As the COVID-19 pandemic spread through the northern suburbs of New York City, major sporting arenas were closed, professional, collegiate and high school athletic programs furloughed, and gyms and training facilities were shuttered and locked. This did not deter one fiercely competitive and talented young woman from continuing her training.
Tony DeMatteo, head football coach at Somers High School in New York’s Westchester County, certainly knows a great deal about sports. He completed his 50th year as a high school head coach in 2019 and he has coached sons and even grandsons of his early players. In all that time, DeMatteo has developed some strong rules that have kept his players away from unnecessary risks. One of those rules is that no one other than the players on the team can use the weight room and that they must have adult supervision while they work the weights.
But two years ago, DeMatteo made his first exception to those rules. And his decision caused a few raised eyebrows. One individual was given the privilege of using the weight equipment any time the players on the football team weren’t training. That individual was Alexis Jones, now 16 and about to enter her senior year at Somers High. At 5-foot-2 and barely 100 pounds, Jones hardly looked like the typical weightlifter. But she met with DeMatteo and convinced him that she was uniquely qualified to use the Somers weight room.
Despite her petite size, Jones has the experience to justify DeMatteo’s faith. She is one of the nation’s leading youth weightlifters and has been using weights since she was 11. “I love lifting,” Alexis said. “There was something about it that just appealed to me.” Alexis became exposed to weight training through her parents, Chris and Lisa Jones. Both were active athletes who tried to lead by example in exposing Alexis and her younger brother, A.J., to the joy of sports. Both parents believed in the value of CrossFit training to help them become better at sports like Taekwando and baseball, so they brought the children along when they went to weight training.
“I remember watching through the glass of the ‘kiddie room’ as my mom and dad lifted weights at Downstate CrossFit [in Briarcliff Manor, NY]. I was fascinated with lifting when I was 11. I told them ‘I want to do this.’ I kept saying that every time we all went to Downstate CrossFit and my parents mentioned it to Coach Steve, who eventually decided to start a program for kids. “I was so excited when I could go and try it myself -- even though that first day I did not have the range of motion to squat a broomstick!” Coach Steve is Steve Swistak, who was co-owner of Downstate CrossFit before deciding to focus more on coaching and building the Swistak Weightlifting brand.
“My experience and success as a weightlifter and CrossFit Games athlete has given me an opportunity not only to share my passion for weightlifting,” Swistak said. “Now I get to show how the Snatch and Clean & Jerk help build strength, movement stability and explosiveness for other sports and fitness programs. “Alexis was one of my first youth athletes and, prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, we were training on Monday nights and Saturday mornings as a team. In addition, my athletes receive a weekly program that they can do on their own time to get more work in, outside the gym.
“The youth/junior program has evolved over the years from a program that was built strictly on weightlifting to now being a program that leverages the Olympic Lifts to help athletes be as prepared for their main sports as possible. “Movement efficiency is a priority before strength building and I try to emphasize the importance of being able to transfer what they learn in the gym to whatever other sports they play. This transfer has allowed the program to grow, and a majority of the kids end up falling in love with the sport of weightlifting anyway. Alexis is one of those athletes.”
“The program started with just one youth lifter 6 years ago and has flourished to over 20 that I personally coach. The program is designed for athletes that can showcase a level of maturity and won’t distract all of the other athletes on the team during training. I have kids as young as 8 years old starting in the program, but it always comes down to maturity, not age.”
Above: Alexis keeping her workout log while training. Photo Credit - Warren Rosenberg www.nyspg.com
While most of the other youngsters used the weightlifting to help improve performance in other sports, Alexis focused on the two basic Olympic lifts: the Snatch (the act of lifting the barbell from the ground to overhead in one continuous motion and then standing erect), and the Clean & Jerk (lifting the bar from the floor to overhead in two motions -- raising the barbell from floor to shoulders, pausing, and then using the arms to “jerk” it over head and locking the elbows to hold it there).
To date, Alexis’ personal best in the Snatch is 56 kilograms (123.46 pounds) and her best lift in the Clean & Jerk has been 67 kilos (147.71 pounds). “I still have to work on my consistency,” Alexis said. “Being able to lift target weights and then increase those weights is not something that progresses in a straight line. I have to work on improving that.” To help Alexis continue to train, father Chris turned the garage of their house into a gym. Her relentless focus on her sport has enabled Alexis to earn invitations to the U.S. Olympic Weightlifting Youth Championships for the last five years. For the last two years, she has been invited to train and work on her technique at the Olympic Training Center in Columbus, Ohio.
While the athletic achievements are significant, Chris Jones is even prouder of the transformation he has seen in his daughter. “As Alexis has continued to increase her weights, her confidence has increased and she has become much more extroverted. Before she started lifting, she really lacked social interaction. She didn’t really enjoy team sports and she was quite introverted. That all changed as she reached and exceeded her goals in lifting. She was always a good student, but the lifting seemed to help her excel in other areas and still get excellent grades.”
Above: Alexis Jones competing in the 2016 'War of Westchester". Photo Credit - Warren Rosenberg www.nyspg.com
Alexis, who is the Junior class representative on the Somers High School Student Council, also carries a 4.66 grade point average thanks to taking advanced placement courses. She is also co-Chairman of the Somers High School Junior Prom Committee and participates in the school’s chamber choir, which performed last winter in Quebec, Canada. These other activities help her keep her lifting in perspective “I’m not really following an Olympic (team) trajectory,” she said, “but I do see myself coaching other girls in the future. That’s really important to me. I want to be a role model for others and show younger girls that they can do anything if they focus and work their hardest to achieve what they want.”
All Photos by - Warren Rosenberg New York Sports Photo Group www.nyspg.com