Most of us are strong-armed into equating strength with Superman, Batman, He-Man, or, really– any other muscle guy.

“The stereotype is the big dude with the bald head and the goatee,” Jona Leo said.

That is about to change. Someone in a local weight room is pumping up to compete for South Dakota in a big international competition.  It’s not the guy with the goatee, or the other man working on his fitness. In this case, ‘Hercules’ is a ‘her.’  Meet 17-year-old Natalie Richardson.

“This year, I want to deadlift 400 lbs,” Richardson said.

The Lincoln High School senior could very well get there.  She is a two-time powerlifting state champion and has ranked second in the nation. Personal bests include squatting 315 lbs, deadlifting 360 lbs, and benching 170 lbs.  She readily admits she recently tripled that last one. 

“One of my first high school meets, I deadlifted 320 lbs, and I was so excited.  Now I look back and I go, ‘Oh, that’s ok,'”  Richardson said.

By the way, she has only been doing this for two years.

“It’s a big part of my life now. I don’t know what I’d do. I spend hours with it everyday and it helps you mentally and physically,” Richardson said.

In June, this superwoman is flying overseas to compete in the International Powerlifting Federation’s World Open. The event is in Minsk, Belarus.

“And I’m so excited! I get to compete for my country with thousands of amazing lifters. The best in the world,” Richardson said.

Out of eight women competing for the USA, she is the only person from South Dakota going.

“I know the pool of women is a lot smaller now, and I’d like to see that change. But it is. It’s slowly getting higher and higher,” Richardson said.

“The fastest growing segment is women in the sport and it’s awesome to see,” Leo said.

Richardson wants that to continue. 

“I’m going out and finding all these girls and kind of encouraging them, bullying them, into doing it. I know they are really enjoying it,” Richardson said.

Leo, a decorated powerlifter himself, happens to be the man behind Richardson.  As her coach, the two spend hours together for the sake of hard muscle.  Even so, there is a softer, humorous side to their friendship.

Leo: “Hey, do I have a motto, guys?!”
Richardson: “If you’re not first, you’re last!”
Leo: “No, you can’t pull that off Talladega Nights!”

The two share a lot of laughs.  In between sets, they often flex their genuine admiration for each other.

“I consider him like a second dad to me,” Richardson said.

“Having someone like her who is levelheaded and patient and is very coachable just makes it a win-win,” Leo said.

Training for the competition begins now.  Richardson cannot predict how she will do, but knowing she worked hard and tried her best is better than any trophy on a shelf. 

“If it’s something you’re passionate about, you can’t give up on it.  So, I know, even if I didn’t get on this world team or even place well at nationals or anything, that I would keep going.  Because it’s not about how good you are.  It’s about improving yourself and doing better,” RIchardson said.

That attitude is what really gives Richardson her super strength.  

“All progress is made 5 lbs at a time. One step at a time,” Richardson said.

Hercules and Superman are cool guys to look up to, but leave it to a strong woman to show us how to lift ourselves up.