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Weightlifting coach Ursula Garza Papandrea

Becoming Weightlifting Wise: An Interview with Ursula Garza Papandrea

Could you start by telling us a little about your weightlifting career – as both a competitor and a coach?  (please, brag)

At 14 years old, I started weight training with my older brother at a nearby YMCA. When I went to the University of Texas in 1987, Mike Mastrangelo introduced me to Olympic style weightlifting. I competed at every nationals from 1988-2000 winning in in 1992 and 1998. I was on the national team from 1991 until 1996, competing at 4 world championships from 1992-1996, although I technically qualified to compete at 5. I competed at Olympic Festivals from 1990 until 1995, winning in 1993 and 1995. I won best lifter at the American Open in 1989 winning also in 1992, 1994, and 1998. I won the collegiate nationals 1990-1992, winning best lifter in 1992.  I won the NACACI twice in 1994 and 1995, breaking a national clean and jerk record there in 1994. My best snatch was 80 and clean and jerk was 105 as a 58 lifter. I cleaned 110 and jerked 110 but never put it together in a competition. I back squatted 150 and front squatted 130 in January of 1993 at 56 bodyweight.

1992-1996 United States Weightlifting National Team Member

1992, 1993, 1995, and 1996 World Championships Competitor

1991-1996 USA National Team

1994-1996 NACACI Competitor two time NACACI Champion 1994 and 1995

1990-1995 United States Olympic Festival Participant

1993 and 1995 Champion; 1990-1991 Silver Medal; 1994 Bronze Medal

1988-2000 and 2006 USA Women’s National Championships Competitor

1992 and 1998 Champion; 1991 and 1994-1996 Silver Medal; 1990 and 1997 Bronze Medal

1989-1998 American Open Championship Competitor

1989 (Best Lifter Award), 1992, 1994 and 1998 Champion; 1991and 1996 Silver Medal; 1997 Bronze Medal

1990-1992 Collegiate Champion

1992 Best Lifter Award

USA Women’s National Record

1994 Clean and Jerk at NACACI Championship

2009-2010, 2014 Masters National Championship 

2009 Women’s Grand Master Champion and National Snatch Record

2010 Women’s National Champion

2014 Women’s National Champion, National records in Clean and Jerk and total, 2 unofficial World Records in Clean and Jerk and total.

As a coach, I spent evenings and weekends coaching from 1992 until about 2010. I still coach every evening, but now spend many weekends teaching courses. I have been in the warm up room and at every nationals since 1993, room learning and honing competition coaching skills. My athletes include dozens of senior national athletes, I honestly cannot sit down and name them all, but I have had athletes competing at nationals every year from 1993 until 2014. In 2014, my men’s team won the national team title. I have developed athletes from absolute beginners until they became nationally ranked and beyond; I have coached several collegiate, junior, and senior national champions as well as university world team, junior world team, and senior world team, Pan Am championships and Pan Am Games members, as well as assisted with the development of an Olympian, and been the primary coach to an athlete who I developed through all those levels to become a champion at every level (jr-sr), and who was an Olympic team alternate.

In 2003, I earned the rank of USAW Senior International Coach, the highest level in USAW.  I currently coach a team called Texas Barbell Club comprised of male weightlifters, some of whom I have coached for years, some newer guys, and some that I help in competition. In our first year we placed 3rd at the American Open as a men’s team. In 2014 at Senior Nationals we won the men’s team title.  Most of the women I coach lift for Coffee’s Gym, and have since 1993. I have coached under the Coffee’s Gym umbrella since then and continue to do so. As a team, the women of Coffee’s Gym have won 19 National Championships, and I have contributed to those efforts as both a coach and athlete, having competed for Coffee’s Gym since 1989. Texas Barbell Club currently has 2 members on the Men’s National Team that competed at Worlds a few weeks ago and 2 members on the World University Team set to compete next weekend. I recently coached Derrick Johnson to the highest placement of all the men at the 2014 World Weightlifting Championships. Texas Barbell’s Colin Burns, whom I competition coach and who is coached by my Coffee’s Gym colleague Bo Sandoval, had the second highest placement.

How did you find weightlifting—did you have an athletic background before? Were there any individuals or resources that were particularly influential in your own development as an athlete? 

I grew up in Houston, Texas where I went to Willowridge High School and was the Captain of our varsity cheerleading squad. Yes, I was the captain of a cheerleading squad at a primarily African American high school in South Houston and YES it was like Bring it On…but better.  The other cheerleaders were very athletic and we choreographed dance routines weekly. I think jumping and tumbling for 3 years straight was a cornerstone in prepping me for weightlifting. Without any formal gymnastics, which was outside of the financial capability of my parents when I was young, I learned to tumble from other cheerleaders. From age 14 and on, I spent time in the weight room just trying to get strong. At 5 feet and about 50kg, I was small, but was often a base in our pyramids. I think the lack of resources throughout my life has shaped me and made me just a little scrappy and willing to fight harder when faced with obstacles. Meeting John Coffee in 1988 at my first nationals was the game changer as I doubt I would have continued in the sport without his support. He paid for my travel expenses from 1990 onwards and was always willing to help contribute to keep me and many other athletes involved in the sport. There is no one that has had a bigger influence on me as a coach and athlete than John Coffee. Much of my accomplishment stems from his support that allowed me to work hard and learn.

You are well-known as the first and only woman to attain USA Weightlifting’s highest coaching level (Level 5); could you talk a little bit about that journey and how you got there? 

That’s a can of worms. In 2002 (I believe) the board implemented a new “pathway” to coaching advancement. Just as a preface, I have a degree in Exercise and Sports Science (my undergrad degree; my Masters’ is political science). Based on the new criteria, I was eligible to apply for advancement based on my athletes’ accomplishments.  I had an athlete named Stacey Ketchum (freaking hoss) that had qualified for worlds in 1993-1997, and another athlete Jodi Wilhite (mini hoss) that had qualified for Junior World Team in 2000, and a resume filled with names of national level competitors that I had coached.

Although I qualified for Senior International Coach (Level 5) based on the criteria, I originally applied for International Coach, which I received. However, realizing that I actually qualified for Level 5, I requested that instead. I had to go before with board with athletes in tow to vouch for me. It was quite humiliating for all of us to be accused of lying, but at the end of the day, thanks to many men on the board that were aware of my coaching and knew me for many years, I was awarded what I had earned according to their own criteria. I don’t think they saw it coming and apparently this pisses people off, lol. It ended when a board member discussed the coaching situation with my ex-husband, who has only been in the USA since 1994, and only for about 6 months of every year. He verified that I, in fact, coached the athletes. I think I have proven since that I deserved it.

I love that you teach a course titled “The Art of Coaching Weightlifting.” Could you explain  how this might differ from the many general weightlifting seminars that are now offered around the country (USAW Sports performance, Cross Fit Weightlifting, etc)? 

Since I know what all these other courses include, I wanted to bridge the gap between learning the basics and implementing them beyond the beginner levels. I wrote the course as a response to what I saw was being taught and what else I would want to know if I was a new coach. It is done in seminar format, which allows for questions to be posed at any and all times. This means that no 2 courses are exactly alike. Of course, I wrote the course so that I preemptively answered many of the common questions but of course for those coaches that are inquisitive, there is no end. This is my nature as well, so I truly appreciate those that want to learn and make the most earnest effort to share everything I have learned over the past 25 years. My description for the course reads: The Art of Coaching Weightlifting is not just another course in progressions but a methodology to teach new lifters and coaches, from movement assessment to a comparative of the most common progressions taught today and how to integrate them into a program for teaching beginners and beyond. It is not an argument in semantics, but a course that provides comprehensive conceptual understanding of the lifts. It includes a section on error identification and which, how, and why exercises are used for correcting different errors. It concludes with a lecture and discussion on Bulgarian versus Russian programming. There are 3 days of learning and lifting geared towards developing coaches who have implemented and exhausted the use of the knowledge from intro courses.

Tell me about Texas Barbell Club. How did you get started and how did you find your athletes (or how did they find you?)? 

Over the years, several of the guys I coached—particularly Dutch Lowy and Lyndon Echels—had expressed a desire for their own team. I had previously placed several of my nationally competitive men under Coffee’s Gym, but a team roster was never sent in for competition as a men’s team. Some of the other guys I coached were on other teams and we decided to get it together and create one team. Most of the guys on the team I coach directly are in Austin (though not all).

Tom Feild, Thomas Lower, and Kirby White train at my gym regularly. I met Feild in 2012 and started coaching him in 2013. He brought Kirby in later, who was deployed shortly after we met and had returned from Afghanistan about 10 weeks before nationals. Thomas Lower came down with Samantha Lower in 2012 and decided in 2013 to move to Texas so that I could coach Thomas and help Sam (her coach is Bob Morris).  Dutch Lowy (a CrossFit convert) and Spencer Arnold who lived in the DFW area had come to me one at a time for help. I started coaching Dutch in 2011 and Spencer at the beginning of 2013. Derrick came along right after that looking for general coaching support in competition and we began our work together too. I added Chris Calimlim, who lives in San Antonio, right after that looking to build a solid point roster. One of my athletes, Jack Gaines, coaches Michael Lozano, who placed 8th this year. Colin Burns has been coached by my fellow Coffee’s Gym coach, Bo Sandoval, who is a University of Michigan Strength Coach, but most importantly married to my dear friend Amanda. Bo has entrusted me with Colin for all national competitions since Colin began in weightlifting, so Colin was a natural fit for the team. Edward Baker also came from the Coffee connection and he is actually coached by John himself, but lifts for Texas Barbell.

And there were more of course, my other athletes, Keith Minikus, Chris Nevels, Lyndon Echels, who were all veterans to national competition. Ricky Redus I had met along the way and although he is a primarily a CrossFit/Grid League competitor. We expressed mutual interest in working together; he is one of the few national level competitors I coach that still regularly competes in CrossFit. We have more up and coming athletes, but these are the main guys that are looked at for composing the roster… for now. The team is led by me, but is really an extension of the Coffee’s legacy. I write programs that all of the athletes follow except for Colin, who is now at the OTC, and Edward who follows John’s. My role is to provide technical feedback, programming and competition coaching. There is a great comradery amongst the guys and I am very proud of them for the genuine support they show each other

Could you speak a little more in-depth about the team’s training? How many times per week do the athletes train, and how long is each session? Do they each have very individualized programming, or do they follow a more general template? Do they train together often to cultivate that “team” environment?  

Most of my athletes work full-time and have families. My programs are 4 days a week, about 2 hours per session. They follow one program I write that is designed to address all of their individual technical and physical weaknesses. As needed, I alter an individual’s work, but there is a general template. Sometimes I have to separate them when prepping for different events, so for example approaching worlds, university worlds, and Americans, there were 3 programs disseminated. We train together on weekends whenever I am in town, and the out of towners come in as they please (I have a 5 bedroom house) to train when they can. For example, Derrick stayed all of September prepping for worlds and doing seminars around the state. Both Edward and Colin have come down in the last year and I assume they will be back soon.

I see you also offer a youth and junior weightlifting program for athletes 8-17 years old. Can you talk a bit about programming for these classes; what do you focus on when developing young lifters?

It is a very small group composed of and 8 year old, two 10 year olds, a 13 year old, and two 15 year olds. The 8-10 year olds train together and do general weight training, Olympic weightlifting technique, and basic physical preparation (GPP). My main concern is to develop their motor skills, balance, spatial awareness, and so course we do snatch and clean and jerk. The 13 year old is a special one and he gets his own program as do the two 15 year olds. They do mostly technical and strength work, and gpp but do a little more structured work with more volume than the younger kids. All of them except the 13 year old train 2x a week (he trains 3-5 cause it’s impossible to keep him out of the gym!).  All of them play other sports. My focus is for them to learn the lifts and execute them safely. They generally work under their capacity.

From what I’ve read, it seems you draw a lot of inspiration from Russian and Bulgarian training systems—is that an accurate assessment? How do these methodologies differ – from each other, and from American approaches? What do you see as their advantages, and how do you integrate them when programming for your own athletes?  

I am going to do this the easy way. This is an excerpt from my course manual from The Art of Coaching Weightlifting. 

I am not sure we have an American methodology. Not able to find any one system that I preferred or felt superior to another, I, like many other coaches, started the trial and error practice of programming using basic principles borrowed from the likes of Zatsiorsky and Roman. The simplest concepts of progressive overload training, which I learned in practice from John Coffee, has been the overall basis for my programming.

I have borrowed suggestions from R.A. Roman’s The Training of the Weightlifter, in which he suggests training phases of 2-3 months each. The preparatory phase lasts 1-2 months. To create a base sporting form, this cycle is characterized by large volume with a gradual increase in intensity. I usually refer to this phase as the strength conditioning phase and will typically build the load for 5 to 6 weeks before lowering.

Roman then suggests a transition phase in which the coach must avoid overtraining the athlete while maintaining sporting form. As suggested, I use this cycle to raise intensity while maintaining the condition of the athlete. This is the point at which I introduce the Bulgarian wave method into the program. I usually refer to this second cycle as a strength phase since there are more high intensity lifts, and it transitions from lower intensity, high volume work to higher intensity work with a lower volume.

In the third phase, which Roman calls the competition phase, there is a gradual transition structured for “realization of results.” This is typically called a competition, pre-competition, or power phase, which aims to have the athlete recover from both the volume and intensity of the previous cycles so that he may perform in competition. The product should be an “improved organism” that can produce better results on the competition platform.

Roman also suggests rest after four months of training. I think this is also important in prevention of injury and for both mental and physical recovery of the athlete. Although I attempt to implement principles borrowed from both Bulgarian and Russian systems, I also have to acknowledge the real deficiency in the American athletes that I train: they are clean. I think to ignore this obvious difference between my athletes and those who have trained in the aforementioned systems would be a failure on my part to recognize the truth. I have worked to alter and adapt the programs to address the lack of performance enhancing drugs and the benefits that would come from them. In general, if performance enhancing drugs will make you stronger and better able to recover, we can assume that without them these two areas would suffer. My adjustments to programming therefore include overloading the pulls and squats to make athletes stronger. Additionally, my athletes train 4 to 5 days a week since most work a full-time job and train. Without recovery aids (PEDs), I must rely on their natural abilities to adapt to the various stresses of training and life. I do advocate adaptogens as part of their supplementation but these, although somewhat effective, pale in comparison to the recuperative qualities of banned pharmaceuticals. In response to this difference, I have reduced the number of training sessions from the norm of 9 plus sessions a week to 4 or 5.

What do you recommend that your athletes do outside the gym for recovery—bodywork, supplements, diet, etc? 

Adaptogens are a necessity in my opinion. Some of my athletes do a better job about utilizing recovery methods than others. Different athletes prefer differing methods and I think the best method for each athlete is the one he or she will actually DO regularly. Some of the guys prefer cryo, others prefer ice or ice baths. For anyone with chronic inflammation, aka tendonitis, bursitis, etc ,this is necessary.  I never had those types of problems, so more often I used the sauna. I also liked contrast baths personally. If a sauna is less available then massage can replace it. I used to stretch and massage in the sauna. Electro stim is now more widely available than in the past and I think when used properly it is also beneficial. Most of the guys have a paleo styled diet, primarily meat, fruit, veggies, nuts. I ate the same way when I was competitive. I think a mostly clean diet is important for high levels of performance, but I am NOT opposed to some dirty celebratory meals!

What are you working on now—any future developments we should look forward to?

I am at my gym, Weightlifting Wise/Texas Barbell Club every week night. I have 20 members who I write individual programs for and am still teaching at Austin Community College in the mornings. I am in talks to write a book with Greg Everett and his Catalyst empire. I am also talking to a group called Athlete Cell to do some programming for them as well.

Where can people go to find you?

Instagram @texasbarbellclub

FB: Ursula Garza Papandrea 

FB: Weightlifting Wise and Texas Barbell Club

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