Female powerlifter nearly disqualified from competition over beliefs

A Louisiana female power lifter is heading to Chicago for a major national competition. But it almost didn’t happen.

It all has to do with her religious values. Javon O’kray did everything she could to prepare for that competition. What she was not prepared for was a notice saying she could not compete if she wore the attire she normally wears.

468 pounds. That is how much Javon O’kray lifts on a regular day.

It is hard to believe the 39-year-old power lifter from Shreveport has only been competing for two years. It all started from a little cross-fit class on dead lift day at the local YMCA.

“They kept loading the bar and kept loading the bar and I just kept pulling and kept pulling,” O’kray said. “Finally, I think it was around 305 pounds or 315 pounds when I pulled it. Everyone was shocked because they did not tell me what they were putting on the bar.”

Before then, O’kray had never even heard of power lifting. She started training and soon her world changed.

O’kray began competing across the country. She never had any big issues until recently.

Just one month before she was to compete for the USA Powerlifting Raw Nationals in Chicago, O’kray was told that the USA Powerlifting committee would not allow her to wear her religious attire, a skirt.

“I have power lifted with them four other times, and I was able to wear my skirt,” O’kray said. “Now here it is roughly a month before the competition, I get an email saying that I am not allowed to wear my skirt. I was very shocked. I was very disappointed.”

O’kray was raised in the Church of God in Christ, the largest Pentecostal denomination of Christianity in the United States. The denomination has strict rules for women. They don’t wear make-up and their clothing is very modest. Those beliefs are ones that O’kray won’t change, not even for power lifting.

“First of all, I trust in God and I believe in his word,” she said. “His word says that we should not wear anything pertaining to a man. My belief is, I wear skirts and dresses.”

The YMCA of Northwest Louisiana stood behind O’kray, supporting her at every turn.

“She has put her hard work into it,” Jonathan Ford said. “Financially, the Y raised enough money to send her to go, more than we needed actually.”

In a series of emails to the USA Powerlifting Technical Committee, the YMCA pleaded on O’kray’s behalf. They cited her previous meets in which she wore her skirt including the USA Powerlifting Summer classic 2019 where O’kray won first place, the AAU World Strength Sports Championship in Las Vegas, the Shreveport Showdown and the Louisiana State Games. At each meet, O’kray wore her skirt over the traditional “singlet” powerlifters traditionally wear.

“What I did with my skirt in those meets, I tucked the skirt because they need to see your singlet and it can not touch your knee sleeves,” O’kray said. “They still see my singlet. They still see my knee sleeve. If they need to see me going below parallel they can see that. You have a judge on each side of you. You have a judge in front of you.”

The upcoming 2019 USA Powerlifting Raw Nationals meet is governed by the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF).

“USAPL has no authority to grant an exemption to the IPF rules,” Priscilla Ribic, executive director of the National Office for USA Powerlifting, said in a letter responding to the YMCA. “More to the point, these are not USAPL rules that can be modified or exempted in response to your email less than 30 days out from competition.”

However, O’kray only learned she could not wear her skirt just one month prior to the competition.

Other organizations like the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) made a historic move after a Muslim athlete brought her concerns to their attention. The IWF amended its rules to allow head-scarfs and clothing that covers arms and legs.

After sending emails to IPF and USA Powerlifting asking about their policies, O’kray got a notice that ultimately resulted in her being allowed to compete with her skirt at the upcoming meet. USA powerlifters also told O’kray that they would present her concerns to the IPF at their next meeting and request they change their rules.

Depending on how O’kray does this weekend, she could qualify for the international meet which could ultimately send her to the Olympics.