Weighty decisions

NOTE: The following text is unedited and thus may differ somewhat from what appeared in the Kansas City Star.

Star magazine cover with Deborah McVey

Weighty decisions

International judge gets lift from volunteer duty

Photos (except above) and story by Janet Majure

When Deborah McVey attended a local weightlifting competition in Illinois in 1973, she couldn’t have predicted that weightlifting would take her places-like Istanbul, Qatar, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing. She’ll find out this month [March 2008] whether another trip to Beijing is in her future, as a referee at the 2008 Olympics.

Her start in the world of weightlifting couldn’t have been more modest. She went to that first meet as a spectator with her husband Loren McVey, then a novice weightlifter.

“We walked in the door, and they immediately drafted us to keep score,” she recalls. “I’ve been working meets ever since.”

Superlative volunteer

Deborah McVey looks official when she appears at a meet, whether it’s a local or world event. About 5-foot-6 with an erect posture, wispy copper hair, a dignified bearing and official International Weightlifting Federation insignia on her navy blue jacket and tie, McVey stands out in a crowd.

“She is so professional,” says Dennis Snethen, interim executive director of USA Weightlifting, the national governing organization for Olympic-style weightlifting. “No one questions her authority.”

Superlatives flow when Snethen talks about McVey: “one of the best volunteer weightlifting officials,” “she’s a pioneer,” “an inspiration,” “my pride and joy of Kansas.”

All for a woman who’s never lifted weights and doesn’t intend to.

“I would not have been a good lifter because I’m not flexible enough,” she says. “They are so flexible and so fast, and I am neither.”

She is a fan, however.

“I really enjoy watching it at all levels,” she says. “It’s really exciting to watch a world record lift, and I really enjoy refereeing the little kids at the local meets.”

World and local traveler

In 2007, McVey refereed at the Pan American games in Rio, the University World Cup in Lima, Peru, and the World Championships in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Last month [January 2008], she worked the Good Luck Beijing Invitational, a sort of dry run for the Olympics.

She also worked last fall as the announcer at the Larry Hanneman Memorial competition in St. Joseph. (Announcing is trickier than it might sound. The Hanneman event provided lifting on two separate platforms, which means she had to keep track of two sets of scorecards and keep things moving.)

Snethen observed, “Even though she’s one of the top officials in the world, she hasn’t forgotten her roots, and she wants to help kids.”

That impulse was clear at the St. Joseph meet, where, in addition to announcing the lifters, the weight they were lifting and the referees’ calls, McVey frequently injected encouragement and pointers.

“Nice opener for Darrel Barnes,” she says when the St. Louis area youth completed his first lift.

After one lifter misses on an attempt, she notes, “He’s strong. Just needs to work on his technique,” and she reminds another, a girl who’s a little quick on putting down her barbell after a lift, “Wait for the signal.”

McVey also coaches the meet volunteers, too, when they occasionally get confused as they shuffle disk weights on and off the barbells. “Put on the red, take off the blue,” she intones as a lifter waits his turn.

Going international

McVey at St. Joseph meet

McVey understands that volunteers are always in demand at local tournaments, as her entry into the sport illustrates. After her start keeping score, she did some local refereeing.

Later, the McVeys moved from Iowa to Kansas, and Larry Hanneman, a fellow Iowan and the namesake of the St. Joseph tournament, moved to the Kansas City area. He encouraged her pioneering path.

“Larry Hanneman foresaw the day when women’s weightlifting would become an Olympic sport,” McVey says. “He encouraged me to get my national level license, then my international level 2 and eventually level 1.” International level 1 is the top officiating ranking.

When women’s weightlifting became sanctioned-the first women’s weightlifting in the Olympics occurred in 2000 in Sydney-more opportunities for female referees opened up, too. Although the International Weightlifting Federation eventually decided that both men and women would referee both men’s and women’s weightlifting, it is crucial to have enough female referees for the weigh-ins. Like boxing, weightlifters compete in body-weight categories.

“Athletes have to be weighed in by a referee of the same sex,” she says. “Most of them want to weigh in in the nude because they want to make weight.”

McVey quickly moved up in the ranks. She got her national license in 1991 and immediately began refereeing at national meets. She earned her international category 2 license in 1996 and category 1 in 1998. It helped that she has “an understanding husband” and was able to buy her own plane tickets to national and international events, as is usually required.

Nowadays, McVey works primarily as a member of the jury, a group of officials that oversees all aspects of meets. (See sidebar.)

“The IWF is always very careful to have at least one woman on every jury,” she says. “They are trying to bring about more equality of women in the sport.”

A double life

McVey’s real job is as a school psychologist, although for the last couple of years she has been training other educators across Kansas, particularly special education teachers and especially regarding reading.

“I feel like I have two lives,” she says. “I have my work life and my weightlifting life. They are incredibly different from each other. That keeps me rejuvenated. That means each is kind of vacation from the other.”

She pauses then says her two lives do have one thing in common: children.

“I have a consuming interest in kids growing up to be successful adults,” she says, “and I think what I do in each part of my life helps with that.” The McVeys have no children of their own.

She says that weightlifting is an excellent sport for many children.

“Unlike a lot of team sports, in weightlifting you are really able to compare yourself to yourself,” she says. “Kids make progress and learn discipline and sticking with it, and because they train and compete around other kids there’s still the social aspect. They can say, ‘I set a personal record.'”

An Olympic qualifier?

Snethen likes McVey’s chances for being selected for the Olympics. Each country can nominate a man and a woman to be considered by the International Olympic Committee, and the United State nominated McVey.

“She’s usually on the jury, and the jury at a world championship is the highest honor,” Snethen says. He claims that Tamas Ajan, president of the IWF and a member of the International Olympic Committee is a fan of McVey and notes that McVey was among only five or six officials invited to the Good Luck Beijing trial, which he takes to be a “strong, strong indication” that she will be selected.

McVey hopes so, but she’s not counting on it. [Note: McVey was selected and did serve at the Olympics.]

“They told us in Beijing that some of would not be back for the Olympics,” she says.

She adds, “Selection of officials for world championships is done by the technical committee of the IWF. They are referees themselves. But the selection of the officials for the Olympics…is a lot more political. Some of the considerations have to do with what country you are from…It becomes very difficult to predict.”

The test event was a great experience in itself, she says, and she was pleasantly surprised to find herself assigned to one of two juries.

“They had everything organized really well,” she says. “There were a couple of glitches, but that’s why you have test events.”

Whether she gets to the Olympics or not, she knows her weightlifting activities will diminish in the next year. Although she will continue to work meets, she doesn’t plan to do another term as secretary on the board of directors of U.S.A. Weightlifting nor as chair of the organization’s technical committee.

“That combination of roles has been too much of a load and I need a break,” she says. She has no plans to stop refereeing, though. The lifters, she says, “are so fast and so talented and have such beautiful technique, it’s a joy to watch. It’s really amazing.”

Husband approaches sport from different angle

Loren McVey is pleased at his wife’s success in the weightlifting world, and he’s doing his part in another quarter of it, as a weightlifting teacher and coach.

“Loren is one of our best coaches,” says Dennis Snethen, a successful coach himself and interim executive director of U.S.A. Weightlifting. Snethen credits Loren McVey with training many young athletes.

McVey’s business is Functional Strength, which offers strength-training classes using Olympic-style weightlifting techniques. His love, though, is coaching competitive weightlifters. As a result, his athletes and his wife’s refereeing have crossed paths.

Deborah McVey says judging her husband’s lifters is no different from refereeing lifters from her own country at international meets.

“The thing is that you’re consistent,” she says, although she adds that, “every once in a while, Loren’s lifters will complain that I’m too tough on them.”

Loren says he and Deborah talk about weightlifting “all the time,” covering everything from personalities to upcoming meets to how his athletes are progressing. For instance, he’s optimistic about the prospects about one of his current athletes, Vanessa McCoy, 23, who competes in the open class, and he brags that he has three former athletes who have gone on to complete their doctorates.

He says Deborah’s getting a little worn out with her job, the international travel plus her duties as secretary for U.S.A. Weightlifting, which Snethen says results in “an ungodly amount of paperwork.”

“Sometimes she will say, ‘I don’t want to talk about weightlifting,'” Loren McVey says, but it doesn’t happen often.


Weightlifting officials

At major weightlifting events jurors and referees manage the competition. Groups of three referees watch each individual lift, and each referee makes a judgment as to whether the lift was good or not. Rules dictate, for instance, that a lifter must have arms and legs straight at the end of the lift and that the lifter and barbell must be motionless. The jury, composed of five referees with greater experience and higher ratings, oversees every aspect of a meet.

Region hotbed of competitive weightlifting

The region has done more than its share of heavy lifting on the national scene. Area Olympians include Tara Nott Cunningham, who grew up in Stilwell in Johnson County, winner of a gold medal in the first-ever women’s Olympic weightlifting competition, in 2000 in Sydney, Australia. She also competed in the 2004 Olympics.

Current lifter Zach Schluender of Gladstone, who trained with Loren McVey, is at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs and member of the U.S. World team.

Earlier, Peter Kelley of St. Joseph went to the Olympics in 1996 and holds the U.S. men’s snatch record in the 105 kilogram weight class. Fellow St. Joseph athlete Wes Barnett, who went to the Olympics in 1992 and ’96, holds the U.S. men’s records in the clean-and-jerk and in the total (snatch plus clean-and-jerk). Both of them trained under Dennis Snethen, the interim executive director of U.S.A. Weightlifting and longtime leader of the weightlifting program at the Wesley Center in St. Joseph.

There’s also Lisa Brien of Topeka, another former McVey lifter, won the U.S. women’s championship in 1995, and Gene Gilsdorf of Onaga, Kan., a five-time national champion who coaches a well-established club in that town.

Besides the Wesley Center and Onaga clubs, weightlifting clubs in the region can be found in Kansas at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, in Gardner and in Salina, and in Missouri in St. Louis, Springfield, and Truman State University in Kirksville.

Lifting by other names

Not all types of weightlifting are Olympic events. Here’s a sampler of terms:

Olympic-style weightlifting: Competitive sport involving two lifts (the snatch and the clean-and-jerk) and associated weight training.

Weight training: General term for strength-building exercise using machines or free weights.

Body building: A combination of weight training and diet aimed at maximizing muscle size, definition and symmetry.

Powerlifting: Competitive sport in the squat, bench press and dead lift, which involve shorter movement of weights than Olympic-style weightlifting.

Who are you calling a jerk?

Olympic-style weightlifting consists of two lifts, the snatch and the clean-and-jerk.

The snatch requires that the lifter raise a barbell from the floor over his or her head in one motion and then come to a full standing position.

The clean-and-jerk involves lifting the barbell from the floor to the shoulders (the “clean”) as the lifter squats, and then the lifter stands and boosts the weight overhead (the “jerk”).

In both lifts, the athlete must hold the weight motionless overhead with arms and legs straight, at which time the referee signals the lifter to lower the weight.

The moves require both strength and explosive force which results in weightlifters’ being “the most powerful of any athlete in sport,” according to Loren McVey, who holds a master’s degree in exercise science.

Becoming a weightlifting referee

To become a local referee chiefly requires attending a clinic, knowing the rules and taking a test. A referee needs to serve locally at least two years before testing for national licensure. A nationally approved referee must work at that level five years before being considered for the international category 2 rating and passing another written and practical exam, and two years later a person can apply for category 1 consideration, which involves another round of testing.
All material is copyright 2008, Janet Majure, and is not to be reproduced by any means without the express permission of Janet Majure.

One Response to Weighty decisions

  1. The U.S. Olympic Committee has asked for my help in celebrating Olympic Day on June 23rd. This falls on the same day as our annual “Slugfest boxing show” and we plan to host a celebration prior to our event. We are trying to reach as many Olympians from the local area that might be interested as this is a celebration of all the sports taking place in 160 countries besides Kansas City. If you have an interest please respond back and I will send more details. Thank You Lawrence Abdalla member of the Olympic Sixth Ring and ACOG member of the 96 Olympics.

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