Bob Lutz

Observers convinced Clearwater lifter has what it takes

We know 19-year-old Shelbie Serpan is strong. She's part of the U.S. Junior National weightlifting team that will compete in Malaysia from June 30-July 8, ranks among the top lifters in her division and is in the process of raising the $2,500 it will take to get to Malaysia.

Serpan, a Clearwater High graduate who spent one year at Neosho County Community College in Parsons, is definitely going places. We're just not sure where, exactly, yet.

This seems to be a woman, according to those in the know, with unlimited potential. She doesn't, apparently, even realize how strong she is yet.

"Other than my mom handing me the pickle jar to get the top off, I really didn't know I was that strong,'' Serpan said. "I have two younger brothers, who are both 14, and I really didn't toss them around.''

Serpan wows people with her powerlifting. She has squatted as much as 425 pounds, benched 245. Now she's concentrating on Olympic lifting, the snatch and the clean and jerk.

"That holds more of an edge for me,'' Serpan said. "You might or might not make each lift you perform. There's a mystery to it because it's so much about technique.''

Serpan is getting stronger, it seems, by the day. She has been Olympic lifting only for about 15 months, but has increased her snatch weight from 65 to 86 kilos (143 to 189 pounds) and her clean and jerk from 90 to 111 kilos (198 to 244 pounds).

She'll spend much of the summer in Albuquerque training with Joaquin Chavez, a strength and conditioning coach at the University of New Mexico who has a private gym. They met when Serpan was competing in junior weightlifting events.

"She's improved so much since she started,'' Chavez said. "Especially with having to work around her school and her track and field (Serpan throws the shot put and discus at Neosho) and not really having a full-time weightlifting coach watching her all the time.''

It wasn't until her track coaches at Clearwater suggested Serpan get on a weights program that she even knew much about the sport. They thought she could throw farther with some added strength, but it wasn't long before Serpan was spending much of her time in the weight room, driven by the curiosity of how strong she could become.

Her dad, Randy, is a 6-foot-6, 350-pound beast of a man, she said, so it's not that big of a surprise that Serpan is doing what she's doing.

"It's a big commitment to get involved in this,'' she said. "You've got to love it to do it because you'd be crazy to do this sport if you didn't love it.''

The physical hurdles of weightlifting are obvious because of the toll it can take on the body. But the mental and emotional facets of lifting have surprised Serpan. There are days when everything goes just right and the weight goes up as if it was made of feathers. Other days, it's difficult to get the bar bell off the ground.

"Olympic weightlifting is such a technically-oriented sport,'' Chavez said. "You can be strong, fast and have shoulder and leg strength, but the key is putting that all together. The bar on the snatch goes up in about a second's time, so you have to make all the movements necessary to get that bar from the floor to overhead.''

Serpan, Chavez said, seems to have the right mental approach to succeed in the sport.

"She's very level-tempered,'' he said. "Which is great. I've worked with her backstage at two national competitions and she's always real cool and real focused. She doesn't get overwhelmed or rattled easily.''

Serpan is transferring to Northern Michigan this fall, she says. Marquette, Mich., is also the site of the U.S. Olympic Education Center weightlifting program.

This girl is serious about this stuff.

"My dream is to get to the Olympics, that's my ultimate goal,'' Serpan said. "If I've gotten this far in just over a year then what can I do in three years?''

That's the question that is driving Serpan. At every meet, people come up to her and tell her how incredible she is and how much more they believe she can accomplish as a weightlifter.

Nobody wants to know how much more she can accomplish than Serpan herself. It's why she's in the gym as much as she is. It's what has transformed her from a typical teenage girl who enjoyed doing all the teenage-girl stuff to this obsessed young woman with Olympic aspirations.

"I'm really excited to work with her down here in New Mexico,'' Chavez said. "We're going to pick it apart and work on all the things that will make her even better. If she puts her heart and mind into this the way I know she can, she could be an Olympian someday. No doubt about it.''