Her Power Comes From Within

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our “Get Out, Enjoy Life” series. 
From two weeks to live to three world championships and more national titles that she can count, Jeanne Wilson of Birmingham, Alabama, inspires everyone she meets.

Jeanne Wilson reels them in with her smile and strength!

Living life means not how you enter the world, but rather how you leave it and the impact you’ve made on others while here.  When Jeanne and Jennifer Wilson, twins born 37-years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, came into the world Jennifer had a normal birth.  But Jeanne had spina bifida, a result from the failure of her spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy.

“The doctors told me that more than likely, Jeanne wouldn’t live more than two weeks,” Jeanne’s mother, Jean, remembers. 

As time would prove, Jeanne Wilson not only survived but prevailed.  She developed an indomitable spirit that caused her to want more out of life than to just endure.  Jeanne knew that if she could find her talent and her sport, she could push her body to its limits.

A Legacy of Athletic Greatness Continues
Sports always have played a major role in the Wilsons’ lives.  Jeanne’s dad, Jerry Wilson, a world-class athlete, played high school varsity football and baseball, which earned him a full football scholarship to Auburn University, where he played tight end.  In 1957 and 1958, the Southeastern Conference selected Jerry Wilson as an All-Conference tight end.  Also in 1958, the sporting community chose Jerry Wilson as a college All-American.  After playing two years for the Philadelphia Eagles and another for the San Francisco 49ers, Wilson went into active service with his national guard unit for two years.  Afterwards he played football for four years in the Canadian Football League.

Jeanne lifts some serious weight, and makes it look easy.

Because of the intrinsic values and feelings of accomplishment Jerry Wilson learned while playing sports, he felt that sports would help his daughter Jeanne overcome her disability.  According to Jerry Wilson, “I first got Jeanne started weight training when she was in the seventh grade to hopefully prevent the curvature of her spine.”

Jerry Wilson also encouraged Jeanne to participate in wheelchair sports, since he’d knew from his own experiences that competition would bring out the best in an individual. Jerry Wilson realized that the qualities of hard work, dedication to purpose, the ability to use the strength of mind to overcome body and the thrill of winning all had the ability to produce greatness.

At first Jeanne Wilson competed in her wheelchair in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and then threw the shot put and the javelin and eventually, swam.  To build up her strength for the shot put and the javelin events, Jerry intensified Jeanne’s weight-training program.

“When Jeanne started weight training, I saw that she had a tremendous work ethic and was exceptionally strong,” Wilson recalls.

Prior to 1989, weight-lifting competitions didn’t allow women wheelchair athletes to participate.  Therefore Jeanne put on exhibitions to demonstrate her lifting ability.  

In 1989, Jeanne entered the first trials for the World Wheelchair Games women’s class weight-lifting contest.  Jeanne not only made the team, but also became the first woman to win the World Wheelchair Games in the women’s class and the first female wheelchair athlete to compete in weight lifting for the United States on an international level.  Most athletes would consider one world’s championship a huge accomplishment, but Jeanne loved to compete so much that she went on to win two more World Championships and too many state, regional and national weight-lifting championships to count.

The Wilson family never set out to travel the world for Jeanne’s competitions.  However, as she won events and qualified for more tournaments, the Wilsons determined that they would accompany Jeanne and enable her to go as far as she could in her chosen sport of weight lifting. In her first world competition, competing in the 60-kilo class, Jeanne bench pressed 121 pounds and won the gold medal.

Jeanne has been known to lift more than 5000 pounds over the course of one workout.

“We’ve been to England, France, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia as well as all over this country taking Jeanne to weight-lifting competitions,” Jerry Wilson comments.

Jeanne’s Workout Regimen
Jeanne trains three days a week at the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama. As Jerry Wilson reports, “During a typical workout that will last from 45-minutes to an hour, Jeanne will usually press a total of 5,570 pounds.”

By adding up the number of repetitions that Jeanne does with each set of weights and the amount of weight on each bar for each repetition, you quickly can see how she lifts 5,570 pounds in an average workout, a phenomenal feat, even for most men.

“She starts off with light weights and continues to add weights to the bar to gain strength and power,” Jerry Wilson comments.

Jeanne thrives on competition.  She loves to match her mental abilities and her strength and power against the heavy load of barbells over her chest.  However, Jeanne doesn’t enjoy one aspect of training.  “I can’t have any sweets when I’m training for a competition, and I really love them.”

Like any world-class athlete, Jeanne follows a strict, high-protein diet when preparing for a competition because she has to build strength and power and keep her weight low enough to compete at the lower-weight classes.

Jeanne Wilson is a champion in every way.

“But when the competition’s over, I’ll have my junk food again,” Jeanne observes with a laugh.  “Although I work hard and like to compete and win awards, the best part is meeting so many different people from this country and from around the world that I never would have had the opportunity to meet otherwise.”

Jeanne’s Future
Who would believe that a newborn baby with spina bifida and only given two weeks to live would strive one day to represent the United States in the Paralympic Games?  Jeanne Wilson and her family discovered a purpose, dreamed of a plan for her life,  had the courage to chase after that dream and achieved her goal.

Courage, hard work, dedication to purpose and a belief system that’s stronger than her muscles have powered Jeanne Wilson to a platform where she can speak to the world.  Jeanne Wilson reminds us of Eric Liddle’s thoughts in “Chariots of Fire” when asked where his power came from, and Liddle answered, “from within.” 

About the Author
John E. Phillips is a freelance writer from Birmingham, Alabama, who writes for several outdoor magazines, including “Alabama Whitetail and Bass,” “Southern Sporting Journal,” “Louisiana Sportsman,” and “Saltwater Sportsman.”  See more of John’s outdoor adventures at http://www.nighthawkpublications.com.

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