After a long and eventful 2021, a new Olympic qualification cycle and competitive season of weightlifting are kicking off in the United States with the first American Open Series (NAO) event. Both NAO Series 1 and USA Weightlifting’s National University Championships are set to run in Columbus, OH, from Mar. 3 to Mar. 6, 2022.
Fans of and participants in the sport of weightlifting are in for a treat, as the event — which takes place as part of the 2022 Arnold Sports Festival (ASF) — is marked as the largest competition in the history of American weightlifting, with roughly 1,800 attendees. What’s more, the roster is packed to the brim with many of the best athletes in the country.
From first-timers to World Champions, and more than a handful of Olympic medalists from Games past, the event in Columbus is a powder keg of explosive lifting just waiting to pop.
Below is a shortlist of some of the athletes who are expected to do big things at the competition as they seek to set new records, establish some early momentum towards international team selection, or simply pick up a few new personal records of their own:
- Hayley Reichardt (49KG)
- Jourdan Delacruz (49KG)
- Maddison Pannell (55KG)
- Katie Estep (59KG)
- Hunter Elam (64KG)
- Meredith Alwine (71KG)
- Olivia Reeves (71KG)
- Kate Nye (71KG)
- Mattie Rogers (76KG)
- Sarah Robles (+87KG)
- Mary Thiesen-Lappen (+87KG)
- Hampton Morris (67KG)
- Jacob Horst (73KG)
- CJ Cummings (81KG)
- Nathan Damron (96KG)
- Caine Wilkes (+109KG)
American weightlifting is particularly adept at shaping athletes into high performers from a young age. 49-kilogram lifter Hayley Reichardt is approaching her 10th year of weightlifting and is only 22 years old.
At the 2021 International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) Pan-American Championships, Reichardt handily swept gold in the snatch (83 kilograms), clean & jerk (104 kilograms), and total (187 kilograms).
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Domestically, she also has the honor of being the youngest American to clean & jerk double bodyweight at a USAW event. Reichardt’s entry total for the NAO Series 1 matches her winning result from Pan-Ams, indicating that she is intent on making another strong showing in Columbus.
For 49-kilogram athlete Jourdan Delacruz of Power & Grace Performance, a national-level competition is easy pickings. The 23-year-old Texas native has snatched up records and medals in multiple weight classes since 2016 when she won silver at the Pan-American Junior Championships as a 53-kilogram lifter.
In the years following, Delacruz has accrued two Senior Pan-American Championship titles (2019, 2020), a silver medal in the total at the 2018 Junior World Championships, and an appearance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for Team USA. She also owns all three Senior American records in the 49-kilogram category:
- Snatch — 89 kilograms
- Clean & Jerk — 111 kilograms
- Total — 200 kilograms
With a listed entry total of 185 kilograms at the NAO Series 1, Delacruz is only two kilograms behind Hayley Reichardt on paper. The two are sure to go lift-for-lift in Columbus.
Some lifters have always had their names thrown around in the conversations regarding the best athletes in America, while others sneak their way in. Maddison Pannell is quickly becoming the latter.
In her very first effort on behalf of Team USA at an international event, the 49-kilogram athlete for California Strength seized a bronze medal in the total at the 2021 Pan-American Championships.
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Pannell has had some tremendous lifts in training recently as well. She’s lifted 85 kilograms in the snatch and put up a 110-kilogram clean & jerk. Combined, those lifts would’ve comfortably given her the gold at Pan-Ams, indicating that her performance is trending upward fast. She tells BarBend that her major goal for 2022 is to “get strong and confident,” and clearly she’s on the right path in that regard.
The NAO Series 1 will be Pannell’s first big outing as a 55-kilogram athlete, and it looks like she’s got the strength to be dangerous in that category too.
One of the better parts of being a fresh-faced athlete is a clean slate to write your history on. For 59-kilogram Katie Estep, that history is shaping up to be full of records and medals. Of the three international events 17-year-old Estep has partaken in at 55 kilograms, she’s won two outright:
- 2021 Youth Pan-American Championships — Gold
- 2021 Youth World Championships — Gold
- 2021 Junior World Championships — Eighth
These wins are backed up by some impressive strength in the gym, too. Estep’s coach, Kevin Simons of Alpha Barbell, has declared that she’ll make a move to the 59-kilogram category in 2022. Columbus appears to be her first competitive venture as a 59, and her 193-kilogram entry total has her firmly in podium contention.
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Estep will have to best Kate Wehr of Garage Strength, who has a listed entry at 196 kilograms. That said, if her recent competitive history is any indication, Estep doesn’t like to finish anywhere other than first.
Hunter Elam has been a top-caliber lifter for longer than many fans of weightlifting might realize. From making the senior World team (2018, 2019) to snatching 100 kilograms in multiple weight classes, the now-64-kilogram athlete seems poised to pounce in Columbus.
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Beyond posting some big lifts in training and being a successful coach herself, Elam joined up with Power & Grace Performance in 2021 underneath head coach Spencer Arnold. Arnold coached three of Team USA’s Tokyo Olympians at the Games — Jourdan Delacruz, Kate Nye, and Harrison Maurus — indicating that Elam is in good hands for her return to the competition platform.
Another adjustment to the Olympic weight classes has shaken the board of American weightlifting. The 71-kilogram category is rapidly becoming the battleground for Paris qualification, but Meredith Alwine currently has her flag firmly planted at the top of the hill.
Alwine made that climb over the course of the qualification cycle for the Tokyo Olympics. Even though she wasn’t selected to represent Team USA, she did make a big splash in December of 2021 by winning the IWF World Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
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With a 235-kilogram entry total, the highest of all 97 entrants in the Open division of the 71-kilogram class, Alwine is bringing her strength to bear in Columbus.
Technique is crucial to performance in weightlifting, but strength is just as important — and Olivia Reeves has strength in spades. That strength has earned her multiple American records as a Youth and Junior lifter, a victory at the 2021 Junior World Championships and, at only 18 years old, helped her achieve a fourth-position finish at the 2021 Senior World Championships.
Reeves is surely one of the strongest teenage female weightlifters in America. She’s posted lifts to social media backing it up, too, such as a set of six reps with 185 kilograms (407.8 pounds) in the squat. That level of leg strength is sure to be a boon to her performance in Columbus.
Reeves has come to the table with the second-highest entry total of the 71-kilogram division at 230 kilograms, only five behind that of Meredith Alwine.
Some athletes need decades to reach world-class levels of strength, while others do it in a few years. Since her competitive debut in the States in 2016 at the National Youth Championships, Kate Nye has consistently advanced her placement internationally and eaten up every record she’s set for herself.
Those records include nine individual American records, on top of two tremendous event wins — Nye is the 2019 IWF Junior and Senior World Champion in the 71-kilogram category.
After winning silver at the Tokyo Olympics in the 76-kilogram class — the first American woman in history to grab silver in the sport at an Olympics — Nye is aiming at another Games appearance in 2024. Columbus appears to be her first step on that journey, so she’s undoubtedly going to ensure she starts off on the right foot.
Martha Ann “Mattie” Rogers is among the most well-known figures in American weightlifting. Her reputation precedes her, but only just. The Florida native has made a truly extraordinary number of appearances on the international stage — 19 unique IWF events since her first in 2014.
She also currently holds all three American records in the 81-kilogram class, three in the now-invalid 69-kilogram class, and is a five-time runner-up Pan-American Champion, with an overall win in 2021.
Despite competing in Tokyo at 87 kilograms, Rogers is slated to appear in Columbus in the 76-kilogram category. She’s got the highest entry total in the book at 243 kilograms, three ahead of longtime teammate Kate Nye. The two are sure to trade blows in spectacular fashion on the platform.
After three Olympic Games and eight World Championships appearances, the NAO Series 1 is likely to be just another day on the job for Sarah Robles. Robles is among the most tenured international competitors in the United States, and has consistently brought home the hardware from Regional and World-level events alike.
Going down her weightlifting resume, Robles boasts the following competitive honors:
- 4x Pan-American Champion
- 3x National Champion
- 2017 Senior World Champion
- 2008 Junior World Silver Medalist
In Tokyo, her third Olympics, Robles won a bronze medal for the United States with an impressive performance, lifting 128 kilograms in the snatch and 154 kilos in the clean & jerk. Her 275-kilogram entry total for Columbus indicates that she’s within striking distance of her Tokyo performance at minimum, with possibly even more room to push herself higher.
Sarah Robles has reigned as the nearly-undisputed queen of the Women’s super-heavyweight division in the United States for the better part of a decade. Now, Mary Thiesen-Lappen seems dead-set on changing the status quo.
Although she has only international event appearances to her name (the 2020 Rogue Weightlifting Challenge, where she placed second, and the 2021 Pan-American Championships, which she won), Thiesen-Lappen has some serious strength up her sleeve.
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Lappen matched Robles’ 275-kilogram entry total for Columbus. What’s more, she’s been putting up some wicked numbers in training and at local competitions so far in 2022 — 120 kilograms in the snatch and a 175-kilogram jerk from behind the neck, to name a few.
Starting in 2019, now-18-year-old Hampton Morris placed first at every IWF event he’s attended on behalf of the United States:
- 2019 Pan-American Youth Championships
- 2020 Pan-American Junior Championships
- 2021 Youth World Championships
- 2021 Pan-American Championships
As a bonus to his competitive pedigree, Morris also owns a slew of American records in the Youth, Junior, and Senior divisions as a 61-kilogram athlete. At the 2021 Youth World Championships in October, Morris again etched his name into the American record book by clean & jerking 156 kilograms and totaling 276 kilograms.
For Columbus 2022, Morris is moving up to the 67-kilogram class for the first time with a 270-kilogram entry total. No American athlete has met or exceeded the record standards at 67 kilograms — 139 kilos in the snatch and 178 in the clean & jerk — and while those numbers are likely out of reach this time, Morris is boasting the highest entry total in the category overall.
Any athlete who began their competitive career at a young age and continued their momentum and progress into their senior years is a testament to both their coaching and determination. Jacob Horst is such a lifter.
After beginning his tenure as a Team USA member in 2017 at the Pan-American Junior Championships, Horst has steadily pushed himself to new heights. He moved up from the 67’s to the 73-kilogram class for the 2021 Senior World Championships, and took bronze at the 2021 Pan-American Championships in the same class with a 300-kilogram total.
Three hundred is the entry total number he’s selected for the entry book in Columbus, the only 73-kilogram athlete in the field to aim so high. There’s a good chance Horst wins it all, the only question is by how much.
Many weightlifters have long and storied careers but few can say they began racking up Senior-level medals at the humble age of 12. Since winning silver at the 2012 American Open Finals, CJ Cummings has evolved into a household name in American weightlifting by lifting world-record-caliber weights and breaking years-old records for the United States.
Aside from crushing absurdly heavy weights in training, Cummings also boasts a rare winning streak of claiming victory at four consecutive Junior World Championships (2016-2019, in the 69-kilogram and 73-kilogram classes).
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As Cummings’ medal count has increased, so has his body weight. Columbus is to be his first appearance at 81 kilograms. A listed entry total of 320 kilograms is notably shy of his best — 347 kilograms as a 73-kilo lifter, which he hit at the 2019 Pan-American Junior Championships by lifting 154 kilograms in the snatch and 193 kilograms in the jerk — but it should be enough for him to bag gold as he adjusts to his new category.
Most athletes have a calling card. For 96-kilogram California Strength athlete Nathan Damron, his signature is making world-class squats look like one-plate warm-ups. The 25-year-old North Carolina native has attended two Senior World Championships, more than a handful of Youth and Junior events, and recently bagged bronze at the 2020 Pan-American Championships.
With a listed entry total of 350 kilograms, a full 45 kilos ahead of the second-heaviest entry in the 96-kilogram book, Damron is an easy favorite to win gold in Columbus. The real question is whether he’ll aim for a new personal record while he does it.
Consistency is key in any sport — especially weightlifting. There’s something to be said for athletes like +109-kilogram Caine Wilkes who are able to hold it down in a weight class uncontested for year after year.
Wilkes, a Tokyo Olympian, has sat atop the Men’s super-heavyweight division in the United States for roughly a decade. During his long career, the 34-year-old has regularly posted totals that not only handily win stateside meets, but Wilkes also has six Pan-American medals to his name:
- Pan-American Championships — Gold (2014, 2017, 2019)
- Pan-American Championships — Silver (2016, 2018, 2020)
That level of reliability makes Wilkes a threat to the podium at any meet he enrolls in. However, in Columbus, his 360-kilogram entry total is matched or exceeded by two athletes — Alejandro Medina (360 kilograms) and Tayon Vereen (365 kilograms). The three men look likely to take the podium together, the only question is whether Wilkes can hold it down for gold on game day.
How to Watch the 2022 North American Open Series 1 & National University Championships
The NAO Series 1 and USAW National University Championships will run concurrently as part of the 2022 Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, OH from Mar. 3-6. The athletes on this list are but a few of the estimated 1,800 attendees that are helping to make Columbus the largest competition in USAW history.
Suzy Sanchez, the USAW Director of Culture, Community, & Outreach, tells BarBend that the organization is working overtime to ensure the event runs smoothly, thanks to “an amazing team of volunteers and staff, as well as meet directors Mark Cannella and Shelly Viets, who have managed the event at the ASF since 2003.”
While the athletes themselves will spin the tale of the weekend, you can catch all the action either in-person or online. The competition venue will be held at the Fairgrounds Celeste Center in Columbus, and sessions are to be streamed on Team USA’s live webcast page. A preliminary session schedule is available on their website as well.
Editor’s Note: BarBend is the Official Media Partner of USA Weightlifting. The two organizations maintain editorial independence unless otherwise noted on specific content projects.
Featured Image: @cj__cummings on Instagram