Julie McDonald: Toledo Middle School weightlifting adds a feminine touch


When seventh- and eighth-grade boys showed up at Toledo Middle School for their first weight-lifting class last fall, they looked askance at their teacher — a woman.

Little did they know that Crista (Cole) Dobyns started lifting weights at age 13 and competed as a weightlifter and in body building into her early 20s. Or that she wakes at 4 a.m. each day to launch into her 45-minute weightlifting routine — and then at 5:30 a.m. walks the dog for about 2 miles.

“The first trimester was pretty rough because they didn’t think that I knew what I was talking about,” said Dobyns, an energetic 51-year-old grandmother. “I just kept telling them, ‘I have a plan; just follow the plan.’ And then they started seeing their strength really skyrocket. After that, the pushback stopped.”

Dobyns is Toledo’s first-ever female weightlifting instructor — at least as far as most people can remember. After Don Schaplow retired, the district tapped sixth grade English and language arts instructor Dobyns to teach three weightlifting classes for students in seventh and eighth grades. Dobyns’ ascension through the glass ceiling brought benefits to younger girls, too.

“A lot of girls did not want to take it before because they were intimidated,” Dobyns said. “That’s an age-old thing.”

But that’s changed with a woman teaching the class. Nearly half her 40 students are girls.

“A high percentage of them had never lifted weights before,” Dobyns said. “A lot of them just felt intimidated until I started teaching, and now they love it. I’m hoping that it stays with them as something that they want to do the rest of their life.”

“Weight training is one of the classes I can go to and not have to depend on other people or worry about other people,” student Sophia Flake said. “I am just doing my own thing, and I enjoy that.”

“I like weight training because it makes me stronger, and I like having a female teacher for weights,” said Olivia Boss.

Dobyns began lifting weights at 13 when her father, Rick Cole, built a home gym in the apartment where their family had lived after a fire damaged their Ethel house when she was a fifth-grader. She and her brother, Bret, lifted weights in the gym with their father. Their mother, Pam (Elkins) Cole, taught an aerobics class in Toledo for nearly 40 years until the Covid pandemic shut it down. Pam’s mother, Ethel (Evans) Keen, participated in the aerobics class into her late eighties. Dobyns also taught exercise classes in her twenties as a certified group fitness instructor.

“I’ve been lifting for like 38 years,” she said. “I was in competitive bodybuilding, and it’s really become like my ADHD drug, my anti-anxiety drug, my anti-depression drug. So I tell that to the kids — this can become like therapy for you. You’re mad about something? Here’s where you take it out.”

With her fit physique, she’s also helped dispel misconceptions that women who lift heavy weights bulk up their bodies. 

“It’s a misconception that women are going to be big and bulky from lifting heavy,” Dobyns said. “We just don’t have enough testosterone.”

Dobyns described herself as “an old soul” with an addictive personality who goes to sleep early and awakens at four. “So it’s every single morning,” she said. “That’s how I have to start my day.” She works on a different part of her body each day.

She changed the weightlifting room at Toledo Middle School to how she wanted it, painting part red and putting up posters to encourage and motivate her students. She bought resistance tubing and smaller dumbbells.

After graduating from Onalaska High School in 1990, Dobyns waited until her two sons, Jesse and Montana, entered grade school before returning to college. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Washington State University through the Centralia College extension program. She first started teaching at 36 in Toledo Elementary School until layoffs in 2008 and 2009. After three years in the Oakville School District, she worked at an office for a year and then a year at Castle Rock before returning to Toledo nine years ago. She taught three years at Toledo Elementary before moving to the middle school six years ago.

Dobyns wanted to teach in Toledo because it felt like home. Her mother taught aerobics at the elementary school and the senior center for decades. And her father’s ancestors — the Laytons, the Kirkendolls, the Shultzes — settled the region in the 19th century.

“I was kind of raised in this town,” she said. “I spent more time in this town than I did in Onalaska where I went to school.”

Dobyns said she eats “clean” but doesn’t forgo treats like cake if she wants it.

But if she’s like her mother, the sweet tooth is kept in moderation. I’ll never forget my amazement after giving a Lindor chocolate to Dobyns’s mother, my aerobics instructor, who said it takes her two or three days to eat the rich creamy round gourmet truffles. Days? Not seconds or minutes?

The payoff of a healthy lifestyle shows: Dobyns’ family is the only one I’ve ever met with five generations alive on both sides of the family — at least until Jan. 11, when Ethel passed away at 93. I love a photo taken at Christmas that shows Pam and Rick with their mothers — Ethel and 97-year-old Margaret “Denzil” (Kirkendoll) Cole — and Dobyns with her son, Jesse, and his children, Jensen and Hazel. Jesse and his wife, Miriam, are expecting their third child in August, the same month his brother, Montana, and his wife, Makala, are expecting their first.

Dobyns attributed the family’s longevity to God, a clean lifestyle, and plenty of exercise. “Being active is just critical,” she said.

While bodybuilding, she followed a strict diet that dropped her body fat to 7 percent. But she loved it.

Although team sports are great, Dobyns said she likes the independence of weightlifting.

“I don’t depend on anyone else,” she said. “This is something where I didn’t have to wait around for somebody to come do it with me because I have a gym at home.”

In fact, she and her husband, Larry, have separate weight rooms.

“It’s one of those things where if you have that self-motivation, this is probably something for you,” she said, but she tells her students, “This is not for everybody.”

Some people prefer to run, swim, bike, or participate in other activities. Others hate the ache and soreness after lifting.

“I love it!” Dobyns said, adding she’d like to keep teaching weightlifting until she retires.

She’s the youngest, fittest, and most energetic grandmother I’ve ever met.

“If I don’t work out, I’m more tired,” Dobyns said. “It gives me energy. In times of my life when I’ve been upset about things, it really does calm me down because when you’re lifting heavy like that, it just relieves all that stress and anger. All the time, that’s what I tell the kids — take it out on the bar.”


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.