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Getting a lift in life from lifting weights

The time, Jennifer Buckner believed, was near – time to give up competitive weightlifting.

Her 35th birthday approached. An Albuquerque registered nurse, she had left behind those 12-hour hospital shifts and taken a job as a diabetes clinical manager for Medtronics, a manufacturer of insulin delivery systems. But her new job had its own challenges, among them a significant amount of travel, that made consistent weight training a challenge.

“It was just a struggle that I went through,” Buckner says. “Is it my time to retire, am I getting too old?”

She decided otherwise. One doesn’t throw away 13 years of lifting, she concluded, like a used set of barbells.

USA Weightlifting nationals, after all, were coming up.

“I just told myself, ‘You’re two months out from nationals, you aren’t ready to give up. You need to do this.'”

Then, in July, as she was celebrating that 35th birthday at nationals in Salt Lake City, “I knocked the ball out of the park.”

Competing in the women’s heavyweight division (above 165 pounds), Buckner set a national record for her age group in masters competition with lifts of 194 pounds in the snatch and 242 in the clean-and-jerk. That performance placed her fourth overall and earned her an invitation to train later this month in Colorado Springs with the U.S. team for the 2014 world championships, scheduled for November in Kazakhstan.

She’s not on the national team, she said, but in this case the nomination really is the award.

Buckner is scheduled to leave for Colorado Springs on Oct. 23. But she has a prior engagement, one that’s an equal source of pride. She was to leave today for Grand Rapids, Mich., where she’ll be honored tonight by the National Congress of State Games as that organization’s Female Athlete of the Year.

For this award, it wasn’t so much how much weight Buckner lifted as how often. By her count, she has competed in 15 state-games competitions on four states – eight in New Mexico, three in Colorado, three in Arizona and one in Kansas.

“I like going to the New Mexico Games most of all,” she says, “just because my family lives here, my friends, so people who don’t get to travel with me to see me compete nationally are able to come to the New Mexico Games and they’re able to see what I love to do and why I train so hard.”

Fred Hultberg, the longtime executive director of the New Mexico Games, told Buckner recently that he had nominated her for the national honor. He also told her, she says, “not to get my hopes up because they never select a New Mexico person. And then he calls me … and he said, ‘You’re never gonna believe this, they chose you.’

“It’s just been very exciting and humbling.”

A 1997 La Cueva graduate, Buckner attended Colorado State and was a hammer thrower for the Rams. One day during Christmas break of her senior year at CSU, home for the holidays, was working out at UNM. She fell into a conversation with UNM strength-and-conditioning coach Joaquin Chavez, who asked her about her post-college plans.

When Buckner told Chavez she had no plans to continue throwing, he suggested she try weight lifting. Since that conversation, she has lifted in more than 60 competitions. She continues to train with Chavez in consultation with Alex Lee, with whom she first worked while attending nursing school in Arizona.

Now that she’s passed the masters barrier at age 35, having reconciled her work and her training, she considers weightlifting a lifetime sport.

“I have so much room as an athlete, and the level I compete at, to improve,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be happy where I’m at; I always want to be better.”