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Ali Ludwig is a rising star for USA Weightlifting's national team who will compete this week in Miami at the 2017 Senior Pan Ams, but how far and how fast she ascends could be determined by the long-term viability of the new 90kg weight class in the women's division.
When the International Weightlifting Federation announced the creation of the new weight class in Beijing last September, it was like a gift had been handed to Ludwig.
"When they introduced the 90-kilo class, I was like, 'This is perfect, this is a godsend,'" said the 25-year-old weightlifter from Palos Verdes, California, during a recent phone conversation. "90 kilos was right where I was at, so I was definitely happy about it."
However, as Ludwig would soon find out, what is given can just as easily be taken away.
The Way She Interacted with the Barbell Was Really Impressive
Ludwig has always been strong. When she was two and a half, she picked up a 25-pound dumbbell at her aunt's house and carried it across the room. Soon she was arm-wrestling boys, challenges she won more often than not.
After having played "every sport possible" in high school -- a list that includes swimming, water polo, tennis, basketball, softball, and volleyball -- she turned her attention to CrossFit when she was 20. Two years later, she wrote an email to Sean Waxman, asking the famed coach if he could help her improve her weightlifting technique, but she never actually sent it.
Word got to Waxman anyway. After watching a video online of Ludwig squatting, he sent her a Facebook message in May 2014, asking if she'd like to come to tryouts at his gym in Lawndale, California, where he's developed dozens of nationally ranked weightlifters.
"I'm pretty sure he saw my squat PR at the time, which was like 325 or 335 at a CrossFit gym," said Ludwig. "It was pretty decent for a girl that's just CrossFitting. I think I also posted an awful 95kg clean."
When asked about Ludwig's technique in the videos, Waxman said, "Although it wasn't very good, I could tell that her strength was good and her movement was really good. There's a certain way the barbell moves with people. There's a dynamic between the lifter and the barbell that makes the lifting of the barbell look different. It's a combination of strength and coordination, and she had that. I saw it in her squat. The way she interacted with the barbell was really impressive.
"When I look at weightlifters, I don't necessarily look at their ability to weightlift," he continued. "In fact, I prefer them not to have done any weightlifting at all. There's certain athletic elements that I look for, and she possesses all of them. The fact that she could or couldn't snatch and clean and jerk didn't matter to me. What mattered to me was that she possessed certain athletic traits that I look for. If an athlete has those, as Ali did, I know we can make them into a good weightlifter. So I reached out to her and gave her my pitch."
"I was a little hesitant at first," said Ludwig, "because I didn't want to get bulky and gain all this weight, but after two months, I stopped CrossFitting and I was like, 'Yeah, this is definitely more suitable for what I'm built for. This is what I need to do.'"
Like many who transition from CrossFit to weightlifting, Ludwig brought some bad habits with her, an early arm bend in her clean and jerk, for example. "There were certain elements that needed a total re-haul, certain elements that just needed a little polishing," said Waxman. "Whenever we get CrossFitters in here, there's always pieces that are missing."
Ludwig has been training at Waxman's Gym ever since, doing two-hour sessions focused on speed and recovery on Mondays and Wednesdays, four-to-six-hour heavy-lifting sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and six-hour "max-out" sessions on Saturdays.
"Juan [Martinez] writes my programming," said Ludwig. "He's there Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Sean is there every day. They converse with each other to see what's best. If one sees something that's up with me and the other doesn't, they talk it out. They're very careful and protective with me."
"Ali's a pleasure to coach," said Waxman. "She does what she needs to do and she takes care of herself outside of the gym. She pushes hard. She shows up, does her work, and that's it. Every day is the same. There are no highs, no lows; she's even keel all the time. That's exactly what you want."
Drama and Uncertainty
Under Waxman's tutelage, Ludwig's weightlifting career got off to an encouraging start. She finished first at the 2014 Cal State Games, fifth at the 2015 USAW National Championship, and second at the 2016 National University Championships, all in the 75+ kg weight class.
But the obstacle that prevented her from turning her incredible potential into incredible results seemed clear: nearly all the women she was competing against outweighed her, quite often by a large margin.
"I never looked at it like it was unfair because I walked into it like that," said Ludwig, "but, of course, mass moves mass. What's good about Sean and Juan is that they believe in me, so I never stressed too much about the weight. They were like, 'You're gonna do what you're gonna do, and you can do it at the body weight you are now.'"
When the new 90kg weight class was created last year, it rendered such patience unnecessary. Weighing 91 kgs at the time, Ludwig easily shed the two kgs necessary to compete in the new division at the 2017 Nike National Championships in May and won it with a 102kg snatch and a 124kg clean and jerk.
Three days later, USAW announced she'd made the national team and would be competing this week in Miami. As thrilling as the news was for Ludwig, it came with a caveat: of the 12 members of the team, only eight will actually be competing.
"Right now, Ali is the first alternate," explained Waxman, "but I think they're going to choose her because the 90kg class is going to be a less contested weight class. Assuming she does compete, I think she's going to be in the hunt for a medal."
"Obviously, I want to compete [at the Pan Ams]," said Ludwig. "If I don't, of course I'll be upset, but it's a step in the right direction. Next year, I'll make it for sure. There's no doubt."
(Editor's note: Ali was picked to the competition team at the verification of entries on July 22nd and competed at Pan Ams.)
The International Olympic Committee injected the same sort of drama and uncertainty into the makeup of the weight classes for the 2020 Olympics on June 9, when it announced that the women's 90kg weight class won't be used in Tokyo.
Ludwig is taking the news in stride. "We'll have to see in the next year or so what they do, if they redistribute all the weight classes, make new weight classes, or what. Right now, I'm just focusing on the next competition."
If the 90kg class disappears for good, it would be a setback for Ludwig's career but not an insurmountable one. She would simply compete in the 90kg+ division and gradually bulk up. "I would have to lose a limb to get down to 75kg," she said, laughing. "I would definitely have to gain some weight [to compete against the supers], but very slowly. I'll do it if it means I'll be more competitive, but it will have to be good weight, you know [what I] mean?"
Waxman maintained the same wait-and-see attitude.
"There's real uncertainty about where the 90kg class is going to be in the future," he said. "But we're not going to worry about it this year. This year, we know there's a 90kg class at Pan Ams and Worlds. Once we get through that, then we'll start making decisions about what to do next."
A natural-born competitor, Ludwig seems determined not to let others dictate the trajectory of her career.
"Eventually, I'll get to where the supers are lifting," she said. "I've only been doing this for three years. I can get there if I keep working."
By Storms Reback