Phil Andrews: USA Weightlifting’s Response to COVID-19

Athletes and sports governing bodies across the world have been racing to adapt to postponements, cancellations, and the challenges of training while maintaining social distance. In this special episode, USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews joins us to talk about his organization’s first responses to the pandemic, including rapid changes and the lack of spectators at this year’s Arnold Sports Festival.

Editor’s Note: This podcast was recorded on Tuesday, March 17th, 2020. 

We also talk about potential ramifications for Olympic qualification, Phil’s thoughts on Tokyo 2020, and what USA Weightlifting is doing to help athletes find places to train when gyms across the country are closed for an extended period. 

BarBend is the Official Media Partner of USA Weightlifting. Unless otherwise specified on certain content, the two organizations maintain editorial independence.

In this episode of the BarBend Podcast, host David Thomas Tao talks to Phil Andrews about:

  • How Phil’s travel schedule was upended by current events (2:07)
  • When USA Weightlifting first started formulating a plan regarding COVID-19 (2:40)
  • Events surrounding the Arnold Expo 2020 and the closure to spectators (5:03)
  • Has there been International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) guidance regarding cancellations and postponements? (8:35)
  • The impact on Olympic qualification’s timeline (9:54)
  • Cancelation/postponement of the Golden Gala (12:00)
  • What does Phil think will happen regarding this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo? (14:28)
  • USA Weightlifting’s Home Gym Connection network and newly-announced online qualifiers (18:00)

[Listen to Phil’s first appearance on the BarBend Podcast in 2019.]

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

 

Coming back here for what was scheduled to be less than one week before I went back to Europe, was a week that changed the world, I think.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the BarBend Podcast, where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host David Thomas Tao, this podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today I’m talking to Phil Andrews, CEO of USA Weightlifting. Phil has been on the front lines of weightlifting governing bodies as they adapt to the challenges, changes and postponements due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

We chat about USA Weightlifting’s early reactions to the situation, including changes at the Arnold Sports Festival in early March, up to cancellations and social distancing policies that impact athlete training today.

 

We also look ahead to this year’s scheduled Tokyo Olympics, and why USA Weightlifting is introducing online lifting as opportunities to replace qualifiers for large national, and even international event teams.

 

Also, I want to take a second to say we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the Bourbon Podcast in your app of choice. Now let’s get to it.

 

Phil Andrew, thanks so much for joining us. This is actually the second time we’ve had you on the Bourbon Podcast. Circumstances are a little different now. I need to ask right off the bat, how are you doing? I know that your travel plans were certainly changed due to the pandemic.

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

I guess I’m still alive, and as that.

David TaoDavid Tao

The eternal optimist Phil Andrew, CEO of USA Weightlifting.

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

You’ve called optimist weekly here. It’s an interesting time to be alive. That’s for sure.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

Just to give folks an idea of what exactly, or how exactly your life and your travel schedule has been impacted, you were supposed to be in Europe right now. Is that correct?

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

I was. I was supposed to be in Lucerne, Switzerland. Instead, I dialed into a conference call at 3:00 AM this morning, which lasted most of the day. I have to do the same thing again tomorrow.

David TaoDavid Tao

You’re a trooper, and I’m sure lifters around the country and globe certainly appreciate you working around that time schedule. I have to ask. Let’s go back a couple of months. When did COVID 19 first cross USA Weightlifting’s radar as something to potentially pay attention to, and when roughly do you all remember making some initial plans or even contingency plans?

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

The first thing to say is, I’m not sure anyone foresaw it in the United States getting to the point it has today, and we’re speaking a few days before this will likely be listened to. It’s important to mention, because of the speed we’re working, it means our situation might be a little bit different.

 

To answer your question directly, one, you’re talking to a little bit of a news addict. I first heard about it, as early as maybe January, in terms of its impact in Eastern Asia.

 

It first really started to, if you like, put its claws into USA weightlifting, as it grew into Korea and Japan, because we were hosting the Rogue Invitational at the Arnold and began to get people wishing to transfer from the East Asian Championships, which got canceled, into that event.

 

We had a team competing in Malta, which by that point, there was a significant amount of cases in Italy. Not so much that it’s Italy as we think of today, which is locked down and with several thousand cases but at that point, it had got into Italy. There was a few cases in Italy.

 

Indeed, some of those lifters went on to vacation in Italy, as normal, after their experience in Malta. We also competed as a team, meaning the USA, in Italy, as did many different countries in January. At that point, visiting Italy was the same as it has been for many, many years, but it soon became less, like it has been for many, many years.

 

Now, of course you cannot visit anywhere in Europe. I was in Europe the week of [inaudible 4:40] as well and had no problems getting in and out of Germany, no problems getting back into the US, and no real problems whilst I was there either. Coming back here for what was scheduled to be less than one week before I went back to Europe, it was a week that changed the world.

David TaoDavid Tao

Walk us through the information you are receiving regarding the Arnold Expo, which was ultimately closed to spectators, because I remember Facebook chatting with you, in real-time, as some of that was being announced.

 

Will they cancel it? Will they cancel the whole event? Will competition still run? Will they run without spectators? We were chatting back and forth in real-time. What was that information flow looking like between the organizers there and USA Weightlifting?

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

This isn’t meant as a criticism of Classic Productions who are the company that run the Arnold. This was an unprecedented situation for them just as it was for all of us. We received information, as did our partners at Columbus Weightlifting and Mark Cannella, basically via press conference.

 

Which was I was in Europe at the time, so for me, it was 11:30 at night. You can imagine that I didn’t sleep particularly well that evening. That was the press conference where they announced there would be no spectators.

 

The same press conference where Arnold said it was postponed, while the governor said that there was no spectators. Nobody was really clear at the end of it. We then understood that it was a no-spectator event, and registered people only. That ended up being essentially what it was, but it was a very confusing few hours for everybody.

 

Then, of course, the press conference the following day, where spectators were announced as allowed, and subsequently withdrawn by the Governor of Ohio. That was, at the end, what happened. Fortunately enough, we hadn’t shared the Arnold Sport’s [inaudible 6:47] communications that will be allowed.

 

One of our members of our team who has been involved in the local news media world for a long time said, “I can see that this is likely to lead to another Governor of Ohio press conference.” Sure enough, that’s what happened. Kevin Folly deserves the greater credit for making that call and making it right.

 

…from a number of our older population, which I will freely admit I had a chuckle at. Their perspective was all great. “We have some spectators to disallow.” That’s a fare perspective on the way that weightlifting’s gone. In the end it went on fairly well. We had a very good meet. We had some good performances.

 

We did miss the main stage, we did miss the Rogue Strings stage, we missed the experience with some of our top lifters and some of those lifters coming in. We did have one country, Samoa, he got stuck in New Zealand on the way, because they didn’t have doctor’s clearance on with through New Zealand to get to the Arnold in time to lift.

 

We also picked up a couple of lifters from the Junior World Championships, ironically from New Zealand, who transferred once the Junior Worlds was canceled. The Arnold was a really interesting experience, which, at the time, we thought, “Well, this is as bad as it’s going to get for USA Weightlifting or for all sport.” A week later, I asked him the words, “Frank, the Arnold was last week?”

 

It was an interesting experience going through that, having a no-spectator event in weightlifting. I did hear some jokes and comments immediately of, “Oh, just like weightlifting in the 1990s…”

David TaoDavid Tao

 

I have to ask, what kind of informational flow have you gotten from the International Weightlifting Federation in regard to guidance on canceling events, postponing events? Has there been any guidance from them to the National Governing Bodies or NGBs, as we say?

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

Not really. I’m not sure there needs to be. Each country’s National Federation has to make their own decisions about their own events. We really look to the USOPC, who have been pretty good, that’s the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, I apologize. Also, to state, local, city governments to what they’re doing.

 

The IWF is obviously concerned with the Olympic qualification process. We’ve had communication with them about the Pan American Championships, and communication with them on, what happens if a lifter, who was in the Junior Worlds, who needed that for a qualification event, can they transfer? The answer to that was “Yes.”

 

They were pretty quick putting together a policy to do that. They’ve not really advised national federations on canceling our own events, such as the national championships or national masters, etc.

David TaoDavid Tao

How does this affect the Olympic qualification timeline? I think that a lot of people who follow weightlifting closely in the United States had looked to the end of April for the USA weightlifting’s Olympic squad to be announced.

 

Of course, a lot of events that factored in to Olympic qualification, gold, silver, and bronze level events are potentially postponed or canceled. Has that timeline on the official announcement of the team been pushed back at all?

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

No, not yet. The International Weightlifting Federation Executive Board is meeting actually, right now, to discuss that very matter. I think there’s two logical ways they can go. They can either extend the qualification to hold those events or they could potentially go to a truncated system.

 

Either of those has upsides and downsides, and either of those has lifters who might gain or lose around the world in a qualification that is predicated on events existing through to the end of April.

 

Of course, for us, in the Pan American Region, that’s the Pan American Championships. For others, that’s the Europeans, the Asians, and even some of the smaller events like the [inaudible 11:08] Americans in Cali, which also was canceled.

 

It’s a new normal for everybody, and I think they’re working through that situation. Obviously, we want to give our prospective Olympians clarity absolutely as soon as we can, and we’re pushing for that. The IWF is now in a position to give that clarity pretty quickly, possibly even before this podcast comes out.

David TaoDavid Tao

Got you. Just for reference for folks listening at home, we’re recording this the evening of March 17th. This podcast will probably come out sometime the following week, early next week, if things may have changed a bit. Thanks for giving us insight into how that timeline may change and the fact that we have some unknowns and unknown variables.

 

Still, Phil, do you want to chat a little bit about one event that I personally was looking forward to? It’s certainly not the most important thing right now. That was the Golden Gala, which I believe was planned for mid-April in New York City as a fundraising and promotional event for USA Weightlifting. Is that officially off the table yet?

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

It is. Unfortunately, we’ve had to make that call and postpone the Golden Gala. It is a miss. I think a lot of our athletes were looking forward to an opportunity to interact with weightlifting fans or weightlifting aficionados, perhaps might be a better word, and a chance to dress up in something that’s not gym clothes for an evening in New York. I think there was a lot of excitement about that.

 

Not only is Kate Nye named weightlifter of the year. Lasha Talakhadze was coming in as well to receive his award as the male weightlifter of the year. We’re really disappointed to not have that event on April 14.

 

Indeed, the 100 Days Out event in Times Square is also being canceled or at least postponed. I guess it’s been canceled [inaudible 13:04] stays where it is because it’s no longer 100 Days Out, or we might have a 50 Days Out, I guess, or something like that. We don’t know that yet.

David TaoDavid Tao

I will say, we can all understand. If avoiding Times Square during a pandemic is something that USA Weightlifting decides to do, I think that’s understandable.

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

That makes sense. There are people who might argue with avoiding Times Square in any circumstances as wise, but it’s a certainly good place to hold a promotional event.

David TaoDavid Tao

Phil, I want to go to some specifics about how USA Weightlifting is changing procedure and opening up new opportunities for athletes to both compete and train in the world of social distancing.

 

First, I have to ask, we’ve seen a lot of communication from the International Olympic Committee regarding not yet postponing the games, not yet canceling the games. There have been a lot of conflicting reports coming from different members within the IOC and of people within the IOC.

 

We’ve even heard some Japanese governmental officials give their take. I’ve heard three different things. A, the games is not being postponed, it will go on as normal starting in late July. B, the games will go on without spectators, again as normal. C, the games will be canceled or postponed, which is a bit unprecedented in recent memory, at least in the last few decades.

 

In your opinion, and this is obviously speculative, what do you think is likely to happen regarding this year’s Olympic games?

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

That is speculative. Let me give you the hopeful version. The coronavirus started in East Asia, which is, of course, where Japan is located. Therefore, Japan was, if you like, ahead of the curve. In other words, they got the coronavirus in their country first, as well as China and South Korea. Of course, China was the originating country.

 

If you look at the way that China’s moving, it looks like the virus, or at least the pandemic of the virus, is somewhat subsiding in China, in South Korea, and in Japan. That gives me a little bit of hope that by July, Japan may be ready to host the Olympic games.

 

The question mark might be, with that philosophy, are other countries able to send their, in our case, lifters or swimmers or high-jumpers to the Olympic games safely. The hopeful version is yes, it’s still on, and that’s the IOC’s current position, is that the Olympics are still on in Tokyo on the 24th of July.

 

However, I do think that there’s inevitability if they look at other possibilities in terms of postponement to later in the year, if they absolutely have to. Now, if you think about the logistics of that, moving an Olympic game-sized event even a week is an extremely large ask, logistically.

 

You have so many moving parts to planning an event like the USA Weightlifting National Championships, never mind a Olympic games of the size [inaudible 16:22] 11,000 athletes, plus all of the other trappings, along with the fact that you’ve got all those different sports going on.

 

I do think they will do everything in their power to have the Olympic games go on on the 24th of July. I also understand, not in our sport but in others, there are athletes of the opinion that it should be postponed because there’s a problem with training, especially team sport right now.

 

While we have the luxury of being able to go into a garage gym, there are a lot of sports out there who don’t have that luxury, who are contact sports, or it might be team sports. It’s very difficult to practice whilst simultaneously practicing social distancing.

 

I think there’s athletes who have the opinion that a postponement would be good. I don’t think that’s necessarily weightlifters from any country, including ours, and it’s not my view. I would still like to see us go ahead on 24th of July. I can’t guarantee that’s going to happen. I don’t think anybody can guarantee that’s going to happen just now, but we can hope.

David TaoDavid Tao

Certainly, and right now, we just don’t really know. We have so many unknown variables. I do have to ask about a few different things that USA Weightlifting has announced in the recent days, really it would be recent weeks when this podcast comes out, regarding accessibility of training and also qualification.

 

One, obviously, a lot of events have been postponed or canceled, which I don’t think anyone is saying is a bad idea at this point.

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

No.

David TaoDavid Tao

Two other things that come to mind are A, the USA Weightlifting home gym network. You’ll have to correct me if I’m already getting the name of that wrong. I’d love to hear a little bit about that. I’d also love to hear about the online qualifiers for some USA Weightlifting events later this year.

 

If you wouldn’t mind giving us a little rundown on those two opportunities for weight lifters in the USA weightlifting family to stay connected and train.

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

ure. The first thing I’ll say is we’re still learning about this COVID-19 response. Let’s be frank, it sucks for everybody — athletes, coaches, local gym owners — and recognizing that straight up is important.

 

For us, we wanted to do as much as we could to keep athletes and, to a degree, coaches, I guess, engaged in the sport. What can we do to make sure our sport doesn’t stop in terms of our sport, as much as that is possible in these circumstances.

 

We came up with a few ideas and we’re open to more. The first is either of the ones you mentioned is the home gym connection. I will click on the name. The idea here is people working out in their house. Some people need some equipment. Some people need a place to go and take a workout in, whether it can be in a small group, following CDC guidelines, of course, under 10.

 

Speaking to some of our sports medicine people, having one or two people in the garage is fine, provided we’re practicing cleaning and we’re practicing social distancing. Obviously, if you’re sick, please don’t show up at somebody else’s garage.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

Right. That means when it comes to social distancing within, say, a garage gym, people aren’t really sharing a squat rack here. They’re not sharing a barbell. They’re maintaining what? Is it at six-foot distance?

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

 

That’s right. You need to be six feet apart, is the social distancing guidelines.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

How was the reception to that network and that announcement been so far?

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

Generally, really good. I think people are appreciating we’re trying to do something to help people across the USA Weightlifting network. People are appreciating the ability to be connected with one another.

 

People, to a degree are just enjoying the ability to share some of the problems they’re facing. We’re trying to get their work cut in. Overall, there are certainly one or two people who said, “Look. Just be careful.”

 

That’s a reasonable perspective. That’s why we’ve given some guidance to some professionals in that group on, “This is how to do this safely and properly.” Obviously, that’s what we want to do. Overall, people are generally appreciative.

 

We’re trying to do something to keep everyone healthy, working out, and enjoying weightlifting whilst they’re quarantined or whilst they’re working from home or at home by, in some cases, order.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

Regarding the online qualifiers that USA Weightlifting recently announced.

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

This is another example of the same really of a lot of local competitions are being canceled across the country. What can we do? We took a leaf right out of the CrossFit playbook. We went to online video competitions. The idea here is put your phone in front of you so you can see the full body.

 

Preferably 400 centimeters away, which is what a regulation weightlifting referee is from the platform. If you can’t do that in your garage, just get the camera so at least we can see your feet and we can see your elbows. Basically, that’s a way to compete.

 

We’ll register that as a local meet result sufficient to qualify you to the World Masters Championship, [inaudible 22:03] Masters Championships, National Youth Championships, or the AO2 and AO3. Another way we can just keep people engaged in the sport.

 

The one you haven’t mentioned as well being at home is for those who don’t have equipment and don’t have access easily to equipment is to be able to do our keep-lifting-at-home program, which is basically our bodyweight program. We’ve got a program that’s going out three times a week with some videos.

 

It’s a good flexibility and keep-fit exercises that people can do in their own home whilst they’re at home.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

Phil, thanks so much for joining me during what I know is a hectic time for you with calls to Europe and telecommuting into IWF conferences and meetings. I do very much appreciate it. I really appreciate you giving a rundown on what USA Weightlifting is doing to keep the community athletes and coaches engaged.

 

Hopefully, this is something that we get to look back on, sooner rather than later. I know we’re all preparing for potentially a longer slog as the pandemic hopefully runs its course.

Thanks so much for joining us. Hopefully the next time we chat it’ll be during slightly more optimistic times.

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

 

I think it’s possible to be any other time.

David TaoDavid Tao

Phil Andrews, thanks so much for joining us.

Phil AndrewsPhil Andrews

Cheers Dave, thank you.

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