(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune)
Derrick Johnson lifts double his body weight on day 1 of 2016 USA Weightlifting National Championships at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Friday May 6, 2016.
Olympics: USA Weightlifting wants to capitalize on boom in sport’s popularity for next Olympic cycle
CrossFit is said to have boosted U.S. participation in sport.
Phil Andrews didn't really stop walking or talking or watching Friday morning at the Salt Palace Convention Center. His backpack in tow, the newly minted CEO of USA Weightlifting answered questions, directed traffic and looked on as some of the 359 athletes competing at this weekend's USA Weightlifting National Championships attempted to raise the bar.
Which is what Andrews, a native of Great Britain, is trying to do for the sport in the U.S. The director of events and programs since the summer of 2013 was recently named CEO, on April 21. And he's seen firsthand the boom the program has witnessed during the last four-year cycle.
After the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Andrews said, USA Weightlifting had about 11,000 members nationwide. Entering this weekend's national championships and Sunday's Olympic Team Trials for the Rio Games this August, the program just eclipsed 26,000.
"We are one of, if not the fastest growing Olympic sport," Andrews said. "Which is very good for a sport that has historically been fairly low-interest in the United States. We're very proud of that [growth] . We're very delighted about more competition."
A priority for the new CEO, however, is to capitalize on the boom — mainly linked to the explosion in popularity of the sport of CrossFit, which itself emphasizes Olympic style lifting. That means building upon the massively growing numbers for the next Olympic cycle in Tokyo in 2020.
The U.S. will qualify three female lifters out of the 15 competing in Sunday's trials. The men — who haven't won an Olympic weightlifting medal since the 1984 games in Los Angeles — have no guaranteed spot in Rio. Eight Americans will qualify Sunday to travel to Colombia next month to face other lifters from around the globe for one remaining spot in Brazil.
"We want more in Tokyo [in 2020] ," Andrews said. "I think we're likely able to achieve more. We want three men in Tokyo and four women. That's our target."
How U.S. lifters can do so is prepping for the 2018 and 2019 world championship events, which determine the amount of Olympic slots each country has. The American female lifters fared well in the 2015 world championships in Houston.
Ray Jones has been coaching weightlifting since 1980. The Beaufort, S.C., resident coaches 15-year-old C.J. Cummings, considered to be the next big thing in American lifting. Jones said the inclusion of CrossFit athletes is a major step to changing the fortunes of U.S. weightlifting in the future.
But the longtime coach thinks the lifters around the country need to start at a much younger age in order to fare better at the youth and junior levels before potentially advancing onto the senior stage. Some of his lifters have started out as young as age nine, where they first lift using a plastic PVC pipe.
"If you wait until kids are 16 or 17 years old — which is the last couple of years for youth weightlifting — they're usually already gravitating to other sports," Jones said.
Regarding what needs to happen in the next four-year cycle for American lifters to have more of a say in Tokyo, Jones said the random drug testing worldwide isn't as stringent as it is in the U.S. or other countries. That, he said, needs to change.
"These U.S. lifters … we know are randomly drug tested," Jones said. "If you're anywhere in that top tier, you're getting randomly tested. They're here. These are the ones that should be the superstars."