There’s a bell in the Belton High School weight room that lifters get to ring whenever they achieve a personal best.
When it’s Jonathan Coots ringing the bell, it sounds out even more loud and clear.
“When he (gets a personal record) in the weight room, he gets in his wheelchair and runs down real quick and rings the bell and everyone gets excited for him,” Belton strength and conditioning coach Eric Scherfenberg said. “Everyone gets excited when someone PRs, but you can sense that whenever he does it’s a little more.”
The bell rings out another victory for Coots over the spina bifida that has left him with limited use of his lower legs since birth. It’s another victory over the surgeries and setbacks he often endures.
And it serves as a testament to the drive and determination that has turned Coots into one of top powerlifters in his weight and age group regardless of ability. He’s a national record holder, and last month he was selected to work out with the USA Para Powerlifting Development Team with an eye on competing in the 2019 Para PanAmerica Games next summer in Lima, Peru.
Coots, who will be a senior this fall, appreciates being an inspiration in the weight room and at his school. But that’s not the thing that motivates him through all the workouts and the obstacles.
“It’s just something I enjoy,” said Coots, who uses either a wheelchair or crutches to get around. “So I try my best at it.”
Coots has always enjoyed being around sports, and he found his favorite sport when he first started lifting in seventh grade. In power lifting, there are plenty of events that don’t require lower body strength, like the bench press.
When Coots trains, it’s all upper body work, which Scherfenberg compared to working out an athlete with a leg or knee injury.
“We are used to accommodating kids with injuries,” Scherfenberg said. “His is just different because it’s a long term thing. He’s relegated to doing only upper body, so we have to modify a lot of the workouts to just to kind of fit his needs.”
Those workouts helped Coots set a national bench press record as a sophomore at the Natural Athlete Strength Association High School Nationals in Oklahoma City. Competing as a member of the Pirates’ powerlifting team, Coots set the mark with a bench press of 187 pounds in the 114-pound weight class.
But shortly after that meet in March of 2017, Coots faced another surgery on his spine, one of 30 procedures he’s endured in his lifetime. Spina bifida is a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly and Coots needed another procedure to relieve compression on his spinal cord and remove scar tissue. Each surgery means more recuperation time and long stretches away from training.
“That’s what so impressive with him,” Scherfenberg said. “There’s been so many times he’s been shut down for three and four months at a time because of the multiple surgeries that he’s had. For him to come back with perseverance each time and not quit is pretty impressive.”
Coots’ determination has impressed not only his fellow lifters but others around the school as well. He’s also a manger for the football team, where he’s responsible for shooting video of the Pirates’ games.
“Most of the kids have gone to school with Jonathan for years,” Scherfenberg said. “And they know what he has had to overcome to be where he’s at.”
Kyle Gelatko is one of those kids. A senior-to-be and a member of the Pirates’ soccer team, Gelatko said watching Coots overcome his challenges make him want to work harder in the weight room.
“It’s just really cool to have a kid who has gone through so much adversity and he’s still able to continue on doing what he can,” Gelatko said. “Someday you’ll have a bad day but if you see him over there, you realize that if he can do that, I can still try my hardest and do my best.”
Coots’ best bench press is back in the 200-210-pound range. That’s nearly double his body weight of 115 pounds and a sign that he can compete on elite level. During a competition last month in St. Louis, his performance impressed a coach for the USA Para Powerlifting Development Team.
“Coach saw how good the form was I had,” Coots said. “So she just said, ‘hey dude, I’d like for you to be on the team for Peru.’”
Coots will head for Long Island N.Y., next month for a clinic that will allow him to compete as a level-one lifter and take part in World Games qualifiers. If all goes well, he could be competing for Team USA next August in Peru.
And he’s already set some long-term goals: the 2024 Paralympics in Los Angeles or the 2028 Games in Paris. But getting ready for a shot at South America remains foremost on his mind.
“Our kids, even though we compete in powerlifting we train them as athletes,” Scherfenberg said. “He’s the exception. He’s not going to compete here at Belton High School in a sports setting, but he’s going to go represent Belton and Missouri and the nation, which is just really exciting.”
Exciting and inspiring for all involved, especially for the coaches and lifters who have heard the bell.
“It’s just a reminder that kids are blessed with different abilities and different limitations,” Scherfenberg said. “For Jonathan, he’s choosing to maximize his strengths and not dwell on the areas of weakness. And that’s a message for all of us.”