KILLEEN — The Fort Hood Powerlifting Team took home the title of the National Team Champions as 92 current and retired service members from around the world participated in the 2023 USA Powerlifting Military, Police and Fire Fighters National Championships Saturday at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center. Holding special significance during Women’s History Month, this contest had more female military lifters than any other competition in the event’s history.

Johnny Graham, a retired master sergeant and vice president of USA Powerlifting, is the coach of the eight competitors (six active-duty Soldiers and two retired) on the Fort Hood team. A lifelong competitive athlete and eight-time world champion, he founded the team in 1992 and is passionate about mentoring the next generation to be the best they can be in fitness and more importantly, their service to the nation.

“For the Fort Hood team, you are a soldier first, powerlifter second,” Graham emphasized. “I give a letter to everyone who joins the team to let them know they must pass all military responsibilities, physical fitness tests and weapons training, and any Uniform Code of Military Justice actions take them off the team. Everyone trains on their own time after duty hours.”

He expressed his pride in his athletes, including the five team members who qualified for the national championship, but especially the three women who competed. “It’s an honor,” Graham expressed. “My best lifters, pound for pound, are my females.”

For each of these women, their physical strength and pursuit of excellence in fitness translates to their service in uniform and innate drive to be all they can be, even beyond the Army.

1st Lt. Jennylyn Thompson, who qualified for the open nationals from her performance, saw an opportunity to challenge herself through powerlifting ten years ago.

“I set a number to achieve, work hard, and once I succeed, it pushes me to go even further,” Thompson said. “It’s endless. You reach a goal and can keep going.”

Cadet Brittany Hanchett, a former Marine currently preparing to commission as an Army officer through the Green to Gold active-duty option at Texas A&M University - Central Texas, began powerlifting in 2017. Her desire to continually improve carries over beyond fitness. “Honestly just pushing myself to become a better person every day is what drives me inside the sport and outside of this sport -- in the military and my personal life,” she said.

Sgt. 1st Class Larissa Gehring, a member of the Texas National Guard and contractor who works in IT at Fort Hood, began powerlifting six years ago by leaning on a buddy who loved working out.

“Through that time, I’ve had my daughter, went on a deployment, transitioned back from the active-duty lifestyle and moved back to contracting,” she said. “Powerlifting keeps me consistent and makes me better.”

For each of these women, fitness and military service has remained an important part of their life through motherhood.

When introducing Gehring, her coach shared that a few years ago she lifted in the military nationals while she was pregnant and won.

All three described the sense of purpose they feel in “being able to be an example to younger soldiers,” as Gehring stated, and for their children as mothers.

“Powerlifting helps me be better as a mom, to have more energy and show my daughter what it means to be strong and capable, and give her an example of healthy,” Gehring said.

Hanchett, a mother to a ten-year-old son and one-year-old daughter, was inspired to join the Army by watching her brother go through ROTC growing up, then decided to pursue it out of high school.

“I loved the discipline, the camaraderie it provided,” Hanchett said. “I loved the lifestyle, and envisioned myself doing it for a long time.”

Reflecting on Women’s History Month, she shared, “It means being part of the very small percent of women who serve, who have the opportunity to serve alongside my brothers in arms.”

Thompson reiterated what led her into the Army from Guam at a young age as well.

“Everything I’ve done, from the time I enlisted, was always service to others,” she recalled. “Service to people. Service to the community. I’ve always been big on that. And just being part of a team.

“We’re continuing this legacy from the women before us who paved the way,” Thompson continued, “who broke through barriers. As I mentioned before, you can do whatever you set your mind to. Because the women before us accomplished what they did, that’s what created this mindset for me.”