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Jackson Serwa, left, and the rest of the Kasson-Mantorville powerlifting team shout encouragement to Alex McElmury as he tries for a personal best deadlift in practice. Both Serwa and McElmury were among six K-M lifters who on Saturday qualified for the national high school powerlifting championships in Orlando, Fla.

Most Minnesota high school athletes aspire to compete in a state tournament, but some Kasson-Mantorville High School students don't have that option — so they're going to nationals instead.

On Saturday, members of K-M's powerlifting team went to La Crosse, Wis., for a national qualifying competition. Six of them earned berths in the 2016 High School National Powerlifting Championships, to be held March 31-April 3 in Orlando, Fla.

Not bad for a program that didn't officially exist five years ago.

Getting started

Coach Cori Ronnenberg, a physical education teacher at K-M, has been a serious lifter since her days at Winona State University. She first coached powerlifting at Caledonia High school, then brought that passion with her to K-M. And no, she didn't look to the football team or the wrestling squad for her first team of lifters.

"I asked a couple girls in phys ed if they'd like to try a powerlifting meet," Ronnenberg said Thursday as her lifters prepped for Saturday's competition. "About eight years ago I put together a team of 11 girls, and we competed in some of the Wisconsin meets."

Powerlifting isn't sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League, so a club sport was all Ronnenberg could hope for. "I fought and fought to get this recognized as a club sport," she said.

K-M finally opened that door four years ago, and since then the program has attracted a wide variety of students, both male and female.

"We get a few football players and softball players, but I get a lot of non-athletes, the kids who didn't make the basketball team, the football team, the wrestling team," she said. "I like getting kids who have no lifting experience or ability, because we can start them at the beginning with proper training, and they have no bad habits."

Powerlifting is made of up three lifts — bench press, squats and deadlift. The totals from the three lifts are added up, and In Saturday's competition, K-M senior Aaron Vaith, a lineman on the KoMets football team, lifted 1,260 pounds as he qualified for nationals in the 198-pound division.

"When I first started powerlifting, I was doing it to be stronger for football," he said. "But then I got to the point where I liked competing against other people and winning medals, and meeting people from out of state, because we have almost no meets in Minnesota."

Indeed, that's one of the biggest hurdles for Ronnenberg and her lifters. There are only a handful of high schools statewide that have powerlifting programs, so the KoMets must make long road trips to compete. Wisconsin is the usual destination, but she's taken teams to Iowa and Missouri, as well as the now-annual trips to nationals.

Those trips are a big commitment for the lifters and their car-pooling families, but Ronnenberg said it's worked out well. "We're a big family," she said. "The parents all sit together at meets and cheer, and everybody knows we're 'that Minnesota school.' We don't just represent Kasson — we represent the whole state."

A life-changing sport

Alex McElmury, a 123-pound sophomore, is among the KoMets who will represent Minnesota at nationals. He lifted a combined 740 pounds at La Crosse and won the junior varsity division in his weight class.

He said powerlifting has changed his life.

"It's increased my muscle mass and strength incredibly," he said. "I work on a farm, and I've noticed that I can move things a lot easier than I used to. It's just incredible what those three lifts can do for you."

McElmury said he feeds off of the energy of the crowd and his teammates at meets. "We're a team, but it's a personal sport," he said. "In the end, it's just you and the bar, and hitting a personal record is just a great feeling."

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