I was expecting to go to Worlds this year and reach a certain number. A certain rank. A certain win. What I came home with was very different than my expectations. I came home with a less-than-stellar performance. A loss of numbers. A loss in my head. But I realized it was never about winning at all. It was something else all together.
Over the weekend I was able to squeeze in competing at Crazy Monkey USA’s Kettlebell Championship. With all the traveling we’ve had so far this summer, I haven’t been able to stick to a consistent training schedule enough to be ready for a 10 minute set. So, for fun, I decided to sign up for the 5 minute biathlon instead.
Let’s go back 4 weeks until before the competition. I am checking my weight on the scale every day and realizing I am over my weight class by about 4 pounds. Not terrible, but I have never been very good about focusing on losing weight. Because I really just want to eat. And restricting my diet meant feeling tired and crabby about it all the time. 2 weeks before the competition, I took myself to a lecture titled “Fueling the Female Athlete” by Dr. Susan M. Kleiner, a sports nutritionist. I wish I had happened upon this lecture sooner. I had spent the past few weeks training the wrong way in terms of nutrition, and it was eye-opening to hear her say things that didn’t make sense until she said it out loud for all of us to hear. It is the part of training that never really clicks into place until someone grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you into realization. Her biggest point was that female athletes are often under hydrated and under fueled, and therefore cannot perform at 100%. I had being training on empty, and without realizing it, I was hindering my performance because I was only working at partial capacity. The biggest problem? CARBS. I was trying to lose weight by cutting them out, but I was losing steam on my progress because I didn’t have them. That week I tweaked both my carb intake and my timing of when I needed to fuel for the day and noticed the shift immediately. It wasn’t until then I let go of the numbers on the scale. If I ended up in the 68kg weight category, so be it. It meant an additional 10 points, so less wiggle room on my numbers, but still attainable.
Fast forward to the night of the weigh in. I’m not that far off from 63kg even after I quit restricting, so why not try? We get in fairly early in the day, so a few of us on the team head to 24 Hour Fitness to do a little bit of cardio and mobility work. Then we hit the sauna. I am sitting there, trying to sweat out that last 2 pounds, but I feel like an idiot. I know this is the norm for athletes before weigh in, like MMA fighters, but damn. I sat their in this tiny sauna, which was unisex by the way, so there I am sitting next to a few older men, one who is grunting along to his Walkman (I’m in California, am I not? Someone still owns a Walkman?) another who is obviously staring at the extremely fit woman leaning against the wall and I am thoroughly wishing one of my teammates would walk in and save me from this awkwardness. I slide myself out and check my weight on the scale—for the third time. I can’t tell. It isn’t a digital scale so I am doing my best to remain motionless and not breathe and the counterweight wobbles up and down. I walk back out and talk to my teammate who thinks I can still get weight but in the end I call it quits. The last thing I want is to be completely dehydrated before the competition. Knowing myself it would hurt my chances of completing my sets, so I hit the showers.
Back to my Eliza Dushku moment. I am wandering around admiring the space and other lifters and make my way back to the check in table for weigh in. I pull as much clothing off as I can, step on the scale and weigh in at 63.4kg. I am a little more than a pound over. 1.48lbs to be exact. I kind of laugh about it and then all these crazy thoughts start running through my head about how to lose that 0.4 kilos in the next 30 minutes. I run over to my coach and he’s like, it’s a whole pound. So I shrug, run back over and give the weigh in one more try, but in the bathroom stall, stripped of all my clothes. No, I wasn’t wearing a pound of clothing. Now I really needed to accept my numbers and keep my reps as clean as possible with less wiggle room to spare.
Flight 11. Onto the Snatch. Allison and I had about an hour and some change in between, so I fueled up and spent some time cheering for my other teammates. As we get closer to our flight time, my mouth goes completely dry and I am feeling completely drained. I’ve felt complete exhaustion before, but nothing quite like this. Where my body wasn’t to the point of wanting to lay down, but if I were to sit, there would be a chance that the last bit of energy left would be spent on standing up. All of a sudden picking up a 12kg kettlebell sounded like a nightmare.
To me, the Snatch is less taxing than the double arm Jerk, but I have always had a problem with keeping a steady pace. I either start too fast and run out of gas early or fall behind when I am going too slow. My pace always fluctuates. As soon as I pick up the bell, I realize in the first minute I’ve already gone way too fast for a starting pace. I clocked in 20 reps when I really just wanted to start with around 14 to 16 reps. I try minute by minute to slow my pace down, trying to remember to count my breaths in between reps. Everything is feeling ok until I reach the 5 minute mark and as I get ready to switch, I fumble the bell. I nearly have a heart attack when I feel it shift awkwardly as I am switching hands and quickly try to grip it. I catch it, and take a nice long pause in the lockout of my first snatch of my left side to re-center myself. There is nothing like having a split-second panic attack right in the middle of a set.
Even though my left side is my dominant arm, I was still feeling all the weaknesses I had brought to the surface after my Jerk set. All I wanted to do was finish the set no matter how slow I had to go to keep the bell in my hand. Once again, Allison is crushing out reps beside me, and now is about to break 200! Again, our team is hovering in front of us, yelling so passionately for us to finish, just a few reps at a time. My grip is failing but all I can think of is not failing my team, so I hold on for dear life. My technique went out the door in the last minute. I swear I could see it waving at me as it walked out the door into the California sunshine. But I manage to finish my set, with 163 reps. I immediately squat down for a moment in case I should want to pass out and then take it all in. My teammate Adrian comes over and offers me his hand, helping me up and gives me a hug. Immediately after, I get another hug from Coach Nikolai and the rest is a bit blurry.
After the last flight of the morning was the awards ceremony. My points totaled to 156.5, which definitely gave me a Rank 1, but it wasn’t until they called my name that I realized I took 1st place in my weight category. 2nd place was awarded to my teammate Kristjan. Everyone on the team placed and hit some fantastic numbers and goals. I was so proud of everyone and happy to see each and every one of us on the team wearing a medal by the end of the weekend. I look back and reflect on all the training and all the support I received from my coach, my teammates, my friends and especially my boyfriend. I had called him immediately after finishing my Snatch set, barely able to hold the phone up to my ear with my numb and lifeless arm. He told me while he was watching the live stream he was yelling all alone in the apartment and was probably scaring the neighbors. When I arrived back home at the airport, he greeted me with a big bouquet and an even bigger hug. No matter how much work I put in, it wouldn’t of been possible without these positive people in my life. I thank them for their support and belief in me.
Remember that scene in Bring It On? The one where Eliza Dushku and Kirsten Dunst walk into Regionals and Eliza is slowly processing everything in front of her? The groups of cheerleaders huddled around their teammates, others primping their hair, organizers yelling time schedules? Walking into the 2016 OKC California Open was just like that. Except instead of perky cheerleaders with curls in their hair it was lifters with high buns and massive arms. Instead of steady mists of hairspray it was clouds of chalk wafting throughout the warmup area. I walked into Innovative Results in Costa Mesa, CA, admiring the larger banner that was going up behind the platforms, scanning the room and recognizing some faces of lifters that I had only seen in YouTube videos (When Kimberly Fox walked by me I managed to smile and whimpered a "Hello" and distinctly remember feeling like this) and even taking a moment to squish the astro turf between my toes when I took my shoes off for weigh in that night.
Let’s rewind a few months to when I started training for this competition. My coach Nikolai and I were just finishing up an early morning Sport class. I mentioned I was ready to commit to California and we looked at the ranking charts. If I was going to aim for the 63kg weight category, I would need to have my Biathalon numbers—10 minute Jerk and Snatch—at 175 points. I cringed at the thought. Nikolai thought it was reachable, but all I could think of was my shoulder, which wasn’t at 100% yet from a injury from the previous year and the fact that Jerk was now doubles instead of a single bell.
We started with getting my pace for the Jerk to be 10 rpm and Snatch at 20 rpm. It was rough. I felt like a weakling. I was having a hard time getting through some of the sets and I still couldn’t even finish a 10 minute glove set with an 8kg. It wasn’t until the ranking tables were updated a few weeks later where a cloud had been lifted. The updated charts were now more attainable. I would need 110 points in the 63kg weight category for Rank 1. BRING IT ON.
We had our 10 minute test sets in January. I was mentally prepping myself that day to just make it to 7 minutes. Now that my pace only needed to be around 8rpm for Jerk and 16rpm for Snatch, it felt within reach. I ended up not finishing both sets, but I did stay on pace. My point total? 135. I was good to go. Except at the end of January, I had been neglecting rest and mobility, so I end up tweaking my neck and am unable to turn my head all the way for a week straight. There is nothing more terrifying than an injury leading up to a competition. Will I have time to recover? Will my training suffer when I have to take time off?
Luckily, it gave me a hard reset and forced myself to rest. I was still looking good with my numbers so I needed to not stress about it. It reminded my of my derby days, when leading up to the bout I would stop worrying about doing the work and just get my mind in the right place. I spent the week sitting on the bike trainer and mentally going through what I had to do. I started reading My Hour by Bradley Wiggins. He recalled what he went through as he tried to break the record for best distance in a velodrome. The best part of the book is when he is in his final ten minutes. The brutality that his body was feeling while it was breaking down and the mental exhaustion was as real as it gets. He spoke of those final minutes being the worst time to lose focus. I needed to think of my final minutes, the ones I had never been in while training. I needed to prepare myself for the dark side of the moon. The unknown.
Doing a little inspirational reading about Bradley Wiggins' attempt at breaking the record for "The Hour" while putting in an hour on the trainer. "Once you're able to acknowledge it's hurting, then you can start fighting it, admitting, 'It's the hardest thing I've ever done.' Once you get past halfway you've got permission to hurt." #biking #inspirationalreads
Morning of. Think Fight Club. When Brad Pitt’s character non-chalantly says, “Calm as a Hindu cow…” That was me. I often went into this mode before bouts. I wouldn’t talk much, I wouldn’t try to burn off energy by bouncing around. I would just sit or stand silently and mentally center myself. Both of my sets were before lunch, so I was happy to be getting it over with right off the bat. My Jerk set would be the 3rd flight and my Snatch set in the 11th. In a last minute bit of nervousness, I try to get a hold of my boyfriend back home but fail. My teammate Christeine is in the flight right before me, and I can’t even really pay attention or cheer because all of a sudden my mouth has gone dry and my hindu cow moment is fleeting. It’s about to get real.
My teammate Allison is on the platform right next to me. It is a comfort to know we’ll be right next to each other and I won’t feel like I’m standing up there all alone. We are both doing Biathlon with the 12kg. She is a beast, so I try to channel her powers as I get ready to pick up my bells. (Later, I learn from my judge that I picked them up a split second too early in anticipation, but he let it slide.) Since I am standing on Platform 1, I am on the side of the room that isn’t roped off. So my teammates are hovering as close as possible. In my first competition, I looked directly at my judge’s shoes the entire time. I watched him tap his toe every time I completed a rep. I refused to look at anyone. But this time I was all over the place. I looked at the clock, my reps, the hair ties I put on the floor before I stepped on the platform. My teammates. My coach. The little kids climbing on the pull up bars behind everyone watching. It wasn’t until 3 minutes had passed I quit messing around and concentrated on what I was actually doing. I’m terrible at keeping track of my pace, so it was more distracting to look at the clock because I would try to calculate my pace according to reps counted. I was started to get quite a few no counts after 6 minutes and I was starting to lose all confidence in minute 7. My judge wasn’t calling out my no-counts, but I went 4 reps in a row without seeing the counter change. I paused in the rack position. My mind is racing. Then, from the corner of my eye, I see my teammate Adrian lean in a bit and loudly remind me, “It’s just another Saturday morning.”
JUST ANOTHER SATURDAY MORNING. Saturday mornings are when most of the team trains together. Adrian nicknamed Saturday morning the “Executive Suite” one day because we were all there and pushing each other to the max. Some Saturdays, after class, a few of us would stay after and do a little Olympic lifting. Other Saturdays, we would do a little core work. It became routine on Saturday mornings to show up and stay after for extra credit. So there, in minute 8, where I was crossing into the dark side, where my mind had no way to brace itself, Adrian said it. Minute 8, in the dark. Even though I was flying blind, before every rep, I said to myself “Just another Saturday morning.”
Minute 9. I’m shaking all over. My left shoulder is giving out and I can’t get my knees to straighten right away after I return to the rack position. Next to me, Allison is about to break 100. My entire team is yelling for her as she pushes into the upper 90s. I want to cheer for her but I am clearly in no place to just turn and watch. But I’m watching her clock more than mine at that point. 30 seconds left. If she can break 100 then I can finish this Goddamn 10 minutes. I push just past 70 as she hits 100. It isn’t until later that I learn she blew everyone out of the water in the 63kg weight category. Last few reps are a complete blur. I clock in 75 reps and finish the 10 minutes. Compared to October, I did the 12kg with one arm for 5 minutes and got 71.
Stay tuned for Part Two of the Biathlon - The Snatch.
Remember that scene from The Jerk? Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters are walking along the beach at night and he is playing the ukulele as they sing the sweetest melody? And then at the end, he delivers the cutest line about wanting to kiss her but explains why he didn’t by saying “I didn’t want to get spit on me.” Where am I going with this? Because the Jerk—as in, the kettlebell lift—is a lot like that trombone he was describing. Everything about it is a system and it all starts from the lips. Yeah. Lips. The lockout at the top comes from the undersquat, which is brought on first by the bump, but not without the first dip, which starts from the rack position, where we must first BREATHE.
After rebuilding my arm strength from an injury on the rock climbing wall back in the spring, I was ready to start seriously lifting weights again. I wasn’t at 100% yet, but I felt good about giving my shoulder a little more to do than resistance band work and light weight training. While getting back on the wall was a slow process, I also started working with traditional kettlebells again. I remember the first time picking it back up. The dust had collected on its smooth surface and the weight almost felt too heavy. My poor shoulder had forgotten what it was like to stabilize anything other than my own bodyweight. I gave a few Turkish Get Ups a whirl and felt pretty rusty. Not getting too caught up in my loss of strength I gave Swings a try. Not too bad. How about a snatch? NOPE.
Hello Old Friend, We Meet Again
On the other end of town, My old coach Nikolai was expanding his kettlebell sport club. He had moved out of the gym he was previously holding classes at and set up his own studio just for kettlebell sport. I would see pictures of my old classmates looking strong and remember how fun it was to lift together, so I reached out and said I would be coming back to class. My first class back was jam packed! There were so many new lifters along with the old! I felt like such a rookie standing in the back of the room, swinging the bell around like an awkward duck, completely forgetting how a jerk was performed, let alone the elusive snatch. There was even a glove set at the end of class and I feared my bell would slip from my grip and knock over at least 3 people with it in front of me. I remember getting soup for lunch afterwards and having half of it end up in my lap. Straight up JURASSIC PARK JELLO ARM.
After catching up with a few familiar faces after class, they all asked me if I were going to sign up for the competition that was coming up. They were all so enthusiastic and excited to see me that I couldn’t say no. In just a few minutes I was already committing to something I wasn’t entirely sure I could do. I was ready to lift a kettlebell again, but I was nowhere near ready to compete. The following week, I had a 1-on-1 session with my coach to get a feel for what I was ready to do.
Let the Training Begin
Coming back from an injury is something I have a lot of experience with in my time playing roller derby, and this was no different. The slow and steady race that has to be completed before you even get anywhere near the finish line takes a lot of patience and diligence. During our 1-on-1 session, Nikolai ran me through some baseline tests. My first Jerk and Snatch tests were pretty low rep counts. I had to accept and remember it was only just a few days ago that I had picked up a bell again and was only at the beginning of my training prep. There was still some instability in my shoulder, so we decided to play it safe and only have me prep for a 5 min. Jerk set with a 12kg. My coach said I could also train for the 5 min. Snatch set with a 8kg, but we could decide how I felt about when it came closer to signing up. As a first timer competitor, it was more than enough to just sign up for 1 event even though there is the option to sign up for 3.
How do these competitions work? There are men’s and women’s divisions—both are categorized by weight class, kettlebell weight and event. Once class and weight are determined, a competitor can rank in their event according to the reps completed in the time allotted. So in a sense, each competitor can rank and not necessarily compete against other lifters.
For my event, the 5 minute, Single Arm Jerk Only, I needed 65 reps to be Rank 1. That is 14 reps a minute. My weight class would be 65kg. For the first time in my life, I needed to actually pay attention to how much I weighed, down to the ounces. I generally fluctuate 2 to 5 pounds at any given time, but now I realized that I couldn’t go over my usual comfy day to day weight if I wanted to stay within my weight class. On top of that, I needed to fit in several months of training into under 4 weeks. Nikolai was confident I would be ready so I handed over the reins to him. With my work schedule always conflicting with his class schedule, it meant I would have to suck it up and hit the 7a classes.
For the record, I hate working out early in the morning. It pains me to wake up early and exercise like a responsible adult. I’d rather sleep, eat cereal and drink coffee, then go about my day and work out in the afternoon or at night with functioning cognitive abilities. It brought on flashbacks to getting up to go to speed skating practice at 5:30a on Saturday mornings. My teammate used to pick me up and I would sleepily nibble a Luna bar during the drive and stumble into the roller rink secretly hoping to find a pile of stuffed animals behind the prize counter to sleep on.
So with 3 days of kettlebell training, 1 day on the climbing wall (low intensity) , 1 day of cardio (mid-intensity) and 1 day of mixed cardio/weight training (high intensity) with my fellow trainer Steve, I was now fully decked out to prepare myself for the competition. The first few training sessions were pretty hard. I was still relearning the lifts and fixing major flaws in my technique. I often slowed my pace to focus on form. I often had to park the bell before time was up when my shoulder stability started to go. The first session of mixed training with Steve was 10 sets of 10 swings plus 1 hill sprint. I thought I was going to pass out. For the first time in a long time I was in dire need of my inhaler. For the first time in over a year, I went back to the always brutal stair workout at Howe St. I hadn’t had anything to train for since July, so it was exciting to have a training plan again. This was much different that training for endurance like I had for STP. This involved much more.
The Final Countdown
Let’s jump ahead to the last week before the competition. I managed to catch a cold. Of course I catch a cold. I have to skip a class, rest and drink Emergen-C for the next few days like its free Slurpee refill day at 7-11 (as in, my teeth were literally stained Super Orange). Saturday rolls around and we have our final test to see how we’ve done in the past few weeks. I was right around my rep goal for Jerk, but still under what I should have been aiming for with the Snatch. However, it was the first time in weeks I was feeling good about my form. Unfortunately it was the day after registration had ended, so it was already too late to change from 1 event to 2.
In terms of staying with my weight class, I weighed in on Friday night at 63kg for my 65kg class. There was a moment of panic before I stepped on the scale. I knew I was within range, and I had light meals earlier in the day. Looking back, my diet didn’t change a whole lot. I kept it fairly clean day to day, sticking to portion control for breakfast, lunch and snacks, while eating a little more for dinner, including a lot more protein. I also drank a ridiculous amount of water. Which, seems to be a bad idea before a weigh in, as the easiest way to weigh more is through water weight. Some of my teammates even went to the spa and sat for hours in the sauna to shed those last few ounces. But I didn’t want to risk being dehydrated before the competition. Having to fear the scale was not my favorite part of training at all.
Saturday morning. I wake up, make my coffee and eggs and sit in silence as I mentally prepare myself for the long day. There are 29 flights total, and my single event is flight 22. I would have to sit for hours before getting on the platform. After I get showered and dressed and kiss my sleeping bf goodbye, I walk up to the door where I had placed my kettlebell directly in front of so I wouldn’t forget it. I quietly say, “Hello Anatoli (yes, I named my bell). It is time.” In the elevator, an older gentleman looks over and quizzes me about the bright blue massive ball in my hand. When we step into the lobby he asks if he can hold it, and is surprised by how heavy it is. It is a nice little confidence booster before I head out the door and he wishes me luck.
Arriving at Northwest Strength and Performance, lifters of many ages and sizes funnel in as we greet each other all the while firmly clutching cups of coffee harder than we would kettlebells. We all gather for the rules meeting demonstrated by a few of the judges for the day and the first flight is off to a start. Our team, Seattle Kettlebell Club is represented by 14 lifters, so there would only be a handful of flights without a teammate on deck. It was so exciting to watch my teammates perform so beautifully, each hitting rank and some of them outlasting the other lifters in their events. My teammate Adrian, who was also coming back from injury after being in a motorcycle accident over the summer, outlasted the other lifters in more than one event!
It was finally getting close to my flight, so I warmed up and started going to the motions in my head. My teammates checked in with me and made sure to be there in case I had any last minute questions or thoughts. Just then, my bf walks in and is ready to cheer me on. My judges were Tricia Dong and Tom Corrigan, both from Canada. I had been watching them all day and they were very strict on good reps, so I prayed that I would perform as cleanly as possible. In my flight were 2 other teammates, so we definitely represented on the platform as a whole. As I placed Anatoli down. I looked over to my coach and there was nothing but a nod exchanged. I was ready to go.
A lot of my teammates had said that when they are on the platform, there is a loss of senses. Ranging from not remembering what music was playing, to not recognizing anyone in the crowd, to forgetting what they were even doing. The only two distinct things I remembered from that 5 minutes were A.) breathing. and B.) Tom tapping his foot a few times every time I performed a rep. After the switch my right arm had cramped up and I couldn’t really put it down. In the last minute my teammate Paul was standing by to tell me to go ahead and let ‘er rip. I needed 65 to get rank 1 and had surpassed it. At the end of my set I had 71 reps (and only 1 no count, not too shabby). After I was done, Tom came over and gave me a few tips on how to clean up my technique and it lit a huge lightbulb in my head. It was something I had been struggling with for weeks and it wasn’t until then that I got it. I was super grateful for the kind words and coaching tips both judges gave me.
So, When it the next one?
After all the flights were over, all 14 of us walked away with medals during the award ceremony. It had been a long time since I had been part of a team, along with being in a competitive environment. I didn’t realize how much I missed it. I used to pride myself on working hard and being an anchor, as well as being an example of discipline and good form. I look forward to sticking with it this time and getting back to those pillars of pride, while keeping myself healthy to compete again in the spring. A big thanks to my coach Nikolai and all my teammates at Seattle Kettlebell Club, for welcoming me back with open arms and getting me ready for competition is such little time.
And last but not least, here is my set.