ST. PAUL — Nestled in the corner of a barn that houses a family’s fleet of tractors and a combine is a makeshift weight room. Lacking any bells and whistles, a single weight bench and limited equipment has produced Gennie Vitt, a 16-year-old in rural St. Paul who has become the best youth powerlifter in Kansas.
On Sunday before Memorial Day, Gennie competed in the High School and Teen National Championships in Aurora, Colorado. The competition was put on by USA Powerlifting, the country’s governing body for the sport.
There, Gennie won the national title in the Women’s Raw High School Varsity division, the loudest and latest accomplishment for a girl who has quietly established herself over the last two years.
Gennie’s traipse through the ranks of powerlifting in Kansas began before she entered high school. As an eighth grader, she committed herself to the St. Paul weightlifting program put on by the school’s football coach, Keith Wiatrak.
“I always went with my brothers and try to get more people to go,” Gennie said. “I liked being able to show that I could do anything a guy could do. I just like to show that we’re more equal than everybody thinks.”
“I never wanted to be looked upon as weak.”
Wiatrak immediately took notice of Gennie.
“Keith said that she was out-lifting half the football team so she needed to really look at this,” said Dan Vitt, Gennie’s father.
That’s when the Vitt family reached out to Pittsburg State strength coach Matt Nelson.
“They reached out and asked if I was interested in helping,” Nelson said. “We talked about what she wanted to do. We started working out before COVID hit.”
Over the next year, Nelson coordinated with Gennie and Dan to create eight-week programs that could be completed in that barn weight room.
“With powerlifting at a young age, you don’t need a lot of gimmicks,” Nelson said. “You just need a bar and some weights and you can get pretty strong.”
Nelson also coached Gennie on technique to tap into her potential.
“She already had a really good base of strength,” Nelson said. “And her form was pretty dang good. We just changed a few things here and there. She’s got really good leverage and great mobility.”
Gennie’s first powerlifting competition as a freshman was at Wellington High School and was governed by the Kansas Football Coaches Association — powerlifting is not sanctioned by the Kansas High School Activities Association, so most high school meets in the state are run by the KFBCA.
“It’s gotten way more popular,” Dan said. “Because it’s not governed by KSHSAA, that’s why you’re able to go to all different types of meets.”
Lifters compete in three events at powerlifting competitions, traditionally squat, bench press and deadlift. Power clean is occasionally substituted for deadlift.
The total weight lifted in the three events are added up to determine the winner.
In Wellington, Gennie won her weight class for her first victory on a list that’s grown astronomically.
“I thought it was cool that I won it,” Gennie said. “That made me think I could do something with this and keep getting better.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, Gennie’s powerlifting career was essentially put on hold until December.
In early December, Gennie branched out from school sponsored competition to participate in her first solo meet — the Kansas State Championship hosted by USA Powerlifting, in Wichita.
“With COVID going on, we only had a few meets to go to, and so much was canceled,” Dan said. “But she was still wanting to lift. So we looked at every option we could. We looked at different federations.”
Gennie elevated herself once again at the state championship, earning first place in the Female Raw Teen 2 division.
“I didn’t know what to expect considering it was a different federation,” Gennie said. “It wasn’t as big and scary as I thought it would be. But it was a lot different. There were so many rules as to what you could wear and what you could compete with. It’s very structured and rule-oriented.”
Her showing in Wichita qualified her for nationals in Colorado.
A few months later, St. Paul sent a delegation of lifters on April 23 to compete in the Kansas Eight-Man Football Association’s state powerlifting competition in Central Plains.
“Talking to my dad before state, one of my goals was to set records that would never be broken again,” Gennie said. “I might move up a weight class one day. So my goal was to set a high enough record that would never be touched in that weight class again.”
Competing in the girls’ 140-pound weight class, Gennie set KEMFA state records in all three lifts.
She lifted 170 pounds in the bench press, 350 in squat and 190 in power clean. She also set the combined lift record of 710 pounds.
“We took three girls, including myself, and two boys,” Gennie said. “It was everybody’s first powerlifting meet besides me. I was glad they call came because we’re trying to build a program at St. Paul.”
A month later, the Vitt family made the trip to Colorado for nationals. There, Gennie tallied 390 kilograms (nearly 860 pounds) over her three lifts, earning her a national title in the Women’s Raw High School Varsity division and a second-place finish in the Teen II division in the 69 kilogram weight class.
The St. Paul native competing against girls from the likes of Florida, Texas and New Jersey was one of four lifters from Kansas that competed at nationals in Aurora.
She was the lone one to win a national title. All three of her lifts in Colorado set Kansas Teen II records and her squat of 162.5 kilograms set a national record.
“It’s still all very new,” Gennie said. “I’ve competed in different meets, so it feels the same a bit. But it’s still very cool and very surreal to think about. I don’t realize how many people actually compete until people talk to me and I realize what I’ve done.”
That national championship for Gennie was proof positive of her standing as the best lifter in Kansas. She’s one of the best lifters for her age in the country and may be on the precipice of reaching the heights of the sport.
“I would really like to be on Team USA for powerlifting,” Gennie said. “One of the girls at nationals in a different weight class posts on Instagram about all these places she goes for meets. Being able to travel and show people what I could do would be really cool.”
The reception Gennie received from her friends and the St. Paul community, though, will probably weigh heavier than any of the medals around her neck.
A guerilla effort from the community came together virtually overnight for Gennie’s friends to host a parade upon her arrival home. When the Vitt family’s white pickup truck turned into a town on Monday afternoon, nearly 100 people were lined along the streets adorning signs and holding balloons. One person even fired off a firework as Gennie stood up through the sunroof and waved to her fans.
It was also a surprise for Gennie coordinated by her father.
“I was very surprised. I had no clue at all,” Gennie said. “I told my friends that they would make me cry. I have the best support. A whole village. I’m very grateful for all of them.”
Gennie still has two years left of high school and aims keep powerlifting in her longterm plans.
“Not a lot of colleges offer it, but thinking of my future,” Gennie said, “I would like powerlifting to be a part of that.”
One of the nation’s biggest emerging sports, more colleges are offering scholarships for powerlifters. Nelson’s former employer, William Jewell in Liberty, Missouri, is on that list. So is Friends University in Wichita.
“It is becoming more prevalent in colleges to have powerlifting teams,” Nelson said. “They’re popping up more and more. You could go down all kinds of rabbit holes. Maybe she can get her schooling paid for. She could get sponsored. There’s CrossFit. There will be a lot of avenues for her.”
Within 24 hours of Gennie arriving home from nationals to St. Paul, Nelson got an email from the Vitt family requesting yet another eight-week regimen.
“She’s made great progress,” Nelson said. “Her squat is her moneymaker. She’s made great progress in her other lifts as well. It’s up to her. There’s a few things we need to work on. But she’ll keep making gains. The sky is the limit.”
Powerlifting is far from the path most dads imagine for their daughters. But Gennie has raised the bar in an emerging sport more than anybody else in the state.
And its bred a confidence and swagger atypical for most teenage girls.
“Gennie’s done well throughout the year and her career,” Dan said. “Powerlifting isn’t a big sport, but it’s emerging. As a dad, you’re always scared for your daughter. But if God gave you talent, you should use it to the best of your ability. Gennie has this talent.”