Young weightlifters breaking stereotypes
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Oh my, what great bone alignment you have.
That is not what people are likely to say to Chris Di Pietrantonio, Ontario’s newly minted junior weightlifting champion, but it’s what they should say.
At just 19 years old, he can already lift 160 kilograms over his head in a fluid motion. His five-foot-nine frame is not exactly short on muscle, but that’s not what lets him do what he does so well in the sport of Olympic weightlifting.
“It has nothing to do with strength,” explains Richard Gonsalves, the technical director for the Ontario Weightlifting Association.
“It’s timing, rhythm and flexibility. It’s how you move the weight and line it up on your bones.”
Muscles, no matter how Arnold Schwarzenegger-circa 1980s they may look, can only do so much. The body’s skeletal structure, if properly aligned from the arms and shoulders through the hips to the feet, can do much more.
“No one understands,” says Gonsalves, audibly sighing at the public’s misconceptions about the sport where he’s an official, coach at Sabaria weightlifting and a competitor with ambitions of his own to represent Canada at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.
That the common stereotypes about this sport and its athletes are a little off is easy to see just a few minutes into the Ontario Junior Championships, held this past Saturday in Mississauga.
Before Izzy Goudros walks out to the platform for her first lift her singlet is tied in a knot behind her back to keep it on her tall, skinny frame.
The official calls her name as Isabella but she prefers Izzy, and any 11-year-old who can throw a good deal more than her body weight above her head should, at the very least, get to pick her first name.
Goudros — who also does ballet, swims and is the city champion hurdler in her Toronto school division — started weightlifting when she was 8 years old.
“It wasn’t very hard at first,” she says. “It was like a broomstick.”
“It’s a little more competitive, especially with my cousin,” she says, grinning.
He’s six months older than her but, so far, she’s winning the family duel with her personal best lifts of 30-kg in the snatch and 42-kg in the clean and jerk. But she’s no braggart about her growing skill, especially with her friends at school.
“I normally don’t tell anyone,” she says about weightlifting. “It’s a little weird.”
Olympic-style weightlifting consists of two required lifts with the weights combined to determine winners in each class.
First comes the snatch, where the competitor moves the bar from the floor to overhead with arms locked in one explosive movement. To complete the lift, they have to rise up from the deepest of squats to standing and show the judges they are in control of the weight.
The clean and jerk comes next. In the first movement, the clean, competitors move the bar from the floor to their chest, then they rise from their squat and finally jerk the bar overhead in a single movement.
The snatch is the more technically difficult of the two lifts but it’s the clean and jerk — where world record level weights top 260 kg — that often wins competitions.
As the day-long Ontario championships for 10 to 20-year-olds progresses, the size and age of the lifters goes up, as do the weights on the bar being held aloft with quivering arms and grimacing faces.
“It’s pretty intimidating to go out for my first snatch,” says Di Pietrantonio, a biochemistry student at University of Toronto Mississauga.
“Sometimes I open with weights that I’d miss in training. There’s a lot of pressure to get the weight up but in competition you’re also much more heightened, you have adrenaline flowing.”
Di Pietrantonio, who weighs 85 kg, competes in the fourth and final session of the day. Here, competitors’ thigh muscles start to look more like what people expect of weightlifters but speed, technique and perfecting that bone alignment matter even more with these heavier weights.
“Some of the weights we’re pushing over our heads we can’t actually lift with our muscles, it needs to rest on the bones,” Di Pietrantonio says.
The lift is just the explosive move that allows the body to get under the weight in the right position with joints locked, he says.
Di Pietrantonio started Olympic weightlifting just nine months ago but has progressed rapidly and is hoping that, at the Canadian Junior Championships next month in Winnipeg, he’ll get the extra few kilograms he needs to qualify for the World Junior Championships.
“I was made for this sport,” he says, noting that his strength from his background in power lifting has combined well with his flexibility and explosive movement.
On Saturday, he easily made his first clean and jerk at 153 kg but missed his second attempt at 160 kg, a weight he’s never lifted in competition before.
“To miss and come back, that’s really hard,” says Gonsalves, watching from the side of the stage.
“You are all by yourself on stage, you’re alone, your coach can’t help you. A lot of people do really well in training but can’t hack the pressure of competition.”
On this day, Di Pietrantonio shows he can by successfully lifting 160 kg overhead on his third and final lift.
“I feel very happy,” he says after being named the winner in his 85-kg class and the overall champion of the event, a title awarded based on a formula that compares athletes’ performances across weight classes.
“I wouldn’t have been happy if I didn’t make that 160 kg.”