JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. --
At 5 feet 4 inches tall, Staff Sgt. Jennifer Thacker, 811th Security Forces Squadron, Vice Presidential Aircraft Security team leader at Joint Base Andrews, stood in the middle of a large steel frame. The obvious mass on her shoulders – the equivalent of an NFL offensive lineman – looked like it might just be too much for her. The crowd and competitors of Maryland’s 2017 Powerlifting Championship Competition all watched intently. With her feet planted and hands gripping the bar, Thacker took a deep breath, mobilized more than a dozen major and minor muscles, and squatted down. Then, slowly but surely, she began to rise as the applause grew louder.
Years ago, such a feat was unthinkable for the powerlifting state champion. Thacker recalls a particularly chilly autumn day nearly five years ago on the Santiago Canyon College campus in California where she made her way to her final lecture of the day. Acknowledging the steady rise in cost of her education and a longing for a more stable and fulfilling path, she paused to make a phone call that changed her life.
Thacker, who had been grappling with the decision to join the military for a while, told the recruiter on the other end of the line that joining the Air Force would be best choice for her future.
She met with the recruiter a week later, where he explained the application process and checked her measurements.
She weighed 200 pounds, which was 30 pounds over the limit for her height.
“I wasn’t shocked to hear that I had to lose weight,” Thacker said, admitting that compared to her family, she always considered herself ‘big’. “I remember breaking down in tears, not having the slightest clue as to how I'd drop the weight. I didn't know where to start.”
Thacker said she never considered herself unhealthy, noting that she had always maintained an active lifestyle.
“I grew up playing sports and being active, but I never had a grasp on self-control in terms of eating,” Thacker said. “That’s something I still struggle with to this day.”
She was faced with two choices– either work to drop the necessary weight or accept a future without serving in the Air Force.
“When I decide that I’m going to do something, I do it,” Thacker said. “I’ve always been that way.”
With that state of mind, she dedicated herself to losing weight with serving her country as her motivation.
“I didn’t know where to start,” Thacker exclaimed. “I got a gym membership and started doing things. I forced myself to make a complete lifestyle change and dedicated myself to it.”
But the results of her efforts were not coming fast enough for her, so she decided to jump onto quick fix diets.
“I did anything I could do to see fast results,” Thacker said. “Looking back, each quick result diet I tried was extremely unhealthy and I would not recommend them to anyone. In 2013, I weighed in at 132 pounds, the smallest I had ever been in my adult life. I was finally able to enlist in the Air Force, and I truly thought I was happy.”
Although Thacker had achieved her initial goal of losing enough weight to join the Air Force, she admitted she still wasn’t satisfied. She realized she had become obsessed with the numbers on the scale, weighing herself daily, fearing the number would rise.
This mindset would eventually change after she arrived at her first duty station, JBA. It was here, while working out in the base gym, she noticed a group of individuals who’d routinely work out together performing squats, bench press and deadlifts, all with noticeably heavy weights.
After watching their workouts, she became inspired to try their routine herself. Not yet confident enough to attempt the lifts in front of others, Thacker would instead perform them at night when the gym was less busy. Over time, she felt stronger and began focusing less on how much she weighed and more on how strong she was becoming.
Without realizing it, she was powerlifting, a strength sport showcasing the maximum amount of weight a person can lift during squats, bench press and deadlifts.
“Powerlifting gave me a whole new perspective on the idea of being ‘big’ and ‘strong’” Thacker said. ”While my struggles were far from over, I knew I was on the right track.”
With her newfound passion, she sought out other power lifters on base to learn more about the sport.
“I met someone who eventually became my powerlifting coach here at JBA,” Thacker said. “He said he saw something that I didn’t see in myself – natural ability.”
Her new coach insisted she begin training for an event that was only a few months away, the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Inaugural Powerlifting Meet in Arlington, Virginia.
“I didn’t even know powerlifting competitions were a thing, and now I was being asked to be a part of one,” Thacker said. “For a while, I was just lifting and trying to get stronger, but I didn’t have a set goal. Competing would give me a chance to create goals for myself.”
Over the next few months, she dedicated herself to a powerlifting and would go on to take first place in her first-ever competition.
For the next two years, she would go on to find success in each competition she entered, including earning second in her weight class at both the 26th Military National Championships and Drug Tested Free State Open in 2016, and a first place finish in her weight class at the 2017 USA Powerlifting Maryland State Championship. With no plans on stopping anytime soon, she has already begun training for this year’s Maryland Powerlifting State Championship in November with the goal of taking another first place finish.
“My life changed when I found my passion for powerlifting,” Thacker said. “I quickly realized how empowering this sport really is. It makes me feel good by changing the way I view my body. I don’t need to be 115 pounds to be happy. I can be who I am and be strong.”