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A Full Plate (VIDEO)

Jake Neely ’13 balances the weight of an astrophysics major with that of competitive powerlifting

By Carrie Compton


Jake Neely ’13 feels the burn during a break from his studies in the Mullan Tennis and Fitness Center. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

Jake Neely ’13 is used to stares from students and new dining-hall employees as he exits Sharples. On his overflowing plate are bunless hamburger patties, mountains of cubed chicken, and spinach—the mainstays of his diet. Proudly, Neely will tell you that diet has  taken him to 525 pounds … on the barbell. The Missoula, Mont., native has actually lost 75 pounds on his carnivorous, protein-rich regimen, which, when paired with intense muscle building, helps him maintain a paradoxical balance.

“It’s very, very hard to lose weight while gaining strength,” says Neely. “To gain strength you have to be in a calorie surplus—that’s a flat-out rule. You have to eat between 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day, and you have to pick your calories right to lose weight,” hence the carb-free mounds of meat on Neely’s plate twice daily. He hopes to lose 15 pounds by midspring for a meet and another 25 by fall (bringing his total weight loss to 115 pounds), a feat he says “shouldn’t be a problem.”

The astrophysics major embarked upon this weighty fascination two years ago when he sought an extracurricular activity. At the College gym, he discovered weightlifting and, before long, was reading up on how to train competitively. This fall, Neely participated in his second meet, a daylong affair that leaves lifters just as exhausted mentally as physically. (Since the sport is not NCAA regulated, meets are held by third-party organizations, such as USA Powerlifting).

Neely spends most of his downtime during the 15-hour–long meets in anticipation of his turn, indulging in Gatorade and Skittles for their carbohydrate value. Competing by weight class, powerlifters are required to squat, bench press, and dead lift, adding weight for all three attempts. At the end of each contender’s turn, the highest weight achieved in each lift is combined to determine a score.

Once good and Skittled up, Neely says the most important part of a meet is the hour before competing.

“You’re envisioning doing your lifts over and over,” he says. “Everybody has their own way of psyching up and getting ready; mine is to think about things that make me angry and build that up.”

During a fall meet, Neely took first place in his weight class with a 525-pound squat, 315-pound bench press, and a 515-pound dead lift—all of which he’s looking to double in the coming years.

Outside of the 20 to 25 hours per week that Neely spends training himself and others in the gym, the senior remains academically engaged: He’s applied to seven astrophysics graduate programs and is collaborating on a paper with Associate Professor of Astronomy David Cohen.

Neely and Cohen’s work determines the nitrogen and oxygen content of distant megastars that are much larger and brighter than our sun. They hope to draw conclusions about the stars’ evolution by using a space telescope, deriving X-ray information to study the diffraction of a star’s spectra as a means to analyze wavelengths and determine elemental abundance. They intend to submit a paper on their findings for publication.

“Jake has shown an unusual degree of determination and initiative—as well as careful work and scientific insight—for an undergraduate just beginning his research career,” says Cohen. “We are hopeful not only that other people in the field of stellar astronomy and chemical evolution of the galaxy will take notice of Jake’s results, but also that they will use the technique that Jake has helped pioneer.”

Back in the weight room, Neely continues to evolve. This spring, he’ll move out of raw powerlifting and into a category called single-ply equipped lifting, which entails wearing a layer of supportive material, a tailored polyester shirt, which has enabled him to increase his bench press by more than 100 pounds in mere months.

While there may be some truth to the saying “You are what you eat,” Neely, albeit a big guy, could never be called a “meathead.” Still, as he moves forward with his studies and his powerlifting, Neely intends to adhere to his extreme diet even after he graduates in June … at which time, employees working the grill at Sharples can take a collective breather.

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