SEATTLE — It’s 5:30 in the morning, 29 degrees, still dark out, and Winifred Pristell is waiting inside her blue 1988 Toyota station wagon with the engine off.
She’s put nearly 300,000 miles on the car, which she drives three days a week from her Everett apartment to her gym in Seattle’s Rainier Valley.
“Goin’ strong for an old gal like that,” Pristell, 70, says in a voice that hints of a Southern past.
One could say the same about her.
This great-grandma they call “Heavy Metal” is a competitive weightlifter with two world records and aspirations for more.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Pristell rises at 3:30 a.m., gets ready and by a quarter to five, she’s miles ahead of thousands of Snohomish County daily commuters traveling south on I-5.
Her personal trainer is Andrew “Bull” Stewart, a former powerlifting world champion who owns Columbia City Fitness Center.
Pristell is a woman of faith, but she’d sooner miss church than a training session with Bull.
“I love to worship God, but I can do that in my house on Sunday,” Pristell says.
So on a dozen days every month, she rises before the roosters crow, beats the rat race to Seattle, swings east toward Lake Washington, then south along Rainier Avenue S.
She passes miles of strip malls, auto shops and ethnic groceries until she reaches a few tree-lined blocks with brick crosswalks, fancy coffee shops and her gym.
The fitness center doesn’t open until 6, but Pristell typically arrives a half-hour early. Early enough to see drunks still hanging around from the night before and people in suits on their way to steel-and-glass office towers downtown.
“Winifred is special,” said Stewart, a big man with a big heart who charges his personal training in cups of coffee from the old lady. “She has no limitations. Mentally, physically, she just has a spirit about her, an attitude that she can do anything.”
Born in Baton Rouge, La., and raised in Seattle, Pristell never completely shook the Southern accent that kids made fun of in grade school.
Stewart, who came up working on farms in Mississippi, said he feels connected to Pristell because of their Southern roots. He sees Pristell as a mother figure and pays her entrance fees, hotel rooms and airfare for competitions. Pristell says she loves Stewart like a son.
A retired barber who owned a few shops in Seattle’s Central District long ago, Pristell is blessed with the gift of gab.
She freely hands out thank-you-kindlys and kudos like they’re going out of style. Yet she also can be blunt, like on a recent day at the gym when she told a teenage boy who works there that he is too fat. She’s not trying to be mean, she says. Sometimes she just says things without thinking first.
Even so, with her infectious smile and joshing nature, Pristell is more honey than vinegar. She has nicknames for the gym regulars. There’s PeterPeter, Loverboy, Blue Eyes, Goodman, Moneyman, The Detectives and so on.
Pristell wasn’t always in such great shape and spirits.
At 47, the 5-foot-5-inch-tall woman was dangerously obese, weighing 235 pounds — a body mass index of about 40. A body mass index of 25 is considered overweight; obesity starts at 30.
Since then, she’s dropped five dress sizes and is a comparatively svelte 180 pounds.
The weight just crept up on her, she says. She was working long hours, eating poorly and drinking and smoking too much.
One day while taking a bath, Pristell remembers feeling as though she was dying.
She asked daughter, Cynthia, if she would walk with her.
“I couldn’t walk but a block that first time,” she said.
Every morning the two walked together, a little farther each day. Within a year, Pristell was up to three miles, five days a week, she said.
That’s about the point she walked into a gym for the first time in her life. She tried aerobic exercises, stationary bikes, and other machines and contraptions.
Years would pass before she tried free weights and more than a decade before she began lifting weights competitively at the age of 60.
At 68, Pristell set world records for her age in bench press, 176.2 pounds, and in dead lift, 270 pounds, for her age group and weight class, according to World Association of Bench Pressers &Deadlifters.
She’s set scores of other state and national records.
“She’s pretty proud of it, and I would be too, at that age,” says Giovanni Rogano, 20, who serves Pristell coffee with cream and sugar at Tutta Bella, a cafe up the street from her gym.
Rogano has three autographed photos of Pristell from various competitions. She calls the trim Italian man “my boyfriend who makes the world’s best coffee.”
Carol Downing, a 19-year veteran in the Everett city clerk’s office, also has autographed photos of the senior weightlifter.
She describes Pristell as a “happy soul.”
Soon after Pristell moved into the Broadway Plaza Apartments a few blocks from Everett City Hall, she came in to apply for a job, which she didn’t get.
But on that day, Pristell complimented Downing’s smile and has since stopped by every few weeks to chat and to share handwritten short stories that she hopes someday to have published.
She has arthritis in her hands, feet and back. Her fingers are stiff and gnarled and she can’t make a fist with her left hand. One of her doctors recommended against continuing strength training. She’s not willing to give it up just yet.
“We are all dealing with something. If you let whatever you’re dealing with control your life, you have no quality of life,” she said. “When you really cut down to it, a lot of people are worse off than I am. I see it all the time.”
In March at a state powerlifting championship in Olympia, she will attempt to shatter her own record and deadlift 300 pounds.
“Sometimes they call me a freak,” Pristell said. “That’s OK. I like being called a freak sometimes. It’s kind of unheard of, a person being my age doing what I can do. For me, the older I’m getting, the stronger I’m becoming.”
David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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