“Five more reps”.
Three small words, but with so much significance.
It was October 24, Day 2 of the IKSFA USA Elite Kettlebell Workshop in Los Angeles, CA, taught by the most highly decorated Russian coaches in the world. We had just endured four – or was it five? – hours of snatch technique, and learned some assistance exercises that I would employ for these last five reps I was determined to complete.
I came into this workshop feeling like the redheaded stepchild of the Kettlebell community – out of place, and prepared to be ridiculed. The ginger waiting to be kicked. This was a workshop for Kettlebells, yes, and I am a qualified practitioner as such. But my training has been focused on “Hardstyle”; as an RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge Instructor), I have earned respect amongst my peers as having completed one of the most grueling fitness certifications in the industry. I am proud of my achievement, and happy to call many of my esteemed colleagues my friends. But this workshop in LA was focused on Girevoy Sport – the Kettlebell Competition lifts of Long Cycle (Clean & Jerk) and Snatch, a traditional sport in Russia still in its relative infancy here in North America. I wanted to be well-rounded in Kettlebells, because there is too much infighting in the sport with ongoing debates as to which style is better, who started what, and general bickering that I decided I did not want to take sides but to decide for myself. It’s a lot like riding motorcycles – sport bikes vs. cruisers, and sometimes riders of the two don’t quite understand the other. I have ridden both, but I embrace the whole two-wheeled community. It’s about the ride, and really, it doesn’t matter who rides what, but there is a bond between the two groups that cannot be explained to “outsiders” that don’t ride. If you’re not into it, you just won’t “get“ it. Kettlebells are the same. Those who use them know what I am talking about.
This was supposed to be a “finishing” exercise for snatch technique the Russian coaches had us do. After hours of teaching and practicing, they had us wear cotton gloves to solidify what we’d learned. We were to use a lighter bell; boys were recommended to use a 16 or 12kg bell, and girls an 8kg. There weren’t enough 8s, so I grabbed a 12kg. I’d been practicing with a 16kg most of the workshop anyways, so I didn’t mind. We were supposed to snatch as long as we could before our grip gave way… and our grip was now severely compromised by wearing the cotton gloves. The coaches knew we were tired; we were less energetic than in Day 1, and I knew I wasn’t the only one trying to save my hands for Long Cycle, which was yet to come. So I didn’t think too much when I did a couple of tentative practice snatches with my left hand; I was being careful because I could feel the skin was sensitive and sore to the touch, and I could feel a very small blister forming in the middle of my palm but it hadn’t actually surfaced. So I was chalking religiously, and thankful for the glove that was supposed to help in these kinds of situations.
I had decided on a whim to go to this workshop. I really couldn’t afford to go, as I had been to two other Kettlebell workshop events the previous month – the Association of Tactical Strength & Conditioning Instructors (ATSCI) Kettlebell Specialist Certification in Kent, WA, and to be an Assistant Instructor at the RKC Philly in Exton, PA. But as I thought about how being involved in the kettlebell community – as an instructor and a student -– has literally changed my life, I knew I would be a fool to pass on the opportunity to learn from these legends of Girevoy Sport. So I decided to invest and register. I was on my way to LA.
Practicing on my own during this snatch exercise, I was comfortable. Sometimes I’d wait for a coach to watch and check my form but everyone was busy, so I just started. I was facing the mirror so I could see my technique; I wasn’t trying to beat a time nor was I even counting my reps. I was just trying to concentrate on good snatch technique within the confines of the cotton glove, and go until I could go no more. I don’t even know at what point I noticed Coach Rudnev at my side; I know I did have to tell some people to move from my line of fire because I could feel the fatigue setting in. I also had to turn 90º away from the mirror so the mats lined up forward-back, not side to side, as the possibility of me inadvertently losing my grip and launching the bell was very real. So I focused visually on the white folding chair ahead of me in the distance, hearing Dolby in my head telling me “Don’t look down!”, and dug in.
The coaching staff of the IKSFA is the proverbial real deal. Regardless of the number of trophies, titles and medals they have accumulated, the most striking thing I noticed about them was their humility. It’s a character trait I have observed over the years amongst top athletes, and it has remained a constant trait that all of my personal role models possess. The International Kettlebell Sport & Fitness Academy (IKSFA) is founded by one of the world-renowned athletes in Kettlebell Sport – Sergey Rachinskiy, Honored Master of Sport, Master of Sport World Class, Honored Coach of Russia, 9-time World Champion, 12-time Champion of Russia, and Guinness Book Record Holder. Coach Sergey Rudnev is an Honored Master of Sport, Master of Sport World Class, Honored Coach of Russia, 4-time World Champion, and 5-time Champion of Russia. Who cares if their command of the English language is not so great, and charades is part of the learning process? I did understand that “ooohh… horror show” meant that my technique was not very good, and that praise was not given freely…
The longer I snatched, slowly and steadily, the more I realized that everyone else was done with their glove sets. More people were shouting out words of encouragement, and I could see Nazo had me in her DSLR sights. I even heard her comment about me still keeping going with the 12! But I was in the zone. Actually, it was a whole world of hurt, because I had already done some practice on my left before Rudnev saw me, and so as I slogged away on my right under his watchful eye, Rudnev counted down the last few reps and then said, “SWITCH!” “Oh shit,” was all I could think – I had already done some on my left, and that tender spot in the middle of my palm was surely going to pretty much blow up. But this was one of those lifetime moments, the kind of guidance I’d been seeking, even if for a brief moment of time in this workshop. Rudnev told me to switch hands, so I did.
We all get into ruts. Sometimes potholes. For me, literally, earlier this year, it was accidentally stepping into the hole from a removable security bollard – those metal posts that are installed in pathways to deter vehicular intrusion. Small hole, little step, big hurt. I almost snapped my tibia, but thankfully, I only sustained a soft-tissue injury. I was still unable to run, barely able to dance, for the 2 months following. That was in March. April, I was T-boned in a motor vehicle accident that left me with lateral whiplash. Already unable to run, now I couldn’t do heavy pulls, an essential task in training for the strenuous firefighter physicals. So I figured some relaxation time with the family in Hawaii to celebrate my cousin’s wedding was just what the doctor ordered. I could still swim, and I love the open ocean. Being in the sea, calm, alive, swimming with life… ahh. Until I kicked a prickly sea urchin. Yes, seriously. I actually thought it was a rock, until I got out and saw the two dozen little purple spots on my left foot, each one bearing a piece of the sharp spine of that dreaded creature. It couldn’t get any worse after that! Summer was spend trying to balance healing with training, and neither was optimal. The whole point of me writing all this is to give some background of how I found myself in a training rut. Unable to train to the best of my abilities and limited by my capabilities, I found myself being in need of motivation, instead of always being the motivator. But in the world of training, Vancouver is a small town and good training partners are hard to find. So that’s why I’ve trained by myself for the most part. And at that workshop, I realized that GS was what I needed to become my own motivator.
Sweat was pouring down my face. My gloved hands were trying desperately to find a comfort zone in and around the bell’s handle, and the glove itself was bunching up because it was too big. Tom would try to straighten it out in the lockout position, but it was a futile attempt as the glove would just bunch up again on the downswing. My forearms were screaming; the burning sensationof fatigue was radiating higher the longer I continued. But I felt strangely calm, even though I was struggling for form at the end. Here, it all came together – Rudnev’s voice, my colleagues shouting encouragement, people clapping, the groove of the snatch movements, and more importantly, my mental focus and clarity. I can’t remember feeling more invincible; even if the world crumbled around me, even if my body collapsed, I knew without a doubt I could and would finish strong. So when I heard those three words – “Five more reps” – I knew I would nail it. It was by no means easy, because by now the 12kg bell felt like it weighed 24kg and it wanted to rip my arm from the socket. “FIVE”. Breathe. “FOUR”. Cast it out, lean back. “THREE”. Don’t look down. “TWO”. Lift the heel and absorb with the torso. “ONE”. Park it. I was done. I raised and shook my arms not in victory, but to try to lessen the pain pulsating throughout my limbs. Rudnev came over to shake my hand, and I hugged him. He broke away and called for a translator; Misha came to tell me what he was saying. “You have it all,” said Rudnev. “Technique, athleticism… and the character to become a champion.” It was a truly humbling moment, one I will treasure, one I will never forget.
This post has gone on much longer than I had originally planned (since I started it at the end of Oct!). But I am still reveling in that moment, even as I write today. I realize I’ve missed writing, so I’m going to try to capture all the things I’ve been thinking about after that a-ha moment. Welcome to my blog!