Mind Over Matter

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

Her face is expressionless, and she won't meet anyone's eyes. She's got two hours before her competition, and even her shoulders look scared.

Ninety minutes later, she arrives backstage. All around her, lifters are stripping off their track suits and stretching. They take turns on the platforms, warming up with light weights while coaches watch their technique. Blaskowski heads for a folding chair. Stenzel sits beside her.

She is still wearing her warm-up suit when she's called onstage for the introductory lineup. She files out and faces the stagelights, the judges, the officials, and several hundred spectators. Afterward, she returns to her chair and sits again, her elbows on her knees, her attention drawn so far inside that she looks like she's underwater. She stays that way even after the meet has started.

Just before she's finally called onstage for her first snatch, Blaskowski takes a few practice lifts. She nails the first snatch, increases the bar to 85 kilos, and nails that one, too. She strips down to her singlet, runs a quick system check, and likes what she finds.

Later, she'll confide that while she was standing in the wings, watching another lifter finish, looking out at the lights and the people, she was certain she was ready. "I was thinking: 'Oh yeah. This is definitely going to be a good day,'" she says.

It's over quickly.

Blaskowski's first snatch attempt is 90 kg; it doesn't even clear her knees. She lets the bar go and walks offstage.

"Here it goes again," she thinks, not wanting to think it, wanting to be able to turn her brain off, because emotions like these can throw off the system. She's not sure what happened. Even out on the platform she thought she was going to make it.

The snatch should occur in a single vertical plane. When the bar arrives at chest height, it should still be traveling upward, and Blaskowski should swing her body under it, dropping into a squat so that when the weight starts to come down she is underneath to catch it.

The second lift never quite gets that far. It stops at her waist, too low to catch. Blaskowski steps offstage. She has no idea what's going wrong. "You can do this every damn time in practice," she tells herself. "The bar's the same. The weight's the same." She can feel herself getting frustrated. "You're either going to make it or you're going to be a terrible failure." She takes a deep breath, then returns to the platform.

"Come on, Stacie. Speed, now. Speed," someone yells. She assumes her starting position, pauses, and pulls.

For a moment, it seems like it could go either way. The bar comes up. It reaches her chest. Then it starts to descend. She drops, but it's too late, it's too low to get under. It's going down whether she likes it or not.

"No," she thinks, even as she is walking offstage. "Let me try again."

 

Engineers don't spend a lot of time asking why a thing does what it does. Things do what they're built for. In fact, they have a saying: A thing is what a thing does.

Even when the system doesn't produce the right results, Blaskowski quickly resumes her routine. That night, just as they did a year ago, she and Stenzel go out for dinner, then take a long walk through the city. They walk to Times Square, then to Rockefeller Center. Every ten minutes or so, Blaskowski replays the meet in her head.

Did that happen? she asks herself. No, it couldn't have happened. And then the sick feeling in her stomach reminds her that it did, and each time she thinks: What you came for is over.

For two hours, coach and athlete talk about lifting, about what went wrong and what's next. Technique is part of the problem. Her snatches are good, but they're not consistent, so they will drill on technique. To give her balance and confidence, they'll spend more time building strength. She'll work on her mindset. She'll work on not getting frustrated.

At the U of M, when Blaskowski came home from lifting competitions, her roommates used to ask: "Did you get first place again?"

"Well, yes," she'd say, "but that's not the point. I didn't lift well."

"You never say you lift well," they'd say.

In three days Blaskowski will be back in the gym. She won't be working out exactly--she'll be taking some time off, taking it easy on her knees (during her last clean and jerk in New York, she dropped the bar on them). But she'll be checking in. She'll be taking her measure. And she'll have three things out in front of her: goals that are still attainable, a system built to deliver them, and a year to make the necessary adjustments.

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