An Equal Playing Field: Female Olympic Weightlifting Coaches
I recently had an opportunity to interview several female weightlifting coaches at various levels of their craft. As a coach myself, I was interested in delving into their history both as a lifter and a coach, their mentors and/or education and if they felt that being female in a male-dominated sport had hindered them as coaches in any way. I was pleased to find out that all of these women have experienced little to no gender discrimination (with one glaring exception) and all are thriving in the sport even though all of their mentors were men.
Here are their stories.
Aimee Everett started lifting in the summer of 1996 when her volleyball coach sent her to train under the infamous coach Mike Burgener. Shortly after, she quit volleyball and became a full-time lifter under Coach B. She soon made her way to the American Open and trained and lived at the Olympic Training Center Junior Training Camp for the next four years.
After a five-year break from the sport to finish school, Aimee dove back into weightlifting full force in 2005 and began training new lifters for Coach Burgener as well as assisting him with CrossFit Weightlifting Certifications. Aimee dove head first into learning all of the finer intricacies of coaching from Mike Burgener and credits him in paving her way to being the coach she is today.
“Everything I have right now- I really believe he paved the way. Who I am as an athlete, a coach, as a person is totally him. From my programming, to the way I love my athletes, to the way I scare my athletes with my yelling, and to my total devotion to my team and gym family.”
Bob Morris and Lynn Jones from the Olympic Training Center as well as her husband, Greg Everett, have also been huge influences on her coaching style.
“There just weren’t women coaches around me when I was growing up in this sport. Today, I am lucky to have Ursula (Garza Papandrea) to look up to as a female coach. She paved the way.”
When asked if she felt she was held back in any way because of her gender:
“Honestly I've never even thought about it being harder to break into this sport as a "female" coach until you asked me this question. I just knew there was one female international coach and I wanted to be the second. Period.”
Aimee has now accomplished that goal and is the second female international USA Weightlifting coach ever. Her lifter, Jessica Lucero, is on the National Team, won the National Championship in 2015 in the 58 kg class, and is a national record holder in the snatch. Spending “a bazillion” hours working with Jess to get her to where she is today is what she credits as her biggest coaching triumph. Aimee and Greg Everett own Catalyst Athletics, one of the most respected weightlifting resources in the United States.
Emmy Vargas started lifting as an 18-year-old in junior college, when her shotput coach took her to see now weightlifting Hall of Fame coach Bob Takano to make her stronger and more powerful. One of her first experiences was seeing Diana Fuhrman (six time world team member, four time national champion) lift in Bob’s weightlifting gym. Emmy wound up getting a scholarship to Cal State Los Angeles as a thrower (ended up with a 45’ throw), but quit her throwing scholarship as her love for the sport of weightlifting grew.
Bob referred to Emmy as “the doormat” because her personality and confidence at the time were so small. He told her she needed to learn to grow fangs. His encouragement must have worked, as Emmy became a national team member, represented the USA at the World championships, won a silver medal at the Pan American Games in 2007 in the super heavyweight class, and made it to three Olympic trials (placing in the top 10 each time). She is also the lightest woman in the history of American weightlifting to clean and jerk more than 300 lbs (142 kg). Anyone who knows Emmy now knows she is no doormat.
Emmy started coaching weightlifting on a bigger scale when her friend Andy Garcy, who was the head coach for Pinnacle Weightlifting in Colorado Springs, unexpectedly passed away in 2009. At the request of his team, she agreed to help coach them through their upcoming meets. The Pinnacle team wound up with podium finishes in the School-Age (now Youth), Senior (third place at Nationals), University Level (second place) as well as Master’s Nationals and the Master’s World Championship that year. Her passion for coaching was ignited full force.
As a long-time resident of the Olympic Training Center, Emmy also credits resident coach Bob Morris with helping her develop her coaching style. Emmy is now the Head Coach of Barbarian Barbell where she coaches both women and men in the old school way with no loud music playing. She believes being able to hear the timing of the lifts is critical.
She doesn’t believe her greatest triumph as a coach has happened yet:
“I have high standards. As I’m still coaching and learning, I can’t answer that question, but I do hope I’ll be able to say I’ve helped change some folks’ lives for the better.”
Her goals as a coach, however, are high. She’d like to get someone on an Olympic team or put someone on the international stage. When asked about her “best coaching secret”, she said it is being a coachable coach. Her advice to anyone looking to get into coaching the sport is apt:
“Lift in a meet. It’s one thing to tell people what it’s like to lift, it’s another to have experienced being called upon in a moment when you’re spasming and you’re dehydrated, and you’re being called upon to make a big lift, and you only have 2 minutes on the clock to hit that lift under high pressure.
You can be that feel good coach, but in my opinion, you’re not going to be a good coach. The coach has to be willing to take the heat, to keep the athlete focused on the task at hand. Being able to handle the heat live in a meet is critical, so get out there and coach. Coach at different levels. The game changes at each level. When you get to higher levels, the pressure changes. When you’ve got lifters trying to make teams or set national records, it’s much different than just helping someone get a PR.”
Lindsay Yocum was introduced to the sport of weightlifting post college when she started her first job at Velocity Sports Performance (VSP) in Redondo Beach more than ten years ago. Since then she has partnered with Sean Waxman at Waxman’s Gym, where she coaches weightlifting and one of their competition teams. She also continues to utilize weightlifting at the strength and conditioning level for her athletes at Marlborough School, a college preparatory school in Hancock Park.
Ken Vick and Sean Waxman have been her mentors. Lindsay believes her capability has not been measured by her gender but rather her experience:
“Post college I was green to the sport of weightlifting, just having earned my CSCS and my USAW level 1 coaching certifications but not really having the “hands on” experience that it takes to develop the coaching eye and learn the art of coaching weightlifting. Luckily I did have a supportive mentor (Ken Vick) and professional peers that took the responsibility of honing our craft seriously. I quickly went from having a handful of reps under my belt to thousands and I am fortunate enough to have a natural proclivity to understanding, identifying and correcting the lifts as I coach.”
Unlike all of the other women in this story, she did have one flagrant example of being denied a role specifically because of her gender. After paying her dues at VSP coaching youth (8-11 year olds) and middle school athletes, it became apparent that her superior was holding her back from coaching high school teams:
“His reasoning was that he believed I couldn’t demand respect from a group of high school aged boys. Let’s just say that I proved him wrong and that I do not credit him as a mentor, hence why he remains nameless. “
Lindsay trains both women and men and like all of the women in this story, believes that people are attracted to coaches because of their knowledge and coaching style, not their gender:
“I think people in general regardless of their gender gravitate towards a coaching style that they deem compatible with their learning style. I think the most important part of developing trust with an athlete is a) knowing your stuff and b) telling them what they need to hear, instead of what they want to hear.”
She doesn’t believe that she’s had one moment of triumph as a coach, and her goals are simple:
“For the most part… my satisfaction (in coaching) is derived from the fact that I am directly influencing an athlete to achieve their personal best. Whether that is teaching the athlete how to properly lift, motivating the athlete to train through challenging times, or creating confidence in an athlete to perform under pressure and at their best, coaching is a means to teach people to strive to actualize their potential as a human being.
Female coaches inspire female lifters. And that's a good thing. [Photo courtesy of RX'd Photography]
Alison Parakh got her start in weightlifting while studying physical education at the University of Oregon, where she majored in exercise physiology and also received her Masters. She competed a bit in graduate school, but became so busy coaching that she didn’t have time to train. She doesn’t credit anyone as being a mentor in weightlifting, per se, but does mention Jimmy Radcliffe, the Head Strength Coach at U of O as an overall strength-coaching mentor.
There was one time that she felt singled out as a woman. She found out she was being interviewed because of a quota that required females to be interviewed. She also admits that back when she first started coaching strength and conditioning in the 1990s, networking opportunities seemed far more difficult because of being one of only a handful of women in a male dominated industry. She has noticed a change recently though, in that “there are a lot more women in the industry now, and it seems that being female isn’t so much of an issue as it might have seemed before.”
Alison coaches both men and women and also believes that:
“It comes down to what you know and how well you communicate, and if you can communicate well, and you know your stuff and can help an athlete improve, I find it doesn’t matter (if you’re a man or a woman).”
Her greatest accomplishment as a weightlifting coach so far is having their club officially recognized as USAW sanctioned this year and already having two lifters who qualified for University Nationals. Alison prides herself on recognizing talent, wooing them to her weightlifting club, and seeing her lifters improve. Her goals as a coach in the sport of weightlifting are simple: “to continue to learn, improve, and help athlete’s succeed.”
My Coaching Journey
I found weightlifting through Team CrossFit Academy in Monrovia in 2008. I joined their newly sanctioned USAW team and began competing in local meets. Shortly thereafter, I opened my own gym, CrossFit Survival. After focusing mainly on coaching CrossFit for the first few years, I decided to form a USAW sanctioned team, and switch my focus to studying and learning as much as I could about coaching weightlifting.
I took Coach Mike Burgener’s CrossFit Weightlifting seminar in 2010, followed by short seminars with Jacob Tsypkin (accompanied by Ariel Stephens) as well as driving my lifters down to the San Diego area to study with Edgar and Evelyn Hernandez of E2 Olyfit early on. From there, I studied under Greg Everett, taking his Level One Seminar as well as passing the demanding Catalyst Athletics L1 Certification in 2014. In 2015, I jumped at the opportunity to study with Hall of Fame legendary weightlifting coach, Bob Takano, completing his 100 hour internship and receiving one of the highest scores at that time on the most demanding test I've ever taken.
I credit Eric Le Clair and Bob Takano as my mentors, but wish to acknowledge Michael Keating as well. In terms of coaching both men and women, I coach both. At first I had a hard time getting men to trust me, but once again, I think that had to do more with my belief in myself. As I’ve racked up more hours and learned from greater and more knowledgeable teachers, my confidence has risen to the point where I know I have something valuable to offer both men and women, so I know their trust factor has more to do with that.
My greatest triumph was coaching Laurie Espinosa to a first place win in the Masters National Championship in 2016 in the 63kg weight class for her age group followed by a first-place win at Youth Nationals for Mike Melendez, my 69kg 13 and under youth lifter in the same year. Laurie went from someone who was overweight, stressed out, and had never even lifted a barbell to someone who worked her ass off and earned the right to be called a national champion. Mike spent two years in CrossFit Survival’s Kids program struggling with asthma and learning proper movement. By the time we disbanded it, he had become a confident athlete. I asked if he’d like to try weightlifting, and he adapted to it like he’s been doing it his entire life.
My goals are to help my athletes achieve their goals—plain and simple, but I help them set higher and higher goals for themselves, so anything could happen. I co-coached a senior to Nationals in 2015 and am excited to be taking a lifter to Youth Nationals in June and two master’s lifters to the American Masters in November.
This article was originally published on Breaking Muscle US.
A look back at females in Olympic weightlifting: