The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life as we know it. Schools, businesses and gyms closed. The economy nosedived. Thousands of people died.
It also forced a major change in the sport of weightlifting. In the grand scheme of things, a disrupted competition schedule for weightlifting is trivial. But for thousands of members of USA Weightlifting, the sport is a lifeline.
In early March, just as the first cases of COVID-19 were detected stateside, USA Weightlifting was able to carry out a safe and successful American Open Series 1 in Columbus, Ohio. That would be the last time USA Weightlifting athletes would gather in one place for a national competition.
With in-person competitions like the one above on hold, USA Weightlifting is turning to the internet to keep athletes engaged
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of May’s USA Weightlifting National Championships and June’s National Youth Championships to December and the outright cancelation of the American Open Series 2, also due to be held in June. With no signs of the pandemic easing, it looked like September’s American Open Series 3 set for Las Vegas would meet the same fate: postponement or cancelation.
“In June, we met as a staff in a video conference, to talk about what to do about the American Open Series 3, ” USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews said. “We discussed the pros and cons of continuing to hold the event in person. With athlete safety of utmost importance, we decided that, with so much still unknown about the pandemic, that it wouldn’t be prudent to hold an event like this in-person.”
That is how the virtual American Open Series 3 was born.
“In the end. We needed to come up with a solution to tell our members that a weightlifting competition would happen the weekend of September 18, and to circle the date on the calendar. We need to give them something to look forward to,” Andrews said. “So, we’re trying something new and hope to give our members the national competition experience, but instead of a ballroom, their home gym will serve as the venue.”
In some respects, Olympic weightlifting was made for surviving a pandemic. Athletes can train in isolation, using their own equipment, in their home garage. Of course, many are drawn to the sport by its sense of community and inclusivity.
It is in that spirit of community and fair competition, USA Weightlifting has been working for weeks to create a celebratory environment as the sport returns to national competition, albeit in a new way: on Zoom.
With 334 athletes registered for the virtual American Open Series 3, it will be the largest online weightlifting competition in history. Athletes from 40 states, ages to 12 to 67 will lift.
“While registrations are fewer than an in-person meet, we have a great cross-section of our membership signed up to compete,” USA Weightlifting Director of Events and Sponsorships Pedro Meloni said. “The event will look totally different, but weightlifting itself, will be the star of the show.”
At a typical weightlifting meet, athletes would show up two hours before competition for weigh-ins. This time, athletes will log into a special Zoom call two hours before they lift.
When competition time comes, athletes will log into another Zoom call with their fellow competitors, technical officials and support staff.
For the athletes, much of the virtual competition will mirror that of an in-person meet. Athletes will be called to lift from lightest to heaviest weight on the bar. They will be given three attempts in both the snatch and clean and jerk, with the best lifts from each combined for their total score.
What will be different for this competition, beyond the obvious change in location, is that athletes will need to use a computer or mobile device to use in competition.
“We’ve had to re-write sections of the rulebook to make it work,” Meloni said. “However, we believe we have come up with a system that is equitable and realistic.”
After weeks of testing, USA Weightlifting is ready to present a first-of-its-kind online competition. Above is a screenshot of one of the several tests carried out since July.
A typical USA Weightlifting national competition brings thousands of users to TeamUSA.org to watch a live stream of the action. For this event, viewers can expect to watch three days of lifting, but like for the athletes, the American Open Series 3 will look a bit different.
A team of USA Weightlifting staff will work out of the National Office in Colorado Springs to broadcast the competition. In a socially-distant fashion, one person will control what’s seen on the competition Zoom call. This will allow the referees to see the lift so they can judge it, and give another staff member the ability to add scoreboard graphics and other production elements to broadcast over the live stream to those tuning in. Viewers will be able to watch the live scoreboard and competition so they can stay up-to-date with the competition.
Technical officials from across the country, and around the world, including Canada and Switzerland, will adjudicate the competition.
Friday night's women's 55kg A session took a team of officials from two countries to carry out successfully. Take for example, a coach in New Jersey, submitting a change for their athlete. They typed in the change in a Zoom chat room. The marshal, based in Switzerland, took the change and inputted it into the scoring system, which was linked by intranet to USA Weightlifting's National Office in Colorado Springs. The timekeeper and broadcast crew in Colorado Springs noted the change while the speaker, Olympian Fred Lowe, in Michigan, announced the change to the athletes and worldwide live stream audience. This entire process took about one second.
"This is an unprecedented time for our sport," Meloni said. "But, so far, the meet has been running smoothly."
Lifting continues all weekend here at TeamUSA.org.