Mind Over Matter

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

The following fall Blaskowski qualified for Junior Nationals, then Junior Worlds. She lifted four or five times a week, after classes. Spring semester, she did track workouts each afternoon with the team, then biked to St. Thomas to lift.

"You do it because there's stuff you want to get done, and you know you can," she says of the regimen. "You do it because you can always do more."

After graduation last summer, she took a job as a mechanical engineer with Deltech, designing heat recovery systems for power plants. It's no small coincidence that Blaskowski has been an engineer as long as she's been a lifter. In both cases she has been trained to take an end result, then design a system that delivers that result reliably. Neither endeavor is given to flights of fancy or leaps of logic; you don't get credit for art. When you don't get the right result, you take the system apart and find the piece or connection that failed. You make the necessary adjustments.

For the past four years, Blaskowski has traveled from work to the gray-and-white weight room at the St. Thomas athletic building. On this afternoon, coach Stenzel is sitting on one of the weight machines that line the concrete block walls, resting in between sets of squats. Blaskowski sits down on a plastic milk crate in the corner and changes into her lifting shoes; they look like tennis shoes, but underneath they have a wooden midsole for stability and a wedge heel to keep her from falling backward when she gets under the bar.

Stenzel has agreed to help Blaskowski move some furniture tonight after practice. "My boss said I can have the couch," she tells him.

"Is it heavy?" he asks.

"He thinks it's heavy. I don't think it is."

During the next hour, there's very little conversation. Stenzel does a set of squats with six plates on each side of the bar, and it bows in the middle, the way barbells do in cartoons. Blaskowski starts her workout with a series of snatches, warming up with light weights. When she finishes a lift and drops the bar, the bumpered metal plates bounce off the rubber lanes cut into the plywood platform. Sometimes she catches the bar at waist level and sets it down gently.

"Good start, Stace," Stenzel says, after about five of these. "They're coming off the floor really nice."

Blaskowski nods, then sets up for the next lift. After her knees are bent and she has gripped the bar, tilted her chin up, and fixed her eyes on the far wall, she hesitates for a split-second. In that instant, her attention reverses direction and she draws inward for a system check: feet? Right. Knees? Good. Back? Straight. Shoulders? Up.

Weightlifting is a complex sport that boils down to a simple truth: You need to cheat gravity. To the spectator, it looks like the arms are crucial, looks like they pull the weight up and out while the legs only unfold to follow it, like a helium balloon that's drifting away. In fact, the arm muscles are almost meaningless; in order to get the weight in the air, you need to turn your body into a lever. The arms function merely as ropes, attaching the bar to the legs and back, the true source of the pull. Precision is key. And when Blaskowski's bar comes up this time, something's off. She gets it up to shoulder level and lets go. The expression on her face doesn't change.

"You've got it in front of you," Stenzel explains.

Blaskowski has to get the bar up and then get under it before gravity wins out over inertia and it starts to come down again. The harder the pull, the faster and higher the weight comes up. The better the pull, the more time she has before the weight starts to go down again.

By the time Blaskowski sets up for her squats it's 6:00 p.m. Stenzel takes a seat on a row of weight plates. He's a big man with large hands and a broad, boyish face. A football player in college, he discovered lifting after graduation. He competed for ten years and qualified for nationals three times.

"It's addictive," he says, looking out the window. "And then it frustrates you."

"Because you know you can do more," Blaskowski says.

"It's just you and the weight," Stenzel says. "You can't blame anything else. It's not the weather. It's not the wind. It's not another person. Sometimes it's the platform, but mostly it's you."

 

The day before Easter, Blaskowski and Stenzel drive three hours north to Brainerd High School for the 2002 Minnesota State Weightlifting Championships. They arrive in the middle of the medal ceremony for the school-age boys. There are eight spectators in the wooden bleachers, and a senior men's lifter is taking a nap against the wall. The boys are practicing break-dancing moves under the basketball hoop while they wait for their names to be called. Eventually, they're all out on the platform with medals around their necks. They kick each other on the way to the locker room.

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