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Powerlifters compete in Special Olympics USA Games

The Daily Inter Lake - 7/4/2018

July 04--Print Article

The barbell was loaded with four plates on each side, creating a setup so large it was almost comical.

A staggering 405 pounds sat on the ground before Sylvester Vermillion. He stepped up to the platform, bent his knees, gripped the bar and pulled.


His face contorted with effort as he rose to standing position, moving the bar smoothly up his legs like a knife through butter.

"Down," his coaches barked out after he reached a full, upright position and he lowered the weight to the floor inside The Wave fitness center in Whitefish.

This week, Vermillion hopes to make that deadlift again with even more weight added at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games held in Seattle from July 1-6. The last time Montana sent a powerlifter to nationals was in 2006, and in the sport's history, they've never sent two in the same year. Joining Vermillion in Seattle is 18-year-old Chandler Krahn representing the Charlo Vikings.

Vermillion's story isn't just about rising to the top -- it's about pursuing excellence in the face of adversity.

The journey to the podium has been an uphill battle. He fights against his own mind every single day. Concentration is hard and so is being in a crowd -- and both are components of competitive lifting.

Vermillion lives with a cocktail of disorders: autism, severe depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder, the latter which he said was caused by "something that happened to me when I was small."

But despite his challenges, Vermillion pushes on.

He is a single father of two -- Sylvester, 15, and Lakotah, 14, who also battle anxiety and depression, along with a genetic disorder known as fragile X syndrome.

Quitting simply isn't an option.

The only way to go is up. The question now is: How high will he rise?

Vermillion came to Montana more than five years ago from Neosho, Missouri.

There he worked at a furniture warehouse where part of his job entailed moving 200 pound boxes, sometimes stacking them three-high and pushing them on a dolly.

"I've always been big, but I never thought I was that strong," he said. "I didn't have a lot of confidence. Back then I would get down on myself if I failed at something."

But his confidence began to build after he found out about adult Special Olympics teams and joined the Kalispell Krushers. It was a coach on that team who encouraged Vermillion to give powerlifting a try.

"After the first practice, I saw what I could do and I kind of surprised myself," Vermillion said.

Pursuing the sport meant switching teams, so he moved over to the Whitefish Thunder under the tutelage of head powerlifting coach Mark Kuhr and assistant coach Rock Henderson.

He works out with his team two to three days a week and another couple days on his own at Iron Fitness in Columbia Falls. Vermillion's anxiety makes it difficult for him to be in crowded environments, so he'll often head to the gym around 4:30 a.m. so he can lift undisturbed and before his two kids wake up.

"I still get kinda self-conscious about people staring at me when I'm working out. I kinda feel like they're saying stuff under their breath which they might not be, just with my disabilities, that's what it does," he said. "I'm usually the only one there. I turn the lights on, I go downstairs and start lifting."

And lift, he can.

At the Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games in Great Falls, Vermillion squatted 407 pounds, benched 230 pounds and deadlifted -- his favorite of the three movements -- a whopping 430 pounds.

His goal for nationals however is to beat himself.

Vermillion knows he's capable of more.

In practice, he's squatted and deadlifted 500 pounds.

It's just a matter of putting it all together in a meet setting.

While lifting helps Vermillion manage his disorder, the anxiety manifests in the form of nervous, repetitive behaviors. On competition day, you might see him moving his hands, pacing the floor or listening to music on his headphones to help channel his focus.

"He is focused on doing the best he can do at nationals so when he comes back, he can show the rest of the nation that Montana does have powerlifters and we do know what we're doing," coach Kuhr said. "He has the desire and the heart that most athletes only dream about. Maybe some our professional athletes could take a page out of his playbook."

Kuhr is impressed with Vermillion's steadfastness and commitment.

"It's one thing to be able to be number one in your weight group and go be able to qualify for a special event like the USA nationals. It's another thing to do it basically all on their own," Kuhr explained.

His children won't be able to accompany Vermillion to Seattle, but he hopes that they can still learn from his journey.

"I always tell them you can do anything you want as long as you put your mind to it," he said.

And Vermillion is living proof.

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or

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