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caption: Paula Houston
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Paula Houston
Credit: Paula Houston

These 'little old lady athletes' built an outdoor gym

Gyms in Washington state are slowly reopening, but these weight lifters figured out another solution.

Voices of the Pandemic is our series where people share their stories, in their own words, about the time of COVID-19... and life in lockdown.

Paula Houston, of Seattle, is a champion weightlifter in her 50s. During the pandemic, she and her lifting buddies, who call themselves the Little Old Lady Athletes, had to find a way to stay in shape and stay safe at the same time.

That's because, without being able to lift they were starting to feel really anxious.

"I

love being strong. And it's not just the physical strength that comes from it. There's really an emotional strength and a mental strength that comes from it because you have to prepare yourself mentally to try to pull two or three times your body weight off the ground.

When the pandemic started, it took away our ability to lift in the way that we had been: at the gym, with my community, with my coach. And I could just feel the stress in my body building up. And so that's why I knew we needed to do something.

We were texting among our teammates, trying to decide what we were going to do. And we were all sending each other videos of the makeshift workouts we were doing: Somebody, you know, hanging a bar, trying to do pull-ups in their home. And so finally, someone said, "You know what, we're gonna be doing this long term, why don't we figure out a way to have a gym?"

We decided there would be five of us plus our coach. We all wear masks and we're outside.

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After she and her friends finish lifting, they must take apart their outdoor gym - every day. That's because the concrete backyard where they exercise is also a driveway where her friend's son parks his car.
Credit: Paula Houston

You walk up and we've got two tents. You've probably seen these tents: They're the ones that people use at festivals and fairs. And so now they have these little Velcro sides that we put up, depending on which way the wind is blowing and the rain is coming in, so that we're not soaking wet.

But all of this stuff is rusting out, because we're out there in all of the elements. We've been squatting in puddles and mud. And we've become really adept at using WD-40 to minimize the rust.

When it started getting cold, we got propane heaters, and now we have heated jackets that we're all wearing. And we're just making it work.

One thing I've learned about myself is: Things that I thought mattered just really don't matter.

You know, I tend to be a little bit of a creature of habit. And I had to just learn how to break those habits, if I wanted to still do it.

I don't have to be as obsessive about how my gym is set up, and what weights I'm using, and how it looks, and what clothes I'm wearing in the gym.

I've learned what's important is that I'm healthy, I'm able to stay with people who are healthy, I'm still able to stay strong and do what I need to keep myself well and focus on my well being.

caption: Paula Houston
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Paula Houston
Credit: Paula Houston

Paula Houston has won multiple weightlifting championships in various age categories, including national and international championships, and has been inducted into the Women's Powerlifting Hall of Fame.

When she's not lifting weights, she leads the Office of Healthcare Equity at University of Washington Medicine. She also holds the title of Associate Vice President of Medical Affairs for the UW.

This story includes music by Ezzy and Londau, licensed via MusicBed. The Voices of the Pandemic theme song was composed by Alec Cowan. This story was produced and sound-designed by Joshua McNichols.

Have you learned something about yourself during the pandemic? Do you have a good story to share about how you learned what you learned? Share your story with reporter Joshua McNichols at jmcnichols@kuow.org.