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Ita (pronounced EE tah) Pantilat can bench press almost twice her weight. She considers a brisk hour walk to and from the gym a nice way to warm up and cool down in preparation for benching and dead lifting hundreds of pounds. If she’s training for competition and finds she’s hungry, she drinks water. There doesn’t seem to be an undisciplined strand of DNA in her body.

I, on the other hand, can bench press roughly the weight of a Jack Russell terrier. I consider a brisk walk outdoors to be an inconvenient but necessary way to get back indoors. And when I’m training to write another column and I find I’m hungry, I eat cheese. Discipline is totally lacking in my DNA.

But I know there are things I can learn from the 63 year old Pantilat. She’s a fierce, mighty, intense grandmother of four, born in Siberia, raised in Israel, an athlete and gymnast since early childhood. She married young, moved to Indiana with her husband so he could train as a runner in Bloomington, then landed with him in the Pacific Northwest, where he coached track and field before going into financial planning. They raised a family, and between her job as a registered nurse and the needs of her children, she stopped regular exercise.

Then came the merciless brain tumor a fast moving glioblastoma that would take her husband Nathaniel’s life three months after he was diagnosed in 2001. Her daughters were grown and gone; her son was on the verge of leaving for college. And so Pantilat had time on her hands. She joined a gym.

“I never did weight lifting, but from gymnastics you develop a strong upper body,” Pantilat says. “And somehow, I liked it. I liked to lift the weights.”

She started with bodybuilding, but that didn’t do it for her. What did: Olympic style weight lifting. She holds a world record for her age and weight class in benching (she took that honor at age 55), and world records for the snatch and the clean and jerk,
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too. She weighed 123 pounds when she benched 242. and moved to Pacific Grove from Washington last July to be closer to her daughter, Talli van Sunder, owner of In Stride Physical Therapy, and van Sunder’s two children. Pantilat’s other daughter, Karen Rasmussen, is a naturopath in Washington. Her son Leor, an attorney and competitive trail runner, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pantilat’s knee is bugging her a little, but it doesn’t keep her from working out like a beast. I had an hour long conversation with her, and here are some things I learned.

1. But attacking it comes through practice.

“I go to the weights and I don’t have any doubts that I can’t do it,” Pantilat says. “But that confidence comes from training. I’m just standing and my mind doesn’t think about it. I’m thinking technique. I think about the weights.”

2. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Everyone’s busy. But everyone still has to do certain things like breathing and eating.

“I didn’t exercise for many years when I had the kids and work,” she says. “But I feel better, so I do it. If it’s part of your daily routine, you continue. You can be surprised at how much your body can do.”

3. It’s not necessarily how much you lift, but how you lift it. Weights are like life it doesn’t matter how strong you are if you can’t lift it (or, in the case of life, carry it) the right way.

“The more heavier you lift, the more your body gets used to it. It gets mentally easier,” she says. “But Olympic lifting is about the technique. Technique and speed and weight. You have to have control of your body.”

4. Everyone is carrying their own weight. Sometimes that weight is emotional, and sometimes it’s physical. Pantilat lost her husband when they were in their early 50s, then lost her father and sister just a few years ago. She tweaked her knee at a competition in September and is still working through the pain.
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