Powerlifter Charlie Phillips gears up for Medal Run
Amid the roar of the crowd and the music, Charlie Phillips takes the stage. Grasping almost a quarter-ton of weight between his hands, the 26-year-old straightens his legs and rises on the cheers as if carried on a cloud. The only thing bigger than the plates on his barbell is the smile on his face.
Doctors once thought Charlie would never walk. In June, he’ll test his strength on the world stage representing Team USA at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Berlin. Two decades ago, many doubted this outcome, but there’s never been a doubt in Charlie’s mind.
“Right now, I’m just sticking with the program,” Charlie says of his training schedule for the Summer Games. “I’m treating every day like it’s a competition, but this opportunity is once in a lifetime.”
Charlie was born with incorrectly positioned organs and hypotonia, a condition in which his muscles lacked tone. The future powerlifter spent his early years in and out of hospitals undergoing a total of 21 surgeries and medical procedures. Doctors suggested increasing his physical and occupational therapy, convinced he would ultimately require a wheelchair for mobility. For eight hours a week, Charlie’s mother, Tina Schoonmaker, and his therapist worked with the 4-year-old boy on basic movements.
“He was so floppy, he was like a little doll,” Tina recalls, “and then overnight it was just like something clicked in his head. One day he pulled himself up, the next thing we see him scooting across the table and when we went to the doctor, Charlie walked for him. It was a sheer miracle.”
That innate determination is what took Charlie to the USA Games in track and field at age 11 — less than six months after he joined Special Olympics Pennsylvania. Bullied by classmates and unable to play his favorite sports with other kids his age, Charlie found an environment where his winning personality and boundless energy would thrive. He stuck with the program when his family moved to Oklahoma and eventually Savannah, Missouri, participating in track, speedskating, basketball, soccer and flag football. He continues to show his appreciation for the organization by volunteering as an athlete leader for the Special Olympics Missouri North Area Office and as an ambassador for the Polar Plunge.
When Charlie takes the platform in Berlin this summer, it will mark almost eight years since he discovered the sport entirely by accident. When a Fall Classic competition at Villanova University was postponed due to lightning, Charlie and his dad, Ray, happened upon the gym where the powerlifting competition was being held. The young athlete was transfixed, instantly curious about the sport. When he became old enough to compete at the age of 18, he was determined to be the best he could.
“He’s really hungry to do a goob job,” says Charlie’s trainer JP Price, powerlifter, strongman and co-owner of Strong Barbell Club in Kansas City. “There are ups and downs in lifting: There are some that go great and others that don’t, but he handles it well and always has a positive attitude. He’s a very uplifting person.”
Powerlifting is a specific class of weightlifting in which competitors are given three attempts each at squat, bench press and deadlift. Lifters compete individually in each and for the overall high score.
Among the three, Charlie doesn’t hesitate to name his favorite. “Deadlift,” Charlie says. “That’s the heaviest I can pull.” His personal records, as of this writing, are 501 pounds on the deadlift, a bench press of 292 pounds and squatting 410 pounds. He hopes to top those numbers in order to reach the podium in Germany.
Any weightlifter knows all the iron in the world doesn’t count if it isn’t moved with proper form. Competitive powerlifting isn’t judged on sheer weight alone. Multiple points of movement and timing must be perfected, and JP says Charlie excels at following the referee’s commands.
“Everybody has hobbies, and it’s really rare for a Special Olympian to find lifting as a full-time hobby,” JP says. “Charlie’s one of the few that has made it part of his lifestyle, and like anybody who has made fitness part of their life it’s a positive thing that he enjoys and, in my opinion, it’s really good for him.”
Competing in powerlifting organizations outside of Special Olympics, Charlie has not only improved his raw talent but also made friends with other athletes from around the world and inspired many newcomers to the sport. No doubt all of them will be cheering him on this summer.
“At powerlifting meets you’ve got music on, you’ve got fog machines, you’ve got people cheering you on — it’s so much fun,” Charlie says. “I’m competing with other people, but mentally I’m competing against myself and that’s very good because I do more than I think I can.”
All that’s left for Charlie between now and when he takes the platform in Germany is to stay focused, stay hungry and, most importantly, be himself.
“We’re very grateful for everything he does. We can’t believe everything he does,” Tina says. “I never dreamed it was possible, but he always dreamed it was possible.
“He has some pretty lofty goals,” she adds, and the grin passes from her to her son.
“My goal is to get all four gold medals,” Charlie says. “I can’t believe I’m going to represent our country, but this is the dream that I always had, and the dream came true.”
For more information on Special Olympics Missouri, visit www.somo.org. Charlie Phillips can be reached by email at email@example.com.