Skatetown this was not: The 2014 Nationals in Salt Lake City


EMERGENCY ALERT! Salt Lake City is burning. As predicted, the result of USAW taking over National events was utter, total chaos. Not since Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes marched across Eurasia have we seen destruction on this scale (though with fewer horses). Day one of the competition, which should have started with the women’s 58D snatch session, instead opened with a small but significant nuclear explosion, apparently because USAW staff mistook a rod of refined plutonium for a barbell. By day two, when radiation sickness set in, everybody in attendance had grown at least one extra arm, making the successful completion of the two-handed snatch and clean & jerk difficult, to say the least. From there, it only worsened! Fires are still burning in Salt Late City, [static] all because USAW thought it could handle a National competition [static] in the very sport it governs. This [static] is a Mayday call, begging you to [static] stay away, or at least to bring food, water, and three-sleeved hookgrip t-shirts if you do come. Mayday! May—

Wait, what?

There was no disaster? No nuclear meltdown? Salt Lake City is not, in fact, a smoldering heap of ashes?

What’s more, the 2014 Nationals were perhaps the BEST Nationals in recent memory?!


How is this possible? What have we come to?! WHAT WILL DON MCCAULEY COMPLAIN ABOUT NOW?! (Fortunately for him, Obama is still President, so Don has something to keep his blood pressure elevated on Facebook.)

But yes! The 2014 Nationals, by almost any standard or measurement (except, perhaps, radioactivity) were a resounding, unqualified, spectacular success. Remember, if you will, a time not long ago, when our National events were held in places like Council Bluffs, Iowa (famous for riverboat casinos so sad they make Atlantic City look like a model of regeneration) and Skatetown USA. By comparison, this year’s Nationals—held in the fabulous Grand America Hotel, with bathrooms so polished I was tempted to book a stall instead of a room—were a four chandelier event. The ballroom where the platforms were installed was outstanding: large, refined, with a raised stage, large warm up areas, and lighting just dim enough to make you feel like you should be making out with whoever was sitting next to you.

that's my excuse for why I leaned in on Klokov...

at least, that’s my excuse for why I tried to put the moves on Klokov…

There are a lot of people who go into the making of a national meet (both figuratively and literally: the weightlifting gods demand human sacrifice, and their ashes are mixed with the chalk in a gesture of appeasement). USAW staff and associated Salt Lake City personnel surely deserve a round of applause. And not just of the metaphorical kind; all too often people in this sport raise their voices or contact USAW only to complain, as evidenced by the drones members of various weightlifting “nations” with attitude. Why not be in touch to tell USAW, instead, how successful this meet was? The emails of USAW staff are publicly available, and I’m sure they’ll provide Salt Lake City contacts as well (or will pass on sentiments). For those of you who want to see meets of similar (or better!) quality in the future, one of the best things you can do is let the people in power know what you liked and thank them. (Even better: volunteer!)

But the organizers are only part of the show. The other critical piece—without which there wouldn’t even be a National Championships—is, of course, Mike Graber. I mean the athletes! Yes, athletes. Graber’s important, too, and at one time he was an athlete (and National Champion!), but the current crop of lifters, consisting of faces both old and new, is enough to make even the most cynical of fans gruffly appreciative of what is happening in this sport. With over 400 participants there is simply no way to acknowledge them all. Indeed, it’s not even possible for me to acknowledge all the highlights without letting an already lengthy essay devolve into a multi-volume treatise that would make a Board meeting monologue by the (in)famously loquacious Artie Dreschler look like a bake sale leaflet by comparison.

A. Dreschler, "My Life History," volumes 1 through 56 (birth, infancy, and early childhood)

A. Dreschler, “My Story,” volumes 1 through 56 (birth, infancy, and early childhood)

Thus I will limit myself to a few standouts from the weekend, based mostly on what I saw when Dr Westbrook and I were providing commentary for the Coaches Aid webcast (a generally excellent stream, aside from some bandwidth problems during the 94s, which were probably due to the unforeseen explosion in some of our athletes’ popularity not just here, but internationally, as well):

Morghan King: she weighed in just north of 48 kilos (49.35, competing as a 53) and came damn close to making a double-bodyweight clean and jerk with 100.

CJ Cummings: when was the last time a 14-year old lifter broke a Senior American record? And when is it likely to happen again? (Answer: probably the next time CJ lifts.) This lift also equals the US All Time record (and I’ll note here that Derrick Johnson’s 123 snatch in this class exceeds the US All Time record).

Caleb Williams: his 174-kilo clean and jerk, which shattered his own American Record, is a legitimate world class lift.

Caleb Williams destroying his old clean and jerk record

Caleb Williams destroying his old clean and jerk record

Travis Cooper, James Tatum, Chad Vaughn: Remember when Travis Cooper was a 94-kilo junior lifter whose technique resembled that of a silverback gorilla attempting to forage for bananas under a fallen tree? Me too. He’s now become a 77-kilo lifting machine with technique that’s been refined to match his prodigious strength. And remember when Chad Vaughn could show up to a Nationals and be guaranteed first place so long as he made two lifts? Those days are long gone, which is more a testament to the growth of the sport than any dig at Chad (who appears happy to see these changes and new challenges). Bearded wonder and 2014 National Champion James Tatum, meanwhile, keeps improving as well, pushing himself and others within this class. The record marks for the 77s—157.5 in the snatch, set by the great Oscar Chaplin III back in 1999, and 190 in the clean and jerk, set by Chad Vaughn—are a bit beyond these athletes’ current reach, but perhaps not for long…

John McGovern: in the hype of the 94s the impressive lifting by the 85-kilo Champion—147 and 190—was almost overshadowed. But numbers like those (and legitimate cracks at 150 and 195) simply cannot be ignored.

Colin Burns: In the 94s I have to limit myself here to the National Champion, because there were so many talented athletes in the session. Also, in an extraordinary lack of foresight, I totally discounted this guy as a medal contender in the total. I knew he had a strong snatch, but his performance in the clean and jerk often fell short at the national level. Yet here he pulled out a tremendous 192 after snatching 167 (briefly holding the snatch record that Norik had just broken, which Norik subsequently rebroke, finishing with 168; the old record of 165, set by Tom Gough, had stood since 2000).

Caine Wilkes: what can you add to a 400lb. snatch, a 400-kilo total, and a serious shot at a 500lb. clean and jerk? Nothing, except that the snatch is just as impressive in its kilo equivalent of 182.

Jenny Arthur: an easy 104 snatch and a beautiful clean at 135 (despite missing the jerk).

If there’s any doubt that we’ve come a long, long way, consider that Dmitry Klokov watched the 94 session (and possibly others) and filmed highlights. When was the last time a top Russian lifter took an interest in our Nationals?

I had the pleasure of running into Mr Klokov when he flagged down The Two Doctors, hoping to get a photo with us (“You are celebrities in Russia!” he cried; at least I think that’s what he said—I always speak to lifters in their native tongue…) Remember the scene from The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke Skywalker is falling down Cloud City after having lost a hand and learning (SPOILER ALERT!) that Darth Vader is his father? That’s what my hand felt like as it slipped in between the mountain range known as Klokov’s erectors for our picture. I was hopeful worried his back might swallow my entire arm before we disentangled.

The soundstage for this scene was actually built on Klokov's back;

The soundstage for this scene was actually built on Klokov’s back; his pecs served as Tatooine in wide-angle shots; and the rancor was simply archival footage of him setting up over the bar. (image:

Looking back (can we already look back?), the Nationals this weekend—and perhaps the 94 session in particular, when there were literally thousands of people trying to watch American lifters on the live stream—appear to be a seminal moment in the history of this sport, something noted by Nick Frasca (one of the people behind the 2012 American Open) in an exchange we had online. Indeed, it’s hard not to see that 94 session as a harbinger of something big: thousands of fans following every lift like the play-by-play of some terrific title fight between the biggest and best of the day. Farris with 160, Vardanian with 166 for the record! Then Burns to 167, and a new record! …but wait, here comes Vardanian again with 168, and it’s good!

Twitter, circa 1920, broadcasting the 94s

Twitter, circa 1920, broadcasting the 94s

The 94s—and the entire, sun-baked weekend in Salt Lake City—have the possibility to be seen as one of those moments in history. It can be a strange thing to realize you might be right in one of those moments: living it, contributing to it, and watching it unfold before your eyes. Of course, history—such that we can understand any of it—is far messier than any one moment, and those of us doomed fortunate enough to study it know that the forces that steer the course of a people, a movement, or an Olympic sport are likely too complex to ever fully explain. But it looks very much like the Great Magnet is aligning things in ways that are favorable to weightlifting in general and USAW in particular. Internet and social media resources like hookgrip and All Things Gym are spreading the lifting gospel far and wide, and the popularity of CrossFit means more people are practicing the Olympic lifts than ever before in this country (even if many of them are doing it with, uh, less-than-good form). Throw in talented—I mean, extremely talented—youth and junior athletes, along with a hint of cinnamon, and you have the makings of a very satisfying mix with which to completely transform this sport at home and abroad.

The hard part, of course, is to make sure the current wave of enthusiasm doesn’t break too soon, before it’s had a chance to build sufficient momentum. Weightlifting, for all its reliance on quick, microsecond bursts of power and activity, is a sport that demands patience and time. Those of us who know and love it, who’ve dedicated years to it, know that long-lasting growth is the only way to improve it. The Nationals this weekend, a rousing success in the view of many, are one step in the right direction. A big step, to be certain, but one step nonetheless. Ultimately, success in weightlifting is built not on Facebook likes or Twitter feeds or Instagram photos; it’s built in the hard, day to day work of athletes and coaches and those supporting them. There is an energy running through this sport that is undeniable, and it’s up to all of us to see that it gets channeled, funneled, and encouraged, before it’s too late and the surge has run its course.

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