Thompson and other women like her. She has spent 25 years a natural athlete, an 11-time IPF World Champion, an All-Time World Record Holder. She was inducted into the IPF Hall of Fame in 2019. Jen Thompson’s commitment to powerlifting can be marked in years, measured in pounds, narrated in stories. It can be seen in the relationships she has with her husband and her children, it’s catalogued all over magazines and online sources, it’s passed along to the students of the weightlifting classes she teaches, the athletes she coaches. Her reach is limitless, the magnitude of her impact on powerlifting felt by the women in powerlifting today—who see her energy on the platform as an invitation for them to roar alongside her.
If you'd like to learn from Jen in person, she'll be at the Iron and Stone Tour in Miami, May 27-28. If you're interested in Jen's programming, check out her coaching programs at Thompson's Gym app. To hear more of her insight, check out the Strength Academy podcast she co-hosts with nutritionist Dr. Kristin Lander. Give her a follow on IG and TikTok jenthompson132.