By Jesse Marx
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Next door, at the Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom, a men's competition is under way, and my sister Ingrid takes me to the restricted area, usually open only to coaches and lifters. It's a series of rooms opening onto rooms, a backstage for the backstage. We pass doping control (where medal winners are tested 30 minutes after winning for anabolic steroids and hormones), a medic station, and a chiropractor's table. A few more steps take us to the outer backstage area, where stairs lead down into the ballroom. There, behind the rows of chairs that face the stage, a tall, well-dressed man is thoughtfully watching the men's competition. This is Wes Barnett, the new executive director of USA Weightlifting (USAW).
The door to the pressroom is just behind him. Inside, we sit down at one of a number of empty tables. They've been empty all weekend. This does not make Barnett happy.
He is a three-time Olympian who, in 1992, placed thirteenth in Barcelona, placed sixth in Atlanta four years later, and traveled to Sydney in 2000 as an alternate. These days, he has an office at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. "I'd like to see lifting in the schools," Barnett says. "Right now, it's mostly the local clubs, who work with youth centers that open their doors to the community. Volunteers are doing the work to recruit and develop our future athletic champions."
Barnett was introduced to lifting at one such youth center in St. Joseph, Missouri, when he was 13 years old: "If we want to be competitive internationally, the pipeline has to be strong. We don't want to be sending teams to the Worlds to get 50th place."
This March, worrying about the pipeline became Barnett's job. The 2000 Sydney Olympic games were the first to feature women's weightlifting, and USAW will send four women to Athens in 2004. Blaskowski could be one of them.
For the past two years, Blaskowski has ranked among the top ten U.S. women, regardless of weight class. She was sent to the Olympic trials in 2000, and the World Team trials last year. Though she didn't make the Olympic team, she was sent to the World Cup in Italy, where she placed fourth, and to the Goodwill Games in Australia, where she placed sixth.
As a member of USAW's squad, she receives $200 a month to help ease some of the pressures that come from balancing a world-class athletic career with things like rent and bills. This stipend is a reward for reaching a qualifying total in competition, and it's paid out for a full year. Last year Blaskowski's highest total was 200 kg--that's 440 pounds--which she posted at the American Open and again at nationals. There are a handful of top lifters who have reached an even higher total and receive five times what she does, plus bonuses for breaking records in national and international meets.
"We need to be smart and strategic about how we use our resources," Barnett explains. "We want to make sure we're backing the best."
For USAW, "best" is a straightforward calculus. Either a lifter makes a lift or she doesn't. Either she can repeat it in competition or she can't. It doesn't matter how much she wants to make it or what her potential might be. Performance is the only thing that matters.
As the time passes, Barnett becomes restless. "Do you mind if we go back out?" he asks finally. "I'd like to see the end of this competition."
We stand at the back of the ballroom. It is the last competition of the day, and the air is hazy with chalk dust. "Good lifters do it the same way every time," he says, nodding at the stage, where a lifter who lives at the training center is setting up for his clean and jerk. "You practice and practice until it's hardwired. You want to be able to turn off your brain and go."
It's a variation on the same theme I've been hearing all weekend. It is said that if you film a world-class lifter doing four separate lifts, and then lay those filmstrips on top of each other, you will see a single image. Success comes from finding a process that works, and then keeping your mind out of the way and your body healthy long enough to repeat it again and again and again.
There are some lifters who find this kind of athletic self-effacement difficult. This is not a sport for showboats; but Blaskowski---with her love of routine, her innate strength and flexibility, her history of hard work, and her ability to repeatedly tolerate frustration without quitting --seems to have been custom-designed for it.
Blaskowski makes her first appearance of the weekend at the weigh-in on Saturday, taking a seat with the other middleweight lifters on a row of chairs in the hallway. Some lifters crash diet in the days leading up to competition, but Blaskowski rarely has to worry about making weight. In fact, she is usually among the lightest in her class, a fact that can only work to her advantage: If there is a tie in a given weight class, the lighter lifter wins.