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Heavy Lifting

Olympic weightlifting: not just for muscled-up meatheads anymore



I'm looking for the white lights to know I'm still alive. My trainer whispers into the stat keeper's ear, "One hundred kilograms." As the attempt is announced to the crowd, the loaders put more round weights on each end of the barbell.

I don't think, "Oh, shit, this is 220 pounds," even though it's more than I've ever tried to lift before. I don't think anything at all, really. I am focused on nothing but the white lights, the signal that will show if my lift was successful. I slam the wooden heels of my lifting shoes into each other, right on left—clack!—then left on right—clack! Now the crowd noise has died, and the silence mirrors my own intensity. I shrug my shoulders. Deep breath. Bend over, hook-grip the bar. Roll it out, roll it back into my barbell-scarred shins. Squat into position, staring straight ahead. Muscles tense up, the lift begins . . .


Olympic lifting is my sport, but it's not apparent by my looks. I'm not one of those tall dudes with bulging neck veins and biceps the size of semi trucks, grunting and yelling with my eyes popping out of my head while maxing-out weights at the gym. I'm a big guy, but not like a football player. I run a 10-minute mile on a good day. With a tight shirt, I look three months pregnant.

Despite all this, I'm more representative of your average weightlifter than the locker-room meathead stereotype.

Take Santa Rosan Beth Steinmann, 29, whose main source of fitness was yoga before discovering Olympic weightlifting. Steinmann still looks like a yoga enthusiast, nimble and flexible. The snatch and clean and jerk were "strange and alien" lifts when she started about two years ago, but she became stronger than ever through training. "It is empowering for me to get behind the barbell as a tiny person and lift a lot of weight," she says.

Maya Uemura might agree with that. Now 12, she won the USA weightlifting national competition for her age group and weight class last year. "It's fun to compete at weightlifting meets, and it's fun to tell people at school that I'm a weightlifter, because it's unique and they're surprised," says the Santa Rosa resident. "I also want to keep weightlifting so that I don't end up being an old lady with a cane whose back hurts, and I can compete in weightlifting longer than I'll be able to compete in gymnastics."

FORESIGHT Maya Uemura, 12, is thinking decades ahead when it comes to staying fit.
  • FORESIGHT Maya Uemura, 12, is thinking decades ahead when it comes to staying fit.

Flexibility is key in this sport, says Sonoma State University student Juliana Flynn, 18. In high school, her sports were track, cross country and soccer, but she'll compete next month in the Olympic weightlifting Junior Nationals, the top echelon of competition at her age in this country. After trying Olympic lifting a year and a half ago at the urging of her sister Sara (a former gymnast who has several Olympic weightlifting awards in her six years in the sport), Flynn became hooked. "I can be having a really crappy day and just go and lift heavy weights," she says. "It lifts my spirits." And there's the feeling of setting a new personal record, which Flynn calls "the best feeling ever."

Freddie Myles, owner of Myles Ahead Fitness in Petaluma, specializes in Olympic weightlifting. "It's more like gymnastics," he says of the movements. The attitude is also different. "It's positive, mellow, not the stereotypical yelling and stuff. It's not who is lifting the biggest weight; it's about cheering each other on."


At age 70, Penngrove resident Paul Marini isn't trying to set records anymore. He started lifting while in college, and has been at it off and on for the past 35 years, still training four times a week with Myles. Though he looks good for his age, "weightlifter" is not the first term that comes to mind to describe him. "There are not many lifters my age," he says, pointing out that only 4 percent of the 8,000 records in the sport are held by lifters over age 60. His hobby, in addition to lifting, is analyzing data in the sport. He still lifts because it keeps him healthy and flexible, but even after lifting most of his life, "It's a huge challenge to do it correctly," he says.

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