I am writing this the day after losing my friend Lisa Gniewek, or simply Lisa G. In January of 2013, Lisa was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Lisa sent me a text on a random Saturday morning asking me if I would be in the gym that day. I replied, “Yes”, but I was really concerned right away. I knew that something wrong, but I figured it was just something that I had done or said. Lisa was famous for setting me straight. What she would tell me, would change my life forever. Her fifteen month battle is over, and I am convinced that she won. Right now she is in heaven giving her also famous crinkled face glare at cancer in complete defiance. She is cured!
Lisa G was so incredible special to the whole Mash Family, both in our compound and around the world. Both Lisa and I were introduced to Jon North’s Attitude Nation last year around the same time as her diagnosis. The Attitude Nation embraced us both as one of their own, and helped spread her story around the world. I want the world to know why she was so special to me, and that is why I wanted to write this little piece.
I met Lisa in 2008 when I was first starting Mash Elite Performance in Advance, NC. At that time, I did a lot of personal training, and Lisa was one of my first clients. To say the least, she was a mess physically. Lisa was a Pediatric Registered Nurse, mother of two, and wife of her childhood sweet heart, Matt Gniewek. Like most nurses, she didn’t do a good job of taking care of herself. She was a little over weight, physically inactive, and very weak. I would have Lisa do a body weight squat, and she would squat down and couldn’t stand up. She literally couldn’t stand up with her own body weight. I thought to myself that Lisa would probably quit after three weeks, but she never quit right until the very end.
One day she comes into the gym, and announces that she wants to try powerlifting. I was perplexed to say the least. My goal has always been to help my athletes reach their dreams no matter how high the bar is set, but this was a pole vault bar. The first few weeks were frustrating, but with Lisa G always a good time. She was quick to laugh at herself, and she didn’t let anything bother her very much. Her smile would literally light up the room, and like some drug, it caused everyone near her to feel happy and excited about life. We were excited when she could squat 65 pounds. I never dreamed that she would one day squat 215 pounds.
During the first few months of her strength training, we would get to know each other on a much more personal level. I was in pursuit of my one and only true love, Emily Drew. She was my dating instructor. I heard way too often, “You big dumb, dumb!” She consoled me through so many emotions sadness, frustration, and finally happiness. She helped me decide how I would propose, and she made sure that I asked Emily Drew’s father for her hand in marriage. She was front row when I married the woman of my dreams, and she has been there during every major event, competition, and holiday ever since. She was and will forever be a part of our family.
Some of the most memorable times were the discussions that we had about God. She was a Christ lover, and she desperately wanted to know all there was to know about her God. When I met her, we were both relatively new Christians. As much as she loved lifting heavy weights, nothing excited her more than a discussion about the bible. Now the mystery held within those pages has been fully divulged to Lisa G. I will never forget the excited look on her face when she would come in the gym having learned something new about God. She just couldn’t wait to tell me what she had learned.
Lisa would come to love the strength sports. We were able to get her ready for a powerlifting competition, and from the first moment that she walked onto the competition platform, she had found her sport. During her first competition in Asheville, NC, as always, she traveled with Drew and me. We had a fun tradition of weighing in, and then seeing just how much weight we could gain back. We would all be so bloated, but the laughs that we all shared with Team Mash still echo in my brain like beautiful notes of music from Mozart. The smiles that come to my athletes’ faces, the laughter, the community at Mash, and the reaching of goals are all parts of my musical concert. This is my art. This is the ministry that God has given me.
During this first competition, I hired my friend Chris “Ox” Mason to help coach because I was going to do my farewell powerlifting meet. Lisa was opening with 155 pounds on the squat, but her nerves were getting the best of her. She was warming up with 75 pounds, but when she squatted down, she fell backwards with the bar on her back. Chris looked at me with a confused look on his face, and I just said, “Go heavier!” Times like that were par for the course with Lisa G. You simply never knew what to expect, but you could bet your bottom dollar that her contagious smile would make everything OK.
Lisa, Drew, and I would travel to every competition that we could find. Every competition would be a mini vacation full of the Mash Team, heavy weights, and lots of food. The Mash Team is a family! When we compete, there is just something so different about our team that other athletes want to be a part of it. Lisa loved her Mash Family, and it was very important to her that we nurtured that family. If I ever lost focus for one second on the Mash Family, she was the first to tell me. If any team member had a problem with me, they would tell Lisa. Then Lisa would for sure let me know about it. A true friend will always let you know when you are being stupid. A bad friend will just tell everyone else.
In 2012, I introduced the sport of Olympic weightlifting to Lisa. I was surprised at how well she took to the sport. When I watched her Clean & Jerk 160 pounds, it felt like I was at my own gallery opening, and Lisa was my masterpiece. I had taken an overweight nurse that couldn’t squat her own body up off the ground, and now she was taking 160 pounds from the ground to over her head. Her determination, drive, and love of the sport has inspired us all to say the least. The best part of it all is that the 160 pound Clean & Jerk was performed after her diagnosis, and I will forever hear that bar slam ring life victory bells within my ears.
Thanks to my podcast Weightlifting Talk that I host alongside “the champ” Jon North, Lisa’s story was heard around the world. She would inspire millions to not let anything get in the way of dreams. She created awareness that more needs to be done in the fight with cancer. We hosted two Lift 4 Lisa weightlifting and powerlifting competitions over the last year to raise money for Lisa in fight. Now we will host a Lift 4 Lisa weightlifting/powerlifting competition every year for as long as I live in her honor with proceeds going to help with the fight against cancer. Her husband Matt has already approached me because he wants to continue with the Lift 4 Lisa movement.
During my time with Lisa G, she would teach me several valuable lessons that I want to share with the world. I will never forget them, and I will never let the world forget about Lisa G. I will start by teaching you all what I learned famous Lisa G.
1. Never Sway From the Path! Lisa G helped me and my wife build Mash Elite Performance. She helped paint the walls, pull the carpet, and place the mats. Her husband installed the ceiling fans. She will always be just a much a part of that place as me. We built that place on community, family, goals, and God. My heart was in helping my athletes reach their goals and become better people. She saw the way that I love my athletes, and that is what made her and most of the parents that work out at Mash Elite Performance decide to trust their families with me. Sometimes I have swayed from my calling for this reason or that, and Lisa G would always be the first one to shake me and say, “Don’t be dumb.” Lisa I will never be swayed again.
2. Focus on What is Important! Like most men, I will sometimes focus on money, size of my business, and what people think of me. Lisa G taught me to focus on the things that are important like my God, my beautiful wife, my daughter Bailey, Baby Mash(my wife is pregnant), my mother, my family, my Mash family, and my friends. I want to inspire others to do the same, just like she did me. I want everyone to set goals and have dreams, and I want them to be determined to reach for their dreams. The key is to never let a dream or goal over shadow God or your loved ones. As a matter of fact, let your motivation be to Glorify God, and to inspire and impact loved ones and the rest of the world.
3. Never Ever Quit! Lisa slammed bars until she could no longer pick them up. Whatever God has given you on this earth, I recommend that you nurture and care for that ministry until you die. Never waste a moment to help, inspire, and love those around you every day. Lisa inspired the world! You should do the same!
My friend Molly told me that our friend Lisa Sokolosky heard Lisa G say, “Ok Jesus let’s do this!” That is so Lisa G. I stopped in to see her yesterday morning just hours before she passed, and I can tell you that she was Lisa G to the end. She was trying to pull the IVs from her arm, and her niece told her to stop. Lisa gave her that wrinkled face stare as to say, “Hey I am Lisa G! I do what I want!” My heart is absolutely broken right now, but I am so glad that I got to see her one more time. When I left, I told her that I loved her, and her voice echoes in my mind like a cool breeze on a hot summer day saying, “I love you too!” Those are the last words that she ever spoke to me. Very fitting!
Heaven is one saint bigger now. Until I see Lisa G again someday, I will continue her fight. Lift 4 Lisa will go on! Cancer will be defeated! More importantly I will never stop loving the people that God has brought into my life!
Mash Elite Performance will forever be the home of Lisa G!