Having an Extraordinary Vision for Weightlifting

Sept. 18, 2014, 10:43 a.m. (ET)

Having an Extraordinary Vision for Weightlifting

By Ryan Lucas

Beyond his incomparable accent, small but intense stature, quirky sense of humor and deep reserves of energy, Zygmunt Smalcerz is conspicuous in other—even more meaningful—ways in a weight room.

For one, USA Weightlifting’s United States Olympic Training Center resident team coach is unrivaled in his vision for the intricacies of the sport.

“What easily sets Zygmunt apart from others is that he sees well,” USA Weightlifting Director of Coaching Education Michael Conroy said. “Very quickly, Zygmunt can analyze what areas need to be addressed and then create the training that will bring about the correction.”

In his enthusiasm and diligence, Smalcerz also builds indelible shelters of support for each of his competitors.

“Athletes who train with him develop a very bonded relationship with him and, in turn, he becomes relentlessly devoted in his attempts to see them succeed,” Conroy said. “He is in the training hall as early as 6 a.m. and stays equally late, going up to the cafeteria for dinner after 7 p.m. He is never not coaching.

“With his athletes, you can see the commitment they develop to one another very quickly.”

In spite of his age, Smalcerz also flourishes with even the youngest members of the American weightlifting elite.

Youth Olympians Deirdre Lenzsch and Ryan Sennett, for instance—both 17, both of whom spent several weeks this summer training at the U.S. OTC—lauded the resident coach for his unequaled insights and efforts.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with someone who’s so wise,” Lenzsch said. “Everything is effective and efficient. He tells you exactly everything you need to know—nothing more, nothing less. He’s very straightforward, and his words are simple enough to where you can see everything in your head as you’re doing it.”

“He brings up a lot of things that you wouldn’t even think about,” Sennett said. “It’s just so different from any other coach, and he’s a wonderful person to have watched you. He’s also very precise. He wants things done very specifically.”

“Despite all of his accomplishments with elite international athletes, it’s when Zygmunt trains the youth age groups that he really shines,” Conroy added. “Young athletes take to him immediately, and the result is both fun and productive.

“It makes you wonder that at age 73 just how boundless his energy is. Yet when he’s around the youth, he seems to get more youthful himself.”

All of these trademark characteristics—coupled with the overall care, attention and certainty he provides to each lifter—make Smalcerz an ideal fit for the task of coaching the U.S. OTC residents.

“Programs are individualized, and Zygmunt will script out Tuesday’s training based upon how he evaluated Monday’s results,” Conroy said. “The time spent on this approach is far beyond what I’ve ever observed, and I’ve been around some very good coaches.”

Still, regardless of how much work Smalcerz puts in for each of his competitors, the onerous demands of training at the U.S. OTC is never easy.

“An athlete needs to be experienced as well as both physically and mentally fit to handle the rigors of the U.S. OTC resident program,” Conroy said, “especially when one realizes that Zygmunt’s menu of exercises contains 33 snatch movements, 27 clean movements and 17 overhead and jerk movements.

“The resident program isn’t for everyone. I’ve been around it for 25 years and, whether or not an athlete stays for a long time, I admire their decision to give it a try. Two items come to the surface.

“First, it’s an opportunity and not a reward to be a resident. The demands are great. The food is good, but it’s still a cafeteria; there’s free room, but it’s a dormitory setting; you have friends, but you’re away from family; and the challenge is continuous.

“The second is that the level of commitment is like no other. Not just in weightlifting—in all sports—athletes put their life on hold as they dedicate themselves to realizing their Olympic dreams.”

Conroy, who knows Smalcerz better than most coaches, said he recognized the U.S. OTC resident coach’s unparalleled abilities in focusing and improving elite athletes right away.

“Long before I took the position of USA Weightlifting Director of Coaching Education, I was one of the ‘nannies’ to the resident team,” Conroy said. “As a public school teacher, my calendar gave me ample time to be able to go out to the OTC, and near the end of my 37 year career I’d accumulated more than 230 days of leave, so I was available at a moment’s notice, which many of my requests were.

“It was on one of my ‘nanny’ tours of duty that I met Zygmunt. At first, I just supervised the training, but very quickly I could see what he was trying to accomplish and, after a few conversations with him, I developed a fairly in-depth understanding of how he programmed training.”

Now, as he travels across the nation, working with coaches in all areas of the country, Conroy said the requests for the access code to Smalcerz’ vault of weightlifting expertise are unending.

“When I was named to my current position I immediately received emails and phone calls and was cornered at every national competition with questions like, ‘What does Zygmunt do with the residents?’ ‘How does Zygmunt train the residents?’ ‘Why don't you share Zygmunt's training with the rest of us?’” Conroy said.

“I want everyone to know that when the USA Weightlifting Advanced Coaching Course was released in April of this year, I stamped it as full of Zygmunt as I could. His fingerprint is over most of the manual, and that’s on purpose.”

Over the next decade and beyond, Conroy said, Smalcerz’ influence will continue to spread through all parts of the country, expanding America’s reach and achievements in the sport.

“While the number of medals being gathered internationally has increased, it’s mostly on the continental, youth and junior levels,” Conroy said. “Between now, the 2015 World Championships, Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020, if we have the success I feel we will, we can look back and see that it started with Zygmunt and his original residents.”

Stay tuned for the next issue of USA Weightlifting for another feature story on Olympic Champion & Coach, Zygmunt Smalcerz.