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CrossFit hoists Olympic weightlifting into the public eye

Mead Jackson, CrossFit NYC

CrossFit hoists Olympic weightlifting into the public eye

CrossFit fitness programs are re-introducing Olympic-style weightlifting into American culture.

It's a windy, busy mid-March Sunday morning in Manhattan, but the weightlifters at the CrossFit NYC gym aren't concerned with the cold or the sirens buzzing down Sixth Avenue. In fact, they can't even hear the car horns from the street below; instead, clinking metal, cushioned thuds and forceful grunts drown out the noise.

While most New Yorkers are just waking up or getting brunch with their friends, these athletes are hard at work hoisting obscenely heavy weights over their heads and preparing for the next big tournament. 

"It's actually an incredibly geeky, cerebral sport," says CrossFit member and Olympic-style weightlifter Dan Kunitz after executing an intense snatch. "It's an almost purely mental sport. Meaning that - when you're competing - everybody's got basically the same strength; it's who can mentally be there on game day. But the paradox of that is, when you get to the bar, you've got to completely empty your mind." 

Olympic weightlifting is a bit different than the types of lifts you might typically see at your neighborhood gym. Instead of deadlifts and bench presses, it emphasizes two techniques: the snatch and the clean and jerk. The former involves lifting the barbell from the ground to overhead in a single, continuous motion; the latter sees a lifter hoist a weight onto his or her clavicles, then raise the bar overhead.  

When asked if he has a preference, Kunitz laughs. "I mean, there's only two of them, so you'd better like them both." 

Kunitz got involved with CrossFit - and Olympic-style weightlifting - after a friend wrote a New York Times piece about the program in 2007; he now lifts multiple times a week, competes at local tournaments and pencils his results in a notebook. Kunitz has grown so passionate about his chosen sport, he even wrote a soon-to-be released book called "Lift: Fitness Culture from Naked Greeks and Acrobats to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors". 

"If you learn to properly see [weightlifting], it's actually extremely beautiful to watch - the motion, the strength, the agility. It's like dancing in a sense," Kunitz adds. 

Weightlifting is just one of ten different disciplines that CrossFit emphasizes. Like many workout regimens, CrossFit aims to drastically boost an individual's power, speed and coordination. What sets CrossFit apart is its more technical approach: the intensity of performances is increased in order to decrease the amount of time involved.  

Credit: Mead Jackson, CrossFit NYC

But CrossFit's relationship with weightlifting is unique. Though weightlifting has never been one of America's most popular sports, it's a mandatory part of the CrossFit curriculum. As a result, CrossFit has helped weightlifting become more prominent: Over 11,000 affiliates across the globe (about half of which are in the United States) now teach the snatch and clean and jerk.

Hari Singh, CrossFit NYC's co-owner and a former engineering student, suggests that weightlifting's core appeal has to do with the sport's complexity and the pure, explosive strength involved. It isn't easy to lift several hundred pounds over one's own head. 

"From a physics point of view, there's no greater power out there that anyone does in sport than an Olympic lift," Singh explains. "You can hit a tennis ball at 100 miles per hour, but that's not the power outlet of [completing] a snatch and moving 300 pounds across three feet in less than a second."

CrossFit NYC trainer Avery Wittkamp, a kettlebell enthusiast, first discovered CrossFit on the internet about 10 years ago. She sought a regimen that would help her look and feel strong. 

"I started looking at the website and thought: 'I have to try this,'" Wittkamp says. "I couldn't believe what they were doing." 

Around the turn of the century, Wittkamp notes, weightlifting was a "dying sport": "When we started, there really was no access to Olympic weightlifting in the city or even the country."

The trainer attributes weightlifting's lukewarm reputation to practically nonexistent media attention, the rise of exercise machines and ineffectual coaches. Perhaps most significantly, she also acknowledges that the sport doesn't congeal with America's traditional perspective on femininity - a viewpoint that's becoming increasingly outdated.

"I remember people saying: 'That's not safe, women shouldn't do that,'" Wittkamp says. "Now it's much more acceptable than it ever was."

When I mention that the United States' women's weightlifting team has recently performed much better than the men's, Wittkamp laughs: "I think women are well-suited to do [weightlifting] in terms of flexibility. They are just as well-suited, if not more, than the average male member, because they can get into the positions. But [CrossFit provides] a fun atmosphere where men and women are working out together in an equal sense." 

Perhaps the rise of CrossFit - and, by extension, weightlifting - has to do with the gym's communal aspects. Many of the athletes interviewed first got involved while searching for strength-training tips on the internet. While weightlifting is ultimately an individual sport, a group mentality often helps lifters reach new heights; during Sunday's class, the lifters took turns spotting one another, offering inspiration and giving advice. 

Brian DeGennaro, CrossFit NYC's Olympic weightlifting coach, acknowledges that community plays a large role in CrossFit's success: "[Initially] you'd get together, you'd make friends here, we'd all have fun."  

DeGennaro got involved with CrossFit after graduating high school in 2008; he now oversees classes and guides lifters at competitions. He's wanted to be a sports coach since he was a child. 

Brian DeGennaro, CrossFit NYC's Olympic weightlifting coach. Credit: Mead Jackson, CrossFit NYC.

"I'd always wanted to do Olympic weightlifting, but going to a CrossFit gym was my first opportunity to practice," DeGennaro says. He explains that, as CrossFit's popularity rose over the past decade, many participants drifted more toward weightlifting. "Basically how the Olympic weightlifting class arose was, people liked CrossFit, they got into it, but they realized they enjoyed Olympic lifting more. We basically added 30 members to USA Weightlifting alone. You go across the state, across the country - you could be adding 10 or 15 members from every couple of gyms. It adds up." 

DeGennaro also highlights how the competitiveness of weightlifting has drawn attention to the sport. Scores that seemed impressive 10 years ago are now routinely shattered. "You were getting people who, when we first started, were average people. Now you've got people who are higher-level athletes doing it, and you're really seeing how much you can push the human limit on these workouts."

One aspect that Wittkamp and DeGennaro agree is crucial to weightlifting's growth in the United States is attracting younger members.   

"I think that's really at the heart of it if the sport is going to grow - junior lifters," Wittkamp says. "We don't have young kids picking up a broomstick and trying the snatch, we have 20-year-olds. It's hard to fill that gap, even if you're very gifted."

Says DeGennaro: "You have teenagers, 12 to 15 years old, getting into CrossFit, starting to get into weightlifting. And since they're starting at a young age, they have a great base to become phenomenal athletes." He cites weightlifting prodigy CJ Cummings, a CrossFit member who has broken over a dozen national records, as an example of the sport's potential. At the time of this writing, Cummings is just 15 years old. 

But just like the city in which this gym's based, CrossFit attracts people of all ages from all walks of life. Among them is Paula Derrico, who hails from the major Brazilian city that's not hosting the 2016 Olympics - Sao Paolo. Though Derrico has been with CrossFit for a year, she only began taking Olympic weightlifting classes three weeks ago.

"It's kind of hard with CrossFit, there's a lot of things to learn," Derrico says, explaining she recently began to focus on weightlifting because she wants to get a good grasp on the fundamentals. "CrossFit is very interesting because it's about making the best of yourself, using all the effort you couldn't imagine you have inside of you. And for the weightlifting as well, once you have the technical aspects down, once your movement has improved, things just flow."

She adds: "Everybody should try this, because it's really inspiring."


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