Heat and weights hang heavy in the air each time Carole Louise plows through her weight-lifting regimen in a prop room beneath the auditorium at Van Nuys High.
The makeshift gym , home to the Van Nuys Weightlifting Club, boasts three small plywood platforms squeezed between the planks, tables, paint buckets and assorted production materials strewn about the floor.
Louise, however, does not seem to mind.
The 31-year old La Crescenta resident believes the spartan facility lends itself to success because it is devoid of health club props such as glistening chrome machines, stationary bicycles and bottled water imported from the French Alps.
"To do this sport, you accept some of the strange things and the hardships," Louise says. "That's part of the mystique.
"The thing it gives you more than anything else is self-confidence. If I can lift almost 200 pounds over my head, then I figure I can pretty much do anything."
On Friday, Louise will attempt to lift more weight than she ever has before when she begins competition in the U. S. Olympic Sports Festival in Oklahoma City.
Louise, 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, is competing in the women's 82.5-kilogram (182 pounds) weight division, which is one class below the super-heavyweights.
Last April in Houston, Louise finished third in her class at the women's nationals. Her goal at the Olympic Festival is to surpass personal bests of 139 pounds in the snatch--in which the bar is lifted overhead in one unbroken movement--and 188 pounds in the clean and jerk--in which the bar is brought to the shoulders and then pushed overhead.
"I'm not thinking too much about winning because I'm still gaining experience," Louise said during a workout last week. "I'll consider it a successful trip if I can improve my PRs (personal records) and technique."
Outfitted in blue Lycra shorts, an old red polo-style shirt and red and white weight lifters' shoes with built up heels and rounded toes, Louise repeatedly grasps, lifts then drops the weighted bar to the floor.
Louise was a multi-sport athlete at Crescenta Valley High and threw the javelin for Valley College, but she never attempted serious weight training until she got out of school.
Eight years ago, she was exercising on machines in a health spa when, Louise recalled, "This guy saw me and he said, 'You wanna lift some real weights?' "
She joined the Van Nuys Weightlifting Club, a group of about 10 lifters supervised by Bob Takano, a biology teacher at Van Nuys High.
Louise, however, quit after only three months when she suffered a back injury.
She did not return until February of 1988.
"I was almost 30," Louise recalled. "I looked in the mirror and said, 'We gotta do something quick.' "
Louise returned to the Van Nuys club where she works out four to five times a week with other members such as Diana Fuhrman, who is first in the nation and fourth in the world in the 67.5-kilogram (148.5 pounds) weight division.
"Carole had a lot of strength to begin with, but at first it was something she was doing to get in shape," said Fuhrman, who is also participating in the Olympic Festival. "I still would like to see her dedicate more time than she does now."
Louise, however, is already strapped for time.
Her "day" begins at 2:30 a.m. when she reports to work as a mail handler for the Postal Service. After eight hours of "swinging 40-pound sacks on and off trucks," she sleeps for a few hours before driving to Van Nuys for her workouts.
Motivation is not always easy to come by.
"Sometimes, I have to force myself to come here," Louise said. "But once you get here and work up a little sweat and see some progress, it makes it OK."
It's also OK for women to lift weights, build muscle and be proud of it, she said. Conveying that message to men and other women is one of Louise's primary goals.
"Millions of women in this country are screwed up because corporate America has this vision of what a woman is supposed to look like," Louise said. "I just want women to know they can be big and strong.
"I'm in my 30s and feel like I'm in my prime. And I think I'm going to be in better shape when I'm 40."