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Patsy O’Keefe squats, her feet hip-width apart, and firmly grasps the barbell on the ground with white-chalked hands. She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes for a moment of inner meditation, then in a fluid motion stands tall and hoists the weighted barbell over her head with the grace of a ballerina.

She holds the barbell over her 5-foot-4-inch body until her elbows are straight, breaks into a broad grin and drops it to the ground.

Not bad for a 74-year-old who took up the sport four years ago and now competes in Olympics weightlifting.

“I’m the oldest female lifter right now in the United States that competes,” O’Keefe says. “I just went to a meet in Seattle a week ago and I was the oldest by two years.”

Her coach, Mike Casey, is proud of O’Keefe, who works out at Bullet Gym in Missoula three times a week. She adds two more days a few weeks before a competition.

“Lots of people lift when they’re young. Patsy didn’t lift until she was 70,” Casey said. “When a coach sees someone come in with her mobility and no injuries, you can see the potential.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations on how Olympic lifting saved her from falling off a trail or slipping on ice. If you use it you can keep your balance going rather than resigning yourself to sitting in a rocking chair.”

More women are getting involved in Olympic weightlifting, with their numbers doubling since 2014. Its popularity often is attributed to CrossFit, a workout that incorporates weightlifting into the exercises.

Casey is quick to add that it’s not about how much weight a person can lift, but how well both the mind and the body are in control.

“Strength is a backup,” Casey said. “I told her from the beginning that at 70-plus, no one expects you to lift a lot of weight, but you can make it look good. There’s really a lot of drama going on with each lift. It’s pretty exciting.”

O’Keefe always has had an active lifestyle, starting with downhill skiing at age 10. Since age 50 she’s regularly worked out with a trainer, and was a runner until arthritis in a knee slowed her down.

She started training with Casey in September 2015, and went to her first meet in January of 2016 — and promptly fell while on the platform. Not to be deterred, she added more weight on the bar and focused on her form.

"I never thought of myself as a competitor, but at this sport at my age, I'm competing against myself," O'Keefe said. "It's just fun to see how much better I can do a lift."

O’Keefe and Casey encourage women of all shapes and sizes to try the sport. Studies show that Olympic weightlifting increases lean body mass and reduces body fat. It’s a full-body workout for the back, arms and shoulders, as well as the abs, legs and butt. And as women age, they have an increased risk of osteoporosis; Olympic weightlifting helps increase bone density.

“Women age 60 and up come in all sorts of body shapes,” O’Keefe said. “They don’t all look like me, but they’re out there doing this and doing it well.”

O’Keefe said the weightlifting and competing transformed her life and transfers to everyday activities.

“There’s no magic pill, and aging is aging,” O’Keefe said. “But when I stand on a chair to get the linens down, I could feel I was using my Olympic muscles, my training muscles in my knees and hips so I didn’t fall.

"I want people to know that there's life after your 60th birthday, and this really is fun. In the beginning I had to go home and rest after my workout, but now I go across the street and get coffee.."

Casey clearly enjoys working with O'Keefe, and noted that while they started out with lighter weights, she's increased the amount she lifts over time.

"Don't let her fool you," Casey says, laughing. "She can dead lift 135 pounds."

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