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.

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.

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.

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.

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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