A Trip to Houston: Part 1

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I’m not going to lie, the prospect of a return trip to Texas did not thrill me. I once spent the longest eight months of my life living in Dallas, and I left there with no intention of returning to that state.  Ever.

You know how, every once in awhile, some loudmouth in the Texas legislature will threaten secession if the federal government tries to deny their right to arm kindergartners or make the teaching of evolution a capital offense? Every time I read something like that, all I can think is “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

But, this year’s International Weightlifting Federation World Championships were being held in Houston, and I love the sport of Olympic lifting and the Worlds had not been held on American soil since 1978 and Lord knows when they’d be back here again and Schleizer would be there to protect me and…so…a few days before this past Thanksgiving, I headed to Texas.

Scheizer, by the way, is my friend who was an all-American shot putter at the University of Illinois and is now a school district administrator and so is used to beating people’s asses.

The trip began on Sunday, November 22nd,  with a remarkably pleasant flight from Chicago. I had a window seat, and not long after I’d occupied it a friendly, earth-motherish sort of woman plopped down in the aisle seat of my row holding a baby boy maybe ten months old. She apologized in advance for any trouble he might cause, but he and I got along fine. He had big blue eyes and one of those enormous baby heads and all you had to do was wave at him once in awhile and let him squeeze your finger and he was happy as hell. We were best buds in about half a minute.

His seven-year-old sister set up shop in the middle seat, and we hit it off too.  She was wearing one of those funny winter hats that little girls love so much—furry, with bunny ears. I complimented her on it and that broke the ice. Before long she was telling me about her favorite dinosaur and how a cobra could defeat a komodo dragon in a one-on-one battle and what strategy she would use to try to make a good showing in her family’s annual pie-eating contest.

So it was a fun flight, and when was the last time you heard anybody utter those words?

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My incredibly patient, supportive wife had booked me a room at the Hilton, which was connected to the convention hall where the competition was being held. Upon landing, I shuttled over there from the airport, dumped my bag in my room and headed to the Eleiko Barbell display just outside the competition arena.

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Fifteen years ago, Schleizer coached the throws at New Trier High School just north of Chicago, and one of his athletes was a young lady named Anna Swisher. At eighteen, Anna was probably mature enough to be a senator, but she enrolled at Williams College instead and after graduating went to work on a PhD in exercise science. She recently helped Eleiko develop a coaching education course, and was scheduled to arrive in town Monday to help out at their booth. She had called ahead, though, and asked the Eleiko folks to hook me up with a ticket to Sunday’s competition sessions, which they very cordially did.

I had about an hour to kill before those  competition sessions began, and I knew exactly where I wanted to kill it: the training hall, also known as, “Nirvana for weightlifting dorks.”

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At every big-time lifting competition, the host provides a training area where the lifters get in their final workouts prior to competing. Quite simply, these are large rooms full of dozens of lifting platforms occupied by the best lifters in the world. I’d seen videos of various training halls over the years, but…it’s kinda like with a Sasquatch or a supermodel. What you really want is to see one in person.

So I was highly jacked about the prospect of spending some time in the Houston training area, which was located down a hallway from the competition arena in a room big enough to house giant exhibitions like auto shows or home artillery displays.

I wasn’t sure whether or not my Eleiko pass would get me into the training hall, but I figured the way to find out, this being Texas, was to just  take a shot at it.

When I reached the entrance to the training hall, I put my head down and flashed  my pass (actually a wrist band) at the security guard. I was a couple of steps past him when he called me back and informed me that I did not have the right credentials to enter the hall.

This was, to put it delicately, very disappointing. The training area was blocked off by a set of bleachers and a wall of curtains so I couldn’t see  any of the lifters, but I could hear the slam of lifting shoes on wood and the “bu-bu-bump-bump” of plates hitting platforms. So near, and yet…

Dejected, I headed back towards the competition arena and puttered around for a few minutes looking over the display booths full of lifting equipment and t-shirts. Out of nowhere, a nice-looking young lady came up from behind and attached a tendo unit to my right trapezius muscle. “Where do you hurt?” she asked in a throaty voice tinged with just a hint of sexiness. I started to tell her about my training hall rejection, but right away she flipped on the tendo unit and launched into her sales pitch. As she spoke, she gradually turned up the intensity of the electric shock which, in hindsight, makes me wonder if the implied message was that she was going to keep cranking that thing up until either I handed over my credit card or my trapezius exploded.  I told her I couldn’t possibly spend $250 on a portable tendo unit without first asking my wife, and that seemed to ruin the moment for her. She cut the juice, handed me a business card and went in search of likelier prey.

It was time anyway for me to enter the competition hall to see the women’s 53k lifters battle it out. The competition sessions were held in what appeared to be a mid-size concert venue with about 3,000 seats. My Eleiko pass required me to sit in the upper tier of seats, the lower tier being reserved for coaches, athletes, and VIPs. Here was my view from up there:

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The venue was intimate enough that I was able to shoot some pretty good vids  to take home and show my athletes. Here are a few lifts from the snatch portion of the competition:

If you’ve ever been to a weightlifting meet, you know that they always project a chart on the wall that gives you the names of the lifters, the weight of their opening attempts, and the weights of their various makes and misses throughout the competition. They had that here, projected onto the wall on either side of the stage but, unfortunately, I was too far away to be able to read it. And not being able to read the chart takes a lot of the drama out of the competition. It would be like watching a baseball game without knowing the number of balls and strikes on a batter or the number of outs in an inning.

Luckily, when I went to the bathroom during the break before the clean and jerk, I got turned around and re-entered the competition hall through a different door. Suddenly and fortuitously, I found myself to one side of the competition stage with a great view of the lifters and the chart. Not only that, but very few of the close-up reserved seats were occupied, so…I occupied one in the third row.

This was my new view:

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Here are some vids I took of the clean and jerk competition from that vantage point:

Next up was the men’s 62k class. I stuck with my off-to-the-side seat, and saw a great competition. The highlight was a world record in the clean and jerk by Chen Lijun of China! Here is a vid of that lift:

 That segment of the competition ended around 7:45, and I had seen somewhere that the training hall was open until 8:00, so I decided to take another whack at it. Many years ago, when I was a brand new teacher, I took a look at my actual teaching certificate one day and noticed that  it did not list English as one of the subjects I was authorized to teach. This was a problem, as I was several months into my first job…as an English teacher. Anxious to get this little mix-up straightened out before the folks at the district office took notice, I rang up someone at the state board of education and was told that I did not, in fact, have the coursework required to qualify for a license to teach English. After a sleepless night spent wondering how I was going to inform my department chair of this…uh…complication, I devised a plan. Before enrolling in summer classes the previous June, I had been assured by someone at the state that those classes would secure me an English endorsement. The person who later examined my transcripts apparently disagreed, as did the person I spoke to after examining my certificate. Clearly though, there was someone in that office who thought those classes sufficient. What if I just kept calling until I got that person on the line?

After only a couple of tries, that is exactly what happened. I spoke to the right person, she fixed my certificate and I am, nearly twenty-five years later, still an English teacher.

Might the same approach eventually get me inside the training hall?

That night, it did. There was a different security guard on duty, I flashed her my pass, and she just smiled and waved me in.  

What was it the dude who discovered King Tut’s tomb said when they knocked open the entrance and he stuck his head inside? I don’t remember, either.  But I’ll bet it was something along the lines of “Holy s—!!” which is exactly what I muttered to myself when I walked in that hall. 

There must have been 60 platforms set up in there, maybe more. Rows and rows of them. And though only one or two were occupied at that late hour, it didn’t take much imagination to see that during prime time it would be a fantastic place to watch weightlifting. Here’s what it looked like that night:

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I had a nice dinner at the hotel and went to bed thinking very happy thoughts. Schleizer and Anna would arrive the next day. and I imagined us spending many happy hours together watching great lifters.

It turned out to be a little more complicated than that.

Next up: Rejected again! Seeing another world record. Anna armed with calipers.

 

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