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Contrasts in the world of Sudbury weightlifting

At their best, weightlifters become lost in their own little world.

Focus fixated completely on their cues, at one with the key technical components of the lift, these athletes, both young and old, have no issue immersing themselves in an environment of their own making.

Understandably, then, pandemic related competitions that are limited to the virtual variety, with weightlifters across the country providing monitored video-taped evidence of their accomplishments is not about to throw these folks for a loop.

Former lifter and current Sudbury Weightlifting Club head coach Alex Fera is certainly not about to let that happen, not to his athletes. Thirty-six year old Sudbury native Johanna Gatien has not yet experienced the uniqueness of on-line competition.

That will come in May, when she takes part in the World Masters Championships, having reached her goal by virtue of a strong showing at the Ontario Masters last February, just before the live events were shut down.

Now four years into her coach/athlete partnership with Fera, the one-time competitive swimmer and soccer talent is ready for anything that might be thrown her way. "I was reluctant, at first, to compete, and I'm not really even sure why," said the graduate of St Benedict Catholic Secondary School, who was first introduced to Olympic-style weightlifting through her involvement with Cross Fit studios in Toronto.

"It took me a while to do my first meet. I did my first one three years ago, but I've only done three or four in total - but I'm a completely different lifter now," added Gatien. "In my first competition, I cried. I cried before I went on, I was so nervous. But month over month, year after year, you can actually see the progress in your strength and technique, but also with the mindset."

Competitions aside, the local woman who boasts personal bests of 68kg/149lbs (snatch) and 90kg/198lbs (clean and jerk) has no issue identifying complementary aspects of her various sporting pursuits. "I think just having a background in sports, in general, helps - my soccer, for sure, and swimming for my overall strength and coordination," she said.

"But I think the reverse is true as well. I wish that I had something like Olympic weightlifting when I was training for swimming or soccer. The transfer from weightlifting is impressive."

Like most folks, Gatien knew little of the intricacies of her newfound passion when she connected with Fera, unsure of any real long-term goals at the time. "People don't realize how much your legs are involved," she explained. "People think you just throw it up with your arms. You have to use your whole body, but the legs drive the lift."

"Lifts are so technical, just because there are so many pieces to them. That's why I think Alex is such a great coach, because he only focuses on a few cues. You really have to break it down to just a cue or two, when you're first starting, and not over-think it."

"When I first start with an athlete, I compare it to trying to learn to play golf," said Fera. "People want to know what is important to focus on, but it's all important. What they want is consistency, being able to do it exactly the same, every time. That puts you in a different realm, from a technical standpoint."

As for Gatien, Fera knows that he has a much better than average base to build from.

"Johanna is just so dynamic," he said. "The sport is about fast-twitch fibres and explosion - and she has that."

As for her first virtual competition next spring, Gatien acknowledged the pros and cons. "I will try and be prepared for whatever we have to do," she said. "But obviously, being at a meet with other people, I think you have more adrenaline, more excitement - but maybe I will be a little more relaxed here."

At just 13 years of age, Elita Lajoie already benefits from a greater sense of relaxation than some lifters double or triple her age. Competing virtually a few weeks back, the grade eight student at Pavillon-De-L'Avenir recorded lifts of 110 pounds (snatch) and 145 pounds (clean and jerk), qualifying for the Pan Am Youth Under 15 Championships in December.

"The event that I just did, I didn't get nervous," she said. "I wasn't nervous at all."

With just over a year under her belt with the club, Lajoie was attracted as much by the social setting as the athleticism that would develop over time. "I started with two days a week, but then I quickly told my mom to move me to three times a week. Interacting with the girls, the people here - they are fun to hang around with when we're here."

"The positivity that they have and the energy they give out are amazing."

Still, when it came to the day of the meet, there was a bit of an adjustment to be made, not one that might be obvious to any onlooker, other than her coach. "I had to change my fixed sight, where I was looking at during my clean (as part of the clean and jerk)," she explained. "I looked up in the crease of the tile, but I used to look at the picture."

"When you look up higher, you tend to finish the pull and catch it right. It helped a lot - the lifts, in general, were awesome," she stated, after breaking all of her personal records.

That simple tweak, one that would seem so inconsequential, actually addressed quite nicely a minor technical glitch. "I was struggling to finish my pull," said Lajoie. "When you pull the bar up, you have to make sure that you run it up against your legs. But as you pull up, you also have to make sure that your elbows point to the roof, and then you can catch it on your shoulders."

"The elbows go up, not out."

That explanation drew an appreciative smile from her coach, a man who goes back to the lifting days of local Olympian Kevin Roy. "You need height and straightness for the pull on the clean," said coach Fera. "The farther the bar goes away from your body, the more you have to chase it."

"The shortest distance between two points will always be a straight line."

Whether competing live, on stage, or on-line, that is not about to change.

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