Mind Over Matter

The only thing that could stop weightlifter Stacie Blaskowski from winning a third national title is Stacie Blaskowski

A KILOGRAM IS 2.2046 POUNDS.

In the right shoes, my sister Ingrid can clean and jerk 105 kilograms, or 231.5 pounds--which is roughly equivalent to grabbing Sylvester Stallone at the collar and knees and hoisting him over her head.

Two years ago Ingrid was working as a strength coach at the College of William and Mary, where she designed training programs for athletes. The college wanted her to get certified in Olympic lifting, so they sent her to a weekend workshop to learn the sport's two lifts--the snatch and the clean and jerk.

When she first tried the snatch, she lifted the starting weight of 15 kilos easily, pulling the 33-pound barbell off the floor in a single vertical motion, so that it came straight up and stopped overhead. The man leading the workshop, a lifter and a coach at a gym called East Coast Gold, added some weight to each end.

"Try again," he said. She did, bringing it up and balancing the weight at arm's length overhead. He added more weight. She did it again. And she kept lifting, until she topped out at 65 kilos, or 143 pounds, which was just about what she weighed. The same thing happened with the clean and jerk: A loaded bar was sitting on the floor; she hauled it up to chest height, paused, then pushed it over her head.

"I've never seen such natural ability!" the coach exclaimed. "You should compete." A few weeks later Ingrid entered a local meet. In the snatch competition, and again in the clean and jerk, she sat and watched all her competitors exhaust themselves. Then she went out and won.

Ingrid went about organizing her life around lifting. She worked part-time, scheduling clients so she could train four times a week, often alone, in a garage, with borrowed weights. Then, in April 2001, she flew to Shreveport, Louisiana, for the USA Weightlifting National Championships.

The dominant competitor in Ingrid's weight class was Stacie Blaskowski, a senior in engineering at the University of Minnesota who had won first place at nationals in 2000. (In women's weightlifting there are seven weight classes. Essentially, Blaskowski is a middleweight at 69 kg.) In Shreveport, Blaskowski was competing with a broken back, a compression fracture in one of her vertebrae that had been there for months and refused to heal--probably because she refused to stop lifting long enough to let it.

Ingrid lifted 82.5 kg in the snatch and 95 kg in the clean and jerk, placing fifth in her weight class. Blaskowski lifted 90 kg and 110 kg, enough to win for the second year in a row. There were no victory speeches, no champagne. To celebrate, Blaskowski and her coach simply went out to dinner. The next day they flew home and started back to work.

Last month Blaskowski traveled to Manhattan for the 2002 U.S. nationals. After she checked into the hotel, she found the backstage lifting platforms and had a short practice. Later that night, while other lifters were starting to socialize in the lobby, she walked with her coach, Ty Stenzel, to the Empire State Building.

It was a clear night, and from the observation deck on the 86th floor Blaskowski could see to the edges of the island. Down below was the hotel where they were staying. As she looked out over the city, she thought about the practice lifts she'd just finished, how crisp they were. Forget the rib she'd broken this fall. Forget the two months she'd been forced to take off while she healed. Forget that her snatch was sometimes a little wobbly in competition. These days, she was nailing 90 kg in practice, and following up with 95. Her lifts were coming off the floor nicely. Everything looked online for a third national title.

"Oh yeah," she thought. "This is going to be a good meet."

 

A month before nationals, on a cold, rainy Good Friday, Blaskowski leaves work at 4:00 p.m. and drives to the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The athletic building is locked for the holiday, and the hallways are dark; but coach Ty Stenzel's wife Decia is waiting to open the door.

Blaskowski is a small, compact woman. Walking, she looks like a capital T, with a strong back, narrow hips, and arms that are stiff at the elbows. In conversation, she keeps her face slightly turned away--you speak to her shoulders first.

When she was ten years old, Blaskowski started running track in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Eight years later she joined the U of M's track team as a sprinter. That same year the women's pole vault debuted as a college sport, and Blaskowski was one of two women on the team willing to give it a try. Near the end of her freshman year in college, her track coach called up Stenzel, who is a strength coach at St. Thomas, and said, I think I've got a lifter for you.

"She's really strong, she's really flexible, and she's really hardworking," Stenzel remembers the track coach saying. Stenzel and his wife were competing as weightlifters then, and Blaskowski started working out with them. She didn't require a lot of attention. In fact, Stenzel quickly discovered that a hands-on approach could be counterproductive. Blaskowski was stubborn, easily frustrated, and harder on herself than any coach could be.

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