Since 2006, Claire Keel has been the announcer at every edition of powerlifting competition at the Special Olympics USA Games. But she's not just there to call names and declare weights, she's an entertainer at heart.

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If you go watch the powerlifting event at the Special Olympics USA Games this week, you’re likely to notice the singsong Southern drawl of the cheerful woman armed with a microphone who’s quarterbacking the show from the officials table on stage.

Sure, powerlifting is technically a sport, not a show, but Special Olympics powerlifting announcer Claire Keel has turned it into entertainment too.

Each time a lifter stepped up to attempt a lift at UW’s Meany Hall for the Performing Arts on Monday, Keel either had a new anecdote about the athlete to regale the audience with, or she simply made up a rousing chant on the fly to cheer them on.

“This is A-LI Riddick from O-hi-o!” Keel declared, before leading the crowd in cheering, “A-LI! A-LI! A-LI!”

When Tennessee’s Eric Wilson came up for his final deadlift attempt: “Eric, if you lift this, your coach has to wear a dress,” Keel called, referencing a tidbit she’d gotten from Wilson’s coach earlier. (Eric made the lift, by the way, to the delight of the audience.)

Each time, Keel got the small crowd riled up, and their rousing cheers as the athletes completed their lifts reverberated through Meany Hall, making it seem much more filled than it actually was, with perhaps a couple hundred spectators watching the event.

Since 2006, Keel, a school psychometrist from Talledega, Ala. has been the powerlifting announcer at all four editions of the Special Olympics USA Games.

“I’m the voice for Special Olympics powerlifting, I guess,” she says, laughing.

Keel married into the sport of powerlifting. Her husband, Billy, was the chief referee on Monday, and he’s also a three-time national powerlifting champion.

“He started coaching and working with regular high school athletes, and then with Special Olympics athletes, and he introduced powerlifting into the school system,” Keel said. “Then he started putting on some meets, and of course he needed help. So I kinda just jumped into it,”

Keel sees her job as part master of ceremonies, part entertainer, and part cheerleader. Before the start of an event, she does a lot of research to learns interesting facts about the athletes who’ll be competing.

For instance, she can tell you that Rhode Island’s Stephenie Kane is very involved in theater in her home state, or that Florida’s C.J. Pantieri is an Orlando Magic fan, “and a 30-year season ticket holder who’s still hangin’ in there with the Magic,” Keel says.

Keel is a certified Category II international powerlifting official who has refereed at a number of USA Powerlifting competitions, but the Special Olympics USA Games is her favorite.

“I like to announce for Special Olympics because it can be more fun,” Keel says. “I like this because everybody’s a winner, and it’s fun. It’s just about celebrating them for what they can do.”

What’s the secret to making a big lift? Get mad

Washington’s Jennifer Goodley started out Monday a bit off her game at the Special Olympics powerlifting competition.

Goodley missed three lifts through her first six attempts at the squat and bench press combined, and she started the deadlift portion of the competition by missing her first attempt at 52.5-kilograms.

Jennifer Goodley of Bremerton sets up for her 52.5 kilogram deadlift in Powerlifting during the Special Olympics USA Games at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall Monday, July 2, 2018.  206816 (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Jennifer Goodley of Bremerton sets up for her 52.5 kilogram deadlift in Powerlifting during the Special Olympics USA Games at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall Monday, July 2, 2018. 206816 (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Then, she honed in her focus thanks to a little help from her friends.

As Goodley took the stage for her second deadlift attempt, a teammate from Goodley’s Adrenalin Athletic Team who was sitting in the front row proudly held up a black jacket with the word “Adrenalin” on the back and waved it at Goodley.

“Put some adrenaline in it,” the teammate hollered.

Goodley obliged, making the lift with a roar of adrenaline.

She was motivated in part by the memory of her powerlifting coach, Al Burton, who recently passed away.

“Coach Al taught me to hold the bar up, and I’m holding the bar when I’m lifting and benching just to see what it feels like so I know it’s not gonna hurt me,” said Goodley, 37. “That’s what coach Al taught me. And he taught me to double-pump when it’s heavy weight. And then I realized what makes me lift heavier is to get mad at something.”

That’s the strategy Goodley, who weighed in at 48.32 kilograms, employed on her third deadlift attempt of 55-kilograms – which she successfully lifted.

So how does she make herself mad?

“Think about someone you don’t like,” Goodley said. “That last time, I thought about Donald Trump. And I did it. That’s what got (the weight) up.”