Chisato DuBose, 54, and Sachie, 18, train together as competitive powerlifting and bodybuilding athletes. Next weekend, the mother-daughter tandem will compete at the AAU World Powerlifting Championships in Las Vegas.

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When mother-daughter duo Chisato and Sachie DuBose butt heads, as mothers and daughters often do, they know exactly what it’ll take to cool off and put their argument behind them: They go to the gym together.

Chisato, 54, and Sachie, 18, train together as competitive powerlifting and bodybuilding athletes. Next weekend, the mother-daughter tandem will compete at the AAU World Powerlifting Championships in Las Vegas.

On most days, you can find the DuBoses at Columbia City Fitness Center, the training grounds for their elite lifting team headed by powerlifting legend Bull Stewart. When they aren’t training, Chisato and Sachie work the front desk, offer training or nutritional tips to fellow gym-dwellers, or cheer on their teammates.

Chisato and Sachie have spent countless hours training in that basement gym on South Jackson Street, surrounded by barbells, weight plates and clouds of chalk dust.

They say the intense workouts they go through have brought them together, changed the way they look at themselves, and even – in Chisato’s case – helped battle crippling pain.

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Taking the plunge

When Chisato looks at her daughter Sachie, she sees a lot of herself, including her inclination to rebel.

Her inner rebel drove Chisato, who is originally from Japan, to become a bodybuilder despite the many factors working against her: She was in her late 40s, a busy single mother of five and had a host of health issues that could make strength training unfeasible.

Chisato has fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes widespread pain and tenderness, and chronic fatigue syndrome. At their worst, the conditions can leave her practically immobile. Following a flare-up of fibromyalgia during her first winter in Seattle in 2010, Chisato decided that her next step was to get back into the gym and strengthen herself physically.

While Chisato has always loved to lift, bodybuilding was her introduction into the world of strength sport competition.

Powerlifting and bodybuilding are strength sports, but that’s where the similarities end.

While powerlifters compete in three events – the squat, bench press and deadlift – bodybuilders are judged off their muscular yet aesthetic physiques. Chisato competes in the bikini division in which judges look for  a toned hourglass figure rather than extreme definition.  Chisato says bikini athletes must have balanced and proportional bodies without too much muscle, proper stage presentation and an attractive appearance.

Chisato was initially drawn to bodybuilding when she saw an ad for a show featuring famous bodybuilder Tanji Johnson.

“I came across this lady with an amazing physique,” Chisato said. “And I just fell in love with her.”

It didn’t matter to Chisato that she couldn’t find many examples of high-level athletes who had chronic pain conditions. She decided to try bodybuilding anyway, for herself and for her kids. As a single mother, they needed her to be healthy. Getting stronger physically was one way to ensure that.

“We (as mothers) definitely have strength somewhere inside of here, more than the physical,” Chisato said, pointing to her chest. “(When) that and the physical connect together, we can do some amazing stuff, in the gym, or in a competition, or in life, period.”

Six years since her first competition and many first-place finishes later, Chisato is a World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF) master bikini pro athlete, and she hasn’t had a serious recurrence of her fibromyalgia since 2010.

Young Sachie watched closely as her mother dove into the world of strength sports. Before Chisato knew it, Sachie had not only followed in her footsteps but surpassed her strength.

Sometime after the DuBoses moved to Seattle from southern California, Chisato found an Olympic barbell at Goodwill and brought it home so that she could practice deadlifts. She forbade Sachie, who was 11, from touching the equipment because she didn’t want the child to hurt herself.

Ever the rebel, and wanting to emulate her mom, Sachie picked it up anyway one day when Chisato was out. And she did it easily even though it was loaded with 155 pounds.

Sachie even invited friends over and, begging them not to tell her mom, showed them what she could do with the barbell. But her friends weren’t able to replicate her lifts.

“That’s when I knew, ‘Oh, I think I’m kind of strong,’ ” Sachie recalled.

Sachie Dubose, 17, trains at Columbia City Fitness Center on South Jackson Street in Seattle. Dubose is a three-time, world-champion power lifter. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Sachie Dubose, 17, trains at Columbia City Fitness Center on South Jackson Street in Seattle. Dubose is a three-time, world-champion power lifter. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Sachie began seriously training for powerlifting when she was 13 and joined Bull Stewart’s team the following year. Under Stewart’s guidance, lifting helped Sachie navigate through adolescent insecurities that were exacerbated by her peers scorning her for attending an alternative school. Lifting boosted her confidence and helped her learn to tune out the noise.

“I needed an outlet at the time,” Sachie said. And it still is: “Coming here and lifting is my outlet.”

By 13, Sachie could deadlift 265 pounds. At 16, she could deadlift 407 pounds. She estimates that most female lifters her age deadlift 135 pounds, with the better ones managing about 235 pounds.

At 18, Sachie is a graduate of Albert Talley Senior High School and a three-time AAU world powerlifting champion.

MORE | South of Seattle, a weightlifting prodigy has his sights on Tokyo 2020 »

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Empowered through sport

These days, bodybuilding is Chisato’s main sport, while powerlifting is Sachie’s. Each sport has distinct training techniques, dietary requirements and peak performance times, which makes switching between the two – as the DuBoses do – fairly rare, and extremely difficult.

Since Chisato’s first powerlifting competition in 2016, she has become a two-time powerlifting world champion.

Inspired by her mother, Sachie picked up bodybuilding earlier this year and wants to pursue a sports modeling career.

Chisato DuBose, 54, and her daughter Sachie DuBose, 18, at Columbia City Fitness Center. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Chisato DuBose, 54, and her daughter Sachie DuBose, 18, at Columbia City Fitness Center. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“Other people would say it’s not a good idea to do both because the one’s aiming for physical aesthetic, so we try to get as lean as we can to show muscle, and the other is about peaking strength,” Chisato said. “So that’s not going to go together.”

Chisato and Sachie aren’t fazed by the difficulties that come with embracing bodybuilding and powerlifting.

It helps that, whether navigating the difficulties of balancing both sports or just getting through a tough day at the gym, they each know exactly what the other is going through, and they can talk each other through it.

“It’s something we can share, not only at a mom-daughter level. We come in the gym, and we’re all in the same level athlete,” Chisato said. “It’s something we’re both learning. We’re growing together.”

The mother-daughter tandem want to inspire others to forge their own paths in fitness – Chisato through holistic nutrition and Sachie through personal training.

Their experiences have taught them that exploring one’s potential through fitness and well-being can be incredibly empowering – especially for women, who, they say, are often told that strength and athleticism are reserved for men.

Chisato remembers a time when, instilled with the values of a “chauvinistic, male-dominant (Japanese) society” of her youth, she too questioned whether women should have muscles and look strong. While her perspective has shifted as she’s embraced strength sports, she recognizes that Japanese and American societies have a ways to go.

Chisato and Sachie have gotten their share of odd looks from others in the gym watching as they work out. They’ve had people come up to them and ask why they’re lifting so much weight, and why they want to look like men. Sometimes they get rude comments over social media.

Yet, they’ve learned not to internalize that negativity. They see it as a product of ego or ignorance and perhaps even fear.

“People are afraid of a woman’s potential, of what we can do,” Sachie said. “Because we can do a whole lot.”

Sometimes, too, women don’t recognize their own potential, Chisato says: That they can become master bikini pro athletes in their 50s like herself or world-champion powerlifters in their teens like Sachie; that they can excel in multiple sports or whatever activity fulfills them; that they can persist through personal adversity to achieve the lives they want.

“All women have abilities already born with them,” Chisato said.

“We just have to tap into it,” Sachie finished.