That was the overall tenor of the city during the weekend of December 6-8, when Dallas, Texas, was hit by two devastating forces of nature: the arrival of over 400 feral weightlifters and 1.2 inches of snow.* I remember waking up Friday morning and seeing news reports on the hotel’s TV that made it sound as though the sun had gone out and the city was experiencing a zombie apocalypse, all at the same time.
“Stay indoors!” was the universal cry from newscasters bundled up like Antarctic explorers, standing in snow that reached nearly to their toenails.
Not since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii has a city been so thoroughly caught with its pants down in the face of natural disaster. Or in this case, light precipitation. Dallas had been receiving warnings of winter weather for days, of course, but the Texans responded by doing what comes naturally when unpleasant things head their way: attempting to secede from the Union. When that didn’t work they attempted to secede from American weather patterns, and when told this was “scientifically impossible”, they attempted to secede from science.
The result was total chaos. About
250,000 a billion people had no power, roads became impromptu ski slaloms, and the Dallas-FortWorth airport became the nexus for air travel disruptions likely to last until the next ice age. The only advice from the government was to barricade yourself inside and, like a true Texan, shoot anything suspicious. Anyone stuck outside was advised to find a tauntaun to cut open and sleep in until the whole thing blew over or Han Solo was able to contact base.** If no tauntauns were around then Butch Curry would serve as a suitable substitute.
Fortunately, the lights (and heat) stayed on all weekend at the glorious Westin Hotel, which played host to the American Open and all the attendant madness.
And it was madness, as can be expected any time you shoehorn several hundred weightlifters into one building. But consider that this wasn’t just any weightlifting meet; this was to be the largest meet of 2013 in the world.*** Yes, the American Open was bigger than the 2013 World Championships.
The meet was supposed to have something on the order of 460 athletes (sadly, none of whom was Lu Xioajun). That’s a truly staggering number, especially for those of us who’ve been in the sport long enough to remember a time when it felt like there weren’t 460 lifters at any level, let alone at the national level. The driving force behind this growth—to absolutely no one’s surprise—is of course Mike Graber. I mean CrossFit. Although the former probably doesn’t hurt either.
[Insert obligatory paragraph about how CrossFit is driving growth in Olympic lifting and blah blah blah]
Of course, CrossFit also means the dynamic of the sport is changing. The general cost of the outfits on display, for example, has skyrocketed. At my first few national meets, way back in the aughts, an entire room full of lifters probably didn’t have $90 of clothing on between them. Coincidentally, $90 is what it costs to buy half a pant leg from lululemon, the de facto uniform of choice for CrossFitters. Beards, too, seem to be a part of this shift. There’s probably some sort of mathematical way to examine all this, calculating the number of lululemon items and the ratio of bearded to non-bearded men and the number of t-shirts that make explicit reference to Jesus and weightlifting. (Apparently Jesus was a huge fitness fan, which is news to exactly everybody who actually knows anything about the historical Jesus.)
Peculiarities aside, the CrossFit crowd has certainly brought some life into the sport. And perhaps more importantly, it’s brought an extraordinary number of talented female athletes: for what might have been the first time ever, a US national meet had more women than men registered as competitors.
To accommodate the great number of athletes the organizers decided to do a three-platform setup on Friday, followed by two platforms Saturday and Sunday for the A session lifting. Naturally, tensions were high in the days and hours before the meet. Would the multiple platforms work? Would there be enough judges? Does Mike Graber have enough changes of outfits?
When one of the platforms broke within about 30 seconds of the competition starting on Friday I was concerned that it was a harbinger of things to come. And then the computer system—an old Commodore 64 running a stripped down version of Oregon Trail for an operating system—kept repeatedly crashing. The possibility for total physical and mental collapse was very high…
But somehow it all worked. Not only did it work, but it turned out to be a damn fine competition, with some very good lifting in a number of sessions. Beyond the lifting, the sheer energy of the place was something to behold. No doubt this was due to a number of factors: the fact that lifting or training was taking place at almost every moment for the entire weekend; the presence of so many athletes and coaches, both old and new, rubbing shoulders; and the slightly manic buzz that comes from being cooped up in a hotel with nowhere to go for days on end with large groups of people wearing ridiculously expensive stretchy pants.
But I’ll gladly take the frenzied edge of a nearly 500-person competition if it means a bigger audience for our sport. This is not to say everything was perfect, or that we should rebrand ourselves as a boiled-down, cardio-free version of CrossFit. We shouldn’t, and part of the challenge to anyone in Olympic lifting is to preserve the essential core of what makes our sport unique while adapting it to a changing competitive environment. But spending a weekend watching weightlifting legends of the past mingle with a new crowd of athletes and coaches who are genuinely excited about the sport is a fantastic thing to behold.
Consider that on Saturday night I watched the 77s lift in a space so crowded it was standing room only. Four lifters in this session totaled 300 or more, with James Tatum—and his extraordinary beard—pulling out an impressive 170 clean and jerk for the win with a 315 total. Three of the top four lifters snatched 140 or more, and all clean and jerked over 160.
Then on Sunday Muhammad Begaliev—of Human Circus 2013 fame—went against MDUSA’s Travis Cooper in the 85s, with the former coming out on top with a 342 total (157 and 185).
Unfortunately, by then I was in the midst of what would become an 8-hour ordeal at the DFW airport. Troubles started early for me, when an overzealous TSA worker nearly had me detained for attempting to smuggle a jar of peanut butter in my carry-on bag.
“It’s the same consistency as plastic explosives!” she declared, perhaps expecting gratitude for having saved me from eating an exploding sandwich. I tried to reason with her—it was crunchy, for god’s sake!—but reasoning with a TSA worker is as unpleasant as sleeping inside a tauntaun.
Still, at least there was a webcast, and in general it worked exceptionally well for the duration of the weekend. (And I hear they had some excellent announcers…) This is a far cry from a time not-so-long ago, in a weightlifting galaxy not-so-far away, when a webcast seemed as technologically unfeasible for this sport as getting the computer system to work (we’re still working on the latter). As most can attest who were at the Westin in Dallas during the Blizzard of ’13 and the
CrossFit American Open, it’s an exciting time to be in the sport.
** Although apparently sleeping in tauntauns isn’t a great idea, per this article.
*** Technically, there was a Masters competition that was larger.