Before a cluster of judges and spectators at the USA Powerlifting Maryland Championship in May, 8-year-old Kensington Darby Maizels stepped out from behind a blue tarp wall and ducked under a 104.74-pound weight.
The diminutive figure, dressed in a pink T-shirt, a tabby cat leotard and rainbow socks, plucked her pigtail braids out so that they wouldn’t get caught before crouching into a well-formed powerlifting stance.
“The cat singlet’s the best. She’s so small, everyone loves her,” said her brother, Tyler, 19. “Even if there’s someone else out there, everyone’s watching her.”
The 55-pound Kensie, with the bar atop her shoulders, took a few steps back before sinking low, and then hoisted a weight double her own high into the air to meet a chorus of cheers. A stone-faced competitor before the crowd, she withheld her usual bursting smile that lights up her training hall.
With her 104.74 pounds, Kensie razed state and national records, becoming the youngest and lightest girl to back-squat over 100 pounds in competition.
She then snapped the national dead-lift record (132.2 pounds) for girls in the 30-kilogram weight class, as well as the mark for total kilograms, setting it after her bench-press performance at 122.5 kilograms, or 270 pounds.
“She’s unrelenting. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said her father and coach, Dr. Patrick Maizels.
A veterinarian and internationally decorated powerlifter himself, Maizels is owner and head trainer of Maizels Training Hall at the Hereford Zone, a garage extension off his family home in Parkton. Kensie, the fourth child of six, had been training as an Olympic-style weightlifter since she was a toddler. Only then, instead of a hefty bar adorned with weight plates, she squat holding a broomstick.
“There’s technique you have to learn first,” said her father.
Before she could even form memories, the love of lifting came for Kensie as it had for her older brothers and her father and mother, Patricia.
“I had her in here six days after birth, and she was always attached to either Mom or Dad,” Patricia said. “When she was a year old, she was doing chin-ups [on the equipment]. She’d swing around, put her legs in an L. She’d be doing pullups. What kid does that?”
Said Kensie simply, “It’s fun.”
She learned to dead-lift before she learned to swim.
Her parents, who record hundreds of videos of their lifters for their YouTube channel, taped their grinning 3-year-old daughter, wearing a strawberry print dress, springing over a 50-pound iron, picking it up effortlessly, and setting it down.
“I like it. I always have,” she said.
Kensie began consistently training with weights around age 4, setting Olympic weightlifting records in her age group for all three events, but made the switch to powerlifting after three years.
“I saw something in her that I saw in her mom. There’s incredible strength,” said her father. “With little effort, she was moving with national-record-type weights and she was doing it for 10 reps. Ten reps! You only have to do it once in competition.”
The moment Kensie was age-eligible to enroll with USA Powerlifting, she signed up, on the evening of her eighth birthday, Dec. 24 of last year. She entered her first powerlifting competition in January in Virginia, where she back-squatted 72 pounds and dead-lifted 110.
In the months leading up to the Maryland competition, the Parkton native practiced her record-setting weights for competition, though her father knew that, if he asked, she could have increased the load.
“I was conservative with her,” he said. “We could have asked her to do more, but I didn’t want to push it.”
Kensie herself acknowledges that she’s reached points on occasion at which she needs to dial back.
“But then I’ll practice different until I get it,” she said.
Matt Gary, chairman of the coaching committee for USAPL, has decades of national and international powerlifting experience — and even he had to hand it to the tiny lifter he was judging last weekend.
“I thought, ‘Hey this is cool,’ ” he said. “That was my primary reaction.
“It’s impressive if you frame it in the context of what it is.”
Despite her skinny build, Gary wasn’t concerned with the great burden Kensie chose to carry. As a youth, she was required to lift “raw,” or without any accoutrements that older powerlifters might don to compress their bodies and lift more.
“I’m not going to say there isn’t a competitive aspect, but the focus is much more firmly placed on fun and learning the lifts,” Gary explained. “I think it’s appropriate that you’re not pushing the kids to the absolute physical limit.”
As youth powerlifting takes off, blog posts and articles sprinkle the internet debating the safety of kids as young as Kensie lifting. But, according to Gary, there is no one limit for any one child.
“That’s a question germane to the individual. It’s hard to throw out a blanket statement to say this is what’s safe and this is what’s unsafe,” he said. “As long as the form and integrity around the range of motion is upheld, and you can tell you’re not unnecessarily stressing the kid, then I think it’s pragmatic.”
Medical researchers who specialize in child weight training generally agree on the matter, conducting dozens of studies over several decades and continents to find that the worries over children stunting their growth or seriously injuring themselves aren’t justified..
Dr. Disa Hatfield, the chair of kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island and a three-time USAPL national champion, wrote her corresponding opinion in a newsletter back in 2003.
“My stance is the same,” she said in an email in May. “Since then, there has been even more evidence that resistance training in children is safe, as long as good form and proper training protocols are followed.”
The next competition Kensie is preparing for isn’t until the fall, but she and her father are already mapping out the next stage.
“Once an athlete peaks for competition, they break back down and do more volume work,” Patrick said. “Since she just claimed a national record, we’re gonna take out the bench press and better her records in the back squat, the dead lift, and the total. Unifying all of them under her name, nationally.”
“We’ll try,” said Kensie, giggling.
Walking in the footsteps of record-breaking powerlifters in the family has fueled Kensie to clear every member of her family’s marks.
“She can have them,” said Tyler, who has trained at LSU Shreveport. “I hope she beats them. If anyone’s going to get them, it should be her.”
She’s followed the path of her 12 year-old brother, Brixton, who has broken a handful of Tyler’s records. Brixton, competing in the 38-kilogram weight class, reached the medal podium at the USA Weightlifting Youth Nationals for the third consecutive year June 25, while Tyler topped the junior age division (under 21 years) in the 85-kilogram class at the USA Weightlifting American Series 2, held in Valley Forge, Pa., last weekend.
“Birthing order is important. Brixton has Tyler as a target, so it’s no surprise to me that every record Tyler’s laid down, Brixton’s broken it,” said her father. “[Kensie] is on a mission. At her age, and as a girl, she’s easily surpassed what her brothers did.”
In 2012, Patricia set a Maryland raw record of 315 pounds in the squat and a national mark of 152 pounds, also raw.
“I’m hoping she’ll bypass me. That’s my goal. Get my numbers up high so my children will take me out,” she said. “[Kensie], inevitably, is going to take me out, and she’s going to take the boys out, too.”
But where Kensie has set her ceiling is far beyond that.
“Higher and higher,” she said. “As high as I can.”