Dear USA Weightlifting, Stop Breaking the Bank
“The mission of USA Weightlifting shall be to enable United States athletes to achieve sustained competitive excellence in Olympic competition and to promote and grow the sport of weightlifting in the United States.” - Mission Statement of USA Weightlifting
The realization of a dream was nearing for both a coach and an athlete. It was 2018 and two lifters were fighting for a spot on the 2018 Senior World team. The coach placed senior athletes on the World team for track and field and for freestyle wrestling but never put an Olympic weightlifter on a senior world team (8 had made the Junior world team but not the senior team). The coach and lifter knew everything they needed to accomplish the goal, and they hit every last requirement and a proper total.
That lifter was Jordan Wissinger, the coach was me. Jordan was on the 2017 Junior world team. In his first year of aging out of the junior division, Jordan made tremendous progress and earned a spot on the senior world team. Selfishly, I held a “cool” goal in the back of my mind I wanted to put senior-level athletes on all possible world teams. I checked off wrestling and track and field, and now Jordan could join that elite echelon
Then I found out USA Weightlifting would not fund me to attend the world championships in Turkmenistan. After attending two funded trips to junior worlds with numerous other coaches, this seemed odd. That travel led directly and undeniably to the first Junior World title the US ever won. Coaches work with athletes day in and day out, coaching them technically and mentally to excellence—it only makes sense that the coach should be present at the time of performance.
Each of these accomplishments makes us proud as a gym community. These achievements fuel me personally to continue pushing our athletes. Our athletes train in our gym in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. A small town, not a destination spot. Not only does weightlifting fuel us, but we also pride ourselves on fueling weightlifting: we advocate, we push for growth, and we are proud of this sport. We have had competitors on the following teams: Youth Worlds, Youth Pan Ams, Junior Worlds, Junior Pan Ams, Senior Worlds, Senior Pan Am Championships. We have had a competitor on every single international championship team possible this past year, including the 2019 Senior World Team member, Jordan Wissinger.
Jordan made the team following the 2019 American Open 2 series, the fourth major competition since last year’s Senior Worlds. Every time a coach is able to travel with an athlete, they do… diving deep into our available funds.
That weekend was crazy, one of our Garage Strength throwers qualified for the Senior World team representing the United States in Doha and Jordan would be representing the United States in Thailand. I financed my own travel through the help of our non-profit to travel to Fiji and support our athletes. I was ready for an email asking me to accompany Jordan to Thailand to achieve another international success.
It seemed as though USA Weightlifting cut funding for juniors to ensure all senior athletes heading to Thailand would be in a good spot to increase their chances to make the 2020 Olympic team. Because the USA Weightlifting stipend system changed frequently (for example, on March 20 one system was posted and by March 25 a new system), I assumed they may have changed the one published in 2018.
I was finally contacted on August 6th to see if I would be attending the competition in Thailand with no indication that travel would be paid. When I asked, the answer was no.
My immediate reaction was to figure out if I could spend $2,000 personally, or if our non-profit could help support the trip. I received an email from USAW on August 8 requesting my decision but neglecting to include any details about cost, the corresponding camp in Tokyo, or housing. Without financial backing or even financial information to determine if it was feasible, I was told that a decision was required by the end of August 8. After a few pointed emails, USAW CEO Phil Andrews stepped in and sent me a solid estimate.
“The mission of USA Weightlifting shall be to enable United States athletes to achieve sustained competitive excellence in Olympic competition and to promote and grow the sport of weightlifting in the United States.”
From 2016 to June of 2018, USA weightlifting was funding nearly every trip, funding private coaches, and developing an incredible line up of athletes. Athletes like Jourdan De La Cruz, CJ Cummings, Harrison Maurus, Nathan Damron, Jordan Cantrell, Kate Nye benefited tremendously from the previous funding system, as did Jordan Wissinger. That system was clearly focused on enabling United States athletes to achieve sustained competitive excellence in Olympic competition. Athletes stayed within the sport of weightlifting because it was financially feasible. That system sparked a Junior World title and the greatness of CJ Cummings, Harrison Maurus, and Jourdan De La Cruz amongst the other beast lifters.
Sadly, we are at a point now where an athlete like Jordan Wissinger, an athlete who made two senior World teams, does not receive a stipend of any sort and is still eligible for the Olympic Games but his coach is not funded to support him in Thailand in achieving his goals. Jordan isn’t the only one. This is in blatant contrast to its mission statement. Jordan would like to provide “sustained competitive excellence in Olympic competition,” yet struggles daily to work a full-time job, perform as a full-time student, and train full-time because his “supporting” national governing board ignores his success and desire to represent the country.
As someone who has developed athletes to compete in Youth, Junior, and Senior world teams, the previous funding system was incredible for growing the sport of weightlifting. I could share with parents and athletes the opportunities available in the sport. I could tell them that by working their asses off, they could make a team, represent this country, and continue to develop their character through hard work, determination, and execution. For example, Kate Wehr, another Garage Strength athlete, was on the verge of leaving the sport to focus solely on college. With funding to attend Youth Pan Ams, Kate had the experience of a lifetime and gained the motivation to reach for Junior Worlds. She is now a full-time college student and a world-class athlete. The former system kept athletes in the sport. It promoted and grew the sport of weightlifting.
Today, potential 2024 Olympians or world team members not only have to pay for their entire trip to Youth Pan Ams, but they also foot the bill for their entire outfitting. We are now a fringe sport with minimal collegiate opportunities, and when you reach a global level you are asked to pay for your own singlet to represent the country. It’s a sad state, and it fosters an elitist classist approach to a sport that, at its core, requires nothing more than dedication to making your body strong.
If the organization truly values “sustained competitive excellence in Olympic competition” and to “grow the sport of weightlifting within the United States,” it’s time to go back to basics. USAW must begin considering the easiest ways to keep youth within the sport.
Tokyo 2020 and Potential Blunders
Clearly, there is a big priority that needs to be geared toward the 8 potential men and women that will represent the United States in Tokyo. This is a HUGE opportunity for the United States. Many of the traditionally strong weightlifting countries will be on leave from this competition or have a minimal amount of contestants due to drug doping. This is partly because USAW CEO Phil Andrews has spearheaded a greater sense of accountability regarding doping and anabolic usage within the sport. We could have a number of Olympic medalists in Tokyo. CJ Cummings and Harrison Maurus alone could bring back some hardware to the US and that opportunity is incredible.
We should be investing to build toward the actual definition of the USAW mission statement. I compare this to very successful programs in the United States. In contrast to USAW, it’s very unlikely USA Track and Field would build an entirely different training track and weight room in Tokyo for its world-class athletes. It’s doubtful they would pour a brand new shot circle in the backyard of Olympic champion and record holder, Ryan Crouser. Instead, they would ensure he had access to competitive funding and have Crouser train at the Olympic training grounds before he breaks the Olympic record again, just like he did in 2016 in Rio.
Let’s take another step back. In June, USA Weightlifting flew elite coaches and athletes to the OTC to discuss qualifications and accreditation for the Pan Am Games and Olympic Games. I was included in this group of coaches.
The meeting was disorganized and unfocused at best. That Saturday evening, some of the best weightlifting coaches in the US sat around a table discussing the experience. Many of us are successful business owners: we discussed the time we lost, the wages we lost, the disorganization, forcing athletes to train off campus at 7:30 AM at a local college gym. Finally one of the USAW representatives asked all of the coaches at the table to rate the quality of the gathering on a scale from 1 to 10. The average rating was a 5.
The discussion among the coaches continued after the gathering. The best weightlifting coaches in the US expressed significant concern about the expenditures of USAW and how they were being used. I’m broadening that discussion today.
USAW does a very good job of publishing their stipend/funding system on their website, but it is changed constantly and is very disorganized. Another Garage Strength athlete, Hayley Reichardt, had to request her financial reimbursement from a medal-winning appearance at Junior Worlds. Coaches are provided information regarding travel and funding at the last minute, increasing costs and precluding informed decision-making.
Financial support is now entirely focused on a small group of elite senior lifters. Senior lifters deserve support. But USAW needs to examine how their decision-making contributes to sustained success, growth, and support of our coaches. This isn’t in a dedicated training site in Tokyo.
This letter is an open criticism, but it is also a request to improve procedures and think strategically about the future of weightlifting, not just the current moment. The policies and standards have consistently lived in muddied waters. By improving overall operations and establishing concrete methods that support the growth and sustainability of the sport of weightlifting, not just a select few, the performance of the organization will consistently improve and naturally lead to Olympic success.
This letter was sent to USAW CEO Phil Andrews on Friday, August 9. He responded via email, text, and he reached out to me by phone to discuss the items addressed here. With his approval, I will post his response in the next few days.
This blog was written by Dane Miller, Author of Olympic Weightlifting and Sports Performance!
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