GROTON — They lifted weights.

And each other’s spirits.

Strongmen and strongwomen emerged from COVID-19 hibernation to compete in the USPA Drug Tested Kingdom Classic at the Groton Town Building on Saturday.

Event organizer Stephanie Bennett said the Kingdom Classic showcased athletes who have persevered during a challenging year, when fitness facilities were closed and home gym products were in short supply.

“These people had to deal with the COVID restrictions,” said Bennett, noting her own experience. “I built my own squat rack out of upcycled wood because I couldn’t go to the gym. And I filled Tidy Cats containers with rocks to squat with because I didn’t have weights and they were being sold out. And I know these people did things like that too.”

The Kingdom Classic drew 20 entries from Vermont, Massachusetts and New York. They flexed their muscle in three disciplines (squat, bench, and dead-lift) during the five-hour event.

The power lifters ranged in age from teenagers to septuagenarians.

The youngest entry, 15-year-old Andrew MacGray, and two oldest, 75-year-old Pamela Hull and 76-year-old Barbara DeAngelis, each set multiple national records in their age and weight categories.

They competed wearing masks in front of an enthusiastic crowd, which was also masked.

“All of these people knew what the restrictions were for COVID. The out-of-staters knew about self-quarantining, all of that. From what I saw everybody was really, really respectful [of Vermont COVID guidelines],” Bennett said.

A few Kingdom Classic participants were relative newcomers to the sport, Bennett noted.

“Some of the lifters didn’t even start lifting until COVID hit. Some of them lost their ‘something,’ whatever that was, and had to find ‘something else’,” she said.

One of those newcomers was 20-year-old Gabriello Lewis of Burlington.

A bodybuilder since high school, Lewis returned from college during COVID and was introduced to power lifting in August.

“I’m always hungry for new experiences, different types of competitions. So I wanted to check it out. I trained nine weeks and entered a meet at [Burlington gym] Lift VT in October. I did well and I got hooked,” he said.

He called power lifting — and events like the Kingdom Classic — a godsend during the pandemic.

“These are such incredibly crazy and absurd times for a lot of people And for us to be lucky enough to retain some sense of normalcy in our lives, and being able to come to these competitions and see our friends, it’s really been a lifesaver,” he said, adding, “It gives me a purpose. I still have to watch my diet, I still have to make sure I am hitting the gym — whether it’s going for a run or doing push-ups or lifting weights. It keeps me clear and focused.”

Danielle Phillips was named the top women’s competitor at the Kingdom Classic.

The 32-year-old from Burlington said power lifting can be a lonely sport, particularly over the past year, and she appreciated the opportunity to perform in front of an audience.

“For me the sport of power lifting is mostly about the training. It’s day in day out, it’s not always glamorous or fun,” she said, contrasting that with the high energy of the Kingdom Classic. “This is such a fun and encouraging environment, and you can usually eke out a few more pounds on your lifts with the adrenaline. It’s really cool to see everyone’s training come to fruition during the meets.”

The Kingdom Classic was punctuated by cheers, congratulations, embraces, fist-pumping and shouts of support.

In some ways, the competition was secondary, Lewis said.

“These meets are about community. It’s all about coming out and showing people how you have done, and supporting people in what they’ve done. There’s no real competition amongst other people in this sport. It’s really competing against yourself,” he said. “Everyone is cheering you on, even if they’re in the same weight class as you. Everybody is psyched for you every time you set a new record, whether it be national, state, or a PR. It’s just such good camaraderie.”

Bennett called it an “all-inclusive sport like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”

That spirit extends beyond the weight racks. Saturday’s event raised $150 towards Umbrella, a non-profit that provides domestic violence assistance to Northeast Kingdom residents.

Umbrella provided Bennett and her teenage son with shelter and support services during what she called “an unsafe situation” two years ago. She thanked those at Saturday’s event for their generosity.

“Who would’ve thought that a bunch of strong ass power lifters would be donating to a domestic violence group?,” she said, adding, “The power lifting community is altruistic, passionate, motivated and they have heart, heart, heart.”

For more information on Umbrella visit www.umbrellanek.org.

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