Mind Over Matter

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

When the women's competition starts, at noon, there are four contestants, each in a different weight class--which means that everyone will take first place; for Blaskowski, who can lift much more than anyone else here, this is beside the point. There's a big difference between performing in practice and performing under pressure. So during the year-round season, Blaskowski tries to test herself in a meet at least once a month.

Within an hour, all four women are lined up on the platform with medals around their necks, and three are waving at their families. Blaskowski's parents are in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and her sister is in Mankato, probably playing softball. Blaskowski doesn't talk much about her family; lifting is a solitary pursuit for her, not a public performance.

After giving Blaskowski her medal, the meet director announces that she will also receive the award for best women's lifter. He hands her a plaque. Blaskowski shakes hands with him, shakes hands with her competitors, and then she and Stenzel head to the warm-up room. She isn't happy. She'd been planning to snatch 90 kg, and she only made 87.5--and that on her third and final try, after missing it twice.

"I looked up," Blaskowski says. "On that first lift. I didn't look straight ahead. The second one, I don't know."

It's not the first time the snatch has given her trouble. In lifting, you get three attempts at the snatch and then three attempts at the clean and jerk. You need to make at least one of each; your score is the total of your best lifts, one from each category. As a result, lifters usually open with a weight they know they'll make, move on to a weight they might make, and end with a reach.

Blaskowski is developing a habit of struggling with her easy starting weights but nailing the riskier ones. At the World Team Trials last June, and again at the 23 & Under competition in February, Blaskowski missed all three snatches. Both times, her clean and jerks were solid, but it didn't matter. For both meets, her total was zero.

It's hard to design a competition strategy to compensate. What do you do with a lifter who performs best in that narrow margin between less likely and impossible? How do you motivate someone who gets more consistent in direct proportion to the odds against her?

"We talk about just taking the third lift each time," Stenzel says. He's only half joking. Part of the problem is that Blaskowski hasn't been lifting long enough to develop the acute body awareness necessary to make corrections on the fly, in the middle of a meet, when things have started to go wrong.

"It's hard to give her feedback, because you can tell her what you see and she can't feel it," he says. "She's talented, she's had some success, and she knows what she can do. But she doesn't always know what she did when she does it right, and she doesn't know what she did when she does it wrong. And she gets frustrated when she can't fix it right away."

On the three-hour ride home to St. Louis Park, Blaskowski takes the meet apart to examine the pieces for clues. She has numbers in mind that she knows are attainable, even accounting for her body's limits. But lifting requires an infuriating, nearly superhuman level of exactitude. There is no such thing as perfection in a sport that measures technique in millimeters. Once you get one element right, like the precise timing of the shoulder shrug at the top of the pull, something else goes wrong. It's a vicious cycle, a complex system. Still, that doesn't mean you won't come up with solutions.

Last night, for instance, when Stenzel helped Blaskowski move that couch into her apartment, they discovered that it was wider than the door. It took a little longer, and a few rounds of trial and error, but they eventually figured out an angle that worked. When the couch went through, neither of them was surprised. It was simply an example of what can happen when you make the right adjustments.

 

At the Hotel New Yorker, beneath three elaborate chandeliers and a banner that says "USA Weightlifting 2002 Senior Nationals," the lobby is full of people in noisy track suits and Adidas sport sandals. There are two souvenir shops, but nowhere to buy aspirin; which is unfortunate, since it's the second day of competition.

Over by the coffee kiosk, Carrie Boudreau is talking about her injuries, which is how lifters seem to remember each other. She has a child's high voice and long curly hair. "No, no, not my knee," she says. "My wrist. And it's fine now." Finances are another favorite topic of conversation. "Well, I quit teaching for a year," she says. "After I moved in with my boyfriend." At 35, Boudreau is the oldest female lifter competing this weekend (she will place third in her weight class).

In the Tick Tock Diner, which opens off the lobby, a female lifter is having a hamburger for lunch--hold the bun, hold the fries, hold the lettuce, tomato, and mayo.

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