Jim Steel is a strong man. He has been for a long time. And for a long time, he’s been helping other people get strong too.
As the current Associate Director of Sports Performance at Penn, Steel runs the Quakers’ strength and conditioning program, and to say he’s qualified would be a grievous understatement.
He set goals to squat 800 pounds, deadlift 700 and bench press 500. He achieved each of those goals and in the process set records in those lifts under the American Powerlifting Association of New Jersey.
Football first led Steel to powerlifting.
An All-American defensive lineman for Gardner-Webb University, Steel says a lack of quality instruction led him to take it upon himself to get stronger.
“I lifted for football,” Steel said. “I just always had lousy coaches. That forced me to study how to get stronger and bigger. So I sort of fell into this by trying to improve myself.”
Post-football, Steel, who comes out of a very athletic family, turned to powerlifting to satisfy his competitive fire. Along with getting strong, Steel found fulfillment in coaching. He coached football and managed strength and conditioning for several schools.
In 1999, Steel came to Penn, where he focused only on strength.
Though coaching is his main responsibility, Steel still trains. Hard.
“I just love the feeling of training,” Steel said. “I couldn’t imagine life without training. I guess some people use drugs or alcohol to get that feeling, and I get it from this.”
Because he works out in the Penn weightlifting facility, it’s not surprising that Steel’s workout partners are his colleagues in the Strength and Conditioning department. What is a little surprising is that two of them are women.
Cristi Bartlett and Tracy Zimmer, both Assistant Strength and Conditioning coaches at Penn, are two of the strongest women you’ll ever meet. According to Steel, the two of them are stronger than nearly all of the Penn athletes they train, including most of the football players.
Bartlett discovered her lifting streak in high school.
“I started in a weightlifting class in P.E.,” she said. “It was usually just a bunch of messing around in the gym — just going in with the football players and doing whatever they were doing.”
At Catawba College, Barlett played basketball, and through her team’s strength and conditioning program, she continued to get stronger.
Zimmer was also a college athlete, playing lacrosse at Temple.
“I didn’t lift a whole lot in high school, but when I got to Temple we had a program for lacrosse,” she said. “I really liked the lifting that we did.”
Her final class in her undergraduate career included an internship in the Penn program under Steel. The rest is history.
Both women have set records in powerlifting competitions. Zimmer, in fact, set a record in her first-ever competition, when she squatted 401 pounds.
“I’d be lost without those two,” Steel said. “It helps the fact that they work so hard at everything that they do. Whether it’s lifting or working. When you’ve got people around you who love what they’re doing, it makes everything easy.”
Steel and his staff have garnered tremendous respect in the strength world and among Penn athletes.
Conner Scott, a junior wide receiver for the football team, spent a lot of time with Steel rehabbing a broken arm.
“I got to work with coach Steel everyday during the season last year, one-on-one, due to my injury,” Scott said.
The receiver made tremendous progress during his lifts with Steel, adding 100 pounds to his squat maximum in just 10 weeks.
“Every day he would tell me that my injury is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I still believe that today,” Scott said. “He pushed me harder than anyone ever has in the weight room … I credit a lot of my success on the field thus far to those 10 weeks with coach Steel and his belief in me.”
Scott explained that as much as Steel knows about the proper techniques, lifts and nutrition, he is also a master motivator.
“We on the team all say during lifts that when he personally watches you squat or bench or whatever, it adds about 20 percent to your maximum capabilities just because you don’t want to disappoint him,” Scott said.
Steel, Bartlett and Zimmer all profess to get enormous satisfaction in helping Penn athletes get stronger and, in turn, better at their chosen sport.
That’s their job, and they all love doing it.