To succeed, you often need to spend a lot of time thinking through an action instead of just doing it. During the process of the how?, the what is needed?, to the eventual why?—why am I even doing this thing—the potential action can be talked down, momentum dissipated, desire puffed into interest now disappearing into the air. But there are those who hold on and see the waning interest as not wanting it enough. When it’s wanted bad enough, a way isn’t found—a way is carved through the shit that can afford to give room.
I serendipitously write this article about Amber Hansen during a time when I’m discovering a lot about what powerlifting means to me. It brings me joy to share her story here among other powerhouses. Thank you, Amber, for trusting me to write it, and thank you, Sisters of Iron, for being a home for these voices.
Champion Amber Hansen
By: Janna Moretti
Amber Hansen is my favorite powerlifter. She lifts raw and equipped. She is climbing the highest ranks of both, and she is about to take a world record squat on April 16th. Amber is an Air Force officer, a teacher, a roller skater. She can do a muscle up. She’s wildly funny, embracing corn mania and her dogs’ bodily idiosyncrasies. (Check out her IG stories for reference.) She surrounds herself with the strongest folks around, inviting others to join them. She follows new lifters back on social media regardless of their status or their strength. She doesn’t act like she’s above a motherfucker. And though she may shine her confidence outward around others and under the bar, to herself—she is never strong enough. She is never too good. She’s never satisfied.
“I still see myself as a brand new lifter, and yeah, I’m stronger now, but there’s still so much I don’t know,” Amber says.
How does such a high-profile lifter, a big shot, have humility like this? I don’t know, but after spending some time talking with Amber, I gathered some of significant factors that influence her as a woman, an athlete, and a teammate.
Amber’s first exposure to powerlifting was through her dad. He used to take her to the gym when she was little, and he’d powerlift and she’d do her own thing and not care much for being in the gym or for lifting weights, not back then, anyway. It would be quite some time before she found lifting. But once she got into powerlifting, her dad was excited. He offered a lot of advice. And he still does.
“We’ll butt heads sometimes,” Amber says, “because he’ll say something like ‘back then,’ and I’m like ‘Pops, it’s 2023. It’s way different now.’ But still, he’s a huge part of my life. That’s my dude.” Her father has always supported her. He constantly tells her, “You can do whatever you want to do. Go, do it. You have all these opportunities—you just have to figure out what you want.” She attributes his openness and support to her curiosity about trying so many different sports.
Amber played a lot of different sports growing up. She found powerlifting by way of roller derby in her early 20s. When she was stationed in New Mexico, she wanted to get stronger and faster for roller derby, so she started squatting, benching, and deadlifting. Then when she moved to Dayton, Ohio, she found a barbell gym and started to assemble a crew to train together. Multi-ply lifters, generally, have to train together as a team because of the gear they have to squeeze into and because the weights being lifted are so much heavier than what can be lifted raw.
Being a raw lifter myself, I was curious about the distinctions between raw and geared lifting. Amber explained some of the cultural differences between the groups. Equipped lifting has more history to it. “If you were a raw lifter back in the day, you were the weirdo. But now, equipped lifters are the different ones.” There is a lot of folklore surrounding equipped lifting. It’s grittier. It’s also more of a team sport, because it’s dangerous to do alone. There are still pockets of grungier raw lifters out there too, but for the most part raw lifting is becoming more professionalized. “They are more polished in terms of production value. There are more people, so they have more money on that side.” Raw lifting is also accessible to the lone lifter.
A lot of people approach these different types of lifting with the either/or mentality, but Amber subverts that narrative and whole-heartedly embraces training for both. Lifting raw and geared inform each other. She has to squat deeper when training raw, so she works some of the muscles that have a shorter range of motion in gear. “While the overload is intense in geared lifting, gear is like armor so it’s easier on joints.” Amber can have longer meet preps in gear because her recovery is better. Rotating between raw and geared have added to Amber’s interest and longevity in the sport of powerlifting.
Plus, she surrounds herself with people who inspire her in one way or another. She mentioned Marcus Mucheck, her coach at The Dirty Gym, Dave Tate at EliteFTS, Laura Phelps, Anthony and Val Olivera, and Kate Kolb. “These are freaking amazing human beings.” Amber explained that being surrounded by people who push to the edge inspire. “Jimmy Kolb was at EliteFTS last weekend and he had on his bench shirt and I handed it off and watched him bench 1300 twice. I had the best seat in the house.” She went further: “They teach me stuff every day. They don’t realize it. I should probably tell them more often.”
But how does she fit all of this in with being a Major in the Air Force working at Wright State University campus teaching ROTC student how to prepare for serving in the military? Amber has a lot of flexibility in her job. I asked if her work world collides with the powerlifting world.
“When I’m in a uniform and I’m at work, I flip a switch and I’m Major Hansen. As soon as it comes off, I’m a lifter.”
Still, we discussed how underlying characteristics in a person can govern multiple iterations of the self. Here I think of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, who was characterized as being the same person regardless of the role he was filling at the time. We talked about that. We discussed how what matters even while compartmentalizing and handling business in realms that don’t overlap is consistency in character and not necessarily the tasks that outline the makeup of a particular role. The foundation is what holds it altogether.
Speaking with Amber was motivating. Hearing her love of the sport was motivating. When I asked what powerlifting means to her, she said, “That’s a big question. I want to be able to say all of it. I’ve struggled with things as well, like depression, anxiety, and I’ve gone through nasty breakups, work, deployments, all this stuff. I want to be super honest. This has been the only constant in my life. People have come and gone, relationships, but lifting was always there for me. I know it’s an inadequate object and I’m just lifting weights, but for a lot of people it is a deep connection to themselves, to fitness, and to improving themselves. Simplifying, setting goals, achieving them. It means a lot to me because it’s a way to do that—and to look at the bigger picture of holistic life and health—everything that I learn through lifting can be applied to every other aspect of my life, which is really cool. So it’s like I’m living a mini metaphor … everything is relatable to life through lifting.”
She goes further to honor her space in the legacy of other lifters. “My family is big into lifting. It means so much to me that I can share this with my dad. And also it’s never ending, the quest for improvement on something. Jimmy has this saying … it’s never enough. He’s referring to something like, ‘I just got this big bench PR. What’s next?’ Things are never enough. It’s the mentality that improvement never stops. You can always have better.”
Amber is one of the founders of the Main Event Project, a group of lifters promoting and supporting women in strength sports. They rallied together to initiate change for more weight classes in multiple federations, and they sponsor athletes to compete in high-profile meets. Amber expressed gratitude for her sponsor Anderson Powerlifting who supports her training and competing every step and expense of the way. Amber trains out of The Dirty Gym in Dayton, Ohio, and at EliteFTS. She will be competing at the Women’s Pro/Am hosted by Laura Phelps on April 16th.