She’s just now starting to feel comfortable calling herself an athlete.
Emma Jarman, a 2004 Kenston graduate, always had that fierce competitive drive athletes thrive on. Growing up with two brothers, it was sort of a thing.
Jarman also swam competitively throughout her childhood, and was a standout backstroker for the Lady Bombers in high school. Her senior year, she led off Kenston’s 400-yard freestyle relay that finished 18th at the Division II state championship meet.
But she struggled to identify as an athlete.
“When I was a kid, I did everything for approval from adults,” Jarman said. “I always tried to do well or be the best in things because I hoped it would make other people happy. With swimming, I wanted to win because I wanted (the coaches) to be proud of me. I really needed them to be in order to feel like even doing it at all was worth it.”
That’s why Jarman went to 5 a.m. swim practices on school days. She didn’t do it for herself. She did it because Kenston former head coach Rick Balcam applauded it.
More than a decade later, some of that outside approval followed her into the world of bodybuilding, where she’d secretly admire the attention she attracted from others in regards to her physical appearances.
But Jarman, now 33, no longer gives much of a rat’s keister about the approval of other people above her own.
A full-time powerlifter for the past three years, she is ranked 10th all-time worldwide among females in the 181-pound class, with a total of 1,300.7 pounds in the combined disciplines of squat, bench of deadlift. Although, she unofficially upped that total to 1,422 pounds in a mock meet at her home gym, which would rank her fourth in the world.
Factoring in the balance of her physical, mental and emotional serenity, Jarman said she’s in the best place she’s ever been.
“I am the most capable physically, and useful, and strong, that I have ever been in my life,” she said. “And that, as far as where my priorities are now, is at the top of the list. So, averaging it all out, yes, I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life.”
The whole idea of self-acceptance and satisfaction was a journey of twists and turns.
After high school, Jarman indulged in the party scene at the University of Dayton, where she was required to see a counselor after underage drinking citations. She ended up meeting her daughter’s dad while in rehab.
When Jarman became a mom in 2008, a switch was flipped.
“It was so easy,” she said about exiting the party scene. “All of the sudden, I just wanted to (be a mom). Even before I knew I was pregnant, I could not stomach the smell of alcohol. I remember it was graduation weekend, and I was a drinker, but I could not drink. And then I found out I was pregnant, and I was like, ‘OK. This makes sense. And this is what I’m going to do now.’ It was very, very easy.”
Unfortunately, that same switch was not flipped for her daughter’s father, Jarman said.
After a year of being a mother, Jarman moved out and became a single parent. That’s when she started having uncontrollable anxiety, she said.
“I didn’t know what was happening to me,” Jarman said. “I remember sitting at my computer in my apartment and looking up to see if there was such a thing as delayed postpartum depression. Like, I had a whole folder on it.”
Then Jarman had a panic attack. She was 24. Her daughter was 2.
“I could only take labored, shallow breaths, overwhelmingly crushed by the fear of nothing at all and absolutely everything at once,” she said. “I couldn’t move, or close or open my eyes, or will any muscle in my body to act on the most desperate command.
“After 30 minutes, maybe more, flat on my back on the stiff red couch in the middle of the living room in my second-floor apartment, I slowly defrosted from inexplicable paralysis, drug one heavy hand to the corner of the couch, unsure how I was finally able to will it to move, grabbed my phone and called my mom.”
Jarman went to her doctor and starting taking medication.
At the time, she was working as a secretary in an auto parts sales office. One of her female colleagues was doing P90X – a 90-day home fitness program – and encouraged Jarman to just go run a mile.
So, she did. It was her new medication.
“After that first day that I ran a mile, I ran every single day after that, and I started losing weight, and I stopped eating,” Jarman said. “And when I would run, I wouldn’t have anxiety. So, I got very obsessive, and I overdid it a lot. I had injuries, and it was sort of to an unhealthy point.”
She was running upward on 50 miles a week without much nutrition, skipping meals and going to bed hungry.
Jarman then relocated to Arizona to move in with Tony Nero, a 2003 Kenston graduate whom she dated on and off since high school. In 2014, Nero died in a one-car accident on Chagrin Road in Bainbridge Township. He was 30 years old.
“I remember the day that he died; it was a Saturday night, it was the night of our high school reunion,” Jarman said. “And that next Monday, I went into the gym – I just had to run. And I went upstairs, and I ran around the track and listened to the same song the whole time. And I did that kind of a lot in those first couple of weeks. It was back to running.”
While living with Nero in Arizona, Jarman joined a gym, because it was too hot to run outside, but she steered clear from the open-weights area, where men poured sweat in the squat racks and elsewhere. She hammered the machines instead.
Embarrassed by inexperience, she stayed in hiding instead, she said.
But when Jarman moved back to Northeast Ohio and joined the LA Fitness in Legacy Village, a guy named Eric Curry caught her in the parking lot, encouraged her to come lift weights under his direction and took her to her first powerlifting meet in 2015. She didn’t think much of it at the time.
After that, Jarman went into bodybuilding – quite different from powerlifting – for the next two years, going to show competitions where she’d get on stage, flex her muscles in front of judges and all.
“I just wanted to do something,” she said. “And I liked the idea of getting smaller, of looking like what I thought was really good. I didn’t know what it was like to be strong, like actually strong. But I liked the schedule, the routine, the structure of the whole diet thing.
“When everyone around you is telling you, ‘Oh, you’d be really good at this, you should do it,’ you’re like, ‘OK, I guess I’ll be really good at this.’ So, I did it.”
Sixteen weeks is the average prep time for a bodybuilding show, and Jarman ended up losing in the neighborhood of 30 pounds during that time. Everyone was telling her she looked the best she ever had in her life, and she secretly enjoyed the attention.
But deep down inside, she felt her absolute worst. Before shows, she was basically in a natural metabolic state of starvation ketosis, which involves the body producing ketone bodies out of fat and using them for energy instead of carbs.
“Before my first show, I took myself to a doctor, because I remember lying on my couch and I really, really needed to go to the bathroom. I needed to pee,” Jarman said. “And I just couldn’t peel myself up from the couch. I had no energy.”
The same was true when she came home from the grocery store. She would sit in her car for 10 minutes before she could muster up enough energy to open the door. It became mentally fatiguing as well.
Constantly hungry, Jarman would hoard junk food such as flavored Oreos and Reese’s candy in her kitchen closet. She literally had a 30-pound bag of snack food that she kept there to take out and just look at sometimes.
And when she was doing an hour of cardio each day, she’d get on a StairMaster machine, flip on the TV to 10,000-calorie challenges and just watch people eat. It actually helped her, she said.
“I would enjoy doing that,” Jarman said. “It’s weird.”
But when she went to the doctor with so little energy, thinking it can’t be normal to not be able to get up off the couch to use the bathroom, her blood tests came back showing nothing was technically wrong with her.
The doctor told Jarman she’s fine, but she’s in ketosis. It’s when one’s body has little to no carbs.
“And she was worried, but, when I heard her say that, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s great,’” Jarman said. “So, I just pushed through it. It was very, very difficult. It’s not enjoyable. It gets to be not fun. And by the time it’s not fun, you put so much work into it, you sort of can’t go back, because you’re in the home stretch.”
With such a minimal diet, Jarman said she was angry for no reason and hated people when she naturally tends to really like people. That’s when she came to the realization it was best to get out of bodybuilding and into powerlifting.
Even though she gained 20, 30, 40 pounds, powerlifting made her feel so much better, and she enjoyed the community of people and the atmosphere, she said.
“So, I said, I’m not doing bodybuilding anymore,” Jarman said. “It’s not fun. I don’t need this anymore, because I was getting happier with myself and healthier and actually proud of myself. So, it was pretty easy to decide that that’s what I wanted to do.”
Jarman now works out of Old School Iron Gym in Brook Park.
While some people may consider powerlifting a big, sweaty, bloody man’s sport – with the women who do it trying to fit in with them – that stereotype of being a female powerlifter no longer exists, Jarman said.
“If you look at all the top female powerlifters, they look like bodybuilders,” she said. “They’re very muscular, very lean, very healthy. And I hate to even say this, but they’re for the most part very feminine looking. People might think that female powerlifters take a bunch of drugs and turn into men. It’s not the case.”
When using the Wilks Coefficient, which measures the strength of a powerlifter against other powerlifters, despite the different weights of the lifters, the six strongest powerlifters in the world are all women.
In 2018, Jarman won gold in her weight class for the Xtreme Powerlifting Coalition Worlds Elite competition at the Arnold Sports Festival. In 2019, she won gold for the XPC Worlds Pro competition of the Arnold.
And then this past October, she won gold at the U.S. Powerlifting Association Iron Dog competition in Cleveland, which had a cash prize. She squatted 474 pounds, bench pressed 297.6 pounds and deadlifted 529.1 pounds, totaling 1,300.7 pounds to earn the No. 10 all-time world ranking in her weight class.
“That was very exciting,” Jarman said. “Once you start getting totals like that, you start getting invitations to other bigger meets that have cash prizes. So, I got invited to the Kern U.S. Open, and that is basically the biggest powerlifting meet in the world and typically where all the world records have been set for the past couple years.”
The Kern U.S. Open has a purse with more than $100,000 in cash prizes and was supposed to be held April 25-26, 2020, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in Dan Diego. But it was postponed to November because of COVID-19.
With the postponement, Jarman did a mock meet at her gym with her training partners last month, when she squatted 572 pounds, benched 300 pounds and deadlifted 550 pounds, for a 1,422-pound total that would have moved her up to fourth all-time in the world rankings.
“I just got my first coach last year,” Jarman said. “So, hopefully, I can still get that in November and keep moving up those rankings.”
While powerlifting has created the best version of herself, Jarman is still adjusting to feeling comfortable in public with a noticeably larger and more muscular body tone that she said is bordering on what’s a fetish for some people, particularly when she’s at the grocery store or walking from her parking lot to her office building downtown.
Not a day goes by when someone won’t reach out and touch her arm or make a comment, she said. It’s a lot of attention she no longer wants.
“If I were to choose a body type for myself, the one I have right now would not be it,” she said. “It’s very frustrating not fitting into normal clothes. I would like to be smaller and more feminine, because it’s hard, as a girl, to say I weigh almost 200 pounds. But I’m 5-9, I still have a six-pack, and I do feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life. I’m actually proud of myself.
“I’m kind of just now starting to feel comfortable calling myself an athlete.”