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Heavy Lifting 

Olympic weightlifting: not just for muscled-up meatheads anymore

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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.


"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."

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