Houston 2015 behind-the-scenes: The Warmup Room

When I went to my first World Championshipss way back in 2010 the experience was very much a guerrilla affair: I arrived with no tickets, no media pass, and no clue how I was going to gain entry into anything. Paying seemed out of the question, which is a pretty typical mindset for a weightlifter. Fortunately, things somehow worked out, and despite a few run ins with people in charge I more or less made it through unscathed, with consistent access to the training hall and competition venue. The only area off limits then—and every year following—was the warmup area.

But that all changed this year. Thanks to an unexpected windfall of good luck hard work, I managed to get a media pass that included “Field of Play” in its access areas—in short, the Holy Grail of a major weightlifting meet: the warmup room. (More on why I had that later.)

Unfortunately, not all of us chose our media passes so wisely...

Unfortunately, not all of us chose our media passes so wisely…

Even though I had a legitimate pass for the warmup room, every time I stepped in I felt like I was gate crashing a party that I was bound to be thrown out of at some point. It was simply too good to be true. There was a constant tension between enjoying the spectacle of the behind-the-scenes competition and the near-constant anxiety that my media pass would turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight. 

the fact that my phone takes panoramas like this, despite my total lack of photographic know-how, has convinced me it works via magic...

the fact that my phone takes panoramas like this, despite my total lack of photographic know-how, has convinced me it works via magic…

But somehow I made it through the week without being kicked out for trying to touch one of Lu Xiaojun’s intercostals (I’m told they have the miraculous power to heal bad lifting). I cannot even begin to describe the self-control that took, or the willpower required not to join in the celebrations of the Russian team when Artem Okulov won the 85s (I’m not even sure if it’s still legal for that many grown men to hug each other in Russia).

I could only control myself for so long...

I could only control myself for so long…

Wait, where was I? All this talk of intercostals and sweaty Russians has me a bit off track… Right! The warmup room. Anyone who’s been to a warmup room at a hotly contested national event knows that there is a competition that takes place off the platform: a degree of posturing and jockeying for unspoken superiority via body language and nonverbal cues. Things are no different at an international meet, except they’re happening with athletes who don’t just think they’re the best in the world, they are the best in the world.

Interestingly, the most intense warmup rooms—the ones that were the most charged with athletic energy—were for the lighter men’s classes: the 56-, 62-, and 69-kilo categories. It was in these sessions that lifters spoke not just via body language—aggressively dropping bars and strutting with the sort of confidence usually reserved for when you’ve just sacked a medium-sized city—but through vocalizations, as well. Many of the athletes who were fighting for the top positions were loud, shouting seemingly at random: before lifts, during lifts, after lifts, simply for the joy of hearing their own impressively manly vocal chords echo through the space. In the 62s I watched North Korea’s Kim Un Guk shout the entire time he followed a snatch down to the floor after one warmup. It was almost operatic in its power, volume, and clarity. 

And it wasn’t just athletes shouting: coaches often got in on the action. Sometimes the Chinese teams sounded like they were a chorus, singing/shouting in harmony. There are barbershop quartets out there who would envy their of rhythm and timing.

But there are a few exceptions here worth mentioning: first, the Russians that I observed were almost uniformly quiet. Oleg Chen, in the 69s, didn’t so much as grunt during his warmups. Watch this video and try to find him make a sound (other than the noise of his feet hitting the platform and breaking the sound barrier):

Nothing! The guy was a monk. Unlike a mullet, he was business in the front and back. [NB: speaking of mullets, if you haven’t already seen Kianoush Rostami’s headshot from the 2012 London Games now is a good time to check it out.] And from what I saw, Chen’s teammates were similarly reserved. Which is not to say they weren’t intense—it was simply a different type of intensity, more internal than external. 

The other exception: the 77 A session. Here the energy was interesting. I was only in the warmup room for the snatches, but there was very little yelling or posturing that I could discern. My thinking—and it’s a guess, which is standard trade around here—is that there was no reason to fight over who was king in that room: everyone already knew that Lu Xiaojun was operating on a different level. To fight for superiority would be to battle for whatever scraps he deemed worthy to toss down.

Having gold shoes also sends out a certain statement...

Having gold shoes also sends out a certain statement…

Of course, in retrospect that wasn’t how it played out at all. What many of us failed to take into account (myself included) was Aleksey Ni, who demonstrated that nobody is without their weak points. But we’ll save that for another day…

It’s also worth noting that the shouting and extreme vocalizing all but stopped in the heavier classes (85s and up); if anything, it was primarily—perhaps strictly—a phenomenon in the lighter men’s classes.

A final thought (for now) on one of the side effects of spending too much time in the warmup room at the Worlds: seeing dozens of lifters effortlessly move loaded barbells makes you forget that these are heavy weights. You begin to fool yourself into thinking that something like 100, 120, or 140 kilos isn’t all that heavy. “Look at how Oleg Chen played with that 120,” you say to yourself. “That doesn’t seem so bad…” Only the next time you step into a gym—unless you happen to be Oleg Chen, or someone of that ilk—you realize that it is, in fact, a lot of weight. It’s just the athletes who made it look like something to be toyed with…

Until next time!

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