When the coronavirus swept across the state in mid-March, people everywhere wondered how they could stay in shape as gyms and fitness centers were ordered to close to contain the outbreak.
One family from Flemington decided to make their own gym — and their quest to stay fit turned into an unexpected passion: Powerlifting.
The Rayl family, including Gregory Sr., Nancy, and their son Gregory Jr., each broke state records for deadlifting, squatting, bench pressing and a combination of all three at the United States Powerlifting Association (USPA) Drug Tested Muscle Mine Classic, held in Westminster, Maryland on Nov. 7.
Gregory Sr. also broke the national record for squatting.
He deadlifted 375 pounds, bench-pressed 225 pounds and squatted 337 pounds; Nancy deadlifted 100 pounds, bench-pressed 95 pounds and squatted 95 pounds; and Gregory Jr. deadlifted 370 pounds, benched 170 pounds and squatted 285 pounds.
All three family members broke records within their respective divisions and age groups.
Gregory Sr., 56, said the family’s powerlifting was so formidable that they surpassed records in both the drug-tested and non-drug-tested divisions of the competition.
“We’re drug free and we’re natural power lifters, so we’re going to be in drug-tested competitions. But because our totals were so high, we actually beat the people who do take those things, so that was a plus,” the father said.
But, setting new milestones in powerlifting has not been a long-term goal of the Rayls’. When they first set up their own gymnasium in their 3,600 square foot basement, their singular objective was to avoid gaining what Gregory Sr. and Nancy referred to as a “COVID stomach.”
“We decided that we were going to work out,” Gregory Sr. said. “My wife works from home, I work with NASCAR — which closed down too — and for Gregory Jr. school was all-virtual — so we’re just sitting around and we’re like, ‘We’re going to have to do something, or we’re going to get these big old bellies on us.’”
While the Rayls already owned some weight-lifting equipment used by 15-year-old Gregory Jr., who plays football at North Hunterdon Regional High School in Annandale, they gathered extra equipment and weights to create a full-fledged gymnasium.
“It is a work in progress, and we are constantly looking to upgrade the equipment,” Gregory Sr. said. “We bought a competition bench press a couple of days ago because we’re getting to more weights to where our little home gym type of bench can’t handle that type of weight.”
The family began to exercise in their self-made gymnasium on an almost daily basis.
“We work out pretty much every day, though every now and then we get lazy and take a day off,” Gregory Sr. said.
“Immediately after football practice, I’ll work out — Monday through Friday, every week, pretty much guaranteed,” Gregory Jr. said. “I do squats, and benchpress, and deadlift.”
Nancy, a 50-year-old marketing project manager for Verizon who works roughly 12-hour-long workdays, said their at-home gymnasium enabled her to follow a regular exercise routine that her career had previously made difficult to establish.
“To be able to try to factor in a little bit of personal health was a struggle, so that’s why having a gym onsite really helped me with that,” Nancy said. “So that way I can then log off of work, go downstairs and put in a good workout, and finish the night with family, and go to bed and start all over again.
Over time, the family realized they weren’t simply retaining their muscle, but building it.
“We started training hard just to stay in shape and build muscle and have fun, and we got into it more and more because we were locked down for so long, that … we said, ‘Wow, we’re doing pretty good here on our strength. Let’s push ourselves and go for a competition,’” Gregory Sr. said.
Together, the Rayls competed and excelled in the powerlifting competition held earlier this month. But, they’re determined not to allow their accomplishments to end there.
The Rayls intend to compete in the Drug Tested USPA National Championships in Palm Springs, California this July, as well as the Drug Tested International Powerlifting League (IPL) Worlds in Germany.
And they will not enter these competitions complacent with the records they’ve already broken.
“I’m going to set the world records and be prepared to increase those world records when we go to Germany,” Gregory said.
Bobby Bowlin, the director of the United States Powerlifting Association (USPA) Drug Tested Muscle Mine Classic, emphasized his support for the dedication of individuals like the Rayls to the sport of powerlifting.
“We’re glad everybody’s still supporting the United States Powerlifting Association with all the craziness going on with (COVID-19), and that everyone is doing what they can to stat safe and stay healthy,” Bowlin said.
The Rayls’ discovery of their passion for powerlifting because of the pandemic is likely a phenomenon singular to their own family. Nonetheless, they expressed their hope that others who hear their story may feel inspired to discover and chase their own forms of happiness.
“I think people started to get a little depressed and stuck at home, and so we took a different attitude of, ‘Hey, let’s turn this into a good thing for us. Let’s not be bored at home. Let’s not sit in front of the TV,’” Gregory said. “So when this all does blow over, we’re going to be right back to the norm, and we have to get acclimated back to the way it used to be, we’re raring to go.”
“In the middle of a challenge, the pandemic, you can look for opportunities in anything in life. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel — you just have to find it,” Nancy said. “And we found our little niche, and we were able to capitalize and make it worth it for our personal work and life balance.”
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Caroline Fassett may be reached at [email protected].