- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 22, 2015

OXFORD, Ind. (AP) - Amanda Cayton shoulders the barbell off the rack, shuffles back a couple of steps and eases back into her squat.

Cradling more than 200 pounds, the 24-year-old Fowler resident thrusts up to a standing position, then repeats the process. She returns the barbell to its resting place, takes a moment to catch her breath, then looks up with a smile.

“Now what?” she asks, grimacing only slightly when told she must add weight for her next lift.

In many ways Cayton resembles any other young woman. A pink hibiscus tattoo peeks out over the top of her high-top workout shoes. Jason Alden and Big Town are in heavy rotation on her car stereo. Unless she’s on her way to a workout. Then she pops in the mix of Metallica, Pantera and other heavy metal suggested by her Special Olympics coach, David Black.

But Cayton has set herself apart with prowess in the bench press, deadlift and squat - the three lifts involved in the discipline known as powerlifting. On Tuesday she’ll board an airplane for the first time en route to the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.

It’s the culmination of two years of growth for Cayton - not just physically, but socially and intellectually as well. Powerlifting has taken Cayton places neither she nor her coaches ever expected.

“I just stand there with my mouth open going, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” said Juanita Garten, a Benton Central teacher and Special Olympics coach. “Sometimes you never know until you put a student in a situation how they will learn and grow from that.”

One year at the State Games in Terre Haute, Black saw athletes participating in powerlifting and decided to introduce the sport to his Benton Central athletes. Amanda’s younger brother, Eric, and one other athlete took it up.

When the other athlete dropped the sport, Eric needed a new partner. Amanda, who had taken two years of strength training classes at Benton Central before graduating in 2010, wanted to try.

“I just thought it would bring energy back into my life,” said Cayton, formerly a special education student who competed in Special Olympics track and field events. “I was not really motivated. I was down on myself. I needed something else to make me feel more active.

“For a while I was like, ‘No, I can’t do that. I can’t lift the bar. I’m not going to push myself.’ But I did it one day with a spotter on the bench and was like, ‘Wow, this is so easy. I can do more.’ “

Short but strong, Cayton has a natural powerlifter’s physique. With Black’s insistence on solid technique and maximum effort, Cayton quickly began to excel. At her first state games in 2014, Cayton won four gold medals and out lifted all of the other female competitors.

A state Special Olympics official took noticed of Cayton that day. Indiana had been given a spot for a female powerlifter for the 2015 World Games, but with no candidates, was about to give the spot back. The official asked Black if Cayton could deadlift 165 pounds.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ That’s her next-to-last warm-up lift,’ ” Black said.

That triggered a chain of events that led to Cayton’s invitation to Los Angeles. Before defending her four gold medals at last month’s State Games, Cayton was introduced as one of Indiana’s representatives at the World Games.

“You should have heard the room,” Cayton said. “It lit up like fireworks.”

Cayton’s bubbly personality shines through even as Black pushes her through a tough morning workout. Even when expressing doubt at the number of reps requested, she summons a fatigued smile.

Without powerlifting, it’s possible no one would have seen that side of Cayton.

Black, involved with Special Olympics for more than 25 years, said Benton Central has always had a positive attitude toward its special needs students. But its halls are not immune to teasing and other cruelties.

Cayton heard them. As recently as three years ago, she didn’t mingle or make many friends outside of her special needs group.

“I would eat in a room with the other Special Olympics kids, because you get looked at different - you really do,” Cayton said. “You also get talked about, which I had no problem with, but other kids I was hanging around did. They would say inappropriate things that really hurt.”

Thanks to Cayton, those attitudes are changing.

When Cayton finishes her part-time job in the school cafeteria she heads to Black’s seventh period strength training class. The attention she draws in the weight room is not for being different, but for being accomplished. Instead of taunts, she heard encouragement and applause.

“Here you’re talking about kids on the basketball team, the football team,” Garten said. “When she would get ready to do a lift, most would stop what they’re doing and stand and watch her. Or clap, give a high five, ‘Way to go.’

“It’s helped lift her self-image that she’s being respected and admired by high school athletes. It would almost bring tears to your eyes to watch.”

The respect Cayton gained in the weight room created new friendships. When Black walks through the cafeteria, he sees Cayton sitting and talking with athletes and other students who previously might not have interacted with special needs students.

One of them is Bison basketball standout Kaylan Coffman, who said other students appreciate Cayton’s work ethic and outgoing personality.

“She has been a good friend to me for the past two years,” Coffman said. “She’s a lot of fun to be around and always supportive.”

Garten said Cayton’s coaches have no qualms about her cross country trip alone next week. Just a few years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. But she and Black have watched Cayton mature and blossom socially through athletics.

Last month, Cayton served as a mentor to younger athletes at the Special Olympics State Games in Terre Haute. She even stepped up to the podium to deliver the opening oath.

“A year ago, I don’t know if you would have even gotten her on stage,” Black said.

Last week, Cayton spoke at a golf outing fundraiser for Special Olympics in Carmel. She traces the new exuberance and openness in her personality to her powerlifting success.

“I can talk to people and don’t have to keep it in,” Cayton said. “It brought the inner side out of me.

“Now, it’s hard to keep me from talking. Like my coaches say, that’s always a good thing.”

Cayton flies out Tuesday morning for a two-week stay in California. The Benton Central community stepped up to more than cover her expenses. Students at the high school held a lift-a-thon and sold “Bison Barbell” T-shirts that read “Let’s send Amanda to the World Games.” The Benton Review newspaper solicited ads from local businesses for a special two-page spread congratulating Cayton on her accomplishment. It then donated the proceeds from those 32 ads to Cayton.

“This is an opportunity that very few people ever get,” Black said, “and we want to make sure she can do it and do it the right way.”

Cayton is both eager for and anxious about her first airplane trip. She’s most excited to reconnect with the friends she made at the Special Olympics training camp in Indianapolis last fall - and make new ones.

But when the competition begins, Cayton’s focus will lock in. She’s confident she can break her personal best in all three lifts - 145 on the bench, 245on squat,250 in the deadlift. She knows she’s representing Benton County, her country and all of her teammates back home.

“All you’re focused on is you,” Cayton said. “You don’t care what everybody else says. You don’t listen to the crowd. You don’t do anything like that. You just put your game face on and think, ‘What am I going to do to get this up?’”

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Source: Lafayette Journal & Courier, https://on.jconline.com/1CLV8W6

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Information from: Journal and Courier, https://www.jconline.com

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