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Published: Monday, 7/4/2011 - Updated: 4 years ago

Olympic weightlifting

Hours to train, seconds to compete

Weightlifter Jerry Huth, 56, is midway through the clean-and-jerk maneuver and will complete the lift by thrusting the 210 pounds of weight directly over his head with his arms fully extended. Weightlifter Jerry Huth, 56, is midway through the clean-and-jerk maneuver and will complete the lift by thrusting the 210 pounds of weight directly over his head with his arms fully extended.
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The United States was once the world's dominant force in men's Olympic weightlifting, a sport that involves the explosive heaving of a weighted barbell off the ground and over one's head.

But the nation's reign through the World War II era was over by the 1970s, as American lifters began to fade from the highest ranks of worldwide meets. Why the nation's lifters lost their ground is widely disputed -- some blame the challenge of earning a living through a sport without much sponsorship, while others point to a funneling of talent into mainstream sports like football and basketball.

Whatever the causes may be, it has been more than 40 years since an American won an Olympic gold medal, and a once-successful sport in the U.S. has fallen into increasing obscurity.

This slow shift can be found in this city at Fitness 4 All gym on Holland-Sylvania Road, where there is one of the very few Olympic weightlifting platforms in the area. The six-foot rubber square is almost hidden among white steel machines with blue seats, for isolating body parts.

More than six months ago, the gym was called Synergy and had four weightlifting platforms, including one made for competitions -- the gym held about eight local meets a year. But the gym's athletic focus was difficult to market to a larger audience, and so it had trouble staying afloat.

In December, former bodybuilder Keith Zoeller bought the gym and filled the main floor with white-painted machines and added four treadmills and other aerobic equipment. An alcove where Todd and his clients could throw medicine balls against the wall, and climb a wall by gripping a cargo net, was cleaned out and replaced with a small store that sells protein powder and snack bars, along with caffeine pills and energy drinks.

The clientele also shifted from largely sports-focused to the fat-loss minded. Under Zoeller's leadership the gym's members have increased from about 120 before he took over to 320.

"I think Olympic weightlifting has its place if it's sport-specific," Zoeller said, "but it's not going to make enough money to run a gym."

The old gym's owner, Todd Baden, 46, now works at Fitness 4 All as a personal trainer, and Doug's former employee Doug Berninger, 25, now manages most of the gym's group fitness classes. Both compete in regional meets for Olympic lifting, and said they would love to teach the two complex and difficult lifting movements that they've worked at themselves for years. But they also said they likely won't teach them to their clients, unless they ask.

"It makes more financial sense to do what I can," said Baden, who added that about one of every 10 clients still wants to train with the Olympic lifts after one year. "Do I train one, or please the masses?"

Zoeller said he hoped Berninger would increasingly see the benefits of isolation, given the increase in membership and what Zoeller said were superior client results. Berninger said he trains his two clients without the Olympic lifts, but as for himself, he still lives and breathes Olympic weightlifting.

Interest in the lifting style is just as limited outside the gym. Baden founded the Toledo Weightlifting Club in 2001, a local network for Toledo lifters who want to compete regionally, but the club only contains 15 members, and only five are actively training. Many of the others train for a few months, and then disappear to their respective sports, and few of the members have time to train together.

Weightlifter Todd Baden, who has been weightlifting for 17 years, begins his lifting routine with a warmup exercise based in part on the clean-and-jerk maneuver. Weightlifter Todd Baden, who has been weightlifting for 17 years, begins his lifting routine with a warmup exercise based in part on the clean-and-jerk maneuver.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Jerry Huth, 56, is a member of the club and has been Olympic lifting for 37 years -- more than long enough to witness the sport's recent national changes. Except for a two-year gap in his late 30s, Huth has lifted nearly four times a week since he left high school, when two friends from church invited him to their makeshift lifting station in a garage. Huth said that back then, up to a dozen friends would train together in garages -- but now he said he doesn't know whose garage he would go to, even though he has won six national championships in his age group as well one international championship.

Why is this style of lifting so hard to sell? Baden said a key challenge for the sport is that it's hard to get many athletes excited for a meet, when they will lift for merely seconds. Olympic lifting only has two lifts -- the clean and jerk, and the snatch -- and in any given meet, every competitor only performs each of those a handful of times. To many athletes, all of that training time can seem eclipsed by more than five hours a week throughout the year of dedicated training, mental preparation, and warding off parents' concerns of injury, which Baden said are fully unjustified.

"People think of Olympic lifting and they're intimidated," Baden said. "They don't think it's for everybody. My son has a better chance of hurting his growth plate playing hockey than lifting weights."

Olympic lifting may have found its best means for a national resurgence through Crossfit, a gym network with about 1,700 associated sites across the world. Owners of Crossfit gyms train their clients in various sports that often include running, weightlifting, and gymnastics. Todd Ovall, owner of Crossfit Lifesport in Toledo, said his clients use some form of the Olympic movements nearly every day, though they may involve dumbbells or kettlebells instead of weighted steel barbells.

"It's hard to beat the Olympic lifts for pure improvement and results across the board," Ovall said.

But Ovall added Crossfit's wide fitness range also means that it "specializes in not specializing." He said he hasn't yet worked with a client who wants to compete solely in Olympic lifting. Crossfit has also only gained prominence within the last decade, and it could take more time before the network asserts a stronger presence.

Despite the challenges of teaching and training a style that is both difficult and hard for many to accept, both Berninger and Huth said they enjoy the immediate rush of competition. They said it doesn't always take a large stature to lift enormous weight.

"You can be a top-level lifter in the gym," Berninger said, "and in the street no one can know the weight you move."

Contact Dan Bethencourt at: dbethencourt@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.

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