It’s 10:00am on a Saturday and I have the kind of hangover that only comes from going for a “quick drink” after work and accidentally drinking six glasses of Chardonnay. I’m trying to keep the puffy face and pounding headache under wraps, though, because I’m about to go watch the Manitoba Open Weightlifting Competition, hosted at the University of Manitoba by the Hercules Weightlifting Club.
Like most Winnipeggers, I’ve been to the U of M countless times, but I’ve never had the pleasure of going to the Frank Kennedy gym — charmingly named the “Gritty Grotto.” For those of you who’ve never been to the Gritty Grotto, imagine you have survived the apocalypse and you and a small group of people who have not yet been infected by the rage virus bravely take to the sewers to rebuild humanity, piece by piece. The Gritty Grotto is your subterranean gym. I walked down the stairs and past the “Welcome to the Gritty Grotto” sign: the ceilings are low, the lights are far too bright, and the track that runs the perimeter of the Grotto is bordered by chain-link fence, behind which is gravel and rocks and, well, underground. Outside of one small room, the space is filled with cardio machines and squat racks and benches and what looks like the perfect set for a 1980s oily-dudes-in-cut-off-sweatshirts exercise montage. I enter the small room in the centre of the Grotto to find a stage and rows of black folding chairs. To the right of the stage is a blue tarp separating the room into two sections. It’s humid in here and it smells like rubber and musty basement. Let’s do this.
I sit down and take in my surroundings. The spectators seem to mostly know one another — family members and friends of the competitors, I assume — and there is a group of fit-looking men and women in sweats and spandex milling about near the door. The men are being called one by one to weigh in, which takes place in a utility closet — they’re taken into the closet, weighed, and released. The women, I am told, weighed in two hours earlier, as they’re the first to compete. To the left of the stage is a table where various tech-looking things are set up. There are lots of cords. Three men in sport jackets with official-looking crests are standing around the table, looking over sheets of paper. They’re the judges — they decide whether or not a competitor has completed their lift successfully — and they’re all older men wearing khakis and a lot of gold rings.
The woman in the row in front of me has a tiny baby with her, wearing a pair of sound-blocking earmuffs. I wonder just how sensitive babies’ ears really are when I am momentarily deafened by the sound of crashing weights; competitors are warming up behind that blue tarp. My coffee isn’t big enough. I should have got a donut, too. Maybe that baby will share her earmuffs.
The competition is organized by weight classes — that’s what the weigh-in was for earlier — but the lifts are conducted according to weight so that the two volunteers who load the bar on stage aren’t wasting time unloading and re-loading for each competitor. If someone fails to complete their lift (if they drop it, if their form is off, if their arms snap off and they spray blood all over the audience) and the next competitor is attempting a lift at a heavier weight, then the original competitor gets a two minute rest before she tries again. So as the competition went on I saw heavier and heavier weights being lifted and I was more and more incredulous at just what these people were doing.
The first lift is called a snatch. I have the sense of humour of a twelve-year-old boy, so when the announcer says that the first competitor will be “attempting a 45 kilo snatch” I can’t help but smile. A snatch is lifting a bar from the ground up over your head, catching it in a squat, and standing upright, all in one fluid movement. Weightlifting competitions calculate lifts in kilos, though, and while I know that 45 kilos is a lot, I can’t do the math in my head. I can see the woman in front of me pull up her iPhone’s calculator (good, it’s not just me): 45 kilos is 99 pounds. Good god.
As each competitor attempts their lifts (they each get three attempts, and the total amount of kilos lifted for all three is the final score), those on deck sit and wait on a bench off to the left as their coaches massage their legs and shoulders and give them what I can only imagine as a Rocky-style pep talk. The coaches certainly fit the Rocky stereotype: older men in sweats and track jackets, likely with histories of weightlifting glory. Each competitor gets a minute to complete the lift. A name is called, a coach gives the competitor a final smack on the back as they walk up to a white plastic globe filled with chalk and rub their hands in it. The screen to the left counts down the minute as they approach the stage. Some competitors have a little routine — a little foot shuffle, a deep breath, a moment of self-talk, an OCD-esque hand placement ritual, a loud grunt, or, for one guy, sticking your tongue out like Gene Simmons — and some just walk up to the bar and lift it like it’s in the way. Once the clock hits 30 seconds, a bell rings to indicate that you better lift that damn thing before it’s too late. Three judges sit in front of the stage facing the competitor, all with what look like iPads in their hands. Once they’re satisfied with the lift, a bell rings again indicating that the competitor can put the weight down. If you drop it before that bell, no lift. Hold onto that goddamn bar.
The next lift is the clean and jerk. (Who names these?) A clean and jerk is different than a snatch because it is broken down into two phases. First, the bar is heaved off the ground and caught in a squat at the shoulders before standing upright. Then, the competitor shoots the bar above their head while jumping into a split stance. It all looks very exhausting. After the women go through all three attempts at both lifts and are awarded medals, the men line up and are introduced and go through the same. There are quite a few more men than women competing, from a variety of weightlifting and crossfit gyms in Winnipeg and even as far away as Minneapolis. The announcer for the men is very informative and doesn’t whisper-talk like the first announcer — he explains who is up, what weight they are attempting, what happens when they fail an attempt. As he announces each competitor, he calls to the next competitor: “be prepared.” It’s silent in here and very ominous.
Weightlifting outfits are really something worth noting. Each competitor is required to wear what is called a “singlet” or, for the layperson, a spandex onesie. They’re practical, I guess, but also don’t leave much to the imagination. “Stupid sexy Flanders” replays over and over again in my head as I watch each guy walk his giant quads up to the stage. The audience is silent as each competitor approaches the stage, but as soon as they begin to struggle the crowd and coaches chime in: “you got it!” “squeeze it!” “straight up!” Perhaps it’s from watching too many gross videos on the Internet, but for whatever reason I expected there to be arms bending backwards or people pooping their singlets or barfing all over the stage. Nobody is hurt, thankfully, and in talking to one of the competitors after it turns out that no one really shits themself or pukes during lifts. Damn you, Internet.
As the competition nears the end, there are only two men left to complete their lifts. One is from a club in Minneapolis and the other is from Hercules Weightlifting Club. As these two attempt 150 kilos, 155 kilos, 160 kilos, I can see the bar actually start to bend as they hold it above their heads. This is insane. The competition closes with a final clean and jerk of 161 kilos. I’ll do the math for you: that’s 354.2 pounds. That’s two adults. Ten toddlers.
The competition is over and medals are awarded. As the audience clears out the athletes stay behind for the less glamorous job of taking apart the stage and putting away chairs. The thought of having to take apart a stage and stack chairs and put the gym back in order exhausts me, but then again I didn’t just hurl the equivalent of ten toddlers over my head, so I imagine it’s nothing to these athletes. I leave the Grotto and its 28-Days-Later vibe and enter back into the real world, somehow feeling tougher just for having witnessed a group of people showcase ridiculous strength.