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Heavy Lifting 

Olympic weightlifting: not just for muscled-up meatheads anymore

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I'm looking for the white lights to know I'm still alive. My trainer whispers into the stat keeper's ear, "One hundred kilograms." As the attempt is announced to the crowd, the loaders put more round weights on each end of the barbell.

I don't think, "Oh, shit, this is 220 pounds," even though it's more than I've ever tried to lift before. I don't think anything at all, really. I am focused on nothing but the white lights, the signal that will show if my lift was successful. I slam the wooden heels of my lifting shoes into each other, right on left—clack!—then left on right—clack! Now the crowd noise has died, and the silence mirrors my own intensity. I shrug my shoulders. Deep breath. Bend over, hook-grip the bar. Roll it out, roll it back into my barbell-scarred shins. Squat into position, staring straight ahead. Muscles tense up, the lift begins . . .

CLEANING UP MISCONCEPTIONS

Olympic lifting is my sport, but it's not apparent by my looks. I'm not one of those tall dudes with bulging neck veins and biceps the size of semi trucks, grunting and yelling with my eyes popping out of my head while maxing-out weights at the gym. I'm a big guy, but not like a football player. I run a 10-minute mile on a good day. With a tight shirt, I look three months pregnant.

Despite all this, I'm more representative of your average weightlifter than the locker-room meathead stereotype.

Take Santa Rosan Beth Steinmann, 29, whose main source of fitness was yoga before discovering Olympic weightlifting. Steinmann still looks like a yoga enthusiast, nimble and flexible. The snatch and clean and jerk were "strange and alien" lifts when she started about two years ago, but she became stronger than ever through training. "It is empowering for me to get behind the barbell as a tiny person and lift a lot of weight," she says.

Maya Uemura might agree with that. Now 12, she won the USA weightlifting national competition for her age group and weight class last year. "It's fun to compete at weightlifting meets, and it's fun to tell people at school that I'm a weightlifter, because it's unique and they're surprised," says the Santa Rosa resident. "I also want to keep weightlifting so that I don't end up being an old lady with a cane whose back hurts, and I can compete in weightlifting longer than I'll be able to compete in gymnastics."

click to enlarge FORESIGHT Maya Uemura, 12, is thinking decades ahead when it comes to staying fit.
  • FORESIGHT Maya Uemura, 12, is thinking decades ahead when it comes to staying fit.

Flexibility is key in this sport, says Sonoma State University student Juliana Flynn, 18. In high school, her sports were track, cross country and soccer, but she'll compete next month in the Olympic weightlifting Junior Nationals, the top echelon of competition at her age in this country. After trying Olympic lifting a year and a half ago at the urging of her sister Sara (a former gymnast who has several Olympic weightlifting awards in her six years in the sport), Flynn became hooked. "I can be having a really crappy day and just go and lift heavy weights," she says. "It lifts my spirits." And there's the feeling of setting a new personal record, which Flynn calls "the best feeling ever."

Freddie Myles, owner of Myles Ahead Fitness in Petaluma, specializes in Olympic weightlifting. "It's more like gymnastics," he says of the movements. The attitude is also different. "It's positive, mellow, not the stereotypical yelling and stuff. It's not who is lifting the biggest weight; it's about cheering each other on."

click to enlarge FREDDIE MYLES
  • FREDDIE MYLES

At age 70, Penngrove resident Paul Marini isn't trying to set records anymore. He started lifting while in college, and has been at it off and on for the past 35 years, still training four times a week with Myles. Though he looks good for his age, "weightlifter" is not the first term that comes to mind to describe him. "There are not many lifters my age," he says, pointing out that only 4 percent of the 8,000 records in the sport are held by lifters over age 60. His hobby, in addition to lifting, is analyzing data in the sport. He still lifts because it keeps him healthy and flexible, but even after lifting most of his life, "It's a huge challenge to do it correctly," he says.

TECHNIQUE WITH STRENGTH

This sport only uses two lifts: the snatch, and the clean and jerk. Both involve a loaded barbell lifted from the ground over one's head. The snatch uses one movement to accomplish this and the clean and jerk, as its name implies, uses two. This also means more weight can be lifted in this lift, but champions are determined by the total of the best of both lifts out of three attempts for each.

click to enlarge YOUNG BLOOD Athena Schrijver, 11, holds 55 pounds over her head.
  • YOUNG BLOOD Athena Schrijver, 11, holds 55 pounds over her head.

The world record is held by Hossein Rezazadeh, an Iranian whose body looks more like a walrus than an Olympic athelete. His 263 kilogram (580 pound) clean and jerk at the 2004 Olympics remains unbeaten, as does his 472 kilogram (1,041 pound) total at the 2000 Olympics. The snatch record is also held by a gigantic Iranian, Behdad Salimi, at 214 kilograms (472 pounds).

Raising 580 pounds above one's head might seem a job for Hercules alone. But Olympic lifting is less about being the strongest or the most fit, and more about speed and mental toughness. The technique for both lifts begins with a deadlift, and the transfer of energy into the hips bumps the bar just high enough to allow a lifter to push himself under the bar for the split second that it defies gravity, catching it in a squat so low his butt nearly touches the ground. Then it's a simple matter of standing up from this hyperextended position—with, you know, 500 extra pounds.

Weights for the snatch are significantly lower than for the clean and jerk because the catch must be overhead, with elbows locked out, before standing. The clean only requires a catch at chest level before standing, and the lift is completed with the jerk, tossing the weight up from chest position and pushing onself under, locking out the elbows in a low lunge position before standing up and bringing both feet together. These lifts are among the most explosive movements in the Olympics.

"Every athlete that comes in, that's what they're looking for," says John Cortese, 26, owner of Olympic-lifting-focused Cortese Training Systems in Napa. He specializes in using the Olympic lifts to improve performance in other sports. "If you really break it down, agility is basically ability to absorb force."

In that case, throwing hundreds of pounds from the ground over one's head is probably a good way to build agility.

INNER COMPETITION

"My friends have watched me lift," says Kaylie Clark, 17, of Santa Rosa. "They're surprised. They think it's like bodybuilding. But it's not; it's about technique with strength." Wearing a hoodie with the word "Love" printed across the front, Clark completes a 50 kilogram snatch lift with no problem, despite never having lifted that much before.

She was in gymnastics before being concinved to try Olympic lifting a few months ago. "As of now, I'd like to go far in the sport," she says. Already on her way, she'll be competing in the Junior Nationals with Flynn, who trains in the same studio. "We're not competing against each other—more against ourselves," Clark says with a smile. Her movitation isn't in being better than her peers, she says, but in the feeling of accomplishment after a successful lift.

The same goes for John-Logan Coots, wearing a shirt that reads "Till I Collapse." He was analyzing his lifts with coach Freddie Myles last week using a laptop camera and barbell tracking system. The big screen on the wall showed a slight flaw at the top of his lift, causing a bit of instability. Coots, who trains four times a week with Myles, owns Powerfit Personal Training in Rohnert Park and trains Olympic lifters (including myself). He trains in the same class as those he might face in competition as well as other trainers, including Cortese. As Marini points out, "Freddie is well regarded as a trainer of trainers."

Joanna Sapir, 38, wears a "Find Your Inner Badass" shirt while stretching after working on the clean and jerk at Myles Ahead. She owns CrossFit Santa Rosa, and started training over four years ago to learn the lifts she would be teaching before opening Santa Rosa's first CrossFit location (there are now three). "It's a clear metaphor for life," she says of Olympic lifting. "You can't predict it, but if you put the work in, it will pay off. It's a long journey."

She started working out, she says, because she was looking to lose weight after having two kids. The former soccer star found Olympic lifting to her liking. "When I don't do it, I dream of doing it," she says. The sense of personal accomplishment is what keeps her coming back. "It's one on one, just you and the bar."

GAINING MOMENTUM

CrossFit has exploded in popularity in the past couple years, due in large part to the CrossFit Games. The international fitness competition will likely have over 100,000 participants this year, up from 70,000 last year. After picking up sponsorship from Reebok the games were televised nationally on ESPN last year, and top CrossFit Games athletes will appear on the upcoming season of The Biggest Loser.

Cortese says CrossFit has really brought the "secret" of Olympic lifting out of the gym and into the limelight. "A huge part of CrossFit is the Olympic lifts. Before that, you'd never see bumper plates in commerical gyms." In the past four years, USA Weightlifting, the governing body of the sport in this country, has seen an increase in members, some estimates putting the boost as high as 30 percent (a spokesperson at the organization did not have exact figures).

CrossFit is one of the few franchise gyms that focuses on the sport as part of overall fitness, and Sapir has doubled the number of Olympic lifting classes she offers. Competitors in the CrossFit Games focus on Olympic lifting, she says, since "that's the weak link in their performance, because it's the hardest thing they do."

MENTAL MUSCLE

So it's not necessarily about strength, and it's not entirely about flexibility. But it's more than just technique. It's about mental toughness. "The more you think, it kind of backfires on you a bit," says Cortese. "The best lifters are the ones who just go up to the bar and do it."

Flynn agrees. "This is really a mental sport," she says. "You push yourself to keep going. You tell yourself you can do it."

click to enlarge BACKBREAKER Freddie Myles assists USC decathalon athlete Jemal Williams, 19, with a lift in Petaluma.
  • BACKBREAKER Freddie Myles assists USC decathalon athlete Jemal Williams, 19, with a lift in Petaluma.

Woodacre resident Tamara Holland, 51, has been lifting for a year. Olympic lifting is "very humbling," she says. But the strength and confidence she gains from the sport is worth it. Like most lifters, she doesn't look like someone to be afraid of in a dark alley, but make no mistake: she's sizing up everyone around her.

"It's really fun looking around, knowing I can deadlift people," she says.

WHITE LIGHT, WHITE HEAT

With every muscle pulled tight, I deadlift nearly my own weight and bump the bar against my thighs, propelling it straight up with enough force to give myself time to get underneath and catch it on my collarbone. Balancing for a second, I stand to complete the front squat and a successful clean of 100 kilograms. Air is a precious commodity now, and I should wait to catch my breath. But adrenaline is fading fast. I gasp and toss the weight above my head with all remaining strength. Simultaneously throwing my legs into a lunge while pushing myself under the bar to lock out my arms, my feet land with the loud thwack of my wood-heeled shoes on the platform. My arms lock enough to ensure the weight doesn't fall, and I stand up, feet together, to see white lights staring me in the face.

Two hundred and twenty pounds. Just like that, I am still alive in this competition.

  • Olympic weightlifting: not just for muscled-up meatheads anymore

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