Sue Gunther’s Unexpected Journey

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By, Pam Teel

Millstone resident, Sue Gunther, never thought she would ever fulfill her dream of becoming an accomplished athlete, especially not at her age.  For a woman in her heyday, being athletic didn’t get you as far as the sport related opportunities that were open to men. There just wasn’t much offered. Sue, happily, settled into her role as wife, mother, grandmother, store owner (Old Monmouth Candies, Freehold), but as years went by, deep in her soul, there was an unfulfilled part of her life that kept nagging away at her.

At this point in time, she felt in her heart that the window for her ever being recognized as an athlete had closed; so she thought. As the saying goes, never say never. If you asked her two years ago if she ever thought that she would be going to Poland, in August of this year, to compete in a Masters Olympic Weightlifting competition, even she would say that sounded crazy. But life sometimes takes us on unexpected journeys, and this is Sue’s journey in her own words:

“Who am I? I am that girl who just might have been born before her time. Born when girls did not play sports, they wore dresses. But I had two big brothers that I tried very hard to keep up with. I had a dad who was a four-letter man in Freehold High School, and I had a Pee Wee Reese uniform that I wore to my brothers’ Little League games.

 I was that girl that went to the YMCA on Saturday mornings to play girls basketball. By the way, at that point in time, girls’ basketball teams had six players, three forwards and three defense. You could only dribble twice before passing the ball. Only one forward player, the Rover, could cross the centerline and dribble more than twice. And yes, I was the Rover. On Saturday afternoons, I attended Miss Curly’s Etiquette Class. Guess which I preferred best!

 I was that girl who played in a slow pitch softball co-ed church league in middle school. Every night, after dinner, my dad took me outside to practice pitching. It paid off, we won a lot of games. There were not many High School athletic choices for girls in my day- so I was that girl who became a cheerleader.

Fast Forward- I am that woman, married to my high school sweetheart, Hal, for fifty -six years. I am the mother to six wonderful children and grandmother to eleven beautiful grandchildren. I am that woman who had participated in various and sundry sports and activities throughout my adult life and had loved every minute of it. Eventually I settled on tennis, which I played competitively for a number of years.  This is where the plot thickens, because tennis was actually the catalyst in my becoming a weightlifter.

 The year- 2018. I began training with Patrick Manturi, a Sports Specialist Trainer, at the Centrestate Fitness Center. I was training with him to improve my tennis game. It worked. I was becoming stronger. Patrick noticed and one day asked me if I wanted to lift heavy things? My answer, “Well, I guess so.” And so, it began. At first very slowly and very gradually, and then, it hit the pause button because of Covid.

Toward the end of 2021, I was actually training for my first Olympic Weightlifting competition. Olympic weightlifting consists of two specific lifts: The first- The Snatch, which is one movement that brings the barbell from the floor to over your head. The second- The Clean Jerk- which is a two-part lift. The first movement brings the barbell to your shoulders, the second takes it overhead.

 In any given competition, the lifter has three opportunities to make at least one qualifying lift in each of the two lifts, as per the discretion of the three judges. At least two of the three judges must consider it a good lift.

2022- My first competition at a local event in January was designed to introduce me to the competitive platform and familiarize me with being judged. This was the official beginning of my unexpected journey.  Two additional competitions that year and then the North American open Series in Calgary Canada in September took my journey to the National level.

In weightlifting, you compete in categories designated by age and weight that create a level playing field. In open Series competitions, all ages can potentially qualify and compete. From the age of thirty-five to infinity. One can also compete in Masters weightlifting competitions.

2023- In March, I entered my first Masters National Weightlifting Championship in Valley Forge, Pa.  Overall- silver.

I am now training at Marble Weightlifting in Freehold with Coach Joe Coszena. I have found a place where I belong and I can continue on this amazing journey.

May-I competed in the Masters Pan American Weightlifting Championship in Orlando, Florida- overall- silver. Which brings us to present time- August. Masters World Weightlifting Championship in Wieliczka, Poland where 56 countries and 1000 athletes will compete.

Weightlifting has afforded me opportunities, not only to compete athletically, but also to travel places never before on my radar, and to meet people who share my challenges and goals. I have worked hard and have experienced a great deal of growth on many levels. As my team mate Marcy told me, “You have earned the right to be on that platform. Trust that your body knows what to do.”

Couch Joe keeps on telling me to be aggressive, to stop thinking so much and to trust in myself. He reminds me that I have come a long way in such a short time and that I have the ability to go further. Be Patient, he keeps telling me. (“I’m trying coach, I’m trying!)

I have learned a lot from this unexpected journey, but the truth is, I am still learning- every single day. This has been one of the most gratifying things I have ever done because I am constantly being challenged, and I alone must rise to that challenge. I have discovered a sense of accomplishment in a place I would never have thought to look. I have learned that no window is ever truly closed as long as you can see through it to the other side. I am positive proof that it is never too late to try something new, go after those opportunities, believe in yourself, your abilities, and your strength, and most of all, relish in the sense of pride in what you have accomplished.

It is an honor to compete in Poland for Team USA. I wear my USA uniform with much pride as I represent my country, my family, my coach, my teammates to the very best of my abilities. And so, it seems, my unexpected Journey continues.

P.S. Maybe, just maybe, I was born at the right time!

Poland aftermath-My Unexpected Journey has reached new heights! Poland opened my eyes to a new level of possibility, potential, experience, and achievement. I am a better person for having visited Poland. For experiencing and learning more about its culture, the people, its language, (very difficult!), its treasures, and also the tragedies that are forged deep within its soil, and ingrained in its very soul. It is a beautiful country whose history has impacted the world. Coach Joe sent me off to Poland with these words, “Trust in what you have been training to do. Stay focused. Friday is the day the weights are afraid of YOU! I am excited for you! Let’s go! Be aggressive!”

I was on my own in Poland. And, at first, that was a bit scary. But I soon learned that the Masters Weightlifting community is all embracing. I began meeting lifters from other states and from other countries as they arrived for the competition. Recognizing my concerns, as well as my apparent stress, so many of these “strangers” offered to help me, to coach me, to guide me through this, my first World Masters Championship. And soon, very soon, the “strangers” became…friends! Their support was overwhelming, and I am forever grateful. I know that these friendships are lasting friendships!

Friday, August 18th. Competition Day! Together, 88 -year-old Bill Despard from Scotland (many times over a World Champion and Silver medalist in this competition!) and Marc Lado from South Carolina (also a silver medalist in this competition,) coached me through the six lifts that ultimately landed me on the 1st Place podium! As our National Anthem played, I was filled with an indescribable and overwhelming sense of pride. I was proud, so very proud, to have the honor of representing my country!

So, what does the future hold? No one is ever privy to that information because it is unknown. But I have come away from this experience highly motivated. I intend to use that energy to move forward, to get stronger, to get better. And so I say…

“Stay tuned! I am not finished!”

Sue Gunther