North Dakota teen’s journey from premature birth to powerlifting record books

The road from premature birth to powerlifting record holder hasn’t been an easy one for Dickinson's McKenzie Haven, who relies on her family and trainer to help with ongoing struggles with hyper anxiety.

Mckenzie Haven training for a local competition coming up in September. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)

DICKINSON, N.D. — Contractions at 24 weeks is never a good sign and Sarita Haag knew it. Something was wrong and answers were few and far between.

Within hours a team of doctors and nurses would bring McKenzie Haven into this world early and, at 1 pound, 9 ounces, she would be rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with a gloomy prognosis and few answers.

As McKenzie battled for survival, doctors projected impossibly low statistical chances of survival — seemingly impossible.

Seventeen years later, Haven holds three North Dakota state powerlifting records and soon will be competing at the World Championships in California.


Mckenzie Haven with her mother Sarita Haag posing with the newspaper snippets from 2004 of Haven being born prematurely at 24 weeks. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)

Haven, just like any other teenager, spends her time focused on school, working for a little bit of gas money and is trying to figure out life. But when she broke a national record in powerlifting this year, she accomplished something seemingly impossible — again.

The road from premature birth to powerlifting record holder hasn’t been an easy one for the Dickinson native, who relies on her family and trainer to help with ongoing struggles with hyper anxiety.

It was during her sophomore year that Haven was diagnosed with a functional neurological disorder, also known as a conversion disorder, that caused her to lose the control of her leg muscles and even caused non-epileptic seizures lasting up to three hours.

But again, she fought. And again, she was victorious.

The correlation between persistent episodes and high stress and anxiety, left her powerless. As a result, Haven made the decision to quit school extracurriculars — among them, her Dickinson High School Midgets girls varsity hockey team.

“With my disorder, it came out of the blue and I tried to (keep playing hockey), but it was too hard. Mentally I was in a bad place, so it just didn't work out that well,” Haven said. “It was really rough and I just needed to take care of myself before I could do anything else.”

With a void in her life left from team athletics, and with her anxiety episodes continuing, Haven looked for a release. She remembered the enjoyment that lifting weights provided when she was involved in sports and so her mother contacted The Pit Strength and Fitness, a local powerlifting gym. There they made contact with her trainer, Cody Chapel.


It would turn out to be the perfect pairing.

Trainer Cody Chapel. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)

Chapel, an Arizona native, has been powerlifting since 2011 and training and coaching for eight years. He moved to Dickinson to attend Dickinson State University to study psychology with a desire to bring clinical therapy to a gym setting — melding physicality and psychology. Chapel himself started powerlifting to battle his own temperament, quickly finding release and benefits. It was his own personal struggles that he used to help Haven find comfort in her struggles.

“I had some depression and anxiety issues after getting out of the national guard, so I just started going to the gym and realized I was strong and found the sport of powerlifting,” Chapel said. “It helped me pull out of that and helped me with my mental health. I loved it so much that I became a trainer and a coach.”

The unlikely duo, a 6-foot, 350-pound veteran and the 17-year-old -girl, worked hand-in-hand in achieving their goals of mental health and physical dominance.

“At first it was kind of weird because we didn't know each other that much and it was awkward for me to be in the gym,” Haven said. “Now, we can talk about anything, joke about anything. It's improved a lot.”

Haven added, “Cody asked me if I wanted to do the competition that was in April and it turned out I really liked it.”


The Pit Strength and Fitness held the first ever drug-tested competition in North Dakota last April, in which both Haven and Chapel completed and earned qualification to the United States Powerlifting Association’s drug tested National Championship.

Drug tested competitions in powerlifting is a division where 10 percent of the top Dynamic Objective Team Scoring System (DOTS) scores will be subject to taking a urinalysis to test for banned substances.

The USPA drug tested National competition was July 12 through 16 in Palm Springs, California. The two athletes not only took home gold for their class, but set several records at the state, national and world level.

Haven competed in the raw 90kg+ junior division, for the 16-17 age group, where she set three state records. In the squat she lifted 297.5 pounds, on bench she lifted 154.3 pounds and in deadlift secured a successful lift at 330.7 pounds — racking up a national record for total weight at 782.7 pounds and taking Gold in women's raw full power division for her age and weight.

Mckenzie posing with her gold medals that she won including at the 2021 USPA National Powerlifting Championship. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)

The duo will now compete in the drug tested IPL Worlds Championships that will be in November in Costa Mesa, California — where both have their eyes set on being world champions.

Haven’s mother recalled a moment at the airport following nationals that highlighted her daughter’s shy and humble demeanor.


“On our way home somebody at the airport asked what we were traveling for and she (Haven) said she was in a competition. He asked, ‘What kind of competition?’ She said, ‘I was in a powerlifting competition.’ They said, ‘Wow, that sounds really cool. How did you do?’ She goes, ‘I did good.’ And that's all she had to say about it,” Haag said. “And here was mom saying, ‘No, she took Gold, she qualified for the worlds and broke a national record. She did amazing!”

Haag expressed her gratitude for what powerlifting brought to Haven’s life, and how rewarding the hard work put into it has been in her daughter overcoming her mental health struggles.

Since starting in powerlifting, stress episodes have decreased dramatically, Haag said.

“As a parent it is really relieving to see her belong to something again and to just be loved, supported and cheered for,” Haag said. “To say that I am proud of her is an understatement. She put in the work and it shows.”

Josiah C. Cuellar was born in San Angelo, Texas, a small rural community in the western part of the state known for its farming, ranching and beautiful Concho River. A Texas A&M San Antonio graduate specializing in multi-media reporting, Cuellar is an award winning photographer and reporter whose work focuses on community news and sports.
What To Read Next
Get Local