There are some defeats more triumphant than victories. -Michel de Montaigne I began dabbling in Olympic Weightlifting in January of 2012. Dan John taught me to hang snatch with a wooden dowel on the beach at Pacifica, and I did some form of the lifts every day until I underwent the trauma of the Big 21 in June. But without any convenient way to O lift and nothing to train for, I stopped for a year. I picked up the lifts again after my sport psychology internship at San Francisco CrosSFit. This time I decided that I was going to do things right and told Diane Fu the exciting news.
Me: I signed up for the Tommy Kono Open in August.
Fu: Who’s going to coach you?
Me: I was hoping to find a badass lesbian with a lot of tattoos and an Instagram account.
Fu: [blank stare]
In Never Let Go, Dan John says that if you want to learn to throw the discus, sign up for a track meet. If you want to learn to Powerlift, sign up for a powerlifting meet. And if you want to learn the O-lifts, sign up for an Olympic Weightlifting competition. So with the Tommy Kono on the horizon, I have finally been consistently training the Olympic Lifts 6-10 hours a week since June 15th. It’s amazing what a little external motivation can do.
It’s Not Where You Start
I have no business being in a singlet. My femurs are ridiculously long for my height, my arms are comparatively short, and most of the muscle mass on my 77kg frame is in my torso. All of my past athletic competitions have been in fencing, jiujitsu, and distance running which favor slow twitch muscle and grinding-it-out, physical and mental endurance. In fencing, which I did at a pretty high level for 6 years, the tournaments last hours or days and the important bouts aren’t until the very end so the sport favors a slow-burning athlete who can strategize into the all important later hours.
In weightlifting, you have 3 attempts in 2 lifts, each of which might take 6/10 of a second. There are no “all important later hours” in a sport that only lasts 3.6 seconds. When I decided to pursue Olympic lifting, I knew I would be terrible at it, and I relished the opportunity to be terrible. I’m not making excuses; I’m actually pretty good at a lot of athletic things. But I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and apply all of the sport psychology and training skills I have learned in the last 5 years to an endeavor that I should have steered well clear of. I wanted to be a beginner again, I wanted to practice what I preach, and I wanted to do it all in public.
And in the words of the John Family Motto, “it’s not where you start; it’s where you finish.”
You’ve Got to Make The Lift
Since she had six lifters competing that day, Diane Fu asked Patrick Griffin to coach the two lightweight men in competition from FuBarbell. It was our first meet and Patrick’s first meet coaching. Earlier in the week, Pat and I discussed my goals and possible attempts, and we settled on a goal of going 6 for 6. I wanted to make every lift and I didn’t care about the weights I was putting up. And since I’m struggling with pain-induced bar fear at the moment, consistency has been my goal in training as well (my Snatch PR = my Power Snatch PR and I’m pretty sure I could strict press my best Jerk). To go 6 for 6, we settled on some safe openers I knew I could do, day-in-day-out in training; a 50kg Snatch and a 70kg Clean & Jerk. For those of you laughing at these numbers, just wait. It gets worse.
As a Sport Psychology Master’s Candidate, I was most interested in what my mind would do during the meet. Pat kept me busy in warm ups and as my time on the stage drew closer, I became more and more calm. I kept reinforcing this calmness with diaphragmatic breathing, positive affirmations, and relaxing mantras. A tense lifter is a slow lifter and speed is everything when your brain won’t let you dip under a weight because it thinks your armpits might explode. In warm ups, I was so occupied with the million things my brain was doing, I wasn’t thinking about the weights, the lifts, or the competition. Pat told me to put heavy things on a bar, so I did. He told me to throw the bar over my head, so I did. I was doing OK until I mis-loaded my own bar in the warmup room and missed a Snatch with an extra 5kg on the right side. Confidence now shaken, I was even more in my own head. But all the 6th and 8th graders had made their attempts, so it was my turn to be on stage.
The stage didn’t bother me. My loaner extra shorty-shorts singlet didn’t bother me (because my swan-like dancer’s legs are awesome and the envy of every woman I know). The crowd and the lights and the announcer didn’t bother me (I spend a lot of time standing in front of people and talking, so I frankly find it invigorating). What bothered the hell out of me was that the plates were the wrong colors.
You see, when Pat and I agreed on 50kg as my opener, 50kg meant nothing to me. 110lbs didn’t really mean anything to me either. I don’t lift pounds. I lift colors. What I meant to communicate to Pat was that I wanted to lift “greens with some change” for my opener. But there were yellows on the bar on the platform. My brain stopped and all the tension left my body. In every sport I’ve done until now, when the going got tough, the tough relax. That’s great in fencing, running, and jiujitsu, all sports that favor conserving energy and a broad focus. But in weightlifting, a sport that favors relaxation but only to a point, you still have to be able to pick up the damn bar. And even though I’ve successfully snatched yellows in every practice session for the past 2 weeks, I missed my opener.
When the weight hit the platform, I realized something else about competition. That was it. 6/10 of a second. You don’t get another opener. Walking backstage, I knew I would get another chance in the next 2 minutes, but that next lift was now 33% more important. In practice, there’s always another lift if you want it. And there’s always tomorrow if you don’t. In competition, you get three shots per lift and there’s is no meet tomorrow. You’ve Got. To make. The lift.
“You’ve got to make the lift, Stevo.”
Diane had run backstage.
“I want you to get primal on that thing and rip the shit out of it!”
Because she knew exactly what was wrong.
It wasn’t OK. I was telling her, perfectly calmly, that it was hearing what she was saying, but my brain was telling me the exact opposite. I didn’t know how to get into a headspace like that in time for my next attempt. I know how to get mad; I know how to get primal. I know know to hate a weight, but I don’t know how to do those things in 60 seconds when I’ve been telling myself to relax all day. I walked out on the platform mostly because I didn’t know what else to do. I squatted down, slid my left hand out, then my right. I took a few quick shallow breaths and tensed my grip and body hard. I put all my weight on my heels and threw my head up as I pushed the floor away.
And I made the lift.
Of course, I have no idea how I made it. I just kind of went blank. And my immediate reaction to the new flush of confidence was to relax more and place even less importance on the next attempt (Hey, I just made one! What more do you want, brain?). So I walked back out after the bar loaders added another little plate, even calmer than my first attempt, and managed to pull the thing to eye-brow level without getting underneath it. I don’t know if the next sound was the weight hitting the platform or what was left of my confidence, but Snatches complete, I was now 1 for 3, completely numb, and my heart rate was hovering at 45 bpm.
Power Tools and Lowered Expectations
My Clean & Jerk PR in training is 80kg. My opener was supposed to be 70kg. After the snatches, Pat, Di and I decided to drop it to 60kg. My goal was to go 6 for 6. Now it was just to get a total on the board and Clean & Jerks are even scarier to me. I can Clean a lot more than I can Jerk because of some poor shoulder mobility. If I don’t punch my head through and own the Jerk, it feels like I’m getting stabbed in both arm pits. However the FuBarbell/MacGyver solution to this problem is genius: a random orbital car buffer. Pat plugged it in and massaged out my lats, armpits, and ribs and in less 4 minutes I magically had another 50 degrees of resistance-free external rotation and more confidence that I could punch my head though the bar and stick the Jerk. You know what else helps pain? Adrenaline. As I squatted down on the platform and shook out my arms to relax my stinging lats, I thought, “oh, they don’t hurt.” And I easily made my opener.
Pat requested more weight, and two minutes later, I made my next attempt. Clean. Stand up. Dip. Stomp. Stand up. Hold…. and drop it like Chris Rock dropping the mic. Boom. I was 2 for 2. Pat requested 69kg. This is the only number I remember from the entire day. And the only reason I remember it is because deep down, I am still a 14 year old boy and I was really excited that my Clean & Jerk best that day was going to be 69kg. So I walked out onto the platform (heehee… 69…). Shook out my arms. Clean. Stand up. Dip. Stomp. Stand up. Hold…. and drop it like Chris Rock dropping the mic. Boom. I was 3 for 3, and even though it was 1kg under my planned opener I was thrilled to lift 69kg. Except I hadn’t.
I am completely elated with how I performed at the Tommy Kono Open, my first meet. I didn't meet my initial goal, but I had no idea how to conservative I needed to be to make that goal a reality. And the only way I could have learned that lesson was to compete. Besides, in my own small, amateur way, I had brought it on that second Snatch attempt which was my personal moment of victory. So later that day, when I was recounting my 4 for 6 day and Pat had to break the news that my 69kg hadn't counted (I'd pressed it out), I genuinely didn't care. I was still buzzing from the fact that I'd shown up and made any total. I even had to ask him what my numbers were because bizarrely they didn't matter to me in the moment. My lifts were 50kg and 66kg for a total of 116kg. That means I was dead last among all the adults, regardless of weight class. In fact, some of the middle school boys had lifted more than me. But I had signed up, shown up, and totaled at my first meet. And it’s not where you start. And I’m not finished.
Next week: more lessons from competition, more pictures of me in my borrowed singlet, lessons from my 30 minute conversation with the greatest Olympic Weightlifting Champion of all time, and the strongest 19 year old in America who ignores all of them.